Traffic Light Poetry

I just thought I’d share this little clip from the Fooq al-Sada team’s latest Tashweesh Wadih episode:

I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the consonant pronunciations there – likely an attempt to riff on Sudanese colloquial, according to the comments, as well as the lyrics / melody being a parody of this widely distributed clip – but all in all it’s a genius little take on recent traffic regime changes in Amman; in particular, putting up traffic lights at the “Eighth Circle” intersection in the west of the city.

[EDIT: h/t to Farah on Facebook for letting me know about the full clip of the original poem: LINK

Hilarious all on its own, and also direct example of how Bzour manages to parody all the other parts of a performance that don’t necessarily involve language (but are equally important for the general effect).]

(Note that the “Circles” in Amman are just enormous roundabouts, which however to guarantee any kind of traffic flow usually need to be manned by police officers at every sub-intersection (as in the image here: LINK) – which in essence isn’t all that different from a traffic light. Still, this didn’t stop people making up jokes last year when traffic lights were being put up at Seventh Circle – al-duwaar as-saabi3, الدوار السابع – re-imagining it as “the Former Circle,” al-duwaar as-saabiq الدوار السابق. )

Here are the “lyrics,” along with my attempt at a (working) translation:

قصيدة رثاء الدوار الثامن

آاااااااي

علقنا بأزمة كبيرة مش خفيفة
قالوا نشيل الدوار الثامن ونخلص من عجقة خبيسة

آااي

نركب مكانه اشارة تنظم السير وتكون للعين لطيفة

و
صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
صفت السيارة صفت ,ما فتحت اشارة

صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
صفت السيارة , ولعنا سيجارة
صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
صفت السيارة صفت ما فتحت اشارة
صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
صفت السيارة وخلصت السيجارة

صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
جنبي غاعدين بيبنوا في عمارة
صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
جنبي هسا هما خلصوا العمارة

وكله هذا صار، ما فتحت الاشارة

صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
عشت عمر طويل وانا قاعد في السيارة
قولولي كيف قولولي كيف
نخلص من اشارة

ولعنا سيجارة، تلعب العمارة، حافروا مغارة
كله هذا صار، مفتحت الاشارة

An Elegy for Eighth Circle

(Aaaaaaay!)
We were stuck in a great traffic jam – not a small one!
They said: We will raise Eighth Circle and get rid of the horrible crowds
(Aaay.)
Instead we’ll set up a traffic light, one that orders traffic and pleases the eye.

Aaaand…
The car stood still, the car stood still
The car stood still, the traffic light didn’t turn green
The car stood still, the car stood still
The car stood still, we lighted up (a cigarette)
The car stood still, the car stood still
The car stood still, the traffic light didn’t turn green
The car stood still, the cigarette went out

The car stood still, the car stood still
Next to me they’re building (a building)
The car stood still, the car stood still
They’ve finished the building now

All this happened, and the traffic light didn’t turn green

The car stood still, the car stood still
I lived a long life, sitting in my car
Tell me how, tell me how
We can get rid of the traffic light

We lighted a cigarette
The building opened
They dug a whole cavern
All of this happened
And the traffic light didn’t turn green!

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Traffic Light Poetry

The Women of Zarqa

If Radio al-Balad’s official goal is engaging with and empowering local communities, then the programme Huna al-Zarqa – “Zarqa Here” or “This is Zarqa” – promises to be a prime example of this. Media in Jordan, as so many other sectors, is heavily biased towards activity in the capital Amman; the “governorates” (Zarqa among them, even if, with just short of a million inhabitants, it is the second most populous after Irbid) often go neglected, both in news reportage and otherwise. Broadcasting reports and interviews that touch on local goings-on, then, via a radio station based in the capital, might be an effective way of raising consciousness of the problems that Zarqawis face, and define them – through publicly available discourse – as Jordanian citizens equal to all others.

