Tuning In to God

Technology helps spread the divine word; but it can also serve as metaphor for it. “As we remind you always of the website of our radio station,” the preacher Muhammad Nouh declared in one of his programmes on Radio Hala last December, “so we should remind ourselves always of the site from which God, Glorified and Sublime (الله عزّ وجلّ), looks upon us.”

Unless his listeners, Nouh claimed, tuned their radios precisely to 102.1 (FM), they wouldn’t be able to listen to Radio Hala. “And so,” the metaphor continued, “you cannot communicate with God unless you tune your heart to the proper wavelength.” A wavelength which, in this case, involves “love, compassion, and sympathy,” rather than a particular FM frequency. Left implied here is that, by tuning in to Radio Hala – or rather, Nouh’s own programme, as it is transmitted through its airwaves – pious listeners might be able to “tune their hearts” to such emotions as well.

Every weekday afternoon, Hala sets aside an hour for an Islamic scholar to expound to listeners on various Islamic virtues, and answer callers’ questions on a range of issues related to religion – from ritual details, to compatibility of social practices with Islamic belief, to rules of inheritance and the proper way to conduct financial transactions. The call-ins, especially, show how the technological capabilities of radio can be creatively and flexibly adapted to serve an audience segment presumably craving religious content. Callers are given quick and authoritative answers, by someone known and recognized as an expert of the subject – often with a doctorate in Islamic law or fiqh; or, at the very least, are given reassurance by hearing the expert’s voice directly, and receiving a blessing. It doesn’t stop with phone-calls either: in a context where other kinds of electronic media are readily available, hosts such as Nouh can take additional questions via (for example) text messages and Facebook comments, allowing even more people to benefit from the wisdom of a public Islamic intellectual.

In the following I look a little more closely at the genre that Nouh’s (former) programme on Hala can be put into: what I call Islamic advice programmes, where religious scholars speak on air, take calls from listeners, and give authoritative statements on religious, social, and personal matters. This, I would argue, is the primary way in which Jordanian radio makes space for Islam; an inescapable part of everyday life, but also (and probably, equally important) an officially verified aspect of the social fabric of the Kingdom.

The Genre

Like other shows on Jordanian radio, Islamic advice programmes have their own generic rules and structural features. They begin with a short religious address from the host read out in impeccable Classical Arabic, and tend to be followed by a few minutes of comment or explanations – on a current affairs issue that might have caught the host’s ear, or a scriptural or ethical question (in the vein of Nouh’s comment on “tuning your heart to God” I’ve mentioned above).

After this, the phone lines are opened, and usually stay open until the end of the programme – or at least until the point that the presenter can still answer all the questions posed on-air within the time set aside for it. In the time between calls, the presenters might expound further on Islamic ethics, law, or current affairs; or read out questions from messages they’d received either through mobile texts or online means (usually left as comments on the status announcing the day’s programme on the radio station’s Facebook page).

(Recording of Hayat FM’s “Fatwas” programme (فتاوى، fataawa), from 15 March 2015. Example of an Islamic advice programme on a religious format radio station. Though broadcast on a station in a fundamentally different format than Nouh’s programme, all the basic generic features are there – including the introductory address, the call-taking, and readings of text and online messages and responses to them.)

But in order for the answers to count – for listeners to consider what’s being said as a valid, significant legal opinion; if not formally a fatwa – the presenters need to have some claim to religious authority. They are, after all, the source of the answers; their animators, at the very least, when conveying legal opinions framed by some other scholar or jurist before them – but often also engaging with callers on a more immediate personal level, for example when people call in with problems they’re facing in life more generally or disputes where judgments of legality aren’t exactly clear.

It helps, then, for a presenter to have some reputation as an Islamic scholar outside of the immediate radio field. Take for example Shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi, host of the Islamic station Hayat FM‘s “Fatwas” programme (see video above for a sample recording). Behind his media activity al-Jarmi boasts a doctorate in Arabic and degrees in Islamic legal interpretation gained by studying with several notable scholars (listed in meticulous detail in his CV; LINK). He’s also authored a number of studies on Islamic legal and ethical issues, has taught in shari’a colleges, and is a recognized reciter of the Qur’an (and naturally a hafiz).

