All kinds of topics make it onto air during morning call-in shows. Not all listeners call in about a specific problem they’re facing: some might simply offer a viewpoint on some more broadly relevant issue, framed as a comment or – sometimes – a kind of advice or warning directed at anybody who might be tuning in. Such was the case of one listener who called up Hani al-Badri on his daily morning programme, Wasat al-balad (“City Centre”), imploring people not to give money to young children “begging” at the windows of cars standing at intersections. Not to be cold-hearted, of course, but merely because these children are more often than not effectively “employed” by certain “organizations” in order to bring in money.
“Not only that,” the caller went on. “The phenomenon of begging itself should disappear!” What kind of country do we live in if it allows these kinds of things to go on?
al-Badri was all agreement. Outraged, of course; how could he not be? One of the staple strategies of the morning call-in show is to personalize every problem by linking it to a particular official figure; so al-Badri turned his ire onto the Minister of Social Development, who had recently issued a declaration she wanted to “affirm the importance” of psychological support for families –
Oh really. Affirm the importance? All good and well – but what was she going to do about it?
الوزيرة هاي بتأكّد (..) ولما تأكّد (..) احنا بنّام ليلنا طويل مرتاحين
This minister, she’s affirming… and when she affirms… we can all sleep comfortably through the night
( (..) stands for a longer pause. Source: wasaT al-balad recording, Radio Fann, 13 April 2014)
All this in a very sarcastic tone, laced with muffled laughter. al-Badri, with his kind-of feel for what might turn into an effective gag, held on to this, and went on to slam – quite subtly, as is his style – all ministers that spend their time issuing vague “calls” or “affirmations” to develop their fields but are really not doing much to fulfill their real duties. A reminder, to government officials as to every one of his listeners, that the morning show – with its intimate insight into citizens’ observations and opinions – is always vigilant.
“No fear,” al-Badri said. His programme team – his šabaab – were already busy sifting through the news.
“Whenever a minister declares they’re affirming the importance of something, I’ll let you know.”
The Cynical Citizen
If Muhammad al-Wakeel’s distinguishing feature is his propensity for drama, that of Hani al-Badri – the sharp-tongued doktoor who hosts Radio Fann’s morning call-in show – is cynicism. One need only look at the kind of comments he gives on news headlines to get a sense of this. “Denial that hospitals in al-Aghwar al-Shamaliyyeh have been supplied with spoiled meat and poultry” – but who was it exactly that denied it, hmm? “Every official in the country?” “President of the House of Representatives says that the parliament is open to unions” – yalla bas?! Only “open?” “Open” towards people and their demands?! “Demand for clothing goes down by 30%” – well, after the increase in customs fees which those amazing minds at the Finance Ministry believed would bring more money into the state budget… who would have thought it?
It’s not just in the ‘safe’ environment of news commentary that al-Badri’s attitude shines through. He can be equally acerbic while taking call-ins, and doesn’t hesitate to lash out at government officials who either (in his eyes) aren’t doing their job very well, or have gotten on his bad side by being difficult to reach or refusing to answer Wasat al-Balad’s phone calls – which, really, amounts to the same thing. (A disproportionate amount of these officials appear to be women, which of course is just an unfortunate coincidence.)
So the poor Social Development Minister again found herself chastised about a week or so after the “begging” comment, when a woman from Ramallah called in to report physical abuse suffered by her disabled son at an educational center in Jordan. The šabaab had tried to contact the Minister about the issue as the show trundled on, but – horror of horrors – she could not be reached:
وزيرة التنمية الاجتماعية للمرة العشرة آلاف (..) بيرُدّوا مكتبها بيقولوا الشباب (..) هي في اجتماع
ستبقى في اجتماع (..) الى ان يكتب الله (..) او يفعل الله (..) ما كانَ
The Social Development Minister, for the ten thousandth time… her office replies – the šabaab tell me… she’s in a meeting.
