The Women of Zarqa

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

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

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

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

Training for Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

logo

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

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


 

 

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

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

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

The Women of Zarqa

Tuning In to God

Technology helps spread the divine word; but it can also serve as metaphor for it. “As we remind you always of the website of our radio station,” the preacher Muhammad Nouh declared in one of his programmes on Radio Hala last December, “so we should remind ourselves always of the site from which God, Glorified and Sublime (الله عزّ وجلّ), looks upon us.”

Unless his listeners, Nouh claimed, tuned their radios precisely to 102.1 (FM), they wouldn’t be able to listen to Radio Hala. “And so,” the metaphor continued, “you cannot communicate with God unless you tune your heart to the proper wavelength.” A wavelength which, in this case, involves “love, compassion, and sympathy,” rather than a particular FM frequency. Left implied here is that, by tuning in to Radio Hala – or rather, Nouh’s own programme, as it is transmitted through its airwaves – pious listeners might be able to “tune their hearts” to such emotions as well.

Every weekday afternoon, Hala sets aside an hour for an Islamic scholar to expound to listeners on various Islamic virtues, and answer callers’ questions on a range of issues related to religion – from ritual details, to compatibility of social practices with Islamic belief, to rules of inheritance and the proper way to conduct financial transactions. The call-ins, especially, show how the technological capabilities of radio can be creatively and flexibly adapted to serve an audience segment presumably craving religious content. Callers are given quick and authoritative answers, by someone known and recognized as an expert of the subject – often with a doctorate in Islamic law or fiqh; or, at the very least, are given reassurance by hearing the expert’s voice directly, and receiving a blessing. It doesn’t stop with phone-calls either: in a context where other kinds of electronic media are readily available, hosts such as Nouh can take additional questions via (for example) text messages and Facebook comments, allowing even more people to benefit from the wisdom of a public Islamic intellectual.

In the following I look a little more closely at the genre that Nouh’s (former) programme on Hala can be put into: what I call Islamic advice programmes, where religious scholars speak on air, take calls from listeners, and give authoritative statements on religious, social, and personal matters. This, I would argue, is the primary way in which Jordanian radio makes space for Islam; an inescapable part of everyday life, but also (and probably, equally important) an officially verified aspect of the social fabric of the Kingdom.

The Genre

Like other shows on Jordanian radio, Islamic advice programmes have their own generic rules and structural features. They begin with a short religious address from the host read out in impeccable Classical Arabic, and tend to be followed by a few minutes of comment or explanations – on a current affairs issue that might have caught the host’s ear, or a scriptural or ethical question (in the vein of Nouh’s comment on “tuning your heart to God” I’ve mentioned above).

After this, the phone lines are opened, and usually stay open until the end of the programme – or at least until the point that the presenter can still answer all the questions posed on-air within the time set aside for it. In the time between calls, the presenters might expound further on Islamic ethics, law, or current affairs; or read out questions from messages they’d received either through mobile texts or online means (usually left as comments on the status announcing the day’s programme on the radio station’s Facebook page).

(Recording of Hayat FM’s “Fatwas” programme (فتاوى، fataawa), from 15 March 2015. Example of an Islamic advice programme on a religious format radio station. Though broadcast on a station in a fundamentally different format than Nouh’s programme, all the basic generic features are there – including the introductory address, the call-taking, and readings of text and online messages and responses to them.)

But in order for the answers to count – for listeners to consider what’s being said as a valid, significant legal opinion; if not formally a fatwa – the presenters need to have some claim to religious authority. They are, after all, the source of the answers; their animators, at the very least, when conveying legal opinions framed by some other scholar or jurist before them – but often also engaging with callers on a more immediate personal level, for example when people call in with problems they’re facing in life more generally or disputes where judgments of legality aren’t exactly clear.

It helps, then, for a presenter to have some reputation as an Islamic scholar outside of the immediate radio field. Take for example Shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi, host of the Islamic station Hayat FM‘s “Fatwas” programme (see video above for a sample recording). Behind his media activity al-Jarmi boasts a doctorate in Arabic and degrees in Islamic legal interpretation gained by studying with several notable scholars (listed in meticulous detail in his CV; LINK). He’s also authored a number of studies on Islamic legal and ethical issues, has taught in shari’a colleges, and is a recognized reciter of the Qur’an (and naturally a hafiz).

ibrahim al-jarmi islamway

(Shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi at Hayat FM’s studios. Image via Islamway.net)

The story is similar for al-Jarmi’s genre counterparts on Radio Hala: Zaid al-Masri, the current host of the army station’s daily Islamic advice programme, but even more so Muhammad Nouh – who is, without a doubt, a star in the field of popular Islam and Islamic scholarship in Jordan. In January this year, Nouh has moved on from Hala in order to found and run his own Islamic format station, Yaqeen. (Its Facebook page boasts more than 200,000 likes after only a couple of months of operation.) Nouh also hosts television shows, is a former government minister (twice over), and chairs the Shaykh Nouh Charitable Society (named in honor of Nouh’s father, Nouh al-Qudah, a former mufti of Jordan). All this in addition to his scholarly credentials, which include a number of published studies and a doctorate in fiqh from the University of Jordan.

To speak on air, a pleasant voice isn’t enough. Anyone can read out religious texts and legal judgments; but in order for listeners to respect you, to take heed of you as a proper authority on religious matters, there needs to be something more. A background that proves your experience; links to sources of authority via texts and named scholar-instructors. And, finally, a knowledge that is broad and deep enough that you can answer even the more obscure legal or customary questions with spontaneity and confidence.

The Questions

The kinds of questions that make it on air tell us much about the preoccupations of those Jordanians trying to lead a pious Islamic life. Many involve particular social practices or situations that listeners have encountered (or been involved in), and what Islamic jurisprudence – for most callers and hosts in Jordan, that of the Shafi’i school – has to say about their admissibility. Popular also are inquiries about ritual details – in particular, details of prayer and ritual purification / ablution – as well as scriptural questions: interpretations of Qur’an verses and aHaadiith, correct readings of holy texts, and other doctrine-related information (such as details of early Islamic history, the external appearance of the Prophet Mohammad, and so on). Other calls are of a more personal nature: they might involve participants asking the hosts for blessings, interpret their dreams or visions, or offer them reassurances about difficult personal situations.

The programmes are reasonably popular, and the amount of questions shooting in from all sides – phones, texts, Facebook – is at times overwhelming. A frequent practice is to take several questions in succession and then offer responses in a ‘lump’ later on, though if the answer is short or straightforward (such as a simple pronouncement of whether a practice is ‘allowed’ or ‘forbidden’) hosts prefer to reply directly. Many callers use their turn on the air to pose several questions, which may be related – or not: a question on Islamic finance might be followed by one on a completely unrelated verse from the Qur’an, or the details of what kinds of aberrations precisely invalidate a prayer (which can get quite complicated).

ZaM in studio 16 March 2015

(Radio Hala’s in-house daa3iya, Zaid al-Masri, in his studio element. Source: Radio Hala’s Twitter page, 16 March 2015 – LINK)

As with other call-in genres, gender inequalities are palpable. Needless to say the scholar-presenters are all male; so are, for the most part, the callers, though curiously enough Radio Hala’s Islamic programme is one of the few pockets on Jordanian airwaves more generally where the rate of female participation at least begins to approach 50 percent. (It’s still a standard 10-20% for al-Jarmi’s programme on Hayat.)

Statistically, the kinds of questions asked by male versus female callers don’t vary significantly, and the proportion of question types across presenters is also fairly constant. The table below gathers some of the numbers for 10 advice programme sessions I recorded between December 2014 and February 2015:

Question Types

1. Ritual

2. Social

3. Scripture

4. Host Favor

5. Family

6. Finance

7. Personal

TOTAL

NOUH (Hala; 3 shows) 10.0% (6) 30.0% (18) 16.7% (10) 20.0% (12) 3.3% (2) 10.0% (6) 10.0% (6) 60
AL-MASRI (Hala; 3 shows) 21.7% (13) 26.7% (16) 18.3% (11) 5.0% (3) 18.3% (11) 5.0% (3) 5.0% (3) 60
AL-JARMI (Hayat; 4 shows) 18.9% (14) 37.8% (28) 14.9% (11) 5.4% (4) 4.1% (3) 16.2% (12) 4.1% (3) 74
TOTAL 17.0% (33) 32.0% (62) 16.5% (32) 9.8% (19) 8.2% (16) 10.8% (21) 6.2% (12) 194

The categories in the table are rough: often it’s difficult to classify a question into any one particular category – they might apply to more than one, such as questions on family relationships that also relate to finance / property, or subjective experiences of God (category 7 in the table) that are linked to familial or social experiences of the callers. (They do, though, appear to have some validity for the hosts: different types of questions are answered in different ways – quick authoritative statements for ritual questions, for example, or ‘sincere advice’ for personal problems – and the hosts also sometimes classify (especially text / Internet) questions as “Qur’anic” or “social” or “fiqhi,” etc.) The total number of programmes I’ve looked at (so far) is low, and the recordings weren’t motivated by any kind of consideration of statistical significance that would make them representative. Still, the tally provides a quick overview of some of the relevant trends  – at least by showing what kind of classification of questions makes sense across the programmes.

A final note on some of the ‘outliers’ in the table. Some of the hosts appear to have significantly higher (or lower) proportions of certain kinds of questions than in the total tally. My impression is that these are mostly aberrations – a higher sample would likely level out – with one exception: the high number of ‘Host Favor’ (category 4) questions for Muhammad Nouh.

Mohammad Nouh (Wikipedia)(Muhammad Nouh al-Qudah. Image by Majd Makki; via Wikimedia Commons)

Outside the media field, Nouh is – as I’ve mentioned – by far the best-known of the three presenters. Compared with al-Masri and al-Jarmi, many more callers just contact him to thank him, ask him for a blessing, or request a sermon at a local mosque. The religious, charitable, and political activities that have brought him public recognition have a clear effect on his media authority as well.


Decades ago, Brinkley Messick observed in his study of “media muftis” on Yemeni national radio that the public context of radio broadcasts ends up giving legal pronouncements a much more personalized, ‘informal’ flavor than the traditional method of providing written legal opinions. This is all the more evident in Jordanian Islamic advice programmes today. The communicative context of the live broadcast, where presenters have to come up with answers quickly and in a manner their listeners will understand immediately, makes it pretty much a necessity.

The advice given by “media shaykhs” such as Nouh and al-Jarmi does not have the binding force of a legal fatwa (like one issued by Jordan’s official seat of Islamic jurisprudential authority, Dar al-Ifta; indeed the radio hosts themselves sometimes refer their callers to the institution if they sense their issue might benefit from a formal legal ruling). Still, it is a way for people to link up directly with personalities that claim considerable knowledge of the subject, and are recognized authorities in the field. Even in a modern, impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state, authority issuing from particular people still has a role to play.

As I see it, this involves not as much a “fragmentation of authority” as its functioning within the confines of specific media – in this case, radio, which allows sound to be broadcast and transmitted, both from the studio to the audience and vice versa (through phone-ins). Though again, that’s only half the story. For Messick, in the 1980s, it may have been enough to claim that (national) radio broadcasts of fatwas involve their transmission to a (national) Yemeni audience. But times have changed. No longer do “media muftis” sift through mail and sit in their libraries for days to prepare carefully considered legal opinions. Direct call-ins and instant messaging provide a very close simulation of spontaneous communication; one in which the line between “on-air” and “off-air” authority – or the way holders of such authority present themselves in different kinds of personal interactions – is never entirely clear.

Tuning In to God

Lebanese on the Air

These days it’s hard to find a radio station in Jordan that does not present its programmes in colloquial Arabic. But it was not always so. The liberalization of the broadcasting field only dates back to the early 2000s, when new audiovisual laws allowed radio stations to be established in Jordan outside the purview of the state broadcasting corporation – which had vastly preferred MSA and only allowed colloquial Arabic in a few cordoned-off programmes.

The linguistic situation, nowadays, seems relatively stable: most broadcasters use a speech style based on the colloquial Arabic of Amman, a kind of ‘soft standard’ with distinct features that mark it out as distinctly ‘Jordanian’ within the broader context of Arabic dialects in the Levantine region. Still, Ammani is not the only accent one can hear when flipping through Jordan’s radio channels. Regional stations and programmes dedicated to local genre traditions – such as broadcasts of Bedouin poetry – both exhibit dialectal variety, as do stations directed at Jordan’s immigrant communities (such as the Iraqi radio station al-Rasheed). As far as channels aiming for a broader audience are concerned, though, the dialect one is most likely to come across is Lebanese.

