Officials on the Line

For all their musical chatter and social media activity, the conversation with the official remains the centerpiece of Jordan’s morning “service programme” genre. It’s what makes them truly distinct from any other programme out there. Hosts and producers are very much aware of this. The amount of direct on-air conversations is kept low, usually only for the most high-profile or sympathy-swelling issues. Airtime is precious, after all; and if not it has to be made so.

The broadcasters’ role is key in this. They’re the ones authorized and empowered to speak; the voices that have the officials’ ear, those that choose which issues will be presented and resolved in the daily drama of the morning show. In their position as “problem mediators,” the hosts enter into direct relationships with people in Jordan’s official and government circles. Whether hosts and officials in fact know each other personally is not really an issue.  What matters is that their interactions are performed as such: through amicable on-air conversations, cultivating a feeling of closeness that reassures listeners and encourages them to come forward with their own difficulties.

The types of problems often repeat – issues with traffic, infrastructure, schools, taxes, government employment – and so do the officials summoned to resolve them. Listeners, especially regular ones, inevitably catch onto this. And though they may for the most part be blocked from linking up with the officials directly, they still come to know who precisely it is that the stations keep as their “contact.” At the other end, there’s always somebody listening: a person, with a name and a job and a face, someone with the will and power to hear their plight and do something about it.

Official Chats

On Muhammad al-Wakeel’s show, these principles are evident enough. His style of interacting with officials is predictably chummy, though always respectful: conceding the floor, letting the phone guests speak their mind, with much fewer interruptions than for the ‘civilian’ callers.

Though his position on the Jordanian army’s official radio station might give al-Wakeel a somewhat privileged ‘insider’ status, the style of interaction exhibited by other hosts isn’t all that different. In the end, a conversation between a host and an official is always a conversation; and, as such, subject to all the rules a normal conversation in Arabic entails. Extended greetings are exchanged at the beginning at the end. The forms of address the participants use to address each other – “sir,” or “my brother,” or direct use of names or teknonyms – inevitably reveal the kind of relationship the two wish to project between each other. And there are constant  respectful evasions and allusions, compounded by the fact that they’re now speaking “on air.”

When, in the beginning of December last year, a busful of students crashed in the early morning on the road leading to Madaba, his contact in the Civil Defense’s media office – Brigadier General Farid al-Sharaa – was quick to respond to Radio Hala’s requests for information. Just to “reassure” al-Wakeel’s loyal listeners, of course, by telling them which school in particular the bus belonged to, and that the accident only resulted in seven light injuries.

(Tweet reads: “In the morning the nicest faces are not those made most beautiful but those that smile the most and are the most innocent… Good morning, Muhammad al-Wakeel.” From Radio Hala’s Twitter page)

This could very well have taken the form of a detached, formal announcement, giving only the barest facts about the incident. But framed as it was within a telephone conversation, it played out rather differently: as a friendly chat between two men, comfortable in their positions, who have no trouble speaking to each other publicly on an equal level.

al-Sharaa and al-Wakeel exchanged greetings and blessings, shared a few laughs, and concerned themselves at some length with expressing respect for each other’s work – in the Civil Defense and on the radio, respectively. The Brigadier might have spoken in his formal capacity, about a serious issue – a traffic accident – but the image he presented was far from that of a stodgy institutional spokesman. He was just another person; chatting on the phone, just like anybody else would. The easy familiarity that al-Wakeel showed while talking to him only confirmed the basic premise of the morning programmes: that institutions – the Civil Defense, as any other government agency – are made up of people, and that these people can be called up and talked to.

Personalizing Authority

Such familiarity extends beyond on-air interactions. The web of ‘backstage’ links maintained by the various programmes’ producers maintains the links even in the absence of directly broadcast conversations. On the listeners’ side, there is a similar sense of regular contacts being maintained – to the extent that callers come to expect, quite explicitly, who the official ‘listening in’ might be when they link up with each particular programme.

Comments about Jordan’s roads and traffic violations are common on all morning shows. One listener, who called up Hani al-Badri on Radio Fann to complain about overcrowded school buses, already made it clear in the introduction to his call who it was he expected to hear it:

يا سيدي فيه ملاحظتين لو سمحت لي على ادارة السير (..) ان شاء الله إنه يكون معاوية المقدّم معاوية يسمع

Sir there are two comments if you will for the Traffic Department… God willing Muawiya, Lieutenant Colonel Muawiya, is listening

 (Source: Wasat al-Balad recording, Radio Fann, 21 April 2014)

al-Badri’s response to this was only – “of course.” “Of course he’s listening.” The caller, then, could go on to explain his problems, safe in the knowledge he wasn’t just speaking into the wind. Which he did – reassured, presumably (though of course we only have the sound recording to speculate from here).

[fann] wasat al-balad numbers

(Graphic listing ways of linking up with Radio Fann’s Wasat al-Balad programme. Source: Radio Fann’s Facebook page, 23 February 2015 – LINK)

The issue isn’t whether the Lieutenant Colonel was in fact listening to this particular segment of the show, but rather the expectation that he would. And it isn’t just any employee of the Traffic Department: it is this particular Lieutenant Colonel, Muawiya, a person whose voice had been heard on air before and surely would be again.

It’s not likely that callers are particularly ‘strategic’ in choosing which morning programme to call depending on the contacts they keep. Most are probably grateful enough for the chance to come on air at all. Also, many programmes’ links appear to lead to the same official personages: usually people in press offices of ministries or government agencies, or the more ‘media-friendly’ ministers and officeholders (the Mayor of Amman makes especially frequent appearances on all sorts of issues).

Still, the general principle holds. Through the practice of calling up officials on morning programmes, government authorities are given names, and voices. They are, in other words, personalized; kept formal, and official, still, though in a way that makes it clear that these are institutions made up of people – people that can, then, be criticized for their particular failings, or enter as (supportive) characters in dramatic arcs played out in the ‘problem solution’ segments of the morning service shows. People who take their time, and listen – and who, in the end, might care more for citizens’ problems than a faceless bureaucratic state.

