Voting in Jordan, 2017 Edition

Last week saw local elections being held in Jordan. The last such happened in 2013, but the 15 August 2017 edition differed by allowing Jordanians to vote, for the first time, for governorate councils (governorates, muḥāfaāt, are Jordan’s mid-level local administrative units) in addition to municipal councils and mayors. Turnout was relatively low at 31.7%, and though the votes were as usual rather scattered, an Islamist coalition, the National Alliance for Reform – led by the Islamic Action Front (IAF) party and linked to the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood – won a respectable number of seats. (Recently the Islamists have returned to the electoral scene in Jordan, after boycotting all elections for a decade in protest at the skewed electoral system.)

It’s debatable to what extent any elections are really a genuine reflection of democratic governance, given the constant tinkering with electoral laws and gerrymandering that maximise the power of areas considered to be loyal to the Jordanian monarchy. (Not that other countries, including the UK, are immune to such criticisms…) Further, while the IAF and the Brotherhood are often portrayed as oppositional forces, they have a long history of cooperation and involvement in regime and state projects. They are a visible element in public discourse, and despite the authorities making moves against them at certain points – such as, in 2014, arresting the senior Brotherhood leader Zaki Bani Rsheid over a Facebook post criticising Emirati foreign policy – they are not directly vilified. The Brotherhood’s societal vision also accords quite nicely with the official portrayal of Jordan as a “Muslim, conservative” country – in contrast with other, especially leftist, parties. Still, it’s interesting to see how local Jordanian media responded to the most recent election round: the different framings, symbolic and linguistic, that produced them as a media event, an exceptional occasion in the otherwise regular daily flow of posting, broadcasting and programming.

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The independent media outlet AmmanNet, linked to the community radio station Radio al-Balad and heavily committed to media professionalism, limited itself to factual reporting of the events, with news stories on Jordan’s electoral commission (IEC) announcing the results as well as other aspects of the vote such as the proportion of elected female candidates (quite low at 10%) and the number and type of election violations. The most interesting is probably their round-up of opinions of columnists from Jordan’s three biggest dailies – al-Ghad, al-Dustour, and al-Rai – regarding the elections. These all betray a rather patronising tone, bemoaning the low turnout and presenting it as proof that Jordanian citizens don’t really recognise the importance of elections. Jordanians don’t know what local governance means; they should be educated; and so forth. It’s a very elitist viewpoint, and one rather typical of these outlets.

AmmanNet’s writers didn’t add their own opinion to the choir – though an impression of their position on the elections can perhaps be gleaned from the rather surreal video they published on YouTube documenting the “atmosphere of the municipal and local government elections” on 15 August. Driving through the streets of Amman and its environs, there are candidate posters everywhere; but otherwise, it looks like a perfectly ordinary summer day. Light road traffic and no crowds on the streets. And maybe that’s all the commentary that’s needed.

A much more serious take on the elections was provided by Hayat FM, the Islamic radio station linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The programme “Studio Analysis with Iris Jarrar” on 16 August featured some considerably more critical commentary of the election process. (Note, in the video below, the rather bizarre collage aesthetics of the broadcast: the host, Jarrar, postures and gestures like a television host – but other visual cues give her an unequivocal radio frame, including the headphones, studio layout, and the list of different FM frequencies on which Hayat FM can be listened to. Some intriguing material there for a future blog post…) At the very beginning of the programme, Jarrar straight out declares that, in the elections, “the state has won” (iḏan fāzat ad-dawla). “And the street has lost” (wa-fašil aš-šāri‘) – the “street,” in this case, being a euphemism for ordinary citizenry and non-elites.

The two guests Jarrar phones up to comment, the mayor of Zarqa (from the National Alliance) and the general secretary of the Democratic Popular Unity Party, both agree with her assessment. The elections don’t mean much; they’re merely surface “form” (šakl), with no true substance. The “Islamists” (islāmiyīn) may have gained a plurality of votes this round, but this is ultimately of little import, as the extant legal and political system still prevents proper democratic procedures from taking place. Reform, if this is reform, still has a long way to go.

What’s especially interesting is how Hayat’s guests frame the opinion and position of Jordanian voters – the “street” – in contrast to the elite newspaper columnists. This is still a formal, ‘serious’ analysis of the situation: the contributors speak in formal Standard Arabic, with only a few (and quite unremarkable) colloquial admixtures, and use formal terms and structures that belong to the same ‘elite’ idiom as that of the writers of al-Ghad and al-Dustour. But the substance is quite different. Where the columnists are patronising, dismissive of the people’s ignorance, Hayat’s opinion-makers give “the street” much more credit. To be fair, they still refer to it as the street – the implied stance remains condescending, framing it as folksy, non-official, non-serious. On the other hand, it is actively given agency in the electoral process. Turnout was low not because people don’t realise the wisdom of their leaders granting them local governance, but because they know, from past electoral experience, that participation isn’t really meaningful. They have lost their “trust” (ṯiqa) in democracy. They know very well what is going on. And the state is, ultimately, the true victor.

In the non-government radio field, Hayat is rather an outlier. For a sharp contrast, consider the election coverage of the army-run radio station, Radio Hala. Their stance is captured nicely by this Facebook video, drawn from their live coverage of the events. Most of the discussion is on technicalities of electoral procedures, and how democratic and electoral procedures have “developed” (taṭṭawarat) in the most recent elections. The language is rather more colloquial than in Hayat’s coverage – closer to the high-level “radio colloquial” of Jordanian non-government stations – and there is less effort to capture the broadcast aesthetics of television: the camera is more ‘overlooking’ the dialogue than being the focus of the two broadcasters’ performance. But the clip is still strewn with nationalist and patriotic symbolic cues, from the giant Jordanian flag in the background (though this is admittedly always flying in the Hala live studio), to the two broadcasters’ polo shirts in the colours of the Jordanian flag, to the bagpipe-heavy soundtrack.