And she will stay in a meeting… until God writes… until God does…
(Source: wasaT al-balad recording, Radio Fann, 20 April 2014)
Well, what can you do? This is just how officials are, sometimes. Refusing to answer the phone. Refusing to do their job. All al-Badri could do in the end was raise his hands, and laugh in resignation.
Even towards his listeners, al-Badri can be rather brusque. His impatience shows through especially when people call up with issues that had already been brought up before, or are rehashed over and over again during the course of a weak. Sighs of frustration, and raised tones, and hand-thumps are not infrequent. “We’ve heard about this twenty times already…” “We’ve contacted the Municipality yesterday for the hundredth on this very same subject…”
The officials are still the ultimate target here, but such a way of communicating goes somewhat against the conventions of polite discourse. It’s not that al-Badri isn’t aware of this; he even reflected, once, on a message that came in to his programme calling him maghruur (“aloof” or “conceited”), gracefully conceding he does have a general problem with “niceties.” Perhaps this is all just part of the strategy: to tell things “as they are,” interacting with callers and listeners in a way that goes straight to the heart of their issues without sugarcoating them. Within the confines of Wasat al-balad, if al-Badri is able to speak his mind so freely – without inhibitions – the people who call in may well feel they can do the same.
Judging from comments al-Badri has made for Rana Sweis’s New York Times article on Jordanian radio, that’s certainly the general idea. al-Badri tries to speak as if he were just another Jordanian: frustrated, by the government’s inefficiency, by unresponsive officials, by the fact that Jordan seems to lag behind every other Arab country (or, rather, those in the Gulf – but aren’t they the ones that count?) in terms of infrastructure and economic development. And more than a few callers do, in fact, contact the show just to commiserate, and share their views – on problems such as child beggars, or the role of parliamentary deputies, or even more abstract issues such as feelings of “belonging” (انتماء).
And the others? Complaints from callers who contact al-Badri about specific problems are taken in quickly; dismissed, usually, with a swift HaaDriin (“we’re on it”), and a promise to contact the person responsible for it. There’s no space here for drama, for heroic arcs. al-Badri tolls, does the best he can, but his longest, most eloquent, most exasperated monologues are in fact offered on issues that he cannot possibly solve, rather than “playing them up” for a final more theatrical resolution. We’re all at the same table here: shaking our heads, laughing in dismay.
And moving on.
All in the Genre
Still, there’s only so far you can go. al-Badri – whatever his claims to offering a place for free debate and discussion might be – still operates squarely within the confines of the Genre. The songs playing underneath his comments praise the homeland, the king, and the army. Radio Fann’s jingles pronounce it as both haašimiyye (Hashemite) and urduniyye (Jordanian). (Throw in miyye-miyye (“100%”), and whoever penned the Radio Hala theme tune might well complain about plagiarism.) It also never challenges the basic premise of a complaint-focused morning call-in show: of being, essentially, an intermediary, an informal arm of government that can turn its attention to areas it for some reason might have missed.
And, let us not forget. al-Badri is a doktoor. Someone with an academic degree. Someone with status. (In Jordan, this counts, very much.) A respected journalist, even apart from his radio career. Implicitly, at least, there’s still a divide drawn between him and his listeners. He might complain, much like them, about much the same things; but in the end, it’s his voice coming out of the speaker, his figure seated in that comfortable chair behind the full-length window looking out into the streets of Amman. Just by virtue of his position, it counts for more.
The only thing that might really distinguish al-Badri’s show from all the others is his style. His cynicism; his disillusioned attitude towards many (though certainly not all; there are red lines, still) branches of government. Such a stance, at least, his programme seems to allow. Callers’ voices are still very much a part of his performance – though, perhaps, in such a context there is at least a slightly better chance that they be heard as voices, rather than just sappy stories to be exploited, or props for an imagined heroism. But it’s only by looking closely at the kind of talk and interaction that each particular programme – and host – allows for themselves and then contributors that we can explore just how far the genre’s conservatism can be pushed.