Officials on the Line

Jana

A cold front dubbed “Jana” (جنى) hit Jordan on the night of Thursday, 19 February, and brought two days of snowfall and cold temperatures throughout the weekend. On Saturday evening, warning sirens sounded in Amman, vindicating those who had argued last autumn (as they were being installed) that there might be other reasons for using them other than a military attack. (Fears of entanglement in the war against ISIS / Daesh had loomed large in this debate – though of course these are void, now, in a post-Kasasbeh Jordan, where ‘the public’ has been brought to agree that war is indeed the way to go.) The reason, this time, was ice on the roads – which had paralyzed traffic in Jordan’s capital during January’s Huda ‘snowstorm’ already. School holidays were declared for Sunday, as well as a general postponement of working hours until 10 AM to allow people to get to their jobs without endangering themselves.

Bread and Holidays

The obsession with stockpiling bread to live through the storm had, by now, turned into a bit of a meme in itself. (The tagline in the tweet above reads TO THE BAKERIIIIIIES.) Perhaps one weather spectacle had been enough for the winter; in any case, there was a sense that Jana was less of a ‘grand event’ than Huda.

Still, on Sunday morning, radio stations’ Twitter accounts were almost completely silent. Radio Hala announced, in the very early morning, that Muhammad al-Wakeel’s programme would begin at 9 AM, and later posted a photo documenting ice on Jordan’s roads – a problem exacerbated, I would guess, by poor drainage infrastructure:

(Tweet reads: “Most of the Kingdom’s roads witness black ice”)

Most other morning programmes also postponed their broadcasts by two hours. Unlike Huda, though, there were no major changes to the programme format. No street-rolling antics for al-Wakeel this time; the other hosts also read out news headlines and take call-ins as usual. The callers, too, seemed to take this as just another working day in the life of their beloved service programmes, complaining about problems facing private schools or bureaucratic blips in providing job opportunities.

As far as Jana itself was concerned, the greatest controversy was stirred up by the general holiday which the government imposed on both the public and private sectors on Thursday – when, during the daytime, the weather was still relatively fine. As one would expect, the shows varied in their criticism. al-Wakeel classified it as one of the of the (few) negative aspects of Jana – which, as with Huda previously, he only ever called المنخفض الجوي، al-munkhafaD al-jawwii, “cold front,” though he contrasted Jana with the previous storm by calling it “nice” or “relaxed” (dammu khafiif; literally “light-blooded”). Hani al-Badri was a bit sharper, calling the government out for their “mistake” in acting rashly on the weather reports on Thursday. He also couldn’t help himself but add his own cynical jokes on the bread issue, given the 65 million loaves of bread that the 8 million (or so) Jordanians had apparently consumed during the storm’s first two days (almost double the normal amount).

The general atmosphere on the morning shows, though, was positive. Badri’s morning video clip (embedded above; posted originally on Radio Fann’s Facebook Page) says it all. The “whiteness” brought by Jana was, ultimately, a message of optimism, and positive feelings, a sense that “good things” are all that God wants to bring for His people.

Government Impositions

Jordanian media personalities tend to adore the “positives-negatives” frame when talking about the “effects” of weather events such as Jana. This is a rather simplistic frame, and not very accommodating for making more nuanced arguments. Radio al-Balad once more proved one of the few dissenting voices in this respect. Muhammad al-Arsan, host of al-Balad’s afternoon call-in programme “Rainbow”, took the ‘citizen’s viewpoint’ approach that the station promotes wholly in his stride. The economic effects of the Thursday holiday were brought into special focus here – in particular, those Jordanians working in the private sector (services, especially) who lack the set wages and job security of public employees, and for whom every suddenly declared holiday means a loss of clients and working hours (and therefore income).

It’s not just that the weather turned out better than was expected; the issue was whether the government should have the right to impose such orders on its citizenry in the first place. So far this winter, every time heavy snow has been forecast, the Prime Minister decided to declare a blanket public holiday. “So if a snowstorm comes that will last for ten days,” Arsan asked during a debate with one of his callers, “will we shut the entire country for ten days?” As Daoud Kuttab pointed out in his weekly web column (excerpts from which Arsan also read out on air), the issue has less to do whether the government’s decision was sound than with the fact that it still reserves for itself the final say on what is good for its citizens.

And it is this final step that most radio commentators failed to take. For the morning hosts, the issue was still whether the government had made a mistake by declaring Thursday a public holiday. But its ultimate authority to make such a decision was never questioned. After all – as al-Wakeel pointed out – they did well delaying work hours on Sunday, didn’t they? Who would want to drive on ice? It’s the people’s safety that’s at stake here!

Give the ministers the advice they need, and next time they might do better. It is only this particular government, then, that may have been at fault; but not the system itself. However riled up private radio hosts might get over certain issues, there are limits to their criticism – and the controversies over Jana’s enforced holiday only made this the more clear.

Jana

The Blissful Foreign Tongue

Jordan’s airwaves are not occupied wholly by Arabic. English, too, makes regular appearances. Arabic-speaking hosts might pepper their speech with words or phrases in English when they want to sound sophisticated, or can’t find the proper word in Arabic, or sometimes when the Arabic equivalent is potentially obscure enough that their audiences might be more familiar with the English word (then they would usually say them both, just in case).

But there are also radio stations that have adopted English wholesale, as their prime medium of communication. Language is their most visible distinguishing feature, though the difference also shines through elsewhere: in programme structuring, the hosts’ communicative strategies, the kind of music that is chosen and the way it’s treated, and so on. All in all, English-language radio makes for a properly distinct format in Jordan (along with at least two others: ‘standard’ Arabic-language radio, and ‘Islamic’ stations).

What kind of listener is this format designed for? Is it merely an audience-drawing ploy to have your programmes in a high-prestige foreign language – or are there also other consequences to the specific kind of communicative style cultivated by English broadcasting? I’ll be considering the case of one particular radio station – Bliss – to see if its broadcasts can offer some insight.

