The Blessings of Rain

Rain, storms, flooding. The images coming in from Amman over the past couple of days have been nothing short of apocalyptic. (Naseem Tarawneh at the Black Iris has a nice collection of illustrative videos here.) Amman’s city centre and a huge number of tunnels, roads, and underpasses have been flooded under metre-deep rainwater, causing building collapses and drownings along with unimaginable traffic chaos. Better infrastructure would likely have worked miracles to prevent such catastrophes, and many Jordanians posting comments on the Internet have not been too kind about the authorities’ preparation to deal with the winter season.

Even though such disasters are a regular occurrence in Jordan, local media tend to frame  rainfall (and snowfall) in a very specific way. Precipitation is typically characterised as a “blessing” (ni‘ma, baraka, or ḳayr) from God – which makes sense for what’s been claimed to be the second poorest country in the world in terms of water resources. Rain fills dams and cisterns; it’s an essential part of the cycle which provides water used by Jordanian consumers – citizens, businesses, industry, and agriculture. Radio hosts always accompany forecasts of rain with hopes that it will mean all the best for Jordan, that they will be amṭār ḳayr wa-baraka – “rains of good and blessing” – and only be beneficial to the country as a whole.

So on Thursday, 5 November, when the worst parts of the most recent weather depression began to batter the skies over Amman, the radio host Muhammad al-Wakeel – in a “live” video posted on his Facebook page – filled his talk with references to blessings and God, and asked his 5.5 million Facebook followers to send in contributions from all of Jordan – “so we can be reassured regarding people in all governorates,” and be certain that the rain truly is a blessing and a “mercy” (raḥma) from God:

 

To be fair, there is always a grimmer underside to such pronouncements: the unstated fear that the rain will not just be “good and blessed,” that the water (or snow, or ice) will cause problems and accidents and further damage Jordan’s already overstrained infrastructure. But at the same time, a focus on God as the ultimate agent of rain also allows authorities to resolve responsibility for any catastrophes that do eventually happen. This is also, I think, the gist of a Facebook post written by Naseem Tarawneh as a reaction to the video of an Egyptian man whose children had drowned in a flash flood. Worth quoting from at length:

Rain is an uncontrollable act of God; everything else is on our hands. If you’ve been outside and witnessed the damage, most of it is manmade. It doesn’t take an engineer to arrive at the conclusion that there is something seriously wrong with our infrastructure and our policies. Tunnels and streets that easily flood with only a few hours of consistent rain. Construction sites are a lawless zone, with materials ranging from stone to cement and wood that are typically piled up on adjacent lands or organized in mountains on curbsides – these materials are carried out with the waters. Drivers with absolutely no patience or etiquette help cause as much of the traffic accidents as the rain, if not more.

On and on and on. This is become a tradition. Every year there’s a new weather catastrophe, and every year we see the same images. […]

It’s infuriating, for sure. But the anger and frustration comes from knowing that to policymakers, this is all just passing weather. […]

This man lost his children, not to an act of God, but an act of mismanagement that borders on the criminal. He deserved better. As do we all.

(Source: The Black Iris, “Of all the content being shared…”, Facebook post, 5 November 2015 – link)

So what might at first look like a fairly innocent aspect of using language – mentioning, as if by rote, that God is behind everything, rainfall is a divine blessing and so on – becomes a practice with deep consequences for how we imagine public accountability and responsibility. Every time a Jordanian broadcaster mentions rain as a blessing from God, they aren’t just making a theological claim, but also upholding a way of phrasing that allows the re-framing of what are ultimately infrastructural shortfalls as being something that human beings are powerless to face. Language plays a powerful framing role here; and exposing this role should, at least, inspire debates as to the limits of responsibility claimed by systems of government and administration when their citizens are hurt by climate-linked catastrophes such as this.

The Blessings of Rain

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.

~

 

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.

~

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.

An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

Broadcasting the Hajj

Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice, which this year falls on 24 September) is one of the two biggest Muslim holidays, and also forms the centrepiece of the Greater Pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, a pillar of Islam and a religious duty upon any able Muslim. For a few days before the actual festival, a handful of Jordanian radio stations have been featuring special reports from personnel on the ground in Mecca. This year, Radio Hala’s star host Muhammad al-Wakeel was among them, and kept on broadcasting his regular morning service programme even from “the field” – as he has done a number of times before, e.g. from Gaza late last year, and from the streets of Amman in military vehicles during this January’s snowstorm. I’d like to explore a bit the logic behind such live transmissions, and what the point is of making them in the first place – especially for hosts such as al-Wakeel whose Islamic identity is not explicitly emphasised in their day-to-day on-air interactions.