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(Shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi at Hayat FM’s studios. Image via Islamway.net)

The story is similar for al-Jarmi’s genre counterparts on Radio Hala: Zaid al-Masri, the current host of the army station’s daily Islamic advice programme, but even more so Muhammad Nouh – who is, without a doubt, a star in the field of popular Islam and Islamic scholarship in Jordan. In January this year, Nouh has moved on from Hala in order to found and run his own Islamic format station, Yaqeen. (Its Facebook page boasts more than 200,000 likes after only a couple of months of operation.) Nouh also hosts television shows, is a former government minister (twice over), and chairs the Shaykh Nouh Charitable Society (named in honor of Nouh’s father, Nouh al-Qudah, a former mufti of Jordan). All this in addition to his scholarly credentials, which include a number of published studies and a doctorate in fiqh from the University of Jordan.

To speak on air, a pleasant voice isn’t enough. Anyone can read out religious texts and legal judgments; but in order for listeners to respect you, to take heed of you as a proper authority on religious matters, there needs to be something more. A background that proves your experience; links to sources of authority via texts and named scholar-instructors. And, finally, a knowledge that is broad and deep enough that you can answer even the more obscure legal or customary questions with spontaneity and confidence.

The Questions

The kinds of questions that make it on air tell us much about the preoccupations of those Jordanians trying to lead a pious Islamic life. Many involve particular social practices or situations that listeners have encountered (or been involved in), and what Islamic jurisprudence – for most callers and hosts in Jordan, that of the Shafi’i school – has to say about their admissibility. Popular also are inquiries about ritual details – in particular, details of prayer and ritual purification / ablution – as well as scriptural questions: interpretations of Qur’an verses and aHaadiith, correct readings of holy texts, and other doctrine-related information (such as details of early Islamic history, the external appearance of the Prophet Mohammad, and so on). Other calls are of a more personal nature: they might involve participants asking the hosts for blessings, interpret their dreams or visions, or offer them reassurances about difficult personal situations.

The programmes are reasonably popular, and the amount of questions shooting in from all sides – phones, texts, Facebook – is at times overwhelming. A frequent practice is to take several questions in succession and then offer responses in a ‘lump’ later on, though if the answer is short or straightforward (such as a simple pronouncement of whether a practice is ‘allowed’ or ‘forbidden’) hosts prefer to reply directly. Many callers use their turn on the air to pose several questions, which may be related – or not: a question on Islamic finance might be followed by one on a completely unrelated verse from the Qur’an, or the details of what kinds of aberrations precisely invalidate a prayer (which can get quite complicated).

ZaM in studio 16 March 2015

(Radio Hala’s in-house daa3iya, Zaid al-Masri, in his studio element. Source: Radio Hala’s Twitter page, 16 March 2015 – LINK)

As with other call-in genres, gender inequalities are palpable. Needless to say the scholar-presenters are all male; so are, for the most part, the callers, though curiously enough Radio Hala’s Islamic programme is one of the few pockets on Jordanian airwaves more generally where the rate of female participation at least begins to approach 50 percent. (It’s still a standard 10-20% for al-Jarmi’s programme on Hayat.)

Statistically, the kinds of questions asked by male versus female callers don’t vary significantly, and the proportion of question types across presenters is also fairly constant. The table below gathers some of the numbers for 10 advice programme sessions I recorded between December 2014 and February 2015:

Question Types

1. Ritual

2. Social

3. Scripture

4. Host Favor

5. Family

6. Finance

7. Personal

TOTAL

NOUH (Hala; 3 shows) 10.0% (6) 30.0% (18) 16.7% (10) 20.0% (12) 3.3% (2) 10.0% (6) 10.0% (6) 60
AL-MASRI (Hala; 3 shows) 21.7% (13) 26.7% (16) 18.3% (11) 5.0% (3) 18.3% (11) 5.0% (3) 5.0% (3) 60
AL-JARMI (Hayat; 4 shows) 18.9% (14) 37.8% (28) 14.9% (11) 5.4% (4) 4.1% (3) 16.2% (12) 4.1% (3) 74
TOTAL 17.0% (33) 32.0% (62) 16.5% (32) 9.8% (19) 8.2% (16) 10.8% (21) 6.2% (12) 194