Lebanese colloquial in Jordan is represented, these days, most prominently by the radio station Sawt al-Ghad (“The Voice of Tomorrow”) – and, in particular, its morning show host, Jessy Abu Faisal. In what follows, I’ll examine Abu Faisal’s programme in more detail, and look at what speaking – and indeed being – Lebanese on Jordan’s airwaves today might mean.

Jessy Live

There are very few female radio hosts working in Jordan’s prime time morning slot. This alone makes Jessy a bit exceptional, along with her linguistic distinctiveness. Her programme, called Jessy Live, ticks off most of the morning show genre boxes – speaking over music, reading messages sent in by listeners, commenting on recent events – though she also offers some sections (such as horoscopes and a few minutes set aside for “meditation”) that might not fit too well in the decidedly masculine frame of self-presentation of other hosts. There is also a short section set aside for “sports” – for which, as usual in Jordan, read “football”; presented, notably, not by Jessy herself, but rather  by a male journalist through a phone call.

(Jessy Abu Faisal, talking to a young guest in her studio – a girl suffering from bleeding in her left eyelid – before she comes on air during her programme. Note especially the ‘framing’ of the clip with canned recorded phrases in English)

The call-ins, too, have a decidedly ‘lighter’ feel. Many involve (mostly male) listeners with music requests; others might be on topics that Abu Faisal happens to be discussing. There are no heavy problem-solving ‘dramas’ here, though; no requests for mediating with authorities. There might be limits, then, to the kinds of roles allowed to this particular female host within the boundaries of her broadcast genre.

A Lebanese Host

Abu Faisal’s radio career began in her home country, as a presenter on Mirage, a radio station that belonged – as she states in one interview – to “a friend of her father’s” (and defunct since 1997). She has stated that she faced “difficulties” at the beginning of her career in Jordan – going on a decade, now – but also that she and her listeners had “adapted quickly” to each other.

What’s interesting here is that, despite her lack of familiarity with Jordanian dialect, there was never any question that Abu Faisal would be presenting her programme in anything other than colloquial Arabic. Here, at least, speaking “the people’s language” – rather than a stilted, formal Arabic style – was far more crucial than the details of what this language actually was. It is much easier, in other words, for the presumed gap between presenter and audience to be bridged by ‘training one’s ear’ each to the other’s dialect – rather than adopting a presumably shared standard. (It helps, of course, that many Jordanians are familiar with Lebanese speech; in terms of their presence in (pan-)Arab media, Lebanese speech styles are second only to Egyptian – and all the more so in the Levant, where Lebanon is the country likely boasting the greatest media diversity.)

Abu Faisal’s accent includes all the features one would expect from a Lebanese radio host. Among the traits distinctive of Lebanese, there is vowel-raising – from a to e, in particular, so nees rather than naas “people” – as well as the use of -kun and -(h)un as 2nd- and 3rd-person plural pronouns (“you” and “them”), respectively (the Ammani / Jordanian standard has -kum (sometimes -ku) and -(h)um here).

There’s also the way certain words are pronounced, especially those with q – a phoneme pronounced unambiguously as a uvular stop in Classical / Standard Arabic but a favored phonetic shibboleth for contemporary Arabic dialects (and academic studies of them). There is a kind of “formality bar” in conversational Arabic as to which words retain the Classical pronunciation of this phoneme, and which use a colloquial version (something which Hassan Abd el-Jawad has termed lexical conditioning). In normative Ammani, the colloquial variant is split by gender: men use g instead of q, while women use the glottal stop. By contrast, in Lebanon – as in Syria, and the more prestigious Palestinian dialects – it’s the glottal stop throughout.

Since Abu Faisal is female, this might not make much of a difference – but in fact, along with the lack of gender split, other Levantine dialects also tend to set the “formality bar” much higher than Ammani / Jordanian does. That is, words that in Jordan would still be pronounced in the ‘formal’ manner use the ‘colloquial’ version in Lebanese. So one hears Abu Faisal say Taa’a for “energy” and Ta’s for “weather” – both of which are much more likely to be pronounced Taaqa and Taqs, respectively, retaining the formal q, if the dialect being aimed for is ‘Jordanian.’

B8LGlFQCAAAKSJi

(“Jessy Abu Faisal.” Source: Sawt el-Ghad Jordan’s Twitter page – LINK)

Marks of Abu Faisal’s Lebanese identity are also evident in the content of her programme. She might affirm her origin by playing a song describing her home country – commenting, to her listeners, that this is “so you hear something about Lebanon.” Listeners also take it up themselves: by sending in messages, for example, saying “good morning” to “Jessy,” and an added greeting to كل الوطن العربي : “the entire Arab homeland”, or “all Arabs / Arab lands” – with the implication that any common ground between the presenter and the Jordanians who listen to her can only be one that goes beyond national borders. Clearly, both host and audience are well aware of her Lebanese-ness – in language and beyond.

Speaking Spontaneously

There are many meanings one could draw from Abu Faisal’s on-air performances. The classic stereotype, in Jordan, is that Lebanese speech styles – and, indeed, Lebanese identity itself – have feminine or feminized associations. In this context, it’s perhaps not strange that the most prominent Lebanese voice on Jordanian radio is also female. As we’ve seen, this has implications for the morning show built around “Jessy” as a presenter-character: allowing certain topics and styles of interaction (horoscopes), while foreclosing others (sports, bureaucratic mediation). Ideas about gender implied by the genre might, then, be just as conservative as its formal limitations – reflected in aspects such as music choices, and interactional style, as I’ve argued on this blog previously.

There’s another dimension to all this, though, that may be just as important. Pretty much all radio professionals I’ve spoken to during my time in Jordan have emphasized the value of spontaneity among radio presenters. Using colloquial Arabic on air is valued as long as the language you use is your ‘natural’ way of speaking: not formal, not stilted, not sourced from previously prepared ornamented texts, but rather focused on the interaction itself, addressing listeners and interlocutors like one would (presumably) normally do in a conversation.

Especially deserving of criticism, here, are those who betray this spontaneity by adopting a style of speech that is not their ‘native’ one: in particular, Jordanian presenters that – and this was always presented to me as a thing of the past, an obsession that Jordan’s airwaves have by now been purified from – tried to adopt Lebanese colloquial features in order to emulate Lebanese media personalities, and by association appear more ‘hip’ or ‘modern.’ Lebanese, in the mouths of Jordanian presenters, feels “fake”; worse, even, than formal Arabic, since it cheats its addressees by pretending to be spontaneous even though it really isn’t. (Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that, for a Jordanian presenter not brought up in Amman, adopting a normative ‘Jordanian’ – i.e., Ammani – accent might be just as “fake” as trying to speak Lebanese.)

Jessy, on the other hand, can at least be presumed to be “spontaneous” in speaking Lebanese. After all, it is “her” colloquial, the dialect she – as a woman with Lebanese origins – is supposed to claim and revel in as her own. (Leaving aside, as well, the fact that “Lebanese” here is of course also only a label given to a very particular speech style prestigious in Lebanon, rather than something that all Lebanese would speak normally.) Still, we can wonder whether the association of “Lebanese” with “fakery” might not be strong enough to overcome this particular biographic detail.

We’re firmly in the realm of meanings and ideas here; “metapragmatics,” following Michael Silverstein, ideas about language use that take on a life all of their own quite apart from the actual linguistic reality (though they may then come back to exert influence on this reality merely by virtue of their force as ideas). It would make sense, though, considering the complex of values revolving around distinct kinds of colloquial Arabic in Jordan, and the particular situations in which Lebanese and its speakers tend to occur. It may well be difficult to claim your dialect is ‘spontaneous’ or ‘authentic’ when the context where it’s heard most often is that of flamboyant media stars and foreign television dramas.

Lebanese on the Air

Officials on the Line

For all their musical chatter and social media activity, the conversation with the official remains the centerpiece of Jordan’s morning “service programme” genre. It’s what makes them truly distinct from any other programme out there. Hosts and producers are very much aware of this. The amount of direct on-air conversations is kept low, usually only for the most high-profile or sympathy-swelling issues. Airtime is precious, after all; and if not it has to be made so.

The broadcasters’ role is key in this. They’re the ones authorized and empowered to speak; the voices that have the officials’ ear, those that choose which issues will be presented and resolved in the daily drama of the morning show. In their position as “problem mediators,” the hosts enter into direct relationships with people in Jordan’s official and government circles. Whether hosts and officials in fact know each other personally is not really an issue.  What matters is that their interactions are performed as such: through amicable on-air conversations, cultivating a feeling of closeness that reassures listeners and encourages them to come forward with their own difficulties.

The types of problems often repeat – issues with traffic, infrastructure, schools, taxes, government employment – and so do the officials summoned to resolve them. Listeners, especially regular ones, inevitably catch onto this. And though they may for the most part be blocked from linking up with the officials directly, they still come to know who precisely it is that the stations keep as their “contact.” At the other end, there’s always somebody listening: a person, with a name and a job and a face, someone with the will and power to hear their plight and do something about it.

Official Chats

On Muhammad al-Wakeel’s show, these principles are evident enough. His style of interacting with officials is predictably chummy, though always respectful: conceding the floor, letting the phone guests speak their mind, with much fewer interruptions than for the ‘civilian’ callers.

Though his position on the Jordanian army’s official radio station might give al-Wakeel a somewhat privileged ‘insider’ status, the style of interaction exhibited by other hosts isn’t all that different. In the end, a conversation between a host and an official is always a conversation; and, as such, subject to all the rules a normal conversation in Arabic entails. Extended greetings are exchanged at the beginning at the end. The forms of address the participants use to address each other – “sir,” or “my brother,” or direct use of names or teknonyms – inevitably reveal the kind of relationship the two wish to project between each other. And there are constant  respectful evasions and allusions, compounded by the fact that they’re now speaking “on air.”

When, in the beginning of December last year, a busful of students crashed in the early morning on the road leading to Madaba, his contact in the Civil Defense’s media office – Brigadier General Farid al-Sharaa – was quick to respond to Radio Hala’s requests for information. Just to “reassure” al-Wakeel’s loyal listeners, of course, by telling them which school in particular the bus belonged to, and that the accident only resulted in seven light injuries.

(Tweet reads: “In the morning the nicest faces are not those made most beautiful but those that smile the most and are the most innocent… Good morning, Muhammad al-Wakeel.” From Radio Hala’s Twitter page)

This could very well have taken the form of a detached, formal announcement, giving only the barest facts about the incident. But framed as it was within a telephone conversation, it played out rather differently: as a friendly chat between two men, comfortable in their positions, who have no trouble speaking to each other publicly on an equal level.

al-Sharaa and al-Wakeel exchanged greetings and blessings, shared a few laughs, and concerned themselves at some length with expressing respect for each other’s work – in the Civil Defense and on the radio, respectively. The Brigadier might have spoken in his formal capacity, about a serious issue – a traffic accident – but the image he presented was far from that of a stodgy institutional spokesman. He was just another person; chatting on the phone, just like anybody else would. The easy familiarity that al-Wakeel showed while talking to him only confirmed the basic premise of the morning programmes: that institutions – the Civil Defense, as any other government agency – are made up of people, and that these people can be called up and talked to.

Personalizing Authority

Such familiarity extends beyond on-air interactions. The web of ‘backstage’ links maintained by the various programmes’ producers maintains the links even in the absence of directly broadcast conversations. On the listeners’ side, there is a similar sense of regular contacts being maintained – to the extent that callers come to expect, quite explicitly, who the official ‘listening in’ might be when they link up with each particular programme.

Comments about Jordan’s roads and traffic violations are common on all morning shows. One listener, who called up Hani al-Badri on Radio Fann to complain about overcrowded school buses, already made it clear in the introduction to his call who it was he expected to hear it:

يا سيدي فيه ملاحظتين لو سمحت لي على ادارة السير (..) ان شاء الله إنه يكون معاوية المقدّم معاوية يسمع

Sir there are two comments if you will for the Traffic Department… God willing Muawiya, Lieutenant Colonel Muawiya, is listening

 (Source: Wasat al-Balad recording, Radio Fann, 21 April 2014)

al-Badri’s response to this was only – “of course.” “Of course he’s listening.” The caller, then, could go on to explain his problems, safe in the knowledge he wasn’t just speaking into the wind. Which he did – reassured, presumably (though of course we only have the sound recording to speculate from here).

[fann] wasat al-balad numbers

(Graphic listing ways of linking up with Radio Fann’s Wasat al-Balad programme. Source: Radio Fann’s Facebook page, 23 February 2015 – LINK)

The issue isn’t whether the Lieutenant Colonel was in fact listening to this particular segment of the show, but rather the expectation that he would. And it isn’t just any employee of the Traffic Department: it is this particular Lieutenant Colonel, Muawiya, a person whose voice had been heard on air before and surely would be again.

It’s not likely that callers are particularly ‘strategic’ in choosing which morning programme to call depending on the contacts they keep. Most are probably grateful enough for the chance to come on air at all. Also, many programmes’ links appear to lead to the same official personages: usually people in press offices of ministries or government agencies, or the more ‘media-friendly’ ministers and officeholders (the Mayor of Amman makes especially frequent appearances on all sorts of issues).

Still, the general principle holds. Through the practice of calling up officials on morning programmes, government authorities are given names, and voices. They are, in other words, personalized; kept formal, and official, still, though in a way that makes it clear that these are institutions made up of people – people that can, then, be criticized for their particular failings, or enter as (supportive) characters in dramatic arcs played out in the ‘problem solution’ segments of the morning service shows. People who take their time, and listen – and who, in the end, might care more for citizens’ problems than a faceless bureaucratic state.

Officials on the Line

The Father by Day, the Son by Night: Nashama FM and Haytham al-Wakeel

Among the radio stations that boast of their Jordanian credentials most proudly is Nashama FM. It’s there in the name itself: nashaama نشامى , the plural of نشمي nashmii, is a word that could be translated literally as something like “gentleman,” “knight,” or “champion,” but it’s also strongly associated with Bedouin values of generosity and valor. Add to this the fact that it’s used regularly in the media to refer to valiant members of the Jordanian state apparatus – the nashaama of the Armed Forces, the nashaama of the police, and so on – and it’s easy to see how it fits a Jordanian nationalist framework that places a high value on (what have come to be understood as) Bedouin ethnic and identity markers.

Other aspects of the brand only confirm this further. Nashama’s logo (see below) proclaims the station to be “100% Jordanian,” and uses the seven-pointed star copied from the Jordanian flag – with inverted colors (red on a white background instead of vice versa), but still perfectly recognizable, and another distinctive Jordanian symbol. (Of the flag’s four colors, green is missing from the logo, though it is present on the station’s Twitter and Facebook profile pages.) Even the station’s media kit claims a unique compatibility with the “cultures and values of Jordanians” – whatever these might be – and promotes itself as providing proper “Jordanian” music of the kind that is “much closer to the heart and mind of every Jordanian than any other.”

NashamaLogo-White&Red-NEW-JPEG

(“Nashama FM 105.1. Jordanian, 100%.” Source: Nashama FM website)

Nashama’s morning show, إبشر (literally “Be Happy”) – hosted for the past few months by Ammar Madallah (follow this link for a telling photo) – is pretty much par for the course. Over a selection of highly patriotic music, the host offers his comments on current affairs; reads out messages sent by listeners – especially those that include some kind of praise the King, or the army, or other branches of the state – and reads out headlines from local newspapers. In the vein of other “service programmes,” like Hala’s al-Wakeel Programme or Fann’s Wasat al-balad, it also features call-ins from listeners, and occasionally phone conversations with government ministers or other officials.

So – apart from the name – what’s there to distinguish it? Outside of the morning programme, Nashama’s playlists do appear to be slanted a bit more heavily towards Jordanian music than that of other private stations – though that’s more a matter of degree than of absolute difference.

It does, though, boast an afternoon show hosted by Haytham al-Wakeel. Son of none other than, yes, the great Muhammad al-Wakeel – also known to his listeners as Abu Haytham.

A Voice to Lead You Home

When Haytham’s show was first announced – a result of a slight restructuring of programming that Nashama underwent at the beginning of the year – one Facebook commenter immediately remarked how fortunate listeners are, as they can now hear both representatives of the al-Wakeel clan on the air – every weekday!

الأب بالنهار وبالليل الإبن

The father in daytime, and at night, the son

Father and son do, in fact, complement each other quite neatly. The elder Wakeel’s Programme runs in the morning, from 7 to 10 AM, while Haytham’s timeslot is in the afternoon between 4 and 6. Both fall squarely in the times a commuting crowd would be most likely to tune into the radio, either in their own vehicles or (often, perforce) on public transport. The name of Haytham’s programme,  تي روّح , “Tii Rawwih,” brings this up directly by including the verb روّح rawwaHa, “to return home.” (Hayat FM’s afternoon programme is similarly explicit: it is called ترويحة، tarwiiHa, a noun derived from the same verbal stem – literally “the act of returning home.”)

Like most shows in the same programming slot, Tii Rawwih features music, call-ins on select topics, and the host’s own miscellaneous musings on the events of the day.

(“It’s time to start our evening with Haytham al-Wakeel… Listen and be a part of the sections and subjects of today’s “Tee Rawwih” programme!”)

After days of preoccupation with the martyrdom of Muath al-Kasasbeh, at the beginning of this week, a new issue finally began to move into the Jordanian media spotlight: the upcoming cold weather front. (The initial idea – bandied about already at the end of January – was to name it Falha, but given everything that had happened in the past week Jordanian media rather settled on Karam, which is the name of Kasasbeh’s eldest son.) So, on his 9 February programme, the question Haytham posed to his listeners was: how do you think the authorities will act in dealing with the upcoming storm? Are all the preparations we hear so much about going to be effective? Will they do as well as they have during Huda?

كل الإحترام (..) وقفة إجلال وإحترام للأجهزه الحكوميه اللي تعاملت مع المنخفض الجوي السابق (..) اشتغلوا بمهنيه (..) بتنسيق (..) أكيد منْوَجّه إلهم تحية (..) والله يعطيهم ألف عافيه

Respect… all honor and respect to the government agencies that dealt with the previous weather front… they worked professionally… they coordinated… for sure we give them our greeting… and God give them strength a thousand times over

(Source: tii rawwiH recording, Nashama FM, 9 February 2015)

The calls that made it on air seemed to agree with the host’s observation – similar to what his father had said in the aftermath of Huda – that, if there had been problems, they were caused by citizens not obeying government instructions, rather than official agencies not doing a good job. Haytham then turned to another favored bugbear of radio show hosts: the spread of unverified information through social media – what is derisively called إشاعات، “rumors,” as opposed (implicitly) to the reliable news spread by professional journalists and officially licensed media sources. Again, listeners were asked to call in with their views on the issue; and Haytham also encouraged them – several times – not to post any piece of information on their social media profiles unless they’re “100% sure” that it was true.

يعني شخص يكتب عنده معلومه (..) انت بتروح بتنشر نفس المعلومه اللي هو كتبها (..) طيب انت عارف شو المصدر لهذا الشخص؟ عارف انّه حكى صحّ؟

Okay so a person writes a piece of information… you go and publish the same thing that they’ve written… right so do you know what this person’s source is? Do you know what they’re saying is true?

(Source: tii rawwiH recording, Nashama FM, 9 February 2015)

Once again, the callers supported him. One older man called in to say that he’d been hearing rumors for “70 years” now, and had never believed a single one of them. Trusted sources only. A woman described how she feels bombarded by all sorts of information – from her friends, mostly, on social media – but, also, only takes heed of proper outlets.  “You only trust information from the government then?” was Haytham’s question. Well, of course! Even at work – when her colleagues talk about all different sorts of things, controversial things, politics and so on – she never joins in the debates…

Such discussion – if it can even be called such – is very much confined; sanitized, almost, never going far from the boundaries the host had set through his own reflections and opinions. Though, all in all, this isn’t much of a departure from what happens on most other stations with afternoon programmes. Light topics, accompanying people on their drive (or ride) home. Like the morning show, it’s a very well defined genre. Haytham’s voice may be distinctive – resembling, in some ways, his father’s, with his deep cadence and occasional booming laughter, though with slightly more colorful variation in pitch at times – but his topics and style hardly bring anything new to the afternoon broadcast scene.


 

Two points, I think, that can be drawn from the Nashama case. First is the impression of social tightness one gets when looking at the field of Jordanian radio. Not just the father-son link; even more generally, many broadcasters know each other well, and it’s easy for them to switch to another station to present their programmes, usually with little fuss or changes in style or language. In the past year or two there have been some high-profile shuffes among the morning show stars – al-Wakeel the Elder’s move from Rotana to Radio Hala probably the most notable – but Haytham also hosted a programme on Farah al-Nas before starting his current show, and Ammar Madallah (Nashama’s morning voice) had as his previous home Amen FM, the official radio station of the General Security Directorate (= the Jordanian police force).

Ammar Madallah (left) in the Nashama studio with a guest. From Nashama FM’s Facebook Page

The second point relates to the density of the Jordanian radio field. There are a large number of stations with very similar programming schemes – morning, daytime, and afternoon shows; each with their dedicated host, usually with call-ins and text messages – playing a very similar repertoire of Arabic-language music. The language used is also very similar, the kind of high-level Jordanian (really, Ammani) colloquial that has in recent years become the implicit norm in media.

Still, even here, there are nooks that stations can insert themselves into, targeting (or, indeed, inventing) ever more finely tuned listener segments. With its name, and its image, and its music choices, Nashama FM takes the ‘real Jordanian’ part of the audience to its furthest possible extreme.

For the moment, at least, this seems to be viable move; though I get the feeling this might tell us just as much about the cultural coordinates of the Jordanian media scene as it does about its purported listenership.


(Thanks to Abla Oudeh)

The Father by Day, the Son by Night: Nashama FM and Haytham al-Wakeel

Stars of the Studio (3): Mahmoud al-Hawyan

Every weekday morning, a little after 7 AM, Mahmoud al-Hawyan starts off his morning show صوت المواطن – “Voice of the Citizen” – on JBC Radio with a short address to his beloved listeners. On 5 February, when Jordan’s airwaves were still reeling from the shock of Muath al-Kasasbeh’s martyrdom, he directed his greetings not just at “friends of the programme,” but to all “friends of Jordan” – “friends of the beloved homeland” that surely must stand in solidarity with the nation in these troubled times:

هذه الأرض هناك الكثيرُ من الأصدقاء (..) سلامُنا عليهم وهم يقفونَ معنا (..) مع الحقّ (..) مع المنطق (..) مع الدين

This land has many friends… our greetings to them, as they stand with us… with righteousness… with reason… with religion…

(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin recording, JBC Radio, 5 February 2015)

It’s not as much the content that’s interesting here – in the days after the news of Kasasbeh’s death was announced, messages of solidarity were pretty much a staple for all of Jordan’s radio hosts – but the way in which it is presented: the language, or more accurately the level of language – what with more sociolinguistic flair we can call register.

The Arabic al-Hawyan uses is very formal; not only does it obey all the precepts of classical grammar, but it’s also presented in a very literary manner, through poetically constructed sentences, read out with dramatic pauses and intonation. It doesn’t quite reach the level of a literary text, or classical poem; still, within the genre of the morning show, it’s quite striking to hear something so far removed from the usual ‘folksy’ colloquial norm. And it says a lot about the kind of style that al-Hawyan seeks to cultivate.

Dazzling Eloquence

al-Hawyan – also a Jordanian state TV personality, in addition to his radio work – loves showing off his skills in formal Arabic. One simple way to achieve this are word substitutions. Consider, for example, that al-Hawyan consistently uses the word البارحة al-baariHa for “yesterday,” instead of the more colloquial imbaariH – which keeps active the link to the colloquial word (which the other formal alternative أمس ams would not do), but still acts as a ‘signpost’ to elevate the language in a very marked way.

Other techniques are more complex. There’s the use of case endings, which in spoken Arabic are absent from all but the most official and literary contexts (and in any case only pronounced fully when reading). Certain ways of arranging words and phrases also have indisputably poetic associations. One favored example are parallelisms – as in the following excerpt, where al-Hawyan (commenting on a beloved singer) he takes to listing all the various things that might make somebody more “cultured” or “refined” by repeating the verb over and over:

الفنُ يؤدّب

الدينُ يؤدّب

الشعرُ يؤدّب

التواضعُ يؤدّب

الكرمُ يؤدّب

Art refines

Religion refines

Poetry refines

Modesty refines

Generosity refines

(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin recording, JBC Radio, 27 January 2015)

Lines of poetry, and short parables, and monologues calling officials to accountability: all are subject to a kind of theatrical rendering, in a pompous, declarative tone, often without any accompanying background music that would distract from the host’s voice and eloquence. Even when dealing with more prosaic, unsavory subjects, al-Hawyan usually finds some way to give his comments an eloquent twist. One morning, after being shaken by a news report about a son killing his own father and then burying him in “one of Amman’s neighborhoods,” al-Hawyan decided to direct a florid message to the murderer that made it clear in no uncertain way what he thought of his actions:

يوماََ من الأيّام (..) سيأتي مَن يقتلك (..) ويحفرُ لكَ قبرك (..) لن يكونَ غريباََ (..) ذلكَ القاتل (..) سيكونُ من صُلبك

Some day… one shall come to kill you… and dig a grave for you… he shall not be strange to you… this killer… he shall be of your own body

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

Whatever his listeners’ responses to such rhetoric may be, it certainly makes al-Hawyan stand out among his much more colloquially-minded morning show colleagues. Add to this the fact that, as I’ve mentioned, the otherwise constant flow of music is usually silenced during his recitations, and it’s only more clear that it is the voice itself – and, through it, its language – being emphasized here.

Image text and tweet read:

With Mahmoud al-Hawyan… THE VOICE OF THE CITIZEN

Good morning……. A new installment of #”The Voice of the Citizen”

These poetic streaks sound almost comical when compared to the easy spontaneity of most morning hosts – who do, it should be said, have their own flashes of linguistic artistry, though these are rarely as elaborate (or as distinctly focused) as al-Hawyan’s. Through them, he comes out as a proper linguistic virtuoso: one who can twist his way through even the murkier reaches of Arabic grammar, an on-air performer who can comment on even the dreariest of subjects with beauty and eloquence. That alone, we’d expect, would be reason enough to secure him a place behind the microphone.

Extremes of Nicety

The voice of a morning programme host – beleaguered as they are by call-ins, and sometimes interviews – is of course never alone. Sawsan Zaydeh has documented al-Hawyan’s preference for callers with personal stories: people looking for jobs, or asking for charity, issues that can be solved in the manner of ‘dispensing favors’ through one’s links with persons in authority, rather than those that might concern a broader community or require more sustained official attention or intervention.

Mahmoud al-Hawyan is with you live on the #”Voice of the Citizen” programme

In this, though, al-Hawyan doesn’t differ that much from any other morning host. (And it’s not that they refuse to resolve the more prosaic problems either; it just often takes more time to do so. They’re always very proud and willing to let callers thank them on air about the solution to a local problem they’d called in about last week, or last month.) Rather, what distinguishes him is the way in which he treats his callers: how he greets and introduces them; for how long he lets them speak; the style and volume of his goodbyes.

No Jordanian radio host skimps on niceties, but with al-Hawyan, these can be especially overbearing. A respectful tikram, tikram or ya merHaba might be repeated several times. Often, the politeness feels like it’s almost going too far. The first call taken by al-Hawyan on the morning of 5 February consisted of nothing but repeating of virtually the same words of praise for the army, the Hashemite leadership, and the martyr Muath al-Kasasbeh, over and over again. After this had gone on for over a minute, al-Hawyan began to prompt the caller with measured interjections: gently at first, with “yes”-es and “thank you”-s, then slightly more forcefully – “thank you, sir,” “thank you my brother,” “I thank you – ” “my brother – ” “my dear – ” – though with just as little success.

In the end, the call had to be physically cut off, unless al-Hawyan wanted his authority to be undermined completely. Yet he still couldn’t help but offer a respectful send-off:

أشكرك جداََ، مباركة جداََ هاذي المداخلة الجميلة، أشكرك حبيبي يا مرحبا بك

Thank you so much, so blessed this beautiful contribution, I thank you my dear, you are very welcome

(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin recording, JBC Radio, 5 February 2015)

The sheer volume of polite phrases is what makes al-Hawyan’s style unique here. What authority he has, he builds through language; through words; words, moreover, that are never anything less than eloquent, and graceful, as respectful as they can be.


al-Hawyan might well lack Muhammad al-Wakeel’s propensity for building dramatic arcs, or Hani al-Badri’s knack for improvised jokes and subtle sarcasm. Perhaps his intense centering of language is a way to compensate for this: polishing his diction in order to make his monologues and interactions as neat and elegant as possible. This doesn’t necessarily encourage his callers to communicate in the same way – and many of them probably lack the skills to do so – but it does very much set the backdrop for his on-air interactions: polite, eloquent, less an agonistic debate than a civil exchange of stories and viewpoints, with space always reserved for reading out the host’s own florid comments or short lines of idioms or poetry listeners might send in.

It’s not exactly a style that would allow for spontaneous reactions, or cultivate space for  discussion. Ultimately, al-Hawyan’s language is what elevates him, over and above everybody else. In his little islands of a cappella monologue, it’s his erudition – and that alone – that comes to the forefront. The contrast with ordinary conversational language feels almost unbridgeable. Others might be welcomed into this space, though only with so much hedging, so much fidgeting, so much politeness that makes it clear that they are only guests. Honored, perhaps, but certainly unequal – and always shuffled out before the host’s next declamatory stint behind the microphone.

Stars of the Studio (3): Mahmoud al-Hawyan

Stars of the Studio (2): Hani al-Badri

All kinds of topics make it onto air during morning call-in shows. Not all listeners call in about a specific problem they’re facing: some might simply offer a viewpoint on some more broadly relevant issue, framed as a comment or – sometimes – a kind of advice or warning directed at anybody who might be tuning in. Such was the case of one listener who called up Hani al-Badri on his daily morning programme, Wasat al-balad (“City Centre”), imploring people not to give money to young children “begging” at the windows of cars standing at intersections. Not to be cold-hearted, of course, but merely because these children are more often than not effectively “employed” by certain “organizations” in order to bring in money.

“Not only that,” the caller went on. “The phenomenon of begging itself should disappear!” What kind of country do we live in if it allows these kinds of things to go on?

al-Badri was all agreement. Outraged, of course; how could he not be? One of the staple strategies of the morning call-in show is to personalize every problem by linking it to a particular official figure; so al-Badri turned his ire onto the Minister of Social Development, who had recently issued a declaration she wanted to “affirm the importance” of psychological support for families –

Oh really. Affirm the importance? All good and well – but what was she going to do about it?

الوزيرة هاي بتأكّد (..) ولما تأكّد (..) احنا بنّام ليلنا طويل مرتاحين

This minister, she’s affirming… and when she affirms… we can all sleep comfortably through the night

( (..) stands for a longer pause. Source: wasaT al-balad recording, Radio Fann, 13 April 2014)

All this in a very sarcastic tone, laced with muffled laughter. al-Badri, with his kind-of feel for what might turn into an effective gag, held on to this, and went on to slam – quite subtly, as is his style – all ministers that spend their time issuing vague “calls” or “affirmations” to develop their fields but are really not doing much to fulfill their real duties. A reminder, to  government officials as to every one of his listeners, that the morning show – with its intimate insight into citizens’ observations and opinions – is always vigilant.