~

Among those who do emphasise such identity is Hayat FM, Jordan’s premier Islamic religious station, with direct links to the hardliner wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. (Note that, despite being “hardline,” this wing is still quite mild compared to proper radical Islamic organisations, and espouses a rather mainstream (if conversative) ideology of modernist-reformist Islam.) An Islamic orientation – what I’ve deigned to call its placement in an Islamic radio “format” – pervades Hayat’s day-to-day broadcasting. The airwaves are filled with recordings of sermons; hosts constantly provide pious quotes and elaborate religious greetings; there are regular programmes on issues such as interpretation of the Qur’an, proper Islamic conduct and familial upbringing, etc. (none of which tend to appear on stations that belong to other formats); and the call to prayer (adhān) is not only raised regularly, but the very structure and scheduling of the station are built around it – with dedicated jingles preceding and following it, programmes modified or cut short so it can be played out in full, and so on.

The Hayat FM delegate on the #Hajj, Muhammad Abu Halaqa, is with you now live on air from Mecca… stay with us

It was not therefore surprising to hear that Hayat sent a “delegate” (mandūb) to Saudi Arabia for the duration of the pre-Adha and pre-pilgrimage preparations, who gave daily live dispatches from the field on the situation on the ground. It was, indeed, almost a duty that they cover it: Mecca is, after all, where the greatest density of Islam-marked “eventfulness” is located in the days before Eid al-Adha, and it would be a serious strain on Hayat’s claims to religious heedfulness if they missed it. Even commercially, the costs of having a hajj representative are likely less than they would be as a result of an image-reversal if the pilgrimage was neglected.

~

al-Wakeel is, I think, a different story. He does not, of course, do the hajj every year. Radio Hala does not regularly cover the pilgrimage directly, and though it has a religious advice programme (hosted by Zaid al-Masri, and recently relegated into the very early 6AM slot – likely so as not to conflict with the two-hour programme of the former Hala “Islamic affairs” host Muhammad Nouh on Yaqeen) an explicit Islamic orientation is not part of its projected identity – or much, much less so than its militarist and Jordanian nationalist links.

 

So why broadcast al-Wakeel from Mecca? The above video – in which al-Wakeel, surrounded by (likely) opportunistic hangers-on, announces a special episode of his service programme in which the problems and complaints of Jordanian pilgrims will be focused on – suggests this move as less about religion as such as about the broadcaster, and the image constructed for him through his daily on-air performances.

11138108_1449355341763014_4656447680959914676_nA photo-graphic collage announcing Radio Hala’s “comprehensive coverage” of the Hajj. Source: Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page

In the context of radio broadcasts, the host is always privileged: they hold the power to run conversations, and to speak with authority, simply by virtue of sitting in the studio and speaking at greater length (and much more clearly, given that callers are only afforded grainy telephone lines) than any other person whose voice might issue from the speaker during the time of the broadcast. Broadcasters, then, possess a kind of authority in broadcast discourse; they are the ones who run interactions, who are “in the know,” whose stances listeners have come to accept as important (even if they might not always agree with them). And for this reason they are also the most qualified to provide a model on-the-ground experience to be transmitted to listeners who aren’t present at their location.

So in the video below, it is al-Wakeel, and he alone who functions as the conduit for transmitting a complaint from Jordanian pilgrims suffering without electricity who had just arrived at Mount Arafat. For a Jordanian audience not on the hajj, listening to al-Wakeel speak about it – al-Wakeel, whom they already hear every single day, talking to officials and having the power to solve the problems of anyone who calls in – is probably the next best thing.

 

But at a more banal level, doing a field broadcast such as this is also something that al-Wakeel is likely to do. Once the stakes have been set – once al-Wakeel has been established as a person who broadcasts his morning show on a daily basis – it’s difficult to escape the obligations of one’s image at the risk of seeming unauthentic. (This is something politicians know very well.) There is, further, a precedent for field broadcasts on al-Wakeel’s part (see above). al-Wakeel could, then, hardly afford to perform the hajj without broadcasting it as well, as long as he remained in active service as a radio host. It would be (at least) highly suspicious if he decided to hide what he was doing during a pre-Adha absence.

There was, of course, nothing forcing al-Wakeel to do the hajj in the first place, at this specific time (though as a publicly validated Muslim he would have to perform it eventually). But since he did, his microphone – and his audience, and the smartphone for posting Facebook videos – had to follow him. For a media personality who can’t be dissociated from their persona in the ebb and flow of public broadcasting, there was simply no other choice.

Broadcasting the Hajj

Jana

A cold front dubbed “Jana” (جنى) hit Jordan on the night of Thursday, 19 February, and brought two days of snowfall and cold temperatures throughout the weekend. On Saturday evening, warning sirens sounded in Amman, vindicating those who had argued last autumn (as they were being installed) that there might be other reasons for using them other than a military attack. (Fears of entanglement in the war against ISIS / Daesh had loomed large in this debate – though of course these are void, now, in a post-Kasasbeh Jordan, where ‘the public’ has been brought to agree that war is indeed the way to go.) The reason, this time, was ice on the roads – which had paralyzed traffic in Jordan’s capital during January’s Huda ‘snowstorm’ already. School holidays were declared for Sunday, as well as a general postponement of working hours until 10 AM to allow people to get to their jobs without endangering themselves.

Bread and Holidays

The obsession with stockpiling bread to live through the storm had, by now, turned into a bit of a meme in itself. (The tagline in the tweet above reads TO THE BAKERIIIIIIES.) Perhaps one weather spectacle had been enough for the winter; in any case, there was a sense that Jana was less of a ‘grand event’ than Huda.

Still, on Sunday morning, radio stations’ Twitter accounts were almost completely silent. Radio Hala announced, in the very early morning, that Muhammad al-Wakeel’s programme would begin at 9 AM, and later posted a photo documenting ice on Jordan’s roads – a problem exacerbated, I would guess, by poor drainage infrastructure:

(Tweet reads: “Most of the Kingdom’s roads witness black ice”)

Most other morning programmes also postponed their broadcasts by two hours. Unlike Huda, though, there were no major changes to the programme format. No street-rolling antics for al-Wakeel this time; the other hosts also read out news headlines and take call-ins as usual. The callers, too, seemed to take this as just another working day in the life of their beloved service programmes, complaining about problems facing private schools or bureaucratic blips in providing job opportunities.

As far as Jana itself was concerned, the greatest controversy was stirred up by the general holiday which the government imposed on both the public and private sectors on Thursday – when, during the daytime, the weather was still relatively fine. As one would expect, the shows varied in their criticism. al-Wakeel classified it as one of the of the (few) negative aspects of Jana – which, as with Huda previously, he only ever called المنخفض الجوي، al-munkhafaD al-jawwii, “cold front,” though he contrasted Jana with the previous storm by calling it “nice” or “relaxed” (dammu khafiif; literally “light-blooded”). Hani al-Badri was a bit sharper, calling the government out for their “mistake” in acting rashly on the weather reports on Thursday. He also couldn’t help himself but add his own cynical jokes on the bread issue, given the 65 million loaves of bread that the 8 million (or so) Jordanians had apparently consumed during the storm’s first two days (almost double the normal amount).

The general atmosphere on the morning shows, though, was positive. Badri’s morning video clip (embedded above; posted originally on Radio Fann’s Facebook Page) says it all. The “whiteness” brought by Jana was, ultimately, a message of optimism, and positive feelings, a sense that “good things” are all that God wants to bring for His people.

Government Impositions

Jordanian media personalities tend to adore the “positives-negatives” frame when talking about the “effects” of weather events such as Jana. This is a rather simplistic frame, and not very accommodating for making more nuanced arguments. Radio al-Balad once more proved one of the few dissenting voices in this respect. Muhammad al-Arsan, host of al-Balad’s afternoon call-in programme “Rainbow”, took the ‘citizen’s viewpoint’ approach that the station promotes wholly in his stride. The economic effects of the Thursday holiday were brought into special focus here – in particular, those Jordanians working in the private sector (services, especially) who lack the set wages and job security of public employees, and for whom every suddenly declared holiday means a loss of clients and working hours (and therefore income).

It’s not just that the weather turned out better than was expected; the issue was whether the government should have the right to impose such orders on its citizenry in the first place. So far this winter, every time heavy snow has been forecast, the Prime Minister decided to declare a blanket public holiday. “So if a snowstorm comes that will last for ten days,” Arsan asked during a debate with one of his callers, “will we shut the entire country for ten days?” As Daoud Kuttab pointed out in his weekly web column (excerpts from which Arsan also read out on air), the issue has less to do whether the government’s decision was sound than with the fact that it still reserves for itself the final say on what is good for its citizens.

