An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

The recent rounds of violence in the West Bank in the past few weeks – sparked by assaults on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by radical Israeli groups in mid-September, and now ongoing with regular deadly crackdowns on Palestinian protesters by the IDF as well as isolated assaults targeting Israelis – has, of course, hardly gone unnoticed on the far side of the Jordan river. Jordan has a large population of ethnic Palestinians, but perhaps more important for regime-friendly media in the Kingdom is the fact that the Jordanian state still claims formal custodianship and administrative control over the Haram al-Sharif (which houses both al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock). When events in the occupied Palestinian territories are mentioned, it’s often difficult to judge whether what is involved is actual compassion for the Palestinian cause – or interest in the Jordanian public’s opinion regarding it – or merely a rhetorical strategy pursued to shore up the Jordanian regime’s legitimacy.

On 11 October, Hala Akhbar – “Hala News,” a recently established ‘news’ offshoot of Radio Hala – published a recording of an interview the star broadcaster Muhammad al-Wakeel had made with Ziyad Abu Hlayyil, a Palestinian man who had challenged Israeli soldiers on the margins of a demonstration in Hebron. Video footage of the event – see the al-Jazeera-sourced clip below – was subsequently shared widely on social media as an example of anti-occupation heroism (in what some observers have already dubbed a new intifada). In the clip, Abu Hlayyil yells and pushes at the soldiers, telling them to not shoot at “the kids,” refusing their orders to move away and giving generally irreverent responses – including “you can’t arrest me” and the (racist) “go back to Ethiopia” (reference to  Beta Israel members of the IDF). He loses his balance and falls to the ground at the end of the clip – though apparently not suffering significant injuries, as he confirms in subsequent interviews.

This act was, ostensibly, why al-Wakeel had invited Abu Hlayyil to speak with him in the first place. But from the very beginning of the interview, it was clear that the story would be subjected to a somewhat different framing than that of a heroic Palestinian man single-handedly resisting occupation forces. This was still the basis of Abu Hlayyil’s “message” – the pitch, if you will, through which his tale was presented as one worthy of attention. But to appear on a show such as al-Wakeel’s, on a radio station run by the Jordanian army, this tale had to be subsumed under a different narrative: one where heroism, sovereignty, and ultimately agency are assigned not to Palestinians, but to their Jordanian “protectors,” embodied in the twin public personas of the Army and the King.

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There are two talk-based techniques in the interview that make this very clear – one more rhetorical, the other reflected in quite minute details of language. First, thanks and praise for the king of Jordan and the Hashemite leadership are constantly on Abu Hlayyil’s lips.  Looking closely just at the beginning of the interview: Abu Hlayyil’s first turn, after al-Wakeel greets him, involves extensive praise for Jordan, its security agencies, and in particular King Abdullah II, as if he were the ultimate agent of anti-Zionist activity in the region:

[0:48-1:57]

ZAH: Good morning to beloved Jordan
Good morning to the Jordanian Hashemite government, and with honour also His Majesty the King Abdullah II, son of Husayn, Guardian of Jerusalem and the noble al-Aqsa [Mosque]
Good morning to the Jordanian tribes, good morning to the “ever-vigilant eyes” of safety and security from the sister[-state] Jordan
And I would like to speak with you, ((sir))

MaW: ((Yes))

ZAH: Also with all respect to my Majesty, Abdullah, His Majesty the King Abdullah II, father of Husayn
Who has risen up in glory and threatened the Zionist forces with – with – with cutting off relations if they continued to desecrate the sanctuary of Jerusalem
Also we should not forget last year, when Netanyahu’s gangs began to prevent all worshipers from entering Jerusalem, and my Majesty ordered that all roads be opened for entry, and especially in the blessed month of Ramadan

MaW: Yes

Similar praise for Jordan and its government recurs several times – e.g. at 2:16, 5:02, 9:06, 14:46 in the Facebook video above – so extensively that it nearly equals Abu Hlayyil’s account of his own experience (the ostensible topic of the interview). Throughout this, it is never clear what exactly Abu Hlayyil is thanking King Abdullah II for. He resorts mainly to vague, formal terms of reference – such as “loyalty of the free [Palestinians?] to the Hashemites,” “heroism,” “protection,” “positioning,” and so on – which defer, or at least put at a slight distance, criticisms one might have of Jordan’s acts in the drama of the occupation. This is, in turn, a crude but effective way of asserting the legitimacy of the Jordanian monarchy: stating its formal role as the protector of Palestine and the Muslim holy sanctuary in Jerusalem, without ever delving into the messy details of what actually substantively fulfilling such a role might imply – but still upholding, in talk, the Jordanian regime’s impeccable political position, its deep dedication to the Palestinian cause.