Rise to Shine

Radio Bliss, the most recent addition to Jordan’s English-language radio field, was founded in 2013 by the armed forces (Radio Hala is billed as its “sister” station) and joined an already budding scene featuring stations with snappy names such as Play, Spin and Beat – all with English-speaking presenters and music from Euro-American pop playlists.

bliss twitter screencap

(Screenshot of Bliss Radio’s Twitter profile. Source: Bliss 104.3 Twitter profile webpage. Accessed 18 February 2015. LINK)

Bliss’s programming schedule doesn’t hide its bias towards the commuter crowd. There are only two ‘hosted’ weekday programmes – the morning programme, “Rise N Shine,” running from 7:00 to 10:00, and the afternoon “Joy Ride” from 15:00 to 18:00 – each with a pair of young presenters (one female, one male) that run the show in pretty much perfect American-accented English. Some stations apparently hire native English speakers; Bliss boasts local talent – even as, apart from the hosts’ names and their clearly native pronunciations of Arabic words, it’s easy to assume otherwise.

They are also very active on Twitter. There are quizzes; giveaways; questions to listeners, whose answers are then retweeted, and constant encouragements to send in music requests.

This social media focus is hardly unusual, compared to other radio stations in Jordan. But the English-language format seems to carry its own impositions. It might just be the adoption of broadcasting styles familiar from other media environments, but it is notable that Bliss’s programmes seem to be centered much more firmly on the music. Sure, the named presenters are there – to carry the brand, as it were – but they rarely interrupt the tracks as they are played to read out listeners’ messages, or hum to the tune or comment on it, as Arabic-language hosts are wont to do. Hosts might comment on what’s coming up on the playlists – often humorously, or in a way designed to reveal their personal preferences and so convey intimacy without ever giving away too many concrete private details – but they do so in their own stretches of ‘host-talk,’ clearly bounded and distributed in between sets of songs played in whole from beginning to end. For the most part, the music is left undisturbed.

(The “Rise N Shine” hosts, Ban Barkawi and Tamer Gar, with one of their studio guests. From Radio Bliss’s Twitter account)

To Whoever Might Understand

The linguistic borders, though tightly sealed, do allow for some leakage. Most of Bliss’s phone and Twitter interlocutors appear to be Jordanians. The advertisements – what few there are, on this particular stations – are in Arabic. The presenters’ chat also includes what are clearly “insider” signals (in sociolinguo-speak, “in-group markers”) when they occasionally come up with words or phrases in colloquial Arabic: speaking, for example, about problems with a taHwiile (“detour”) at a busy Ammani intersection – see, again, the car-commuting assumption here – or debate on the possible effects of the عاصفه ثلجيه جنى, “Snowstorm Jana” (as the “Joy Ride”‘s presenters did on 18 February, just before the new cold front was due to hit the Kingdom).

Bliss’s target audience might prefer their media in English, but the assumption here is that they also know Arabic: a class of educated, urban (likely West-Amman-dwelling) Jordanians who know enough of the foreign language to understand it, and participate in conversations in it. They might resemble the station’s hip young presenters in other ways as well – like comportment, or outfits, all meaning-heavy elements of styles that stand for an individual’s particular (real, or desired) social position. The programming schedule suggests that the only time it makes sense to target them is when they’re in their cars, commuting from and to their jobs. For proof of a “bubble” of a foreign-oriented stratum living apart and above from the rest of Jordan, look no further.

And it’s precisely this ‘bubbling’ tendency that’s problematic here, for those hopeful that English-language media could prove redemptive, with its putative potential to bring in “Western” values and break the taboos of Jordan’s “conservative” society. Bliss’s programming isn’t particularly socially or politically subversive in any case – which you might expect, given its founders and owners. But even with more courageous content, English media simply can’t properly challenge the status quo as long as it draws its linguistic borders in the way it does. Playing only English-language music, and having their hosts speak in English alone, prioritizes and commodifies the foreign language in the service of bilinguals, at the exclusion of those who don’t know it – and, as a result, only perpetuates existing social divisions and stereotypes.

Though going on 20 years now, Niloofar Haeri’s remarks on foreign-language competence among Arabic speakers are still relevant. Jordan is, of course, a different can of worms than Haeri’s Egypt, but the basic insights still apply. Access to a foreign language – more precisely, the ability to speak that language competently, to the extent that one is able to listen to an all-English radio station and participate in its various channels of communication – is a minority, perhaps ‘elite,’ pastime that automatically marginalizes enormous swathes of Jordan’s population. All the more problematic that format choice itself seems to be highly exclusive. Your station is either all-English, or all-Arabic. There is no middle ground.

What would be really subversive, then, at least as far as format is concerned, would be a channel combining – mixing and matching, freely, carelessly – English- and Arabic-language music and programming in a way that would, potentially, include all. Accepting of both languages, and both ‘worlds’ they are often assumed to signify, across class and education and (life)style boundaries. As it seems now, though, the nature of the contemporary media industry – with its deep-rooted convictions regarding marketing, and promotion, the audience-carving principles of format radio – might make this a distant hope indeed.

The Blissful Foreign Tongue

Disarming Comedy

In the face of national tragedy, even the sharpest comedic minds can be stupefied. Last week’s تشويش واضح، “Clear Confusion,” a Jordanian comedy series that began on YouTube but now also broadcasts its newscast-style sketches regularly via the television channel Roya, naturally had to cover the death of Muath al-Kasasbeh. But anyone expecting a fresher or ironic take on the matter was to be disappointed. Though the basic elements of its style were still there, in the end the programme’s viewpoint was pretty much indistinguishable from any other expressed by public outlets during the protracted days of media obsession with the martyrdom.

Clearly Confused

A bit of context first. “Clear Confusion” is a video series that provides an ironic take on the newscast genre. A single presenter – Muath al-Bzour – comments on various local Jordanian news stories, often in a cynical or critical manner. The humor comes from Bzour’s treatment of the issues – often interspersed with short clips from Roya TV’s more ‘serious’ programmes, as well as Jordan state television – together with his (all-male) cast of colleagues, who play the part of producers, studio guests, or simply “citizens” that had somehow found their way into the studio and intrude upon the newscast to offer their own comments. There are ample non-sequiturs and absurd ‘behind-the-scenes’ glimpses, and also occasional short sketches located outside the ‘studio’ where the team takes on different comic roles.