Subsequent reports on Radio Hala’s sister news website, Hala News, basically regurgitated the government and the monarchy’s official line: the elections were a great success for democracy, an important step towards reform, and so on. There was little to no analysis of issues with the election or its aftermath – including, perhaps bizarrely, any in-depth discussion of who had actually won. Which is, of course, quite different from international media that reported on the event. For the likes of Reuters and the New Arab, the ‘Islamist victory’ proved to be the easiest tack – even a necessary one, in the absence of the kind of intricate factional politics that English-language news are used to dealing in.

But perhaps local media realised that the results weren’t what actually mattered as far as these elections were concerned. This is best exemplified by the live studio programme ran by Jordan’s national television (JTV) the day after the elections. Although, again, couched in colloquial language, with shiny digital studio visuals, this merely repeated how great an achievement for Jordanian democracy these elections were. Discussion of results was limited to the demographic and personal qualities of the candidates: it was seen as a good sign that many were “young” (šabāb), or women, or fresh faces new to the sphere of politics… and as for the others, they were of course older and more experienced and well-trusted by their constituents. So all was good. Much shoulder-patting all around.

The JTV also featured live announcements of election results. And these, I think, are what most clearly succinctly the nature and relevance of elections in Jordan. In each case, a middle-aged man from the local electoral commission stepped up to the camera with a piece of paper, and began to read out the results: the name of each elected candidate, and the number of votes they had won. “Jamal Sanad Subh Abu Darwish Bani Hussein Abu Ashar, 3176 votes. Majed Fawaz Oud al-Sharari, 3029 votes.” A fully personalised form of presentation, and completely opaque to any outsider. Who are these people? What platforms do they run on? Do they belong to specific lists or parties? Nobody says; nobody seems to care; it doesn’t matter. It’s much more important that a set number of people have voted, that the elections have really taken place. And all that remains – as many of the vote-readers do – is to give congratulations to the voters and the winners… but, even more so, to the king, for making all of it happen, and being the ultimate leader of all of Jordan. No illusions as to who holds the real power here.

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Regarding the political aspects of elections in Jordan, there isn’t much more to be said than what’s covered in this (almost year-old) post by Naseem Tarawneh, published on the occasion of last year’s parliamentary elections. Apathy is, really, the prevailing response. But looking at local media coverage, and especially the language and symbols of this coverage, is also important for giving texture and context to such events. These are public statements, public debates, with time and resources invested into them. And the priorities and biases that they betray are quite telling – both in terms of the structures that are in place, and the long road ahead for anyone wishing to challenge them.

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Voting in Jordan, 2017 Edition

PhD Findings (3): Being Local

(This is the final in a series of three posts on findings from my doctoral thesis, with the title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” A general introduction to the posts can be found here. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.)

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There’s often a tension in academic analyses of the Middle East between viewing it as a region – that is, trying to generalise processes that happen in one place to other contexts by virtue of their social, cultural, and historical similarities – and a more localist viewpoint, in which whatever is happening is described as unique and specific to its context (most often, that of a given nation-state). From one perspective, Arabic-speaking societies have enough in common for conclusions applying to one of them to apply to others as well; from another, more contextual nuance is required, and each society or state viewed as a unique product of its historical and political circumstances. Either the Arab Spring is the Arab Spring, and has and will lead to changes everywhere… Or it’s just a specific, local phenomenon, the 2010-11 Karamah Revolution a product of Tunisia’s particular social and economic hardships, or the same for the January 25 Revolution in Egypt. Similar dynamics, some similar sentiments, but ultimately very different beasts.

Both approaches can be useful in different situations, when looking at different sorts of data or to put forward particular types of arguments. But what I find more intriguing is the symbolic power of these perspectives. While grand ideologies such as Pan-Arabism may no longer be very prominent since the eclipse of Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab nationalist projects in the 1960s, there’s no denying a sense of implicit commonality between Middle Eastern and North African societies – if not through identity, through language; if not through language, through shared history, geo-politics, socio-cultural norms. But always, against this, there are also localist tendencies. Each country, each region, each ethno-religious group can also be viewed on its own terms. Jordanians are not the same as Palestinians, or Lebanese, or certainly not Egyptians. They have their own history, their own traditions, their own characteristic identity. Their interests and needs are different from those of their neighbours. They have their own desires and aspirations.

In Jordan, localism is a highly politicised issue. This is not, of course, something unique among Arab countries; but Jordan’s particular historical and political situation – as a ‘new’ nation-state entity developed after the fall of the Ottoman empire, as well as its status as a strategic buffer on the borders of Palestine and Israel – means that this aspect has been studied extremely well. The loyalty of “East Bankers” – that is, inhabitants of Jordan whose ethnic origins can be traced to the eastern bank of the Jordan River, as opposed to (especially) the Palestinian West Bank – is believed to be a crucial element in Jordan’s success and stability as a state. The Hashemite monarchy and its associated institutions dispense favours – jobs, subsidies, contracts and so forth – which in turn guarantee the support of Jordanian citizens, including prominent families with Bedouin lineages and those belonging to minorities who had historically supported Hashemite royal rule in Jordan, such as the Circassians. Clientelism and royal patronage are at the heart of this state system – what Tariq Tell names the “Hashemite compact“: a form of rule that is both spatially localised and ideologically localist in that it seeks to sustain itself through relationships with the ‘traditional’ inhabitants of one particular area only.

In his book Colonial Effects, Joseph Massad has demonstrated at length how this form of rule implicitly excludes anyone who isn’t an “East Banker” – predominantly, the considerable numbers of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. Andrew Shryock’s work is in a very similar vein, though he focuses more on mechanisms of inclusion rather than exclusion: the process of documenting the oral histories and genealogies of Bedouin lineages as a form of Jordanian nationalism, or the legacy of King Hussein (1935-1999) with his cultivation of “conflicting constituencies” all closely connected on the royal persona.