And it is this final step that most radio commentators failed to take. For the morning hosts, the issue was still whether the government had made a mistake by declaring Thursday a public holiday. But its ultimate authority to make such a decision was never questioned. After all – as al-Wakeel pointed out – they did well delaying work hours on Sunday, didn’t they? Who would want to drive on ice? It’s the people’s safety that’s at stake here!

Give the ministers the advice they need, and next time they might do better. It is only this particular government, then, that may have been at fault; but not the system itself. However riled up private radio hosts might get over certain issues, there are limits to their criticism – and the controversies over Jana’s enforced holiday only made this the more clear.

Jana

All of Us, a Single Voice

In the wake of Muath al-Kasasbeh’s death, all Jordan was one. Every public voice seemed determined to honor the martyr’s memory, and take a firm stance against the extremism of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. For radio stations, there was no better way to demonstrate this solidarity than to actually speak “as one”: to unify their broadcasts, for one day, and thus show quite literally how the various voices of Jordan’s airwaves can be woven into a single strand.

From 10 AM on Thursday, 5 February, more than a dozen local radio stations – as well as two from beyond Jordan’s borders, one each from Saudi Arabia and the West Bank – all chose to suspend their normal broadcast schedules, instead carrying a single cooperatively produced programme, broadcast live from Amman for ten consecutive hours.

#”Our Voice Is One”

For the first time in the history of Jordanian radio stations, more than 14  stations unify their broadcasts: for Muath; for Jordan; for the King

The initiative was dubbed صوتنا واحد – “Our Voice Is One” – which also came to be used as a common  Twitter hashtag for updates during the day. The programme itself featured conversations about the martyr Kasasbeh, Jordanian national unity, and news on the activities of the King and the Jordanian army, all accompanied by a generous helping of patriotic tunes. Live call-ins came from Jordan and beyond, with people honoring the pilot’s memory and describing their feelings and experiences in the aftermath of the announcement of his death on 3 February. And, in what was probably the most explicit demonstration of media solidarity, presenters you would normally hear alone during their allotted programmes now worked together – in shared slots, each lasting for an hour, where voices from participating radio stations each received their own turn on-air.

(Tweet reads: “Rose al-Soqi, Ammar Madallah and Shorouk Hijazi are with us now on the air, #Our Voice Is One in honor of the #Martyr Muath al-Kasasbeh. #We Are All Muath”)

That such an initiative could take place points to a very vibrant, very responsive media context – which the field of Jordan’s non-government radio stations most definitely is. It was also a valiant attempt to take advantage of what could be seen as radio’s greatest technical limitation: its restriction to broadcasting sound. Switching through the frequencies while “Our Voice Is One” was on air, there was literally no way one could distinguish between the stations. In sound, at least, all were one – including stations with such different images and programming philosophies as Radio Hala, JBC, Mazaj, and the radio station of the University of Jordan.

But of course, there’s always more to radio than sound alone. This is where the cracks in the illusion of unity begin to show: in all the various media ‘supplements’ that accompany radio, those that usually help it to overcome its limitations but on this particular day may have actually worked against the initiative’s overarching goals.

Images posted on Twitter showed “One Voice”‘s hosts chatting along amiably together, but they did so from one specific place: namely, the studios of the radio station of the Jordanian Armed Forces, Radio Hala (which, as Ayman Shuqair explains in this report for Roya TV, was also the initiator of the event). For all their shared-image- and hashtag-driven linkages, the tweets and posts issued from each station’s particular social media account – which remained firmly separate, with their own names and distinctive logos, brands which even solidarity with Muath could not be allowed to jeopardize. And even as the various presenters came together in close collaboration, each brought with them their own particular voice and style, cultivated on and bearing the traces of the diverse stations on which they normally appear.

(Tweet reads: “Šabaab [= literally ‘youth’ ] from various Jordanian radio stations in the shared producers’ section making the #Our Voice Is One initiative happen in honor of the #Martyr Muath al-Kasasbeh. #We Are All Muath”)

And, naturally, there were exclusions as well. Jordan’s official state radio didn’t join in; neither did Radio al-Balad, or the Islamic format channels, or any of the various stations that normally broadcast in English. The commercial giant Rotana ran its own programme in Muath’s honor, as did Radio Fann – hosted by Hani al-Badri well outside his accustomed morning time-slot.