The categories in the table are rough: often it’s difficult to classify a question into any one particular category – they might apply to more than one, such as questions on family relationships that also relate to finance / property, or subjective experiences of God (category 7 in the table) that are linked to familial or social experiences of the callers. (They do, though, appear to have some validity for the hosts: different types of questions are answered in different ways – quick authoritative statements for ritual questions, for example, or ‘sincere advice’ for personal problems – and the hosts also sometimes classify (especially text / Internet) questions as “Qur’anic” or “social” or “fiqhi,” etc.) The total number of programmes I’ve looked at (so far) is low, and the recordings weren’t motivated by any kind of consideration of statistical significance that would make them representative. Still, the tally provides a quick overview of some of the relevant trends  – at least by showing what kind of classification of questions makes sense across the programmes.

A final note on some of the ‘outliers’ in the table. Some of the hosts appear to have significantly higher (or lower) proportions of certain kinds of questions than in the total tally. My impression is that these are mostly aberrations – a higher sample would likely level out – with one exception: the high number of ‘Host Favor’ (category 4) questions for Muhammad Nouh.

Mohammad Nouh (Wikipedia)(Muhammad Nouh al-Qudah. Image by Majd Makki; via Wikimedia Commons)

Outside the media field, Nouh is – as I’ve mentioned – by far the best-known of the three presenters. Compared with al-Masri and al-Jarmi, many more callers just contact him to thank him, ask him for a blessing, or request a sermon at a local mosque. The religious, charitable, and political activities that have brought him public recognition have a clear effect on his media authority as well.


Decades ago, Brinkley Messick observed in his study of “media muftis” on Yemeni national radio that the public context of radio broadcasts ends up giving legal pronouncements a much more personalized, ‘informal’ flavor than the traditional method of providing written legal opinions. This is all the more evident in Jordanian Islamic advice programmes today. The communicative context of the live broadcast, where presenters have to come up with answers quickly and in a manner their listeners will understand immediately, makes it pretty much a necessity.

The advice given by “media shaykhs” such as Nouh and al-Jarmi does not have the binding force of a legal fatwa (like one issued by Jordan’s official seat of Islamic jurisprudential authority, Dar al-Ifta; indeed the radio hosts themselves sometimes refer their callers to the institution if they sense their issue might benefit from a formal legal ruling). Still, it is a way for people to link up directly with personalities that claim considerable knowledge of the subject, and are recognized authorities in the field. Even in a modern, impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state, authority issuing from particular people still has a role to play.

As I see it, this involves not as much a “fragmentation of authority” as its functioning within the confines of specific media – in this case, radio, which allows sound to be broadcast and transmitted, both from the studio to the audience and vice versa (through phone-ins). Though again, that’s only half the story. For Messick, in the 1980s, it may have been enough to claim that (national) radio broadcasts of fatwas involve their transmission to a (national) Yemeni audience. But times have changed. No longer do “media muftis” sift through mail and sit in their libraries for days to prepare carefully considered legal opinions. Direct call-ins and instant messaging provide a very close simulation of spontaneous communication; one in which the line between “on-air” and “off-air” authority – or the way holders of such authority present themselves in different kinds of personal interactions – is never entirely clear.

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Tuning In to God

The Unwritten Standard

Before I began my field research in Jordan, my greatest concern was how to deal with what I anticipated to be the variability of language spoken on radio. Unlike MSA, colloquial Arabic – spoken in every  human interaction – does not have the force of codified grammars and centuries of written precedents behind it. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s not rule-bound, just like any other language system.) There might, then, be a bit more flexibility in how Jordanian dialect is used on the air: creative ways in which people use dialect forms, perhaps, for people to mark their (actual or desired) social origin, or make claims to represent certain groups or stand for particular political positions.