Bzour serves mostly as a ‘straight-talk’ commentator, but he’s able to offer comic gems as well. This short exchange (from about 2:43 onwards in the YouTube clip below) is taken from the 28 January episode, busy critiquing the Jordanian government’s planned increase in electricity prices:

The issue is whether Jordan’s parliament would be able to challenge the government’s decision to raise electricity prices by 15%. The host on the TV clip asks his guest Hall wasaT? – “compromise?” (literally “middle solution”) – and Bzour immediately picks up on the expression, playing on the polysemy of the word wasaT (“middle” or “medium”) – which is also used colloquially to say how much sugar you would like in your coffee:

حلّ وسط؟

لا لا حلّ ع الريحة أحسن (..) أو لا السادة (..) فوق السادة

Compromise?

No, no, a solution “with a bit of sugar,” it’s better… Or, no, black! More than black

Here Bzour rifles through the entire range of options for coffee sweetening. وسط wasaT is with sugar; ع الريحة، with a little bit of sugar; سادة، saada, black. (The last expression – foog al-saada – is also the name of the company that produces “Clear Confusion.”) All in all, an inspired way to highlight the absurdity of the haggling spectacle played out between the parliamentarians and the ministerial side.

As mentioned, not all the show takes place from behind the newscaster’s table. Along with clips from ‘serious’ broadcasting, there are also original sketches by “Clear Confusion”‘s cast. The following, from the same episode as the coffee gag, re-imagines the “meeting between parliamentary committees and the government” on electricity prices as a back-room card game. The joke, again, depends on polysemy, this time of the word nazzil, “to reduce” or “bring down” – whether cards, or the planned increase in electricity prices, it’s not quite clear (and presumably, from the standpoint of the politicians involved, totally irrelevant). See the clip from 13:16 onwards:

(In the end, electricity prices would go up by 7.5%, following a deal between the government and the relevant parliament committees – even as parliament had in fact ended up voting against any kind of price increase.)

Political theater, indeed.

[tashweesh wadih] 1 - card game still

In Honor of the Martyr

The episode of “Clear Confusion” posted on YouTube on 10 February began with the familiar sight of Bzour sitting behind his newscaster desk with the shot of an urban panorama behind him. But from the very beginning you could tell there was something off’ about the whole thing. Bzour’s body gestures were more restrained than normal; his language, similarly, was a more elevated style of colloquial Arabic, with many formal words and expressions. All signs that this, now, was something serious.

And so it was. There was no sarcasm, no cutting comments. The out-of-studio sketches were replaced by black-and-white clips of members of the “Clear Confusion” team, reading out messages to Muath al-Kasasbeh – and his family, and the King, and the Jordanian people – all without a scrap of irony.

[tashweesh wadih] 2 - bw still

(Caption reads: “A message to the comrades of Martyr Muath”)

The only possible traces of a more ironic slant were the standard ‘citizen intrusions’ into the studio. But, even here, Bzour’s performance pretty much took out all the punch. At 17:48 in the clip, we can see one of his colleagues burst into the studio and begin to explain to him about a “fresh” piece of news (presumably, on Daesh / ISIS) he’d gotten from a news website with impeccable credentials – so many “Likes” on Facebook, so many تغريدات taghriidaat “tweets” per day, everything arranged with هاشتاغات haaštaaghaat “hashtags”…

[tashweesh wadih] 3 - rumors still

Bzour stops him before he can continue. He begins to explain, in an authoritative tone, how such websites have taken to spreading rumors, and that all their social media followership doesn’t matter if they’re spreading information that can’t be trusted. And, in any case, this isn’t what’s important. ISIS have made their message clear – that they’re horrendous criminals; any further mucking about with online news and tweets and hashtags is unnecessary. What’s important, now, is for all of “us” to stand together, shoulder to shoulder, and protect “our homeland.”

To this, the guest can say nothing but صحّ – “Yes, it’s true” – and leave the issue be.

In another mini-sketch (see clip above from 7:42 onwards), two other “citizens” burst into the studio and begin arguing about who is “truly” behind ISIS and has made the organization as powerful as they are. One guy claims America; the other, Iran. Their style of argumentation, their intonation, the phrases they use, their hand gestures: it all perfectly reflects the kind of heated ‘politics-argument’ that one could expect Jordanians (or, really, Jordanian men) to have over a cup of tea.

[tashweesh wadih] 3 - fitna still

Since it’s all going nowhere, Bzour again takes it upon himself to claim the floor, and save the day. But as in the news websites sketch, he doesn’t leave anything open to interpretation. Such debates happen every day – on Facebook, on Twitter, at the dinner table, and probably elsewhere – but end up resolving nothing. If anything, they’re harmful: they’re فتنة، fitna, the worst form of dissension, difference of opinion within a community that really should stand as one. If we find the argument funny, Bzour is here to tell us that, no, really, we shouldn’t. We should fight against this, and be one against ISIS and other forces of evil that sow dissent among the nation. The voice of reason here also stands for the national consensus, one which all Jordanians should follow.


There have been some ripples recently in academic work on Arab media, on the potential of Arabic web comedy series to challenge the media status quo. Layan Jawdat has analyzed this in the case of two YouTube comedy series from Saudi Arabia; Alexander Magidow, from a more language-oriented perspective, for بث بياخه، “Silly Broadcast,” another Jordanian creation. “Clear Confusion” may be different from these in that its aim is not entirely comic. As Bzour has previously explained (for example, in this interview for Radio Monte Carlo), the core aim of the programme is presenting local political and economic news – in a sarcastic manner, sure, though also one that allows people to absorb the information itself, even if they might find conventional news broadcasts tedious or boring.

And, perhaps, gain a critical viewpoint or two along the way. Jawdat makes a compelling argument for how this may work in the case of the Saudi videos:

“The messages… reveal sophistication and self-reflexivity in communicating weighty ideas related to issues of culture, society, economics, and politics. The satirical tools employed in the production of both shows enable the encoding of these messages in a pleasurable and entertaining way… Their sardonic take on media reporting indicates an actively engaged and analytical reading of the news that slyly calls viewers to do the same”

(Layan Jawdat, “Laughing in the Kingdom: On Saudi YouTube Comedy,” Jadaliyya, 11 November 2014 (LINK). Accessed 17 February 2015. Emphasis added)

Following Jawdat, and taking a page (or a couple) from Bakhtin, there is a dialogic aspect to this kind of comedic newscast – the sense that the message isn’t supposed to be just a clear reflection of reality, but that it can be challenged, understood from a different viewpoint than that which simply takes it at face value. Contrasted to this are monologic messages: those transmitted by authoritative voices, messages that are true, that have to be believed, or obeyed. (Or else.)