But there’s an important cultural dimension to these processes as well. Exclusionary localism doesn’t just crop up in the political sphere; it pervades, in different ways, much of Jordanian cultural production, from royal iconography and public monuments (see e.g. this article by Elena Corbett) to entertainment such as music and films – beginning with the first Jordanian-produced film, Struggle in Jerash (1957), which according to George Potter is an excellent example of an attempt to assert a distinctly Jordanian nationalist narrative. (Potter views it as a direct response to the tumultuous situation in Jordan in the 1950s, when pan-Arab nationalist movements and parties were in ascendancy and the Hashemite monarchy in heavy crisis.) It is a kind of “soft power” – though not necessarily consciously initiated for political ends; still, it builds on the same kind of narratives, and serves the same kind of ends, as localism in politics.

Poster for صراع في جرش / Struggle in Jerash (1957), the “first Jordanian film.” Image via 7iber; the entire film is also available on YouTube here.

Very similar ideas pervade Jordanian non-government radio today. Nationalism is everywhere: there are entire stations, such as Nashama FM, dedicated to playing what is known as “national” or “patriotic” music, and others such as Radio Hala draw heavily on Jordanian nationalist symbols and icons, with the flag of Jordan at a prominent place in the studio and a distinct green-red-black-white colour scheme. Stations run jingles in which they define themselves as urduniyye “Jordanian” and hāšimiyye “Hashemite” – making no secret of where their loyalties lie. Projects such as the “Our Voice Is One” memorial programme, run in honour of the fighter pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh captured and executed by the IS / Daesh in Syria, also have explicit nationalist and patriotic goals: bringing the nation together, representing the emotions shared by “all Jordanians,” and so forth.

 

Video from the Radio Hala studio webcam, reporting on the Jordanian local elections on 15 August 2017. It presents a very carefully crafted nationalist environment: note the colour scheme (including the two presenters’ polo shirts!), Jordanian flag in the background, etc. The bagpipe-heavy music playing in the background is also indicative of localist tendencies in Jordanian radio. (Video accessible here, via the Radio Hala Facebook page.)

Choice of language also plays a part in producing local authenticity. Most live programming on non-government radio stations in Jordan uses colloquial Arabic – though of a very specific kind: a colloquial that can be identified as Jordanian, or more properly Ammani, once gender differences are taken into account. This of course makes perfect sense if we assume the station wants to cultivate a local audience, for whom a local Jordanian dialect will be a familiar and comfortable way of communicating. But because dialect is linked to locality, it again implies boundaries, dfferentiation, ideologies of inclusion and exclusion. Who can lay claim to a “Jordanian” type of speech? Is it only those who speak this way, right now? Those who were brought up with a Jordanian dialect? Or those for whom this kind of language is part of their heritage, and can trace their ancestry to the East Bank several generations back?

There is, though, an important contrast between promoting and exaggerating “local” dialect for ideological purposes, and genuine attempts to find an idiom appropriate for the informal live radio setting. The latter is, I think, the case with Radio al-Balad, the Amman-based community radio station which forms a rare stronghold of media and journalistic professionalism in Jordan. Its presenters speak in a form of colloquial Arabic that is identifiably Jordanian, presumably close to their personal conversational idiolect, yet aimed squarely at engaging with listeners in a communicative manner and not shying away from specialist or formal language when this is necessary. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the language of – for example – the “patriotic songs” (aġānī waṭaniyya) music genre, where nationalist localism is heavily exaggerated in the lyrics – both in the themes (praising Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy, the Jordanian army and so on) and the actual form of the language, from the heavily strained ‘ayns to the ‘authentic’ g‘s and ‘s characteristic of East Bank and Bedouin dialects of Arabic. So there’s a rather tricky linguistic balance to maintain between “being local” for inclusive, community-oriented purposes, and promoting an exclusionary localist agenda.

Ṭārat ṭayyāra min fōg az-Zarga (“A Plane Flew Above Zarqa“), performed by Omar Abdallat. A prime example of the aġānī waṭaniyya genre. Note also the heavily militarised aesthetic of the video, another hallmark of contemporary Jordanian ethnic nationalism.

But it’s not just localist and nationalist ideas that are susceptible to this kind of boundary maintenance. One example is how Jordanian non-government radio approaches religion – specifically, Islam. Most stations assume their audience to be, predominantly, made up of Sunni Muslims; occasionally devout Muslims, as with most Islamic programmes and radio stations, but always an audience that is interested in Muslim religious and cultural affairs and holds Islamic values dear.

This is why, for example, Radio Hala broadcast the experiences of its famous host Muhammad al-Wakeel when he made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 2015. Or why, during cold weather fronts in winter (munḳafaḍāt), snowstorms and flooding are framed as acts of God and wholly dependent on his will (conveniently avoiding the question how such events are made worse in large part by the sorry state of Jordan’s infrastructure). You should, apparently, share Muslim values and convictions to be properly included in the audience – to be a part of the Jordanian public for whom radio programmes are produced, and for whom non-government stations broadcasts. Such statements naturalise a Muslim identity in both religious and cultural terms, drawing upon common beliefs and metaphors that set up a clear boundary around those they seek to include. It forms a very powerful idea of a social group, conceptualised and unified through acts of language. And it is not very accepting of non-Muslims, or atheists, or those who might not share normative Islamic values and convictions.

A photo-graphic collage announcing Radio Hala’s “comprehensive coverage” of the Hajj, the Muslim “greater pilgrimage” to Mecca. Via Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page. One among many examples of assuming a fundamentally Muslim audience, or at least one interested in Muslim religio-cultural matters, on part of Jordanian non-government radio stations.