Traitors, then, to the venture of solidarity? Perhaps. But this abstention from broadcasting what a large swathe of media has over the past few days assumed to be the prevailing viewpoint of “the Jordanian people” might also be read in a more charitable way. The field of Jordanian radio is so vast – so diversified – that not even such an overbearing national project as mourning for Muath is able to subsume all of its voices. The soft norms of Jordan’s media communication, as dominant as they might sometimes seem, still allow for difference – even if one needs to listen against the current (as it were) in order to discover it.

All of Us, a Single Voice

Martyr #2475

As of yesterday, the Jordanian fighter pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh (captured by the Islamic State / ISIS in December 2014) is officially a martyr. Late afternoon on Tuesday, 3 February, a video was published online showing his execution by burning at the hands of IS, which Jordanian state television was quick to announce had already happened on 3 January. In light of the circumstances, King Abdullah cut short his visit to the U.S. and announced an immediate return to Amman. There were also demonstrations in both Amman and Kerak calling for retaliatory measures (which in fact happened at dawn this morning with the carrying out of the death sentences of Ziyad al-Karbouli and Sajida al-Rishawi, two convicted terrorists associated with al-Qaeda).

Within the space of an hour after the news broke, the #كلنا_معاذ (“We are all Muath”) hashtag shot up to first place among Jordan’s Twitter ‘trends.’ Tributes and eulogies of various kinds abounded, from individual users as well as media outlets. Some examples of the latter below.

From Radio Hala’s Twitter account. An image of the Sura of the Elephant, which tells of God’s might in destroying the enemies of the believers. Tweet reads: “The Almighty said: ‘And he sent upon them birds in flights / Who pelted them with stones of baked clay.’ #Martyr_2475”

Video from Radio Fann’s Facebook page. “Muath al-Kasasbeh. Martyr of duty, martyr of the homeland. Martyr of righteousness”

From Bliss Radio’s Twitter account. Radio Hala had published much the same image a few minutes before, though with the text in Arabic.

JBC radio’s own contribution. Tweet and image read: “God increase your reward, oh homeland. #The Heroic Martyr”

Radio stations dedicated Wednesday’s morning broadcasts to honoring Muath’s memory and calling for the fight against IS to continue. Listeners called in to offer their respects and reflections. Radio al-Balad had already “opened its airwaves” late Tuesday night, with a direct broadcast of the Jordanian army’s statement on the martyrdom followed by live call-ins taken by Muhammad al-Arsan (who usually hosts Rainbow, al-Balad’s weekday afternoon call-in programme).

Arsan, as always, tried to draw callers and guests into discussion and question their preconceptions – including questioning the word “retribution” or “revenge” (انتقام) against IS that was at that moment close to everyone’s lips. One of the callers, the parliamentarian and tribal leader Abd al-Kareem al-Doghmi, was especially insistent that the Jordanian state should respond “with force” – even against Arsan’s more subtle suggestions as to what “retaliation” might entail: waging more of a “war of ideas” against IS, combating it by engaging with beliefs and sensibilities that go against its precepts and conduct, and thus weaken it by narrowing the pool of potential recruits for the organization (some number of which have also been drawn from Jordan).

As for the IS’s angle here, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was, really, just a form of psychological warfare: gambling on the almost complete lack of news about Kasasbeh since his capture,  exploiting the uncertainty that comes from carefully controlled channels of disseminating information and seeing how far they can go. In any case, it guaranteed IS the top spot on the Jordanian media agenda for quite a while. Media manipulation is, of course, an important battlefield for the group – through their magazine Dabiq as well as other kinds of media activity (including social media).

Though maybe I’m just imputing logical motivations where there really are none.

Martyr #2475

Lost Falcon of the Homeland: Muath al-Kasasbeh and Official Solidarity

The fate of the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh – captured by the Islamic State in late December 2014, after his fighter plane had crashed close to the Syrian city of Raqqa – came to occupy Jordanian media anew from late last week onwards. On Wednesday, 27 January, the Jordanian government announced its preparedness to negotiate for Kasasbeh’s safe return – in exchange for releasing Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi national involved in the 2005 terrorist attacks in Amman (the so-called “hotel bombings”), and in Jordanian custody since then. IS responded by setting a Thursday night deadline by which the exchange should take place; otherwise the hostages would be killed. Cue much posturing by government and media figures, and what seemed to be a resurgence of solidarity for the pilot among Jordanians active on the Internet.