Or so I had imagined.

Over the past few months, as I’ve engaged in more and more depth with the Jordanian radio field, I’ve realized that, with regard to the language you can hear spoken across the spectrum of Jordan’s Arabic-language radio stations – from the community-oriented ones, to the ‘hip contemporary’ ones, to those who aim at more conservatively nationalist audiences, to those that promote an Islamic (and Islamist) social (and political) orientation – there’s not really that much of a difference.

When talking to radio professionals, I most commonly heard that there was a time – in the murky past of the first years of the 21st century – when this was not yet so. A time when, in a media field newly opened to broadcasting beyond that of the government’s official voice, radio presenters were not yet quite sure how to engage their audiences. Many turned to Lebanon as a model; exposure to Lebanese dialect was common through satellite television, and its Levantine roots made it closer to Jordanian speech styles than (for example) Egyptian.

But such voices  sounded foreign – at the very least; if not outright fake – in the mouths of Jordanians. Through the years, “Jordanian” accents gained more prominence; now you hardly hear Lebanese-speaking presenters anymore (except on that admirable holdout that is Sawt al-Ghad). Still, it was a very specific kind of “Jordanian” that came to be considered the norm: namely, that based on the dialect of Amman.

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(A vista from Tlaa’ al-Ali, West Amman)

This is a familiar pattern from developments in other Arabic-speaking countries with media that use colloquial language (most famously, Egypt). The dialect spoken in the capital comes to be considered as a kind of “non-standard standard,” or “prestige” dialect (these are all terms from Arabists that have written about the issue) – presumably because, by speaking like a capital dweller, you’re that bit closer to becoming one. Being a capital dweller, in a highly centralized country, brings all sorts of social and economic perks (or at least it is assumed that it does). More, given a general flow of people into the capital, people from outside it are much more likely to speak in the way that’s spoken in the capital than vice versa; and so a critical mass develops which gives the dialect features of the capital that extra edge over those that might be encountered outside it.

What kind of language, then, is this radio Ammani? What features are there to distinguish it and place it among dialects in Jordan and the kinds of Arabic spoken in Levantine countries more generally?

In this regard I’m going to consider in particular the work of Enam al-Wer on the “dialect of Amman,” and then move on to look at what the implications of using this particular style of speech on Jordanian radio might be. Even the strongest norms are, after all, associated with particular preconceptions and ideologies. And this is precisely the part where they become  interesting.

The Capital’s Dialect

Amman’s dialect has been examined in the most detail by the Essex linguist Enam al-Wer. Her writings include studies both on Ammani’s history – its emergence as a koine, or a language variety that comes out of contact between several different varieties or dialects – and its present status and features.

Amman’s position as an economic and administrative center is relatively new; it dates only to the partitioning of Jordanian territory into its own state entity in the beginning of the 20th century, and the city can hardly boast of a history as illustrious as other urban centers in the area – such as Jerusalem, Beirut, or Damascus. In line with this, the development of Amman’s own prestigious dialect has also been on a much shorter timescale than in these other cities; and it is closely intertwined with Jordan’s recent socio-economic history.

al-Wer brings together the factors involved in a recent book contribution (available online as a draft: LINK); I will only summarize them here. The first social stratum to function as an elite in Amman were members of prominent Levantine families that gravitated to the town from the 1920s onwards (after it became the capital of the Emirate of Transjordan, newly established under British tutelage after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire). The population later swelled with immigrants from elsewhere in (Trans)Jordanian territory, as well as Palestinians (especially following the wars in 1948 and 1967). From the 1970s onwards, policies were in place aimed explicitly at the “Jordanization” of public sector posts. These gave many “Transjordanians” – ie., members of families who could claim origins from localities somewhere from within Transjordanian territory – chances for social and economic advancement. As a consequence, some dialect features associated with speech styles of “Transjordanian” origin also gained more prestigious associations.