Another example are morning service programmes. This type of radio programme is built around the concept of real people calling into the radio stations, with concrete problems that they face in their everyday lives and hope the host might be able to solve – broken water pipes, electricity cuts, rubbish collections, job applications, and many others. The idea of authenticity takes on a whole new dimension here: it is now a valuable resource, a sort of cultural capital which broadcasters can use to compete with each other and assert their legitimacy. They are linking up with real people, solving real problems, providing real services. They are not just a bunch of ideologues spouting rhetorical nonsense. They have an authentic basis for their popularity. They take care of people, sometimes better than the Jordanian state itself.

The flip side of this is that service programmes can be seen as basically exploiting people’s problems and suffering for entertainment purposes. This is hardly a new phenomenon; ‘reality’ talk shows, especially those on U.S. television, have been at it for decades. No matter how staged the actual encounters on such shows might be, the logic is still fundamentally the same. But on Jordanian radio, I think it’s interesting to think about this exploitation of authenticity in parallel with other localist and particularist ideas that pervade the media sector. These are real people whose authenticity is exploited to promote the persona of the host; but they are also Jordanians. Service programme hosts don’t just serve ‘people,’ in some abstract, undefined manner. They address, and serve, the nation. Their rhetorical excursions into discussing the problems of Palestinians, or Egyptian migrant workers, or Syrian refugees, are just that: excursions. The bulk of the problems they face is still home-grown. They might criticise the state, but they still operate within its basic logic – with its accompanying ideas of militant ethnic nationalism, clientelism, and royal patronage.

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Making media content stand out is a considerable challenge. Linking it to people’s lives, to their authentic lived experiences, is one viable strategy for carving a space in a very saturated media market. Katharina Nötzold and Judith Pies call this the “going local” tendency, which they see as an explicit policy on part of national media outlets in the Arab world – Lebanese and Jordanian TV stations, for example – in competition with international and satellite television channels.

But “going local” is not just an economic strategy, or a desperate attempt to captivate attention-fatigued audiences. On the thematic level, it intersects with very relevant ideas about nations, power, and politics in the contemporary Arab world. Is each state, each national media field a context for itself? Or can they be analysed together and compared? Or is it, ultimately, more important to look at how ideas about particularism, localism, exclusivity of each particular context impact how these media operate? There is scope for  intriguing discussions here, especially regarding the mutually enabling relationship of media on the one hand and state and economic power on the other. These have often been analysed in material terms – i.e., where the money comes from – or on the level of information flows (outlet X exists because of Y, therefore it will only say what is agreeable to Y), but more rarely looking at less obvious linguistic and discursive devices.

And these devices are important. They are, as I’ve shown in this post and in my PhD, very effective at making boundaries: delimiting groups, defining insiders and outsiders. They can be very powerful in making people feel welcome – or not. Local media work for local citizens, provide services for the community and so forth; but in doing so they simultaneously transmit ideas of what it means to be local, to be true, authentic, genuinely deserving of their attention. Choice of words and language plays a big role in this – in including people, enabling participation, making interactions count. The form, the quality of communication matters, as much if not more as the content.

The discursive terrain that media producers, radio or otherwise, have to navigate is complex and difficult. Language needs to be approached with care, with good awareness about precisely what kinds of effects it might have. This is what inspires me to do my research and continue with it: the hope that it can provide new insights, and help people with their own linguistic and discursive projects. And debate, of course, the vagaries of the world today, and how to act – with deeds and words – to change it for the better.

PhD Findings (3): Being Local

PhD Findings (2): Media Matters

(This is the second in a series of three posts on findings from my doctoral thesis, with the title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” A general introduction to the posts can be found here. Part 1 is here; Part 3 is here.)

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During the first few years of this decade, the heyday of the so-called “Arab Spring,” there were more than a few journalists and scholars caught predicting that great transformations were afoot in Middle Eastern societies – not least because of the communication revolutions brought about by new media. Internet, smartphones, Facebook were all hailed as harbingers of a new social order. Regimes would be toppled, the people would finally find their voice, and so forth. Some years on, and these revolutionary consequences have pretty much failed to materialise in their predicted capacity. Authoritarian political culture has returned in force in countries such as Turkey and Egypt; in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, media have become a battleground for a spectrum of factions seeking rhetorical advantage rather than an outlet for free expression.

This is not to say that changes haven’t happened, or that new media aren’t important. It’s just that the ‘great divide’ approach to new media – we have smartphones now, so everything is will be different – isn’t the most accurate. As I’ve argued a couple of years ago on the Discover Society blog, we should rather be more attentive to what specifically each medium enables: what types of arguments, what kinds of rhetoric, what kind of language, which particular channels of meaning-making. Sometimes, these resources can be used effectively for resistance and social change; sometimes (likely more often), they are not. But without knowing in detail what they actually allow for, we also can’t provide a useful account of their potential.

I study radio. Radio is a very special medium: it is, fundamentally, sonic, as it utilises sound as the primary medium of transmission. As a listener, one might have visual or palpable engagement with your radio receiver, for example, but the essence of the transmission – that is, what is actually transmitted to you as well as all others attending to a particular station’s broadcast at any given moment – is sound. Sound is the funnel: you do not see the broadcasters talking, you do not see the people calling in, so what you hear provides the raw material needed to understand what the broadcast is actually trying to convey.

At least, that’s the theory. Media consumption never takes place in a vacuum, and our interpretations will always be shaped by external factors – cultural beliefs and stereotypes, the context of viewing or listening, subsequent discussions with other people. Still, there is a prevalent sense or belief – what can be termed an ideology, following Ilana Gershon’s concept of “media ideologies” – that radio is primarily sound-based. This is a crucial part of what has defined radio as a distinct medium ever since its inception in the 1920s, and its subsequent presence in daily life – in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

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Photo taken in the studio of the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS), Jerusalem, 1947. The PBS, established in the 1930s during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, was one of the first radio stations to broadcast in Arabic, as explored in detail by Andrea Stanton (see this article for a useful summary). Image via Wikimedia Commons (unknown author).

