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

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