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Amman’s “koine,” though, didn’t develop from local dialects alone. As al-Wer shows, the social standing of families that brought their own styles of speech from other urban centers in the region gave the developing “Ammani dialect” a decidedly urban Levantine flavor. (In the Levant, as in many other regions where Arabic is spoken, the firmest dialect distinctions are between language spoken in cities versus language spoken outside of cities; often dialects spoken in two cities a hundred kilometers apart will have more features in common than dialects spoken in a rural (or, even more so, a nomadic-Bedouin-tribe-inhabited) area just outside one of these cities.) This, in contact with dialects spoken by ‘native Transjordanians,’ produced a blend of features quite unlike any other in the region – a dialect that can safely be termed as specific to Amman, and the generations of people that by now had been born and raised in the city.

One distinct quirk of Ammani is that the language one hears is split according to the gender of the person speaking it. The sound /q/ – pronounced as an uvular stop in Classical and Standard Arabic, but with a range of pronunciations in equivalent words in different Arabic dialects – is especially telling. In words that count as ‘colloquial’ or ‘dialect’ words – ie., those that Ammanis consider everyday or informal enough not to require a Standard Arabic pronunciation – a female speaker would pronounce this sound as a glottal stop: [ʔ], in the International Phonetic Alphabet. This is also how one would expect to hear /q/ pronounced in Jerusalem (or Beirut, or Damascus). Male speakers, by contrast, usually prefer to use [g] (voiced velar stop; much the same as the ‘hard g’ in English) – which is a common pronunciation in many Bedouin dialects, but also in dialects native to Transjordan.

So, for example, the word قهوة qahwa “coffee” would be pronounced ‘ahwe – with a glottal stop at the beginning – by an Ammani woman, and gahwe by an Ammani man. (Final a often changes to e in Levantine Arabic dialects, something Arabists call imaala (literally “slanting”).) And a word such as أقول aquul “I say” becomes b-‘uul (with a glottal stop, and the colloquial present indicative marker b- at the beginning) for women, and b-guul for men.

(As a quick aside, a short personal anecdote to demonstrate how strongly this gender patterning is considered to be the hallmark of Jordanian / Ammani. When I was still at the beginning of my fieldwork, I tended to use [ʔ] when I spoke Arabic, modelling myself on Palestinian and Egyptian pronunciations of the kind I’ve been most exposed to through my years of studying the language. The automatic reaction of many people, when they heard me speak this way, was that I’d learned Arabic in Lebanon – which I’d never visited in my life (though I had lived in Amman for two months a few years back). In other words, it was simply unimaginable for the people I’d spoken to for me to have picked up the [ʔ] pronunciation in Jordan, where obviously as a male I should have been using [g].)

Pronunciation of /q/ might be the characteristic that is most often (and most easily) picked upon when talking about differences among Arabic dialects. But there are also other features that make Ammani distinctive. Another sound with a similar kind of gender split is j (the sound in e.g. al-Jazeera): Ammani men often pronounce this as an affricate, [dʒ] – precisely as in English – while Ammani women invariably use a fricative, [ʒ] (a ‘softer’ sound, like in English measure). There are also specific ways in which vowels are pronounced; al-Wer goes on at some length about the details of this (if by some outlandish chance you’re a phonology enthusiast you can go check out her paper for the particulars; see pages 10-13 in the online draft PDF). Grammar, also, has features that can be heard in other dialects in the region (such as the very Palestinian use of final alone for negation) combined with others coming from different dialect areas, or even features that seem to be novel inventions for Amman alone: like using, for example, -kum for the second person plural bound pronoun, which fits with the Standard Arabic version but contrasts with most neighboring dialects (which would prefer either -ku or -kun).

All these features come together to create a form of Arabic with clear roots in existing Levantine dialects, but which is also distinctive to Amman. No surprise, then, given the status and prestige of the capital, that it would also become the language used in new  media enterprises that have emerged in Jordan over the past few decades.