The ideal of radio as a sound-exclusive medium is noticeable in Jordan as well. Non-government radio stations, which I focus on in my research, are highly invested in maintaining a relaxed, spontaneous, authentic environment during their programmes. Since sound is their main means for doing so, they resort to spoken language to present an effect of spontaneity and authenticity: they use colloquial Arabic, of the type used in day-to-day life in contemporary Amman, to impress upon listeners that their programming is meant for ‘ordinary’ Jordanians, attentive to their problems and accepting of their voices. (The extent to which they actually enable listener participation is another matter; but at least it’s a motivating factor behind the choice of idiom.) Similarly, when nationalism or patriotism needs to be conveyed – as in morning programmes, when the Jordanian nation is metaphorically brought into being – this is done through sound: language sometimes, for instance emphasising the particular sounds (such as [g] for ق / qāf) that are considered to be characteristically ‘Jordanian,’ but more often music – especially nationalist, patriotic tunes, with distinctly Jordanian or Bedouin dialect lyrics, praising and supporting some aspect of Jordan (the land, the people, a particular town or village, and so on), or the Hashemite monarchy.

Occasionally, the sound ideology also gets manipulated in a broader sense – as for example in Ṣawtunā wāḥid (“Our Voice Is One”), the 5 February 2015 memorial programme for the martyred pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. For this occasion, a number of radio stations broadcast a single live programme for nine hours instead of their regular programming as a gesture of national unity. They unified, in other words, the sound of their broadcasts, their otherwise disparate voices. Whichever of the 10 or so participating stations you tuned into on the day, you would hear exactly the same live broadcast. Sonic unity thus stood for actual unity – but it could only do so because sound was considered the main channel of transmission for radio stations.

Report on the Ṣawtunā wāḥid memorial programme on 5 February 2015. Via Mazaj FM, on YouTube.

Digital media do transform these dynamics, to an extent. Jordanian non-government radio has a heavy Internet presence. Each radio station has its own Facebook and Twitter pages, with a constant stream of posts announcing upcoming programmes, sharing photos and videos of station personnel, or just greeting and chatting with their audiences. Webcams are also popular; these are placed in the studio – usually, there are at least two, one showing the broadcaster and another for the ‘control’ area where the producers and sound editors work – and transmit a live video feed for every programme over the radio station’s website and dedicated smartphone apps (most stations offer a free app that can be downloaded from all major phone app storefronts). Finally, hosts make good use of the textual aspect of contemporary media to engage with listeners – through classic mobile text messages, Facebook chats, or WhatsApp.

All these channels of communication clearly go beyond radio’s limitation to sound alone. Now the broadcasters can actually be seen; questions can be sent in text; announcements posted live on social media can be browsed and read by users at their own leisure, rather than going unheeded if they missed the particular moment at which the host read them out during the programme. Still, all these mechanisms are supplementary to the live radio broadcast. Sound remains at the core, the central zone of engagement for radio producers and their audiences.

Broadcasters use digital media for many different purposes, and sometimes in quite creative ways. The Radio Fann morning programme host Hani al-Badri, for example, is a very prolific WhatsApp user in communicating with listeners, allowing him to greet a much greater number of listeners within any single show than if he was just taking phone calls. Jessy Abu Faisal, the Lebanese host of the morning show on Sawt al-Ghad and the first successful female radio presenter in Jordan, was fond of using webcams for prize draws, giving out rewards to callers who could identify objects in the studio through the live webcam. Digital media here only amplify the potential already present in radio – such as its ability to connect ‘live’ to its audiences and engage with local listeners. They are an important part of the media ecology in which contemporary radio operates; they transform it, to an extent; but they do not displace it.

Hani al-Badri hosting his morning programme on Radio Fann, captured by the in-studio webcam.

Much can also be said about the impact of these media on radio language. At the most trivial level, there are the words used to describe digital media interactions, and which reflect broader trends in colloquial and formal Arabic as these media have risen in popularity in recent years: the use of English loanwords for specialised social media terms such as like or tweet, or native Arabic terms which have some colloquial traction – such as تطبيق taṭbīq “(smartphone) app,” تحميل taḥmīl “download,” نزّل nazzal(a) “to post, upload (on a social media page),” and so forth. One could perhaps quantify, as sociolinguists like to do, the proportions of kinds of words used for different social media interactions, or how different levels of engagement with digital media impact variations in pronunciation or use of different registers (Standard, Colloquial) of Arabic, and then attempt to interpret these findings in the broader context of contemporary Arabic linguistic variation.

But more than lexical or phonetic details, what is, I think, more relevant here are the effects of digital media on radio language in a broader sense, in terms of the novel communication dynamics that they enable. It’s not a revolutionary change by any means; again, what I’ve found is that it mostly amplifies radio’s existing potentials, rather than transforming it into some completely new phenomenon that will change Jordanian society in unprecedented ways. Still, it does provide interesting new possibilities for radio hosts.

When Hani al-Badri reads out his listeners’ WhatsApp messages, he’s not just engaging with large numbers of people; he’s engaging with them, addressing them directly, as individuals, usually by name. This is quite different from the classic radio dynamic of ‘speaking-to-everyone’ while giving an impression of intimate, one-to-one conversation – speaking “for-anyone-as-someone,” as the media scholar Paddy Scannell puts it. The kind of language used when communicating by means of social media messages still allows a sense of closeness and intimacy between broadcaster and audience. But this is now an intimacy of overhearing actual conversations, rather than simulating them through addressing an undifferentiated mass of listeners as if they were just one person. You may not be the person addressed, but the feeling of liveness, closeness, intimate presence, is still there, perhaps even stronger.