The second, less evident technique is that of linguistic accommodation. The argument is on slightly shakier grounds here, given that a lot of the particular elements of colloquial Arabic which Abu Hlayyil uses and which are widely stereotypical of (male) Jordanian speech – in particular, using [g] for the Standard Arabic equivalent (q) – are also traditionally present in southern Palestinian dialects, and indeed around Hebron where Abu Hlayyil comes from. There are still some points, though, where I would argue Abu Hlayyil’s deference to a Jordanian style of speech shines through – in particular, the handful of instances where he uses the distinctly ‘Jordanian’ second person plural pronoun form -ku instead of the more standard -kum. This is essentially an echoing of al-Wakeel’s usage – which, in turn, invokes a markedly ‘Jordanian’ speech style. A linguistic concession, then, to the host’s speech, which mirrors the more explicit discursive concession of authority to the Jordanian regime – for which al-Wakeel, let us not forget, also stands in as a communicative proxy, as the primary voice of the radio station of the Armed Forces.

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For Radio Hala, at least, stories of Palestinian heroes are never just that. The ultimate hero, the ultimate agent, is always Jordanian: the authority of the state, the king, the army, as vocalised by the host, deferred to symbolically and linguistically even when voices from the West Bank are actually given their own space to speak. Interventions such as the Abu Hlayyil interview are, ultimately, less participations of Palestinian voices than they are re-affirmations of a particularly Jordanian state authority – to all, actual and imagined, domestic and foreign, audiences of Jordanian radio.

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An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

There are very few people looking at language on radio in Arabic-speaking contexts, so in attempting to find scholarly parallels I’ve necessarily had to look further afield. Linguistic anthropology, especially, provides a lot of comparative fodder, and one intriguing piece of work in this tradition I’ve come across recently is this article by Paul Garrett, on the use of the local creole language Kwéyòl (or “Antillean Creole French”) on radio in St. Lucia.

In brief, Garrett argues that the use of Kwéyòl as opposed to the official language of St. Lucia, English, provides for a more accessible, colloquial style, as well as being suggestive of a particularly St. Lucian identity. He links the on-air use of conversational Kwéyòl, further, to what he calls strategies of “reappropriation” of language: a basically traditionalist nationalist orientation in which “local” forms of culture, communication, etc. are celebrated. This is contrasted to strategies of “instrumentalisation,” in which Kwéyòl is performed – for instance, in news bulletins – in a way reminiscent of (formal) English.

The goal of instrumentalisation is national uplift via linguistic ‘development,’ in which the intelligentsia takes on the role of educators by providing a full spectrum of communicative roles for the vernacular – including formal contexts such as news broadcasts. By contrast, reappropriation – and the use of Kwéyòl in ‘conversational’ radio talk shows falls into this category – is in part a reaction to such formal uplifting of language. Rather than formalise Kwéyòl, it seeks to preserve an impression of the ‘original,’ everyday, face-to-face contexts in which it would be used, such as discussions at home or in “rumshops.”

Guadeloupe creole 2010-03-30

“Slow down, children at play.” A sign in Guadeloupean Creole, a Caribbean creole variety related to St. Lucian Kwéyòl. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The concern here is that Kwéyòl, if formalised, would become too alienated from everyday life – too like the official, colonial language (for St. Lucia, English; note that the parent language for Kwéyòl is French), and hence too associated with social contexts in which inauthenticity, mistrust, and dissimulation prevail. As Garrett explains it (p. 150; emphasis mine):

[This] reflect[s] an ideologically-based sentiment that is prevalent and widely noted in creolophone Caribbean societies and has strong affinities to reappropriation approaches: the notion that the creole language is intrinsically more honest, direct, and straightforward than the official-standard language... The creole is thought of as being qualitatively and essentially different from the official-standard language in that it does not dissemble, does not obscure the speaker’s meanings and intentions. The creole, and by extension, he or she who speaks it, simply “tells it like it is.” In contrast, anyone speaking the official-standard language – particularly a speaker who could be using the creole but has chosen not to do so – is never entirely to be trusted. His or her words instantiate and uphold the persistent hierarchies, based in no small part on sociolinguistic stratification and “gatekeeping,” that pervade creole societies. Such a speaker’s words always have the potential to carry hidden meanings, to conceal hidden motives, and ultimately to disrupt (or at least taint) local solidarities…

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Reading all this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Ferguson’s classic article on diglossia. Ferguson’s reflections on the Arabic language situation – that is, a system where a language is believed to be divided into two related yet distinct codes, ‘High’ and ‘Low,’ or ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ appropriate to particular communicative contexts – put it in parallel with a number of other comparative cases – including Haiti, where Haitian Creole is spoken (according to Ferguson) as a vernacular code alongside standard French. Haitians, or at least those who can in fact speak and write French, are thus diglossic.