Ammani Norms

Media, of course, never just presuppose a given linguistic reality from which they draw their communicative resources. They also help construct language: their texts circulate broadly, and provide models for speech and interaction which media audiences relate to in various ways.

It’s probably a stretch to claim that commercial radio stations played a role in ‘normatizing’ Ammani. Local understandings of a set Ammani dialect likely had force long before the liberalization of Jordan’s media field in the early 2000s. (al-Wer, again, indicates this, in her generational analysis of how distinctly Ammani features came together.) Still, once an Ammani speech style turned up on the airwaves, it’s easy to see how it might have spread, as a kind of informal standard: a way for presenters to interact with audience in a way that (they consider) will make them commonly understood, as well as project a sense of “Jordanian-ness” that sounds more authentic – or, to use a word favored by my contacts, “spontaneous” – than using a dialect that could clearly be associated with some other country-level variety of Arabic.

Presenters might draw, then, on language they know – natively, if they’re Ammanis; otherwise, as the ‘standard’ medium of communication used in interactions in the capital, or more accurately the kind of language used in such interactions by people who provide desirable social models. But simply by using it in the context of radio, they’re also transforming it, by making it acceptable as a media norm. Radio performances (and they are, always, performances) thus construct language – not necessarily by inventing a style outright, but by placing some locally relevant style into a particular context, and producing at least at least a tacit sense that it is appropriate for this context.

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Always, though, it’s Ammani that we hear. All of Jordan’s radio stations aiming for more than just a local audience are based in Amman; and the linguistic asymmetry here mirrors quite perfectly the social, economic, and political asymmetries that bedevil Jordan. Even if speaking, or at least understanding (if only by necessity), Ammani is common to most Jordanians, the differences remain. There’s still the sense that those brought up with the dialect natively are relatively closer to the Norm – and with it, the kind of speaker, the kind of person, that one might want to be – than others.

An article by Myriam Achour Kallel – available online here; in French only – describes the situation on a Tunisian radio station that uses “colloquial Arabic” in pretty much identical terms. The dialect of the capital – Tunis – is privileged over all others, even in situations when using regional speech might perhaps attract more listeners (the radio station Kallel examines has a significant number of listeners hailing from one particular region outside the capital). The station’s producers give various, mostly linguistic, justifications for this practice, but they tend to avoid the most fundamental issue: namely, the political and socio-economic asymmetry between a Capital and its Regions that made the Tunis dialect preferred and desirable in the first place.

As in Tunisia, so in Jordan. Radio, as a media form, focuses on simulating interaction: between presenters and their guests, presenters and audiences, either directly through call-ins or indirectly through addressing them by speaking ‘into the ether.’ (Or something in between, when patching together different media in order to keep the channels of communication open – for example, when reading out and responding to text messages or online comments.) When speaking Arabic, for this not to sound fatally stilted, a colloquial variety is really the only choice. At that level, though, there is no longer any kind of codified or written standard. So people’s decisions are driven by other kinds of evaluations: based, ultimately, in social convictions and ideologies, and highly revealing of local hierarchies of value – between kinds of language, and the kinds of people believed to speak it.

The Unwritten Standard

Lebanese on the Air

These days it’s hard to find a radio station in Jordan that does not present its programmes in colloquial Arabic. But it was not always so. The liberalization of the broadcasting field only dates back to the early 2000s, when new audiovisual laws allowed radio stations to be established in Jordan outside the purview of the state broadcasting corporation – which had vastly preferred MSA and only allowed colloquial Arabic in a few cordoned-off programmes.

The linguistic situation, nowadays, seems relatively stable: most broadcasters use a speech style based on the colloquial Arabic of Amman, a kind of ‘soft standard’ with distinct features that mark it out as distinctly ‘Jordanian’ within the broader context of Arabic dialects in the Levantine region. Still, Ammani is not the only accent one can hear when flipping through Jordan’s radio channels. Regional stations and programmes dedicated to local genre traditions – such as broadcasts of Bedouin poetry – both exhibit dialectal variety, as do stations directed at Jordan’s immigrant communities (such as the Iraqi radio station al-Rasheed). As far as channels aiming for a broader audience are concerned, though, the dialect one is most likely to come across is Lebanese.