Or take the obsession of broadcasters with their social media followings. The most blatant example of this is Radio Hala’s Muhammad al-Wakeel, whose public Facebook page currently (as of August 2017) sports over seven million ‘likes’ and ‘follows.’ How many of these are genuine individual profiles doesn’t really matter; again, the media ideology of sites such as Facebook presupposes that each of these likes and follows stands for a singular, unique person. And so al-Wakeel is able to mention his social media following on the air whenever he needs to shore up his legitimacy – whenever he needs to claim, for example, that his voice is what truly represents the Jordanian people, or that his show is the best, most popular radio programme in Jordan, providing news and ‘services’ (such as putting people in touch with officials) to nearly the entire Jordanian population. In his day-to-day language, al-Wakeel can thus directly define and enumerate the audience his programme supposedly represents – a linguistic strategy that simply wouldn’t be possible without a deep investment in social media.

Image published to celebrate 4 million “Likes” on Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page, January 2015.

This takes me to a final point regarding the relevance of media and media context. Hosts such as al-Badri, al-Wakeel, and Abu Faisal are radio celebrities. They take up the majority of the on-air time on their respective shows. They claim, and sustain, a particular kind of authority simply through being given more space to speak in the radio setting. This matters because the things they say, and the ways in which they say them, will be heard by large numbers of people – on a regular, everyday basis, in a setting which simulates the impression of intimacy, often in direct conversations with the very people who constitute their audience. The language they use is not just a data point to be compared with a slew of others in a statistical comparison: they build rapport with audiences in different ways, construct unique personalities. They might be authoritarian heroes, or simple ordinary citizens who make light-hearted jokes with their listeners and allow them to make jokes in turn. When scrutinising their language, we can’t just claim that this is how media language in Jordan today looks like, or equate their positions with beliefs shared by all Jordanians (however much they might claim that this is in fact the case). They must be viewed with caution, in context, for the unique language users and personalities that they are. And the media which they use to communicate, whether radio or social media or something else entirely, are an important factor in this.

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What kind of medium you use to communicate matters greatly. The initial enthusiasm about the potential of new media to bring about social change in the Middle East may have been unwarranted. But challenges and transformation can happen; we just need to be more precisely aware of what any new medium is capable of achieving, and what it is not. On Jordanian radio, the Internet, webcams, and social media are used to supplement classic radio communication – often to sustain the very same arguments and dynamics already possible in classic radio, such as constructing a single Jordanian national public or seeking a live, authentic connection with a local audience. But this is not to say that these new dynamics could not be used in different ways. They won’t cause a revolution all by themselves; but perhaps they can be used as tools for one… if they are taken up.

I think it helps to think of media as an arena. It is less a ‘stage’ for putting up rehearsed performances than a space in which struggles and competitions take place, among whoever is able to enter. There are paths to victory, to making your voice heard, to change and revolution; but there are also obstacles. Rules of the game. Restrictions on equipment, match-ups which are often unfair to novices. You cannot just participate; the way the arena is shaped – media form, if you will – affects the way you need to shape your contributions, your strategies for participation. You need to talk in specific ways, with specific people, through specific channels, in order to be heard and heeded.

This might be self-evident to many of us today, moving in the highly dynamic, highly reflexive world of multiple media in which we are all producers and participants. Different social media are used for different purposes; they demand different repertoires, different ways of expression, different kinds of language. Even as prosaic a device as a hashtag (#) is used in different ways on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram. This has, slowly, come to be recognised by analysts of language and discourse as well – though perhaps less so for Arabic than for other languages (i.e., English, where most of this kind of work is being done); and, even more frustratingly, not as much for ‘old’ media (radio, film, music, television, and so forth) as for the ‘new’ offerings of the smartphone age. But it is not just new media that shape language; classic media do as well. And they continue to be relevant. The contemporary media ecology is dynamic, reactive, and complementary, an environment – a discursive arena – built of many possibilities, rather than each new medium simply steamrolling over all previous ones.

PhD Findings (2): Media Matters

PhD Findings (1): Radio and Power

(This is the first in a series of three posts on findings from my doctoral thesis, with the title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” A general introduction to the posts can be found here. Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here.)

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When one is speaking in a public setting, there are a lot of choices that need to be made. This is true for Jordanian radio, as my PhD shows, and as I will elaborate later on in this post. But it’s true, self-evident even, every time you’re talking to an audience of some kind. You might imagine you are speaking more spontaneously or informally when ranting about your latest favourite TV series to your colleagues at work than when assigning work tasks to them at a meeting, for example. That in itself is a meaningful choice: in any language, there is a great variety of resources at your disposal – particular words, sentence structures, grammar, ways of pronunciation and intonation – that sound more or less informal or formal, relaxed or stilted, spontaneous or rehearsed.

This is part of what linguistic anthropologists mean by the term indexicality. Words don’t just ‘mean what they mean’; they also have other meanings lurking behind them. They convey ideas of what the speaker is like at that particular moment. Are they cheerful and relaxed and enthusiastic? Do they project confidence about what they say? Do they stammer and stumble and don’t make much sense? (And is this just because they’re nervous? Or are they maybe doing so intentionally, for some nefarious purpose – like protesting a task they didn’t enjoy doing by giving a half-assed report on it?) All of these interpretations are based to a significant extent in the way we speak and use language.

Over time, these momentary impressions congeal into more stable ideas about personality and character. A person who can’t give coherent reports might be seen as lacking confidence, or just inept at giving reports; or (more grimly) inept at their job, period (if giving reports is the only “front” through which their colleagues see them). Or they might be seen as carefree, relaxed, stodgy, arrogant, confident, and so forth.

A poem about uptalk, a sarcastic take on an earlier poem by Taylor Mali (see it at NPR.org). The stereotypes which the original poem reproduces are deconstructed rather ruthlessly by Mark Liberman in this 2005 Language Log post.