What’s more, Huna al-Zarqa is run entirely by women. The central goal of the project is to “empower Zarqa’s women through media,” as the programme’s mission statement goes. Every Monday, Radio al-Balad broadcasts an hour-long session of Huna al-Zarqa that features two hosts – the journalist Etaf Rawdan, who is the project’s chief editor, with a junior colleague as co-host – as well as a series of reports produced ‘in the field’ – i.e., Zarqa Governorate – by an all-female cast of correspondents. A bi-weekly newspaper is also published from these reports (there is an archive of this the programme’s website, though the files have some formatting issues).

What Huna al-Zarqa presupposes, then, is that Zarqa actually has news worthy of being treated in a professional journalistic manner; but also that there is nothing strange if the correspondents covering this just happen to be women. And this may, indeed, involve some norm-busting in a country which features one of the lowest rates of female workforce participation in the world.

(Video: example of the kind of reports that Huna al-Zarqa usually broadcasts. This particular report collects local reactions around the murder of a female Zarqawi university student in December 2013. More frequent, less spectacularmight  topics include public work projects at municipality or governorate level; complaints made by locals; local cultural events, workshops, or celebrations; or Zarqawis’ reactions to issues affecting Jordan more broadly.)

Training for Media

Huna al-Zarqa’s correspondents are all drawn from their yearly cohorts of trainees that apply to participate in the project in Zarqa governorate. In January, the project entered its third consecutive year, and the 19 January show was dedicated in part to collecting recent alumnae’s reflections on their journalistic training and work with the programme. Most were grateful for the opportunity, though they also alluded to some of the difficulties they faced as female field journalists:

بداية الأمر كمحافظة الزرقاء كانوا يستغربوا موضوع انه فيه مراسلة سيّدة في المحافظة.. لكن مرة على مرة… بلّشوا يجاوبوا معنا اكثر المسؤولين.. وكمان المواطنين

In the beginning [people in] Zarqa Governorate found it strange that there should be a female correspondent in the governorate… but as we went on the officials began to respond to us more… as did citizens

قوّى شخصيتي.. خلّاني الجرءة اني اتفاعل مع المسؤولين.. وكتير اشياء حلّ مشاكل

[The project] strengthened my personality… it gave me the courage to interact with officials… and it solved a lot of issues

(Extracts from statements by Huna al-Zarqa journalists. Source: Huna al-Zarqa recording, Radio al-Balad, 19 January 2015)

According to Etaf Rawdan, many of the trainees’ “lives were changed” through their participation; she was also eager to cite the real results of all this “empowerment” by mentioning how many correspondents had moved on to hold proper jobs in media and journalism. What goes unsaid here, of course, is that – as opposed to such positions – working for Huna al-Zarqa can’t really be considered proper journalism. Ultimately, it’s just training; the real thing comes after. (If it does; Rawdan also hinted that, for whatever reason, not all women continued to seek employment in the sector.)

It’s not that the reports aren’t up to scratch. The aim is professionalism, plain and simple: carefully chosen, well-researched stories, read out in impeccable MSA, as one might here in news bulletins on Radio al-Balad or any other respectable radio station in Jordan. Often, the reports include statements from Zarqawis themselves, and are careful to balance official pronouncements with local voices and opinions – a rare occurrence, in Jordan’s government-friendly media field.

logo

(Huna al-Zarqa logo. Image via the programme’s website: LINK)

Still, the edges remain rough. Sometimes the reports aren’t recorded as clearly as one might wish; there may be strange gaps or overlaps with the speech of the hosts. Rawdan’s co-hosts – voices picked from among the programme’s trainees; a different person every week – also let their lack of experience show. Hosting a live broadcast is of course a whole different level again from preparing and recording news stories. Rawdan herself may be more weathered, but even she is unable to handle segment transitions and live interviews with the kind of seamless skill exhibited by some of her colleagues at Radio al-Balad. (Even her language departs from the norm somewhat: Rawdan’s is the only voice (from among the journalists) that can be heard speaking in colloquial Arabic during the programme, but rather than the expected Ammani, she exhibits features – such as pronunciation of /q/ as [g], and /j/ as [dʒ] – that aren’t frequently heard spoken by women in the capital.)


 

 

Huna al-Zarqa, then, remains essentially a training field. It is rather ‘efficient’ in that it brings together two areas – female participation and local news coverage – that Jordanian media is sorely lacking in. At the very least, it provides a point of entry into public discourse: an arena which demonstrates the possibility of treating local issues in a way which conforms with journalistic standards, and a chance for them to spread beyond the borders of the governorate.

There’s still the fact, though, that in this project, Zarqawi news continues to be covered by trainees – in their own programme, no less, safely quarantined from the ‘serious’ programmes and news sessions, even on as ‘community-oriented’ a station as Radio al-Balad.

Better, surely, than the complete silence of other media outlets. But even here, inequalities persist.

The Women of Zarqa

Gender and Emphatic Colouring in the Arab Homeland

Phonetic details can, sometimes, make all the difference. A few days ago, the Lebanese pop singer Elissa released a version of the popular Arab nationalist anthem “Mawtini.” (There’s some info on the song on its Wikipedia page; its lyrics are a poem written by the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Touqan (brother of Fadwa), and it formerly served as the anthem of Palestine as well as being the national anthem of Iraq since 2004.) Elissa’s effort was bound to stir up some reactions all by itself; it isn’t often that tacky female singers choose to tackle such deep-grounded symbols of Arabist (and pro-Palestinian) belonging. At least in Jordan, though, what attracted the most critique was Elissa’s alleged mispronunciation of the lyrics. A single consonant was at issue – but this was enough to arouse the ire of a gaggle of social media commentators, and draw out broad-ranging responses regarding gender, language, and the current state of the Arab nation.

Some phonological background first. Arabic – Standard, and all of its dialect variants – features a series of sounds that linguistic analyses like to call “emphatic.”  Phonetically, this involves both ‘pharyngealization’ – that is, constricting the pharynx or the epiglottis while pronouncing the sound – and ‘velarization’ – that is, raising the back of the tongue upwards so that it is in contact with the velum / soft palate (sort of the place where the tongue touches the roof of the mouth when you’re pronouncing or g). (For those mad souls who want more details, there’s a pretty thorough explanation of the phonetic issues in this 1972 article.)

emphatic schema

(A sketch showing differences in tongue position between an “emphatic” and “non-emphatic” sound. The dotted line (emphatic) touches the back of the mouth; the straight line (non-emphatic) does not. From Ali and Daniloff (1972); LINK)

The sin that Elissa committed was pronouncing one of these sounds – the alveolar stop, /ṭ/, ط (Taa’) in Arabic script – apparently without emphatic coloring. Even this might have been written off as a one-time ‘error’ (though more on whether it even is an error below) – if the mispronunciation didn’t occur in the very title of the song; which also serves as the refrain (and is repeated a total of 12 times throughout the lyrics). Instead of موطني، people claimed – which means “my homeland” – Elissa was singing موتني. mawtinii, not mawTinii.

Listen to the track above; you can judge for yourself. (Fingers crossed it will stay up for a while; the YouTube version has already been removed on Friday, apparently following a copyright claim.) The responses, in any case, were striking. Ro’ya TV’s news website did a roundup (as they sometimes do, for contentious issues) of social media comments. These include a few tweets and Facebook posts from Lebanon praising the recording, but many more critical ones from Jordan (and a couple of Gaza) taking issue with Elissa’s purported mispronunciation. (The writer of the roundup piece, ever diplomatic, characterized the enunciation as “delicate,” in “Elissa’s own special manner.”)

In many of these comments, the authors exchanged the “soft,” non-emphatic ت <t> for ط <ṭ> – not just in the title of the song, but in other words as well. فلسطيني falasTiinii “Palestinian,” for example, is normally spelled with a <ṭ>; in one tweet, Elissa was claimed to now have become فلستينية falastiniiyya, with a <t>. Another claimed that Ibrahim “Tou’aan” – توئان; the surname is properly spelled طوقان، with a <ṭ>, but suffered a change to <t> here, in addition to the stereotypically feminine and Lebanese shift from <q> to the glottal stop (<ʔ>) – did not die; rather, he “committed suicide after he heard Mawtini.”