Normally, “Clear Confusion” riffs on the newscast genre in a way that challenges precisely these kind of claims to unilateral truth. The guests, and sketches, and intruders are left to stand on their own merit: up to the viewer to judge whether they, or Bzour with his critical commentary, might be the ones more correct in their treatment of issues.

But when talking about the nation’s beloved martyr, there was no alternative. The Kasasbeh episode ended up promoting a single voice – that embodied by Bzour: the voice of reason, one to clear up all disputes, standing ultimately for the Jordanian nation’s unblemished unity. So even web comedy was subjected to the silencing – or, better maybe, the unchallenged consensus – that swept local Jordanian media following Kasasbeh’s death. Only more proof, perhaps, that subversiveness can only ever go so far.

Disarming Comedy

The Nation’s Mornings

In the sound texture of Jordanian morning radio shows, human voices tend to take center stage. Mostly it’s the hosts, ranting on current affairs, or reading out news, or greeting listeners; or guest voices, studio guests or callers, speaking about their problems or topics the broadcasters have put up for discussion. Accompanying all this talk, though, there’s a constant undercurrent of music.

For Arabic-language stations, the songs played are (pretty much exclusively) Arab in origin: Egyptian and Lebanese pop, for the most part, with some Jordanian domestic production, and the occasional classic by Fayrouz or one of the great Egyptian singers thrown in. After a while, it all starts to sound the same – though this is less due to clichés of Arabic pop (though these certainly exist!) than the simple fact that the actual repertoire of songs being played is quite limited.

Much airtime is taken up by what could be called “patriotic” or “nationalist” songs: a playlist of approximately two dozen tracks, sung by Jordanian artists in Jordanian colloquial Arabic, all of which in some way praise either Jordan as a country or its institutions. These tend to be repeated over and over, to the extent that you could hear a single song being played several times in a single day. (This is especially likely with a station such as Nashama FM, which tries to make playing “Jordanian” music a central part of its image; but it’s true of others too.) I’ll be looking at some of these songs below, and try to explain why it’s so imperative for morning shows to play them – over and over again, every single day. Listeners’ tastes might play a part here; though what I think is more relevant is the role such songs play in putting the Jordanian nation into being.

Army and King

Some tracks make no secret as to their allegiances. Consider the following tune performed by Omar al-Abdallat – with the title جيش أبو حسين، “Abu Hussein’s Army”:

From the bagpipe-laden intro onwards, it’s clear this is an army song. Abu Hussein is, of course, King Abdullah II – father of the (since 2005) heir apparent, Prince Hussein – seen also in the photo in the YouTube video embracing al-Abdallat. The bagpipes and heavy drum rhythm are complemented by the lyrics, with ample references to marching columns, and gunpowder, and waving flags, and the valiant “guards of our borders.”

This song extols the Jordanian army in general terms; others are more specific, dedicated to particular divisions (or indeed other branches of the state apparatus such as the police). This track, also by Abdallat, praises Jordan’s air force – literally, نسور سلاح الجو، the “Eagles of the Air Force” – and has received quite some air time in recent weeks in light of the media obsession with Muath al-Kasasbeh (and Jordan’s subsequent airstrikes on ISIS territory):

“Where they fly, over the desert / Above the clouds, over the seas.” “Defending the skies of the kingdom, supporting the ground forces.” Morning shows feature such songs every day – even on stations which aren’t explicitly linked to Jordan’s army apparatus (such as Radio Hala). Music clearly meant for people proud of their nation, and all those who serve to protect it.

The Sweetest Country

Marches and martial tunes may not be to everyone’s taste. But there are other songs, equally patriotic, that can do the trick. Many of these seem to be songs composed and recorded for Jordan’s yearly Independence Day celebrations that have gradually built up into a ‘validated’ repertoire from which morning show producers are now able to make their picks. One popular track is راسك بالعالي “Your Head Held High,” sung by Diana Karazon:

Still, a hard-hitting rhythm; but there are no explicit military references here. The lyrics are more neutrally ‘patriotic,’ praising Jordan as a country, honoring the beauty of its physical features – and especially its people, whom the refrain addresses directly:

راسك بالعالي مرفوع الهامة

انت أردني أهل الكرامة

Your head up high, your head raised up

You’re a Jordanian, of the noble people

The obligatory YouTube slideshow also includes the usual suspects: shots of the Jordanian flag, Amman’s landmarks, Petra, and Karazon herself wrapped in a red shmagh.

Yousef Arafat’s احلى بلد “The Most Beautiful Country” falls into much the same category. Here the melody is softer, drifting more into conventional pop, and includes a chorus of childlike voices singing janna, 7anna – “paradise,” “longing” – only confirming about the land Arafat is gushing over (“sweet Jordan, to her we sing our praises”; “this country is the most beautiful, the dearest…”):

These songs’ lyrics refer mainly to place: Jordan as a land, with borders and defined territories, a North and a South, and so on. There are others, though, that add the dimension of time. Not history – that would perhaps be too contentious – but time in its ordinary, ‘regularized’ form, as experienced by Jordan’s citizens. Saad Abu Tayyeh’s يسعد صباح بلادي “Happy Morning to My Country” fits so well into the morning show lineup it could easily have been written specifically to ‘wake up the nation’ by being played on the radio:

“A happy morning to my country / People of the mountains and the valleys / City-dwellers and Bedouins / All who live in our homeland.” Abu Tayyeh goes on to mention coffee, and canaries, and našaama “on their horses,” all beautiful visions of a land readying itself for a new day. Any land, in theory, but the particular assembly of imagery (the ‘joining together’ of urbanites and nomads, and not to mention the word našaama) that it’s Jordan we’re talking about.

Making Jordanian Audiences

Marketers might argue this is all a matter of taste. Jordanians like Jordanian music, after all, and all the radio station is doing is catering to listeners who like to be told how great and glorious “their” country is.

But radio audiences are never simply discovered. Globs of radio consumers don’t just exist naturally before coagulating around programmes or playlists; they are made, brought into being through the very act of listening to the same things together at the same time. And since these songs are addressed to ‘Jordanians’ – patriotic Jordanians, at that; those who truly care for their army, their King, or at least their country – playing them is an attempt to bring together precisely the kind of audience that can fit into this category. This is, then, what the classic-format morning shows strive towards: a listenership familiar with, and appreciative of, music that praises the homeland. Those who refuse to do so can just tune out.

Danny Kaplan has written on how commercial radio stations in Israel use music in order to mark out times of “national emergency,” or other nationally significant periods of time such as memorial days. The music plays during these times forms a closed, and distinctive, repertoire: the songs are in Hebrew, praise the homeland, and contrast markedly with the usual offerings of foreign pop. On Jordan’s stations, though, something comparable is being played every morning – not just in moments of national crisis. With a pinch of cynicism, we could say that Jordanian national identity is so artificial, so precarious, that radio needs to affirm and promote its presence every morning, over and over again, in order to keep the fiction going.

This also fits with official state anxieties about Jordan lacking a unified national identity. Though I’m not sure whether Jordanians themselves feel as much of a lack of belonging as is sometimes claimed, the issue has certainly been high on the official powers’ agenda – including identity-focused campaigns such as “Jordan First” and “We Are All Jordan” (the motivations for which have been described in some detail by Curtis Ryan here).

Maybe the constant morning repetition of the same patriotic songs is less an official conspiracy than a way to present one’s national loyalty, in what is for most radio stations their most ‘visible’ timeslot. Kaplan’s Israeli example makes for an interesting comparison, but the parallels only go so far; especially since, unlike in Israel, Jordanian ‘nationalist’ songs don’t contrast that much with the standard music background of Arabic-language stations. Perhaps it’s just another marker of a media field that, despite its apparent format diversity, tends to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jordan’s political leadership.

Whatever the reason, today you can hardly listen to a morning show without hearing at least a few of the songs mentioned above. At such times, the hosts’ practice of constantly babbling over their chosen music background feels almost a blessing.

The Nation’s Mornings

The Father by Day, the Son by Night: Nashama FM and Haytham al-Wakeel

Among the radio stations that boast of their Jordanian credentials most proudly is Nashama FM. It’s there in the name itself: nashaama نشامى , the plural of نشمي nashmii, is a word that could be translated literally as something like “gentleman,” “knight,” or “champion,” but it’s also strongly associated with Bedouin values of generosity and valor. Add to this the fact that it’s used regularly in the media to refer to valiant members of the Jordanian state apparatus – the nashaama of the Armed Forces, the nashaama of the police, and so on – and it’s easy to see how it fits a Jordanian nationalist framework that places a high value on (what have come to be understood as) Bedouin ethnic and identity markers.

Other aspects of the brand only confirm this further. Nashama’s logo (see below) proclaims the station to be “100% Jordanian,” and uses the seven-pointed star copied from the Jordanian flag – with inverted colors (red on a white background instead of vice versa), but still perfectly recognizable, and another distinctive Jordanian symbol. (Of the flag’s four colors, green is missing from the logo, though it is present on the station’s Twitter and Facebook profile pages.) Even the station’s media kit claims a unique compatibility with the “cultures and values of Jordanians” – whatever these might be – and promotes itself as providing proper “Jordanian” music of the kind that is “much closer to the heart and mind of every Jordanian than any other.”

NashamaLogo-White&Red-NEW-JPEG

(“Nashama FM 105.1. Jordanian, 100%.” Source: Nashama FM website)

Nashama’s morning show, إبشر (literally “Be Happy”) – hosted for the past few months by Ammar Madallah (follow this link for a telling photo) – is pretty much par for the course. Over a selection of highly patriotic music, the host offers his comments on current affairs; reads out messages sent by listeners – especially those that include some kind of praise the King, or the army, or other branches of the state – and reads out headlines from local newspapers. In the vein of other “service programmes,” like Hala’s al-Wakeel Programme or Fann’s Wasat al-balad, it also features call-ins from listeners, and occasionally phone conversations with government ministers or other officials.

So – apart from the name – what’s there to distinguish it? Outside of the morning programme, Nashama’s playlists do appear to be slanted a bit more heavily towards Jordanian music than that of other private stations – though that’s more a matter of degree than of absolute difference.

It does, though, boast an afternoon show hosted by Haytham al-Wakeel. Son of none other than, yes, the great Muhammad al-Wakeel – also known to his listeners as Abu Haytham.

A Voice to Lead You Home

When Haytham’s show was first announced – a result of a slight restructuring of programming that Nashama underwent at the beginning of the year – one Facebook commenter immediately remarked how fortunate listeners are, as they can now hear both representatives of the al-Wakeel clan on the air – every weekday!

الأب بالنهار وبالليل الإبن

The father in daytime, and at night, the son

Father and son do, in fact, complement each other quite neatly. The elder Wakeel’s Programme runs in the morning, from 7 to 10 AM, while Haytham’s timeslot is in the afternoon between 4 and 6. Both fall squarely in the times a commuting crowd would be most likely to tune into the radio, either in their own vehicles or (often, perforce) on public transport. The name of Haytham’s programme,  تي روّح , “Tii Rawwih,” brings this up directly by including the verb روّح rawwaHa, “to return home.” (Hayat FM’s afternoon programme is similarly explicit: it is called ترويحة، tarwiiHa, a noun derived from the same verbal stem – literally “the act of returning home.”)

Like most shows in the same programming slot, Tii Rawwih features music, call-ins on select topics, and the host’s own miscellaneous musings on the events of the day.

(“It’s time to start our evening with Haytham al-Wakeel… Listen and be a part of the sections and subjects of today’s “Tee Rawwih” programme!”)

After days of preoccupation with the martyrdom of Muath al-Kasasbeh, at the beginning of this week, a new issue finally began to move into the Jordanian media spotlight: the upcoming cold weather front. (The initial idea – bandied about already at the end of January – was to name it Falha, but given everything that had happened in the past week Jordanian media rather settled on Karam, which is the name of Kasasbeh’s eldest son.) So, on his 9 February programme, the question Haytham posed to his listeners was: how do you think the authorities will act in dealing with the upcoming storm? Are all the preparations we hear so much about going to be effective? Will they do as well as they have during Huda?