In St. Lucia, the situation is probably more accurately described as bilingual, rather than diglossic, since the French basis of Kwéyòl doesn’t exactly make it possible to (ideologically) argue that Kwéyòl and the ‘High’ official code (in St. Lucia, English) are varieties of the same language. But even in Haiti, the diglossia claim has been contested – primarily because such a high proportion of the population is effectively monolingual in Creole. Whatever the case may be, the attitudes Garrett describes towards the ‘High’ code seem to be broadly shared. In order to speak in a ‘true,’ ‘genuine’ manner to one’s co-locals, one should speak the creole language; the ‘High’ idiom is always potentially tainted as a compromised code of hierarchy and collaboration. Hence why, in St. Lucian radio broadcasting, Kwéyòl is the natural choice for the kind of simulation of spontaneous everyday conversation that talk radio programmes aim for.

Creoles are, in the Caribbean, also national vernaculars; markers of a distinct national identity – Haitian, St. Lucian, Guadeloupean – that further enhance their meanings of solidarity. Contrast this with the Arabic-speaking context, where calls for using the ‘Low’ form in mediatised settings have traditionally been associated with precisely the opposite sort of ideals: collaboration, colonialist conspiracies, the undermining of shared ageless Arab values, and so on. But reading somebody like Niloofar Haeri, with her descriptions of the alienation her Egyptian informants felt towards Standard Arabic, the parallels between the Arabic-speaking and Caribbean creole-speaking contexts become quite striking. There are certain hierarchies – social, educational, regional, political, religious – that use of Standard Arabic inevitably implies, and which makes it highly inappropriate for use in the informality-simulating context of talk radio broadcasts.

“The romance of first winter rain.” Transcription of song lyrics (actual or imaginary / satirical) is one limited, though ubiquitously necessary, context of use of colloquial Arabic in writing, as the above caricature demonstrates. Image via Roya TV’s Twitter account

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The situation is of course a lot more complex than that. The comparison effectively falls apart when we begin to consider the cultural, social, and historical background in more detail. Standard Arabic is not the native language of any social group – unlike colonial languages in creole-speaking societies, which can be traced to very particular social groups, ones whose historical roles have typically been violent and repressive. There are also the religious connotations of formal Arabic as the originary language of Islam, which introduces a whole new set of values into the equation.

Finally, we must beware of – and this is a point I always like to stress – black-boxing the contrasting codes of diglossic language situations into neat frames of ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ without actually examining what these labels mean. There is variability at both poles – but especially so the ‘Colloquial,’ given the existence of various dialectal varieties and linguistic forms with different levels of prestige, and different kinds of links with social identities and norms of use. Classifying a stretch of talk, or even a word or sound, as ‘Colloquial’ doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that it’s ‘not Standard’ – whereas its actual cultural associations could run from ‘prestigious urban,’ to ‘stigmatised rural,’ to ‘prestigious Bedouin,’ to ‘stigmatised Bedouin,’ to ‘devalued refugee,’ to ‘feminine,’ to ‘masculine,’ to ‘female performing forcefulness via use of a masculine-associated token,’ to ‘female performing socio-geographic origin via use of a regionally marked token which just so happens to also have masculinity associations in this particular context’… and so on. If all we can say about a bit of talk is “this is in [Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian, whatever] Colloquial,” all such nuances are lost.

Garrett, writing on Kwéyòl, seems much more aware of such issues than most writers on Arabic media I’ve encountered. (There are exceptions: see e.g. Atiqa Hachimi’s work on Maghrebi dialect feature stigmatisation on pan-Arab reality TV programmes, or Alexander Magidow’s highly intriguing presentation on dialect mocking in a Jordanian comedy series.) He actually directly engages with local debates on what Kwéyòl – the ‘Colloquial’ pole – should be: a language transplantable into formal contexts, or an exclusively conversational code. And not taking for granted what a particular linguistic variety is also allows for us to look in much greater nuance at the social and cultural meanings that might lurk in the folds of its variation. This, in particular, is an issue that studies of language in Arabic-speaking media all too often seem to forget.

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic