Jana

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

Bread and Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Impositions

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

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

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

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

Jana

Martyr #2475

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martyr #2475

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

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

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

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

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

WE ARE ALL MUATH KASASBEH

#We are all Muath

Join us in these crucial hours

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

Join us in this solidarity

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

لأنّ تراب الوطن غالٍ

لأنّك من صقور الأردن

ولأنّ أقدار الأبطال الدفاعُ عن أوطانهم

نحن معك

الى النشمي البطل معاذ الكساسبة

أعادك الله سالماََ غانماََ معافاََ الى بلدك الأردن

Because the soil of the homeland is precious

Because you are one of Jordan’s falcons

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

We are with you

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

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

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

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

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

[31 JAN 2015] muath sketch

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

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

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

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


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

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

“We have a lot of faith in God.”


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

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

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

Muhammad al-Shaker, Buried in Bread: Storms and the “Weather Business”

Another trending topic during the days the Huda winter storm hit Jordan was the name Muhammad al-Shaker. Shaker (pronounced SHEH-kur) is a self-professed meteorology enthusiast who started out as a pharmacist; and, in recent years, as founder of the ArabiaWeather / طقس العرب website, and a familiar face for its forecasts and predictions (especially through the web TV channel Ro’ya), he’s become a proper guru as far as weather issues are concerned.

In business-speak, Shaker discovered a niche – accurate, detailed, locale-sensitive weather forecasts presented in Arabic – and managed to fill it splendidly. Though he started with Jordan, now the ArabiaWeather website also offers forecasts for other Arab countries. Public exposure followed, though not always positive. One caustic tweet during Huda – which I’ve sadly lost the link to – had Shaker for a “weather businessman,” “trading” in weather like it was some kind of commercial article, a way of building his image and promoting himself through his regular online performances.

But most of those who pay attention to Shaker’s forecasts seem to be little troubled by the riches he might have gained. His performances – detailed, authoritative, to-the-point, supported with eye-catching interactive graphics – are a much slicker, much more palatable, and to a smartphone-armed public much more accessible version of weather forecasts than official pronouncements. It’s no surprise, then, that when he declared Huda might be a ‘big one’, his words didn’t go unnoticed.

Weather Talk

When the storm hit, Shaker himself provided regular updates to the forecast, broadcast live by Ro’ya and later accessible in online archives. Even winds and snowfall, as battered Amman on Wednesday evening, weren’t enough to stop him. Here’s a clip of him giving a kind of “field” forecast from outside the studio – still worth a watch, I think, even if you don’t understand Arabic:

The tie stays on, of course.

Shaker includes a lot of detail in his forecast here. Time and location of expected snowfall are dissected thoroughly; so are the predicted developments during the night, and in the next few days, as well as warnings for people to stay at home (and explaining why they should do so). The language he uses is quite high-level; on the near side of MSA formality, fluent and confident without being stilted. There are the “explanatory” gestures as well, and the posture. Though Shaker falters a bit in places – e.g. at about 1:38 when the wind picks up – his entire presentation seeks to radiate authority and professionalism. A man, then, who knows his stuff, and whose predictions can be trusted.

Soon enough, every word that came out of Shaker’s mouth came to be watched very closely. His forecasts on Ro’ya continued through Thursday: reports on accumulated snow,  complete with fancy graphics, animations of the cold front moving across Jordan as well as  interactive marking of areas that would be affected.

The Maligned Forecaster

Woe to him, though, that sows undue panic among the people. Throughout Thursday daytime and during the night, Huda gradually eased off, leading some Jordanian internet-nauts to question Shaker’s integrity in “playing it up” as similar to last winter’s Alexa (which at that moment seemed much more severe in comparison). Before the storm hit, Jordanians had been encouraged to stock up on supplies and be prepared not to leave their homes for several days straight. Now, though, despite the warnings that extreme weather would continue (and snow hit the country’s southern regions), it seemed things might be settling down.

Was Shaker to blame? Some seemed to think so. There were voices denouncing him as a meteorological “hobbyist” rather than a proper expert, and even whispers of a smear campaign against him on some authorities’ part. People talked a lot about bread – something citizens might be expected to stock up on, before the storm – and, half-jokingly perhaps, whether Shaker had in fact conspired with bakeries in order to scare people about the storm and push them to spend more than they otherwise might have.

Whenever people see #Muhammad al-Shaker they run to buy bread

Others took the situation with better humor.

Dear Muhammad al-Shaker.

I swear by God that if it doesn’t snow in Tafileh I will not bury you in all the bread that I’ve bought

Still, it seemed that, for this young man who had appeared so confident and professional, the times could turn tough if his predictions proved off the mark.

Redeemed by the Ice Apocalypse

On Friday night, the situation changed again. Shaker had already declared in his Thursday forecasts that by the weekend Jordan would be exposed to the full brunt of the cold front, bringing ice and freezing temperatures, and warned people not to leave their homes.

These warnings, at least, proved timely. The situation on the roads grew quickly worse as temperatures plummeted after sundown. A slew of traffic accidents followed, with at least two casualties. By late evening, when roads in Jordan were announced officially closed due to weather conditions, Shaker’s image seemed to have recovered.

#Muhammad al-Shaker you’ve proven your worth

For somebody like Shaker – disseminating their wisdom from the private sector, without an established apparatus to support them – worth and reputation in the public’s eye might rise and fall on the strength on their predictions. Weather forecasting is a risky business to get involved in; even more so when a storm like Huda hits, when you can expect audiences to hang on your every word, question every claim you make and your qualifications to do so. Though in the end it’s difficult to tell whether it’s the forecaster’s beloved subject – the weather – or their public that’s the more fickle, or predictable.

Muhammad al-Shaker, Buried in Bread: Storms and the “Weather Business”