كل الإحترام (..) وقفة إجلال وإحترام للأجهزه الحكوميه اللي تعاملت مع المنخفض الجوي السابق (..) اشتغلوا بمهنيه (..) بتنسيق (..) أكيد منْوَجّه إلهم تحية (..) والله يعطيهم ألف عافيه

Respect… all honor and respect to the government agencies that dealt with the previous weather front… they worked professionally… they coordinated… for sure we give them our greeting… and God give them strength a thousand times over

(Source: tii rawwiH recording, Nashama FM, 9 February 2015)

The calls that made it on air seemed to agree with the host’s observation – similar to what his father had said in the aftermath of Huda – that, if there had been problems, they were caused by citizens not obeying government instructions, rather than official agencies not doing a good job. Haytham then turned to another favored bugbear of radio show hosts: the spread of unverified information through social media – what is derisively called إشاعات، “rumors,” as opposed (implicitly) to the reliable news spread by professional journalists and officially licensed media sources. Again, listeners were asked to call in with their views on the issue; and Haytham also encouraged them – several times – not to post any piece of information on their social media profiles unless they’re “100% sure” that it was true.

يعني شخص يكتب عنده معلومه (..) انت بتروح بتنشر نفس المعلومه اللي هو كتبها (..) طيب انت عارف شو المصدر لهذا الشخص؟ عارف انّه حكى صحّ؟

Okay so a person writes a piece of information… you go and publish the same thing that they’ve written… right so do you know what this person’s source is? Do you know what they’re saying is true?

(Source: tii rawwiH recording, Nashama FM, 9 February 2015)

Once again, the callers supported him. One older man called in to say that he’d been hearing rumors for “70 years” now, and had never believed a single one of them. Trusted sources only. A woman described how she feels bombarded by all sorts of information – from her friends, mostly, on social media – but, also, only takes heed of proper outlets.  “You only trust information from the government then?” was Haytham’s question. Well, of course! Even at work – when her colleagues talk about all different sorts of things, controversial things, politics and so on – she never joins in the debates…

Such discussion – if it can even be called such – is very much confined; sanitized, almost, never going far from the boundaries the host had set through his own reflections and opinions. Though, all in all, this isn’t much of a departure from what happens on most other stations with afternoon programmes. Light topics, accompanying people on their drive (or ride) home. Like the morning show, it’s a very well defined genre. Haytham’s voice may be distinctive – resembling, in some ways, his father’s, with his deep cadence and occasional booming laughter, though with slightly more colorful variation in pitch at times – but his topics and style hardly bring anything new to the afternoon broadcast scene.


 

Two points, I think, that can be drawn from the Nashama case. First is the impression of social tightness one gets when looking at the field of Jordanian radio. Not just the father-son link; even more generally, many broadcasters know each other well, and it’s easy for them to switch to another station to present their programmes, usually with little fuss or changes in style or language. In the past year or two there have been some high-profile shuffes among the morning show stars – al-Wakeel the Elder’s move from Rotana to Radio Hala probably the most notable – but Haytham also hosted a programme on Farah al-Nas before starting his current show, and Ammar Madallah (Nashama’s morning voice) had as his previous home Amen FM, the official radio station of the General Security Directorate (= the Jordanian police force).

Ammar Madallah (left) in the Nashama studio with a guest. From Nashama FM’s Facebook Page

The second point relates to the density of the Jordanian radio field. There are a large number of stations with very similar programming schemes – morning, daytime, and afternoon shows; each with their dedicated host, usually with call-ins and text messages – playing a very similar repertoire of Arabic-language music. The language used is also very similar, the kind of high-level Jordanian (really, Ammani) colloquial that has in recent years become the implicit norm in media.

Still, even here, there are nooks that stations can insert themselves into, targeting (or, indeed, inventing) ever more finely tuned listener segments. With its name, and its image, and its music choices, Nashama FM takes the ‘real Jordanian’ part of the audience to its furthest possible extreme.

For the moment, at least, this seems to be viable move; though I get the feeling this might tell us just as much about the cultural coordinates of the Jordanian media scene as it does about its purported listenership.


(Thanks to Abla Oudeh)

The Father by Day, the Son by Night: Nashama FM and Haytham al-Wakeel

Stars of the Studio (3): Mahmoud al-Hawyan

Every weekday morning, a little after 7 AM, Mahmoud al-Hawyan starts off his morning show صوت المواطن – “Voice of the Citizen” – on JBC Radio with a short address to his beloved listeners. On 5 February, when Jordan’s airwaves were still reeling from the shock of Muath al-Kasasbeh’s martyrdom, he directed his greetings not just at “friends of the programme,” but to all “friends of Jordan” – “friends of the beloved homeland” that surely must stand in solidarity with the nation in these troubled times:

هذه الأرض هناك الكثيرُ من الأصدقاء (..) سلامُنا عليهم وهم يقفونَ معنا (..) مع الحقّ (..) مع المنطق (..) مع الدين

This land has many friends… our greetings to them, as they stand with us… with righteousness… with reason… with religion…

(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin recording, JBC Radio, 5 February 2015)

It’s not as much the content that’s interesting here – in the days after the news of Kasasbeh’s death was announced, messages of solidarity were pretty much a staple for all of Jordan’s radio hosts – but the way in which it is presented: the language, or more accurately the level of language – what with more sociolinguistic flair we can call register.

The Arabic al-Hawyan uses is very formal; not only does it obey all the precepts of classical grammar, but it’s also presented in a very literary manner, through poetically constructed sentences, read out with dramatic pauses and intonation. It doesn’t quite reach the level of a literary text, or classical poem; still, within the genre of the morning show, it’s quite striking to hear something so far removed from the usual ‘folksy’ colloquial norm. And it says a lot about the kind of style that al-Hawyan seeks to cultivate.

Dazzling Eloquence

al-Hawyan – also a Jordanian state TV personality, in addition to his radio work – loves showing off his skills in formal Arabic. One simple way to achieve this are word substitutions. Consider, for example, that al-Hawyan consistently uses the word البارحة al-baariHa for “yesterday,” instead of the more colloquial imbaariH – which keeps active the link to the colloquial word (which the other formal alternative أمس ams would not do), but still acts as a ‘signpost’ to elevate the language in a very marked way.

Other techniques are more complex. There’s the use of case endings, which in spoken Arabic are absent from all but the most official and literary contexts (and in any case only pronounced fully when reading). Certain ways of arranging words and phrases also have indisputably poetic associations. One favored example are parallelisms – as in the following excerpt, where al-Hawyan (commenting on a beloved singer) he takes to listing all the various things that might make somebody more “cultured” or “refined” by repeating the verb over and over:

الفنُ يؤدّب

الدينُ يؤدّب

الشعرُ يؤدّب

التواضعُ يؤدّب

الكرمُ يؤدّب

Art refines

Religion refines

Poetry refines

Modesty refines

Generosity refines

(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin recording, JBC Radio, 27 January 2015)

Lines of poetry, and short parables, and monologues calling officials to accountability: all are subject to a kind of theatrical rendering, in a pompous, declarative tone, often without any accompanying background music that would distract from the host’s voice and eloquence. Even when dealing with more prosaic, unsavory subjects, al-Hawyan usually finds some way to give his comments an eloquent twist. One morning, after being shaken by a news report about a son killing his own father and then burying him in “one of Amman’s neighborhoods,” al-Hawyan decided to direct a florid message to the murderer that made it clear in no uncertain way what he thought of his actions:

يوماََ من الأيّام (..) سيأتي مَن يقتلك (..) ويحفرُ لكَ قبرك (..) لن يكونَ غريباََ (..) ذلكَ القاتل (..) سيكونُ من صُلبك

Some day… one shall come to kill you… and dig a grave for you… he shall not be strange to you… this killer… he shall be of your own body

(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin recording, JBC Radio, 26 January 2015)

Whatever his listeners’ responses to such rhetoric may be, it certainly makes al-Hawyan stand out among his much more colloquially-minded morning show colleagues. Add to this the fact that, as I’ve mentioned, the otherwise constant flow of music is usually silenced during his recitations, and it’s only more clear that it is the voice itself – and, through it, its language – being emphasized here.

Image text and tweet read:

With Mahmoud al-Hawyan… THE VOICE OF THE CITIZEN

Good morning……. A new installment of #”The Voice of the Citizen”

These poetic streaks sound almost comical when compared to the easy spontaneity of most morning hosts – who do, it should be said, have their own flashes of linguistic artistry, though these are rarely as elaborate (or as distinctly focused) as al-Hawyan’s. Through them, he comes out as a proper linguistic virtuoso: one who can twist his way through even the murkier reaches of Arabic grammar, an on-air performer who can comment on even the dreariest of subjects with beauty and eloquence. That alone, we’d expect, would be reason enough to secure him a place behind the microphone.

Extremes of Nicety

The voice of a morning programme host – beleaguered as they are by call-ins, and sometimes interviews – is of course never alone. Sawsan Zaydeh has documented al-Hawyan’s preference for callers with personal stories: people looking for jobs, or asking for charity, issues that can be solved in the manner of ‘dispensing favors’ through one’s links with persons in authority, rather than those that might concern a broader community or require more sustained official attention or intervention.

Mahmoud al-Hawyan is with you live on the #”Voice of the Citizen” programme

In this, though, al-Hawyan doesn’t differ that much from any other morning host. (And it’s not that they refuse to resolve the more prosaic problems either; it just often takes more time to do so. They’re always very proud and willing to let callers thank them on air about the solution to a local problem they’d called in about last week, or last month.) Rather, what distinguishes him is the way in which he treats his callers: how he greets and introduces them; for how long he lets them speak; the style and volume of his goodbyes.

No Jordanian radio host skimps on niceties, but with al-Hawyan, these can be especially overbearing. A respectful tikram, tikram or ya merHaba might be repeated several times. Often, the politeness feels like it’s almost going too far. The first call taken by al-Hawyan on the morning of 5 February consisted of nothing but repeating of virtually the same words of praise for the army, the Hashemite leadership, and the martyr Muath al-Kasasbeh, over and over again. After this had gone on for over a minute, al-Hawyan began to prompt the caller with measured interjections: gently at first, with “yes”-es and “thank you”-s, then slightly more forcefully – “thank you, sir,” “thank you my brother,” “I thank you – ” “my brother – ” “my dear – ” – though with just as little success.

In the end, the call had to be physically cut off, unless al-Hawyan wanted his authority to be undermined completely. Yet he still couldn’t help but offer a respectful send-off:

أشكرك جداََ، مباركة جداََ هاذي المداخلة الجميلة، أشكرك حبيبي يا مرحبا بك

Thank you so much, so blessed this beautiful contribution, I thank you my dear, you are very welcome

(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin recording, JBC Radio, 5 February 2015)

The sheer volume of polite phrases is what makes al-Hawyan’s style unique here. What authority he has, he builds through language; through words; words, moreover, that are never anything less than eloquent, and graceful, as respectful as they can be.


al-Hawyan might well lack Muhammad al-Wakeel’s propensity for building dramatic arcs, or Hani al-Badri’s knack for improvised jokes and subtle sarcasm. Perhaps his intense centering of language is a way to compensate for this: polishing his diction in order to make his monologues and interactions as neat and elegant as possible. This doesn’t necessarily encourage his callers to communicate in the same way – and many of them probably lack the skills to do so – but it does very much set the backdrop for his on-air interactions: polite, eloquent, less an agonistic debate than a civil exchange of stories and viewpoints, with space always reserved for reading out the host’s own florid comments or short lines of idioms or poetry listeners might send in.

It’s not exactly a style that would allow for spontaneous reactions, or cultivate space for  discussion. Ultimately, al-Hawyan’s language is what elevates him, over and above everybody else. In his little islands of a cappella monologue, it’s his erudition – and that alone – that comes to the forefront. The contrast with ordinary conversational language feels almost unbridgeable. Others might be welcomed into this space, though only with so much hedging, so much fidgeting, so much politeness that makes it clear that they are only guests. Honored, perhaps, but certainly unequal – and always shuffled out before the host’s next declamatory stint behind the microphone.

Stars of the Studio (3): Mahmoud al-Hawyan