Lebanese colloquial in Jordan is represented, these days, most prominently by the radio station Sawt al-Ghad (“The Voice of Tomorrow”) – and, in particular, its morning show host, Jessy Abu Faisal. In what follows, I’ll examine Abu Faisal’s programme in more detail, and look at what speaking – and indeed being – Lebanese on Jordan’s airwaves today might mean.

Jessy Live

There are very few female radio hosts working in Jordan’s prime time morning slot. This alone makes Jessy a bit exceptional, along with her linguistic distinctiveness. Her programme, called Jessy Live, ticks off most of the morning show genre boxes – speaking over music, reading messages sent in by listeners, commenting on recent events – though she also offers some sections (such as horoscopes and a few minutes set aside for “meditation”) that might not fit too well in the decidedly masculine frame of self-presentation of other hosts. There is also a short section set aside for “sports” – for which, as usual in Jordan, read “football”; presented, notably, not by Jessy herself, but rather  by a male journalist through a phone call.

(Jessy Abu Faisal, talking to a young guest in her studio – a girl suffering from bleeding in her left eyelid – before she comes on air during her programme. Note especially the ‘framing’ of the clip with canned recorded phrases in English)

The call-ins, too, have a decidedly ‘lighter’ feel. Many involve (mostly male) listeners with music requests; others might be on topics that Abu Faisal happens to be discussing. There are no heavy problem-solving ‘dramas’ here, though; no requests for mediating with authorities. There might be limits, then, to the kinds of roles allowed to this particular female host within the boundaries of her broadcast genre.

A Lebanese Host

Abu Faisal’s radio career began in her home country, as a presenter on Mirage, a radio station that belonged – as she states in one interview – to “a friend of her father’s” (and defunct since 1997). She has stated that she faced “difficulties” at the beginning of her career in Jordan – going on a decade, now – but also that she and her listeners had “adapted quickly” to each other.

What’s interesting here is that, despite her lack of familiarity with Jordanian dialect, there was never any question that Abu Faisal would be presenting her programme in anything other than colloquial Arabic. Here, at least, speaking “the people’s language” – rather than a stilted, formal Arabic style – was far more crucial than the details of what this language actually was. It is much easier, in other words, for the presumed gap between presenter and audience to be bridged by ‘training one’s ear’ each to the other’s dialect – rather than adopting a presumably shared standard. (It helps, of course, that many Jordanians are familiar with Lebanese speech; in terms of their presence in (pan-)Arab media, Lebanese speech styles are second only to Egyptian – and all the more so in the Levant, where Lebanon is the country likely boasting the greatest media diversity.)

Abu Faisal’s accent includes all the features one would expect from a Lebanese radio host. Among the traits distinctive of Lebanese, there is vowel-raising – from a to e, in particular, so nees rather than naas “people” – as well as the use of -kun and -(h)un as 2nd- and 3rd-person plural pronouns (“you” and “them”), respectively (the Ammani / Jordanian standard has -kum (sometimes -ku) and -(h)um here).

There’s also the way certain words are pronounced, especially those with q – a phoneme pronounced unambiguously as a uvular stop in Classical / Standard Arabic but a favored phonetic shibboleth for contemporary Arabic dialects (and academic studies of them). There is a kind of “formality bar” in conversational Arabic as to which words retain the Classical pronunciation of this phoneme, and which use a colloquial version (something which Hassan Abd el-Jawad has termed lexical conditioning). In normative Ammani, the colloquial variant is split by gender: men use g instead of q, while women use the glottal stop. By contrast, in Lebanon – as in Syria, and the more prestigious Palestinian dialects – it’s the glottal stop throughout.

Since Abu Faisal is female, this might not make much of a difference – but in fact, along with the lack of gender split, other Levantine dialects also tend to set the “formality bar” much higher than Ammani / Jordanian does. That is, words that in Jordan would still be pronounced in the ‘formal’ manner use the ‘colloquial’ version in Lebanese. So one hears Abu Faisal say Taa’a for “energy” and Ta’s for “weather” – both of which are much more likely to be pronounced Taaqa and Taqs, respectively, retaining the formal q, if the dialect being aimed for is ‘Jordanian.’

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(“Jessy Abu Faisal.” Source: Sawt el-Ghad Jordan’s Twitter page – LINK)

Marks of Abu Faisal’s Lebanese identity are also evident in the content of her programme. She might affirm her origin by playing a song describing her home country – commenting, to her listeners, that this is “so you hear something about Lebanon.” Listeners also take it up themselves: by sending in messages, for example, saying “good morning” to “Jessy,” and an added greeting to كل الوطن العربي : “the entire Arab homeland”, or “all Arabs / Arab lands” – with the implication that any common ground between the presenter and the Jordanians who listen to her can only be one that goes beyond national borders. Clearly, both host and audience are well aware of her Lebanese-ness – in language and beyond.

Speaking Spontaneously

There are many meanings one could draw from Abu Faisal’s on-air performances. The classic stereotype, in Jordan, is that Lebanese speech styles – and, indeed, Lebanese identity itself – have feminine or feminized associations. In this context, it’s perhaps not strange that the most prominent Lebanese voice on Jordanian radio is also female. As we’ve seen, this has implications for the morning show built around “Jessy” as a presenter-character: allowing certain topics and styles of interaction (horoscopes), while foreclosing others (sports, bureaucratic mediation). Ideas about gender implied by the genre might, then, be just as conservative as its formal limitations – reflected in aspects such as music choices, and interactional style, as I’ve argued on this blog previously.

There’s another dimension to all this, though, that may be just as important. Pretty much all radio professionals I’ve spoken to during my time in Jordan have emphasized the value of spontaneity among radio presenters. Using colloquial Arabic on air is valued as long as the language you use is your ‘natural’ way of speaking: not formal, not stilted, not sourced from previously prepared ornamented texts, but rather focused on the interaction itself, addressing listeners and interlocutors like one would (presumably) normally do in a conversation.

Especially deserving of criticism, here, are those who betray this spontaneity by adopting a style of speech that is not their ‘native’ one: in particular, Jordanian presenters that – and this was always presented to me as a thing of the past, an obsession that Jordan’s airwaves have by now been purified from – tried to adopt Lebanese colloquial features in order to emulate Lebanese media personalities, and by association appear more ‘hip’ or ‘modern.’ Lebanese, in the mouths of Jordanian presenters, feels “fake”; worse, even, than formal Arabic, since it cheats its addressees by pretending to be spontaneous even though it really isn’t. (Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that, for a Jordanian presenter not brought up in Amman, adopting a normative ‘Jordanian’ – i.e., Ammani – accent might be just as “fake” as trying to speak Lebanese.)

Jessy, on the other hand, can at least be presumed to be “spontaneous” in speaking Lebanese. After all, it is “her” colloquial, the dialect she – as a woman with Lebanese origins – is supposed to claim and revel in as her own. (Leaving aside, as well, the fact that “Lebanese” here is of course also only a label given to a very particular speech style prestigious in Lebanon, rather than something that all Lebanese would speak normally.) Still, we can wonder whether the association of “Lebanese” with “fakery” might not be strong enough to overcome this particular biographic detail.

We’re firmly in the realm of meanings and ideas here; “metapragmatics,” following Michael Silverstein, ideas about language use that take on a life all of their own quite apart from the actual linguistic reality (though they may then come back to exert influence on this reality merely by virtue of their force as ideas). It would make sense, though, considering the complex of values revolving around distinct kinds of colloquial Arabic in Jordan, and the particular situations in which Lebanese and its speakers tend to occur. It may well be difficult to claim your dialect is ‘spontaneous’ or ‘authentic’ when the context where it’s heard most often is that of flamboyant media stars and foreign television dramas.

Lebanese on the Air