Sometimes, ideas like this get attached not to individuals, but to social groups. In English, stereotypes about “uptalk” – or rising intonation at the end of sentences – are directed at whole generations of young people supposedly lacking the confidence to speak without making every sentence a question. In Arabic, with its immensely rich repertoire of different dialect forms, the best examples of such stereotypes are pronunciations of particular sounds. The qāf  ( ق, voiceless uvular stop [q] in IPA) is probably the most well-known of these. In Jordan, the pronunciation of this sound carries clear connotations not just regarding a person’s ethnicity and gender (Jordanian men pronounce this as g, for example; urban, female speakers might use the glottal stop [ʔ] instead), but also their personal characteristics – ‘masculine’ and ‘Jordanian’ pronunciations being associated with strength, aggression, local flavour, rural authenticity, Bedouin values and so forth, while ‘feminine’ or ‘non-Jordanian’ pronunciations stand for sophistication, urban values, but also delicacy and weakness.

Language can thus be a very powerful tool. It can promote ideas about what certain people – women, men, Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Muslims, non-Muslims – are really like. About their similarities, but also their differences. And these differences all too often translate into inequalities – that is, differences in power.

On Jordanian radio, there are countless examples of this. There is the male-female divide: there are certain stereotypical sounds that should, normally, be part of the repertoire of a woman speaking Ammani Arabic (which is the broadly accepted ‘standard’ on Jordanian non-government radio stations). But these same sounds are also ideologically compromised: they are ‘soft,’ ‘delicate,’ even ‘weak’ – compared to their ‘strong’ and ‘forceful’ equivalents in male speech, and in rural Jordanian and Bedouin dialects. Further, the very fact that women’s speech does not include some of these characteristically ‘Jordanian’ sounds makes them compromised as Jordanians. It may be true that they project an urban, sophisticated identity – but it is also an identity that falls precariously on the border of Jordanian national identity as it has been promoted by the Jordanian state and monarchy for at least the last 40 years. Women aren’t quite equal nationals; they aren’t quite equal citizens. And day-to-day radio language seems to conform to this stereotype. (This article by Salam al-Mahadin sets the issues out well, and in much greater detail.)

But it is not just words and their pronunciations that are implicated in power relationships. Take, for example, the well-known genre of “service programmes” (barāmiž ḳadamātiyya), in which listeners call in to radio stations to request some sort of mediation or intervention in their relationship with government agencies or other institutions. The most famous Jordanian service programme host, Muhammad al-Wakeel, takes full advantage of his position to present himself as a heroic figure: solving citizens’ problems, always being there when he’s needed, doing what needs to be done to make the lives of Jordanians better. The mayor may not respond; the ministry may ignore you; but al-Wakeel is always there for you. When all else fails, he’ll be the one to get that pothole fixed, or your electricity re-connected, or those pesky Syrian refugees shunted out of an overloaded local school. Because he’s just that amazing.

Again, this is about power: it is al-Wakeel who has the connections, the wit, the clout to solve these issues. And empathically not his listeners. The service programme host is the ultimate authority. If his callers complain, or claim an issue still hasn’t been resolved despite numerous phone calls, or want a bit more detail about a platitude an official has just given in response to a problem on the air… well, surely it’s they that are wrong. al-Wakeel can, and will, solve everything. Don’t believe that, and you might as well not even bother calling in.

 

Muhammad al-Wakeel, the great broadcast hero of the ‘Jordanian people.’

It is through language that these ideas are constructed and reinforced: through the service programme host’s daily addresses, his (yes, always his; there are no female service programme hosts) conversations with callers, his posts and interactions on social media. Another important aspect here is the construction of audiences. Not just who is actually listening to the radio programme at any given moment – and despite some attempts at measuring ratings, in Jordan that’s still a bit too elusive – but who should be listening, or better yet who you imagine should be listening. al-Wakeel is always at pains to point out that his programme is for solving the problems of Jordanians. It is the “Jordanian citizen” that encounters problems that need to be solved.

Or, for another example, take Islamic advice shows, a type of programme where people call the radio station in order to ask a learned Islamic scholar advice about proper pious Muslim conduct – prayers, inheritance law, interpretations of verses of the Qur’an, and so forth. This is a programme meant for “Muslims.” “Every Muslim” should do this, should believe that. “Most people in Jordan,” the radio shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi once declared on his Fatāwa (“Fatwas”) programme on Hayat FM, “follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic law.” Well, obviously not those Jordanians who aren’t Muslim, or who may not care about which maḏhab they follow… but those aren’t supposed to be listening anyway. Language includes and excludes, makes it clear who is welcome to listen and who is not. Who is accepted – has status enough to be in the audience, to be a participant – and who will always remain on the margins, disempowered, excluded even from the otherwise so utterly informal and relaxed conversations on non-government radio.

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But let’s turn back now to my previous examples of indexicality, and how it’s connected to what people sound and seem like at any particular moment. That is the key: at any particular moment. There may be stereotypes – “women speech,” the speech of “broadcaster heroes” – but these are not set in stone. Change the language, even momentarily, and you’ll challenge the stereotype. And all at once the linguistic authorities don’t seem quite as powerful as they used to be.

Linguistic anthropologists absolutely adore studying this. There are tons of examples, from all around the world, of how identities – ethnic, racial, gender – can be challenged and problematised simply through using language in creative and unexpected ways. So it is with transgender hijra in India, who refer to themselves and other hijras with either masculine or feminine pronouns depending on who they’re talking to and what they’re talking about (see here; PDF). This article (PDF) by Elaine Chun explores how this is done by young Korean-Americans who appropriate African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to strategically manipulate stereotypical assumptions about language and race. These are all ways in which marginalised groups can use language to resist and subvert discourses of power.

On Jordanian radio, a close parallel is the occasional challenge to male and female speech norms. Women are stereotypically ‘soft’ and ‘delicate,’ simply due to the way they speak. But if they speak differently, they can perhaps give off a different impression. So for example, in the memorial programme a number of Jordanian radio stations ran on 5 February 2015 in honour of the pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh recently executed by the IS in Syria, one female host, Randa Karadsheh, strategically appropriated male language by pronouncing certain words with the form g for qāf – not something she would ordinarily do, but a practice which fit perfectly well with the patriotic, militant atmosphere promoted by Jordanian media after al-Kasasbeh’s death. And it was a powerful claim over Jordanian identity by a female speaker no longer compromised through her association with non-Jordanian sounds, but fully integrated into the nation… at least for the moment.