The target here wasn’t just an isolated mispronounced sound, but purportedly ‘feminized’ variants of Arabic more broadly. To be expected, perhaps, from a Lebanese starlet such as Elissa; although, given that her error was conspicuously located in a self-consciously  nationalist song so often invoked as a symbol of Arab strength and resistance, the ‘corruption’ of “Mawtini” here seemed to be indicative of something deeper.

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(Elissa wearing a T-shirt with a misspelled “Mawtini.” Image via: LINK)

First, though, to clear the matter of whether it’s incorrect from a linguistic standpoint. Phonetically speaking, I’d say it’s at least up for debate. The release of the t – that is, the point at which the tongue leaves the roof of the mouth to allow airflow through – may be closer to the non-emphatic version; but if we consider the word as a whole, the preceding syllable – maw- – definitely has some ’emphatic’ coloring. (I’m pretty confident a phonetic analysis would confirm this; perhaps somebody with better skills than me might be able to check the formants in Praat or something…) The most marked feature of /ṭ/, the retraction of the tongue – the dotted line in the picture above – happens; just earlier than expected. It’s called “leftward emphasis spread” – basically, anticipating the ’emphatic’ sound before you actually pronounce it. Due to the particularities of human oral physiology, this kind of pre-coloring may actually be more likely than spread of emphasis “rightward” (i.e., following the “emphatic” sound rather than preceding it). Normally, you’d still expect it to sound different; but the traces are there.

It might be a phonetic peculiarity; non-normative, and possibly non-standard. But from a purely phonological perspective, it doesn’t mean that Elissa is not pronouncing the Taa’, or exchanging it for the non-emphatic version. It’s just that all the phonetic features that some of her listeners might expect aren’t present. In other words, she’s not pronouncing the lyrics as if she were actually saying mawtinii; it’s just her mawTinii that is different. (And it most certainly does not mean that Elissa is unable to enunciate ‘deep’ sounds altogether, as some commentators have claimed. The rest of the song features a couple of quite impeccable emphatic r-s, as well as /q/ in its standard form, [q], in its proper place, as opposed than the stereotypically feminine glottal stop.)

The song’s male chorus, by the way – see from about 3:10 in the video clip above – features a pretty much identical pronunciation of mawTinii. But of course, Elissa’s voice is the one fronting, and hence the more exposed.

On @anghami in less then hour #mawtini

A post shared by Elissa (@elissazkh) on

 

And that may, in fact, be the heart of the matter. A female singer attempting an Arab nationalist song will always be putting herself in the crossfire. Fully exposed, as a transmitter of the nation’s values – putting herself, metaphorically, in the position of the model Arab, the Palestinian longing for strength and independence – she needs to be nothing less than perfect. Even the most minute phonetic details become subject to scrutiny.

Double standards might be invoked here: the stereotypical position of women as ‘repositories of the nation’s virtue,’ and hence held to task for every slight or slip. But even for more sympathetic commentators (such as Hiba Jawhar) who say that “it’s not Elissa’s fault,” there was no doubt that Elissa’s pronunciation was, first, non-normative; and, second, indexical of femininity. The association with gender, though, is a higher-level one – perhaps almost incidental. Rather, the basic value conveyed by a non-emphatic pronunciation in place of an emphatic one – as with [t] for /ṭ/, or [ʔ] for /q/ – is that of ‘softness’; delicacy, in a sense, but one which also stands for degradation of linguistic rules, for people too meek or feeble to enunciate the more forceful sounds of Arabic.

Since Elissa is, in fact, female, all this comes round again, compounded. When a widely valued nationalist song that suffers linguistic degradation, it’s not too big a step to imagine the downfall of the nation as well. And if Arab women can’t even pronounce “Mawtini” correctly anymore, where is our homeland headed?

Where, indeed. For her most hardened critics, even an emphasis-perfect rendition by Elissa might not have been enough. As it was, though, it was phonetics that provided the ideal point of departure for critiquing her supposed transgressions – and the wave of responses it inspired proves just how deeply, and how scrupulously, Jordanians care about their homeland’s language in this day and age.

Gender and Emphatic Colouring in the Arab Homeland