Kasasbeh’s story is, in some respects, a strange one. There had been little news or information on his status since December, and continued doubts as to whether he was in fact still alive. The Jordanian government wanted assurances, which IS refused to give; instead all information about Kasasbeh and his possible exchange for Rishawi was conveyed through the words of another hostage, the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.

All this was hardly reassuring. Protests took place in Kasasbeh’s home governorate of Kerak, demanding that every effort be expended for the pilot’s release. Social media were overcome with messages of solidarity, with hashtags such as #Muath and #كلنا معاذ (= “We are all Muath”) dominating tweets by Jordanians and Japanese alike. Media outlets joined in as well, including radio stations – again, in ways that went beyond their core ‘duties’ of broadcasting sound. So the Twitter-friendly Bliss tried to draw its listeners into a conversation on the topic, with at least some success:

And Sawt al-Ghad – a radio station which prides itself on its ‘contemporary’ image and heavily promotes its Lebanese-colloquial-speaking broadcasters – put up the following impeccably patriotic image:

WE ARE ALL MUATH KASASBEH

#We are all Muath

Join us in these crucial hours

The solidarity which reveals the ties that bind the Jordanian people together in these moments

Join us in this solidarity

The airwaves themselves didn’t go unaffected either. Live broadcast hosts checked in regularly to inform of any news regarding the pilot. Young children called in to morning shows, asking His Majesty the King to help “free Muath.” The most brazen example was probably a minute-and-a-half long ad that combined declamations in formal Arabic with dramatic sound accompaniment – orchestral music, along with sound effects of a fighter jet flying by. Here’s an extract from the text:

لأنّ تراب الوطن غالٍ

لأنّك من صقور الأردن

ولأنّ أقدار الأبطال الدفاعُ عن أوطانهم

نحن معك

الى النشمي البطل معاذ الكساسبة

أعادك الله سالماََ غانماََ معافاََ الى بلدك الأردن

Because the soil of the homeland is precious

Because you are one of Jordan’s falcons

And because it is the fate of all heroes to defend their homelands

We are with you

To the heroic našmi [champion], Muath al-Kasasbeh

May God return you safe and sound and healthy to Jordan, your country

(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin programme recording, JBC Radio, 26 January 2015)

“To all the falcons of the homeland. To all our intrepid soldiers.” Fear not.

“Jordanians,” the ad concludes, “will never abandon you.”

[31 JAN 2015] muath sketch

(“We are all Muath.” Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 31 January 2015 – link)

One could be forgiven for feeling that there’s something altogether artificial about this overflowing compassion. What solidarity there is needs to be constantly reaffirmed – through social media contributions; through patriotic clips eating time away from commercial ad blocks – in order to give the impression of a ‘nation breathing as one.’

Kasasbeh was publicly framed as a قضية وطنية، a “national issue” – not surprising, given that he comes from a family with some prominence in the Jordanian army. If Jordan is to appear unified, everyone, indeed, has to “be Muath”; and none more so than private media outlets – who, with their morning shows punctuated by patriotic songs, simply have too much invested in this narrative not to join in.

This much, at least, a look at local Arabic media can tell us. Knowing whether all Jordanians actually feel this way, though, is another thing entirely.


The excitement fizzled out, gradually, over the weekend, with no news regarding Kasasbeh’s well-being. Late on Saturday, 31 January, a video was released showing the execution of the Japanese hostage (Goto). As the new working week began, this prompted a new round of doubts and questioning. What was IS planning? Were they ever even sincere in their calls for exchanging Kasasbeh for Rishawi? Has the deadline now passed, for real? Have the authorities dithered too much – could it be that Kasasbeh is now dead, too?

Perhaps it was all just psychological warfare, a provocation to “stir up the Jordanian street,” as some callers on Radio al-Balad’s Rainbow programme commented Sunday. Given there was still no firm information about Muath, the reply made by his brother Jawad – when asked (on the same programme) how the pilot’s family felt during these moments – was laconic but telling.

“We have a lot of faith in God.”


UPDATE – 3 February (19:45 PM EET) – News are just coming in that Kasasbeh had been burnt alive by IS already at the beginning of last month. Horrific news, needless to say.

I’ll try to put up some updates on local responses as the story develops. I think Rana Sweis put it succinctly enough on Twitter:

Lost Falcon of the Homeland: Muath al-Kasasbeh and Official Solidarity