“No fear,” al-Badri said. His programme team – his šabaab – were already busy sifting through the news.

“Whenever a minister declares they’re affirming the importance of something, I’ll let you know.”

The Cynical Citizen

If Muhammad al-Wakeel’s distinguishing feature is his propensity for drama, that of Hani al-Badri – the sharp-tongued doktoor who hosts Radio Fann’s morning call-in show – is cynicism. One need only look at the kind of comments he gives on news headlines to get a sense of this. “Denial that hospitals in al-Aghwar al-Shamaliyyeh have been supplied with spoiled meat and poultry” – but who was it exactly that denied it, hmm? “Every official in the country?” “President of the House of Representatives says that the parliament is open to unions” – yalla bas?! Only “open?” “Open” towards people and their demands?! “Demand for clothing goes down by 30%” – well, after the increase in customs fees which those amazing minds at the Finance Ministry believed would bring more money into the state budget… who would have thought it?

It’s not just in the ‘safe’ environment of news commentary that al-Badri’s attitude shines through. He can be equally acerbic while taking call-ins, and doesn’t hesitate to lash out at government officials who either (in his eyes) aren’t doing their job very well, or have gotten on his bad side by being difficult to reach or refusing to answer Wasat al-Balad’s phone calls – which, really, amounts to the same thing. (A disproportionate amount of these officials appear to be women, which of course is just an unfortunate coincidence.)

So the poor Social Development Minister again found herself chastised about a week or so after the “begging” comment, when a woman from Ramallah called in to report physical abuse suffered by her disabled son at an educational center in Jordan. The šabaab had tried to contact the Minister about the issue as the show trundled on, but – horror of horrors – she could not be reached:

وزيرة التنمية الاجتماعية للمرة العشرة آلاف (..) بيرُدّوا مكتبها بيقولوا الشباب (..) هي في اجتماع

ستبقى في اجتماع (..) الى ان يكتب الله (..) او يفعل الله (..) ما كانَ

The Social Development Minister, for the ten thousandth time… her office replies – the šabaab tell me… she’s in a meeting.

And she will stay in a meeting… until God writes… until God does…

(Source: wasaT al-balad recording, Radio Fann, 20 April 2014)

Well, what can you do? This is just how officials are, sometimes. Refusing to answer the phone. Refusing to do their job. All al-Badri could do in the end was raise his hands, and laugh in resignation.

Even towards his listeners, al-Badri can be rather brusque. His impatience shows through especially when people call up with issues that had already been brought up before, or are rehashed over and over again during the course of a weak. Sighs of frustration, and raised tones, and hand-thumps are not infrequent. “We’ve heard about this twenty times already…” “We’ve contacted the Municipality yesterday for the hundredth on this very same subject…”

The officials are still the ultimate target here, but such a way of communicating goes somewhat against the conventions of polite discourse. It’s not that al-Badri isn’t aware of this; he even reflected, once, on a message that came in to his programme calling him maghruur (“aloof” or “conceited”), gracefully conceding he does have a general problem with “niceties.” Perhaps this is all just part of the strategy: to tell things “as they are,” interacting with callers and listeners in a way that goes straight to the heart of their issues without sugarcoating them. Within the confines of Wasat al-balad, if al-Badri is able to speak his mind so freely – without inhibitions – the people who call in may well feel they can do the same.

Judging from comments al-Badri has made for Rana Sweis’s New York Times article on Jordanian radio, that’s certainly the general idea. al-Badri tries to speak as if he were just another Jordanian: frustrated, by the government’s inefficiency, by unresponsive officials, by the fact that Jordan seems to lag behind every other Arab country (or, rather, those in the Gulf – but aren’t they the ones that count?) in terms of infrastructure and economic development. And more than a few callers do, in fact, contact the show just to commiserate, and share their views – on problems such as child beggars, or the role of parliamentary deputies, or even more abstract issues such as feelings of “belonging” (انتماء).

And the others? Complaints from callers who contact al-Badri about specific problems are taken in quickly; dismissed, usually, with a swift HaaDriin (“we’re on it”), and a promise to contact the person responsible for it. There’s no space here for drama, for heroic arcs. al-Badri tolls, does the best he can, but his longest, most eloquent, most exasperated monologues are in fact offered on issues that he cannot possibly solve, rather than “playing them up” for a final more theatrical resolution. We’re all at the same table here: shaking our heads, laughing in dismay.

And moving on.

All in the Genre

Still, there’s only so far you can go. al-Badri – whatever his claims to offering a place for free debate and discussion might be – still operates squarely within the confines of the Genre. The songs playing underneath his comments praise the homeland, the king, and the army. Radio Fann’s jingles pronounce it as both haašimiyye (Hashemite) and urduniyye (Jordanian). (Throw in miyye-miyye (“100%”), and whoever penned the Radio Hala theme tune might well complain about plagiarism.) It also never challenges the basic premise of a complaint-focused morning call-in show: of being, essentially, an intermediary, an informal arm of government that can turn its attention to areas it for some reason might have missed.

And, let us not forget. al-Badri is a doktoor. Someone with an academic degree. Someone with status. (In Jordan, this counts, very much.) A respected journalist, even apart from his radio career. Implicitly, at least, there’s still a divide drawn between him and his listeners. He might complain, much like them, about much the same things; but in the end, it’s his voice coming out of the speaker, his figure seated in that comfortable chair behind the full-length window looking out into the streets of Amman. Just by virtue of his position, it counts for more.

The only thing that might really distinguish al-Badri’s show from all the others is his style. His cynicism; his disillusioned attitude towards many (though certainly not all; there are red lines, still) branches of government. Such a stance, at least, his programme seems to allow. Callers’ voices are still very much a part of his performance – though, perhaps, in such a context there is at least a slightly better chance that they be heard as voices, rather than just sappy stories to be exploited, or props for an imagined heroism. But it’s only by looking closely at the kind of talk and interaction that each particular programme – and host – allows for themselves and then contributors that we can explore just how far the genre’s conservatism can be pushed.

Stars of the Studio (2): Hani al-Badri