Randa Karadsheh from Radio Hala (left), with co-host Samir Masarweh from University of Jordan Radio (right), during the Ṣawtunā wāḥid (“Our Voice Is One”) memorial programme, 5 February 2015. Note also Karadsheh’s undeniable visual claim to Jordanian national identity with the red-checkered shmagh (‘keffiyeh’) she is wearing (in contrast with her male co-host). Screencap from this YouTube video.

Changing your pronunciation can mount a subtle challenge to power. Karadsheh is still doing so from a relatively privileged position: she is a broadcaster, someone whose words and ideas will inevitably be put front and centre in any radio programme that she hosts. The issue gets more interesting when the audience gets involved as well. On-air time is valuable, and it will always be allocated sparsely to non-broadcasters. But there are different ways in which this allocation can be managed.

Service programmes are again a great example of this. They field a huge amount of calls, allowing large numbers of listeners to participate every day. Patterns in the management of this participation easy to observe. al-Wakeel, as mentioned, is controlling, authoritative, the Great Hero of Jordanian broadcasting, subsuming everyone and everything under his dramatic arc of Solving People’s Problems. His callers have little scope for debating their problems at length, or critiquing aspects other than those that al-Wakeel seizes upon.

But there are other possibilities. One example is Hani al-Badri, the host of the Wasaṭ al-Balad programme on Radio Fann. He still solves problems – but the way in which he does so, the way in which he talks about his actions and engages with his audience, is fundamentally different from al-Wakeel’s. al-Badri jokes with his callers; he makes cynical remarks about government figures. And, more important, he allows his callers to do so in turn. When, for instance, a media furore erupted in December 2014 following a number of disrespectful and sexist remarks made in the Jordanian Parliament towards deputy Hind al-Fayez on part of another deputy, Yahya al-Saud, al-Badri took a call from a listener whose sole comment on the event was a rather oblique joke mocking the kind of masculine ‘power’ represented by al-Saud:

CALLER: Sir – I walk around Amman, and I see signs saying “Hairdresser for Men”…

HANI AL-BADRI: “Hairdresser for Men” – what’s wrong with that?

C: Sir, that’s inaccurate. They should say “Hairdresser for Males

HB: Why?

C: We don’t have any men here, sir, honestly

(Source: Wasat al-Balad recording, Radio Fann, 4 December 2014.)

Jokes like this are frequent on al-Badri’s programme. But they would be simply unimaginable on al-Wakeel’s. al-Wakeel, indeed, fields very few calls at all that aren’t some kind of requests of assistance in the first place – in sharp contrast with al-Badri, who allows much more critical comments and humour on part of his callers even if they don’t directly contribute to his heroic dramatic arc of problem resolution. Moreover, al-Badri himself makes similar jokes frequently, and presents himself as an ‘ordinary citizen’ not unlike his faithful callers – again, different from the accessible-yet-authoritative al-Wakeel, whose very reason for fame is that he has more power, more connections than the poor citizens asking him for aid. Thus the way in which al-Badri uses language allows his callers more scope for creative resistance and challenges to power. These challenges are still rather restrained, still rather oblique (this is Jordan, after all). But they’re nevertheless possible, to a much greater degree than in programmes where the host reserves all authority for himself.

 

Hani al-Badri of Radio Fann building rapport with his listeners. Jordanian radio, a platform for peace and love? Well, at least it can be.

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If Jordanian radio language is about power, it’s a very everyday kind of power. It doesn’t involve lofty debates about human rights or democratic values. It doesn’t involve sabre-rattling speeches or gunfights between armed militias. Even as part of the Arabic media scene, it is a little marginal, a little limited, compared to flashy Ramadan serials or Egyptian blockbuster films or reality shows spurting out of Lebanon and the Gulf.

But that doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high. There are debates and contests and dramatic arcs and power plays. The most ordinary issues, the most inconsequential personal spats are scaled up when heard by an audience of many. Air time is valuable; callers might wait hours or days for their slot on the air. In the two or three minutes that they eventually get, they are in the spotlight. How they speak, what they say, how they present themselves in those few minutes matters a lot. Not, perhaps, a life-or-death difference – but still important. It might net you a job, or bring momentary social media fame, or just give you the one opportunity to push back against authority you might not find otherwise, and nudge things in the right direction.

There are two ways, I think, in which we can think about the relevance of ‘everyday’ practices like these. First, there is the thematic aspect. These are links made outside of language, outside of talk – the indexical links, if you will – to themes that encompass grander subjects and aspects of life on a wider scale. And they are important subjects, as we have seen: themes like nationalism, gender equality, religious rights.

Second, there is what can be termed the metaphorical aspect. What interesting, exciting thing can we compare these practices to? On the surface, the topics may still be too ordinary, too quotidian – but the techniques and strategies through which they are framed and contested certainly aren’t. Dramas, theatre, power plays. Adding the necessary flair can feel a little artificial; as an analyst, one might feel more or less comfortable with this – and this is certainly a topic that can be discussed further. But metaphor is, again, another possible way to show how apparently boring everyday affairs are actually quite interesting.

It is this second part, the techniques and strategies of language, that deserve more attention in our discussions of media generally, and media in the Arab world in particular. Media form impacts these techniques and strategies in a very real way. A Facebook comment fight between random friends-of-friends is a very different beast from a round-table TV debate involving carefully picked analysts and spokespersons. It matters if the contests are being conducted on radio, or TV, or Twitter, or over audiocassettes (for the latter, see this fascinating article by Flagg Miller – though with fair warning for jargon density). But that’s already the subject of my next post.

PhD Findings (1): Radio and Power