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.

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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.

PresslerSalomon001.jpg

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

Quoting God and the Prophet

I’ve recently been hacking at the final chapter of my PhD, which will (hopefully) be an analysis of the use of religious language on what I like to call “Islamic advice programmes” on Jordanian radio. These programmes involve a host, typically a scholar well-educated in the principles of religion and Islamic law, taking calls from listeners on a variety of questions – whether a certain course of action is religiously appropriate, for example, or how to interpret some obscure part in an Islamic religious text. (With the recent rise of the so-called Islamic State, for example, a few listeners called in as to whether their appearance may have been “predicted” by the Prophet Muhammad in one of his sayings (hadith). Judgments on this vary.)

What’s particularly striking to me is how the host-scholars talk about and quote the religious texts in which they’re supposed to be experts. Whenever the Qur’an or a hadith of the Prophet is quoted, it impeccably resembles the written form in terms of grammar and pronunciation – a standard which is rarely kept up in “fresh talk” on Arabic-language radio, even for hosts that do tend more towards the “formal” (or Classical/Modern Standard) pole of the Arabic linguistic spectrum (as opposed to being purely colloquial). Every Islamic scholar worth their salt should, of course, know such lines by heart – or at least be able to pretend well enough that they do. But quotations are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, usually pronounced in a different way than the talk which surrounds them. They are not merely said – not even read in the kind of droning, measured style typical of modern formal Arabic reading (see e.g. here). Rather, they are – more often than not – recited, in a way that sets them clearly apart from ordinary speech. Vowels are elongated, pitch is heightened, and there are relatively long pauses after each line (often lasting half a second or more).

So I rummaged a bit through literature in linguistics to see whether anything much has been written on this issue – that is, the distinct prosody of Standard or Classical Arabic phrases when recited or inserted into mostly colloquial talk. I turned up some quite interesting bits of research, including experiments claiming that native speakers of Arabic are able to distinguish between ‘Western’ (i.e. North African) and ‘Eastern’ (i.e. everything east of Egypt) dialects on the basis of accent and intonation alone, and explorations of patterns of poetic recitation on the Arabian peninsula shared beyond linguistic boundaries. There seems to be quite some work on prosody in Arabic going on, sometimes in quite interesting directions, such as the extent to which phenomena like contrastive emphasis (as in “wrote this article, not him”) might affect (or not) the way Arabic words are pronounced.

There are two issues, though, with this kind of research generally speaking. First, most look at ‘dialectal’ Arabic only. This makes sense for linguistics research that looks to examine ‘natural’ languages – that is, replicating conditions of normal communicative interaction, where formal/Classical Arabic is virtually never used wholesale – but doesn’t provide much to go on for the kind of context on which I’m currently working, where Classical and colloquial language is often used interchangeably. And second, they all tend to see prosody as a feature of linguistic production. That is, they approach dialects as ‘having’ (or maybe ‘exhibiting’) a certain kind of prosodic pattern under certain conditions. Again, this makes sense if you’re trying to describe language as a communicative system. But it tells us very little about how prosody may be manipulated, strategically, for specific ends – such as, for example, setting religious quotations apart from ‘normal’ talk.

It’s not a difficult thing to notice. In the recording below, for example, between 1:46 and 1:54, the Islamic advice host Ibrahim al-Jarmi (on his Fatawa programme, broadcast by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hayat FM) gives a religious quotation which involves a marked change in pace of speech (mostly, longer vowels) and intonation (heightened pitch) towards the end:

Researching the details of this phenomenon, though, may prove to be slightly more difficult. For one, the classical schemes of research in linguistics don’t do a very good job of capturing these kind of contrasts. Even sociolinguists, when talking about Arabic, tend to focus to a large extent on distinctions between “codes” – formal / Standard / Classical versus colloquial Arabic, for example, or different ‘dialects’ defined as distinct linguistic systems. But for al-Jarmi in the recording above, the “code” remains more or less the same throughout – i.e., ‘formal’ or ‘Classical’ (even as the standards are more strictly applied to actual quotations than to talk that accompanies them). The distinctions, rather, hinge on sociocultural factors in a much broader sense – including the way in which religious texts, in particular, are understood as ‘quotable’ or ‘recitable’ in ways that ‘normal’ speech may not be. (This is not just an Islamic religious issue either; it is also true to an extent of poetry, which in mediated communication in modern Arabic usage is often involved in many of the same prosodic strategies; see e.g. the recitation at the beginning of the programme here, from about 0:38.)

Classical linguistic categories have their place, of course, and can be a powerful tool when trying to analyse the intricacies of human communication. But occasionally, the lens does need to be broadened a bit; otherwise, certain potentially interesting and important phenomena – like the way radio personalities treat Islamic texts – might recede from view.

Quoting God and the Prophet

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

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

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

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

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

Guadeloupe creole 2010-03-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

The Unwritten Standard

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

Or so I had imagined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Capital’s Dialect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ammani Norms

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unwritten Standard