The Opinion of the Arab Street

The latest episode of the satirical news programme Tashweesh Wadih (“Clear Confusion”) on Ro’ya (about which I wrote a bit more extensively earlier this year) by necessity featured an extended comment on Israel’s most recent attacks on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The presenter, Muath al-Bzour, dealt with the issue with some gravity, but in proper Tashweesh fashion the scene was then taken over by the Israeli-mocking character figure Shalot – turned on its head and made comedic by Shalot’s erratic behavior and non-sequitur responses despite Bzour’s best “attempts” to keep the tone serious.

And then there is this next bit, where a Tashweesh correspondent goes to ask “the Arab street” why it did not respond to the al-Aqsa attacks more strongly. (Snapshot below; the segment runs from cca. 5:20 onward in the YouTube video.)


The correspondent lowers the microphone to the road surface, in order to interview “the street” quite literally. His nasal tone and slow, strained, overly formal language mimics the stiff demeanor of Jordanian (and other Arabic-language) TV correspondents. A question follows – “What action will you take in response to these attacks on the al-Aqsa Mosque?” – but the street is silent, which leads the correspondent to comment “we have not come at an appropriate time to learn the opinion of the Arab Street.”

Taking idiomatic language literally is, of course, one of the most elementary techniques of comedy. But at another level, this particular sketch is also a brilliant spoof of an idiom that is used all too often in soundbite-friendly media contexts – to the extent it’s become all but empty of meaning. Sociopolitical shorthand, in other words, that is as meaningless and uninformative as, indeed, shooting questions at a stretch of empty Jordanian asphalt.

The Opinion of the Arab Street

Broadcasting the Hajj

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Broadcasting the Hajj

Some Thoughts on Conversation Analysis

(DISCLAIMER: This is a slightly more academic-toned post than many I’ve been writing so far. These might become more frequent for a while as my doctoral writing goes on. Still I hope to make it all accessible and interesting even to those who aren’t necessarily up to speed with the latest in humanities academia and academic approaches to language.)


For a while now, I’ve been searching for a good academic methodological ‘hook’ for looking at language on Jordanian radio. One semi-popular approach to such issues is Conversation Analysis, an empirical-analytical method developed by a gaggle of U.S. sociologists from the 1960s onward with the goal of studying the finer details of human conversation and see how mutual understandings emerge in actual social interaction – rather than being forced to read these off as ‘interpretations’ from interviews or textual descriptions of events. On the surface, it looks workable: you transcribe people’s conversations from recordings, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, and then look for patterns and principles in the details of how they exchange their turns and communicate. But delving into actual Conversation Analysis (best practice is to capitalize it; though I’ll be using CA henceforth) as an methodological-analytical approach, it becomes clear it wouldn’t quite do. It is, on the one hand, a bit too narrow in the kind of data that it admits as valid for analysis; and also, once you look at it closely, not at all the methodologically rigorous end-all it claims to be.


CA takes as its starting point the idea that talk, as a prime component of human social interaction, should be studied in its own right – as an activity with its own particular features and principles, and not merely a neutral medium of transmission for human values and beliefs. Conversation analysts proceed from transcripts of conversation (any kind of conversation: live, phone, broadcast – though always recorded so that a proper transcript can be made from it), and look at features such as when and how people take turns, when they are silent, when and how they correct themselves or each other (what CA calls “repair”), when and how they display (or not) that they have understood their interlocutor in conversation, and so on. The goal is to see, in short, how talk is structured as a social activity, and what this can tell us about how people deal with and come to understand each other over the course of this activity.

One strong proponent of using CA in studies of media has been Ian Hutchby, especially in his book Media Talk, where he looks at several broadcasting contexts – such as TV interviews, radio call-ins, and TV ‘audience participation’ programmes – and shows how these are organized according to principles that conversation analysts have found holding for “ordinary conversation” (Hutchby’s terms not mine). At the same time, conversation in media also has certain features not found in “ordinary” talk, and Hutchby lists a number of such features that CA can identify – which I’m not going to recount in detail here, but they include practices such as generalising reference in giving advice and constructing power asymmetries between hosts and broadcasters.

Picture 1: Gail Jefferson, one of the three founding figures of Conversation Analysis (the other two being Harvey Sacks and Emmanuel Schegloff).

For this to work, though, one needs to assume that (a) broadcast talk is in fact different from “ordinary conversation,” and (b) we know what the principles of “ordinary conversation” actually are. Both are assumptions made by whoever is analysing the talk (I’ll discuss a bit more below why this is a problem for Hutchby in particular). The second one, especially, links to one pervasive weakness of CA: its ethnocentricity. Most work on CA has been done on English, with the result being that we simply know much more – in brute, numeric terms; I’m sure every conversation analyst would agree that it’s possible, and desirable, to run CA on languages other than English – about the details of Conversation in English than in any other language. (Linguistic anthropologists have begun to redress the balance a bit, but the skewing is still considerable.) It also has somewhat eclectic transcription practices which any purebred linguist would probably gag over (eye-dialect! Putting a lengthening sign on an English vowel without indicating its IPA value! Using a colon as a sign for lengthening sounds in the first place, rather than the two tiny triangles that IPA necessitates!! Etc.). It’s not, then, an analytical approach which would be easy to generalise beyond English (even if there’s nothing in the actual principles of CA that would exclude this possibility).

There are more problems that have to do with the way CA approaches data. The focus is always on transcripts – and transcripts alone. For a conversation analyst to find an interesting feature to talk about, this feature has to be noted in transcripts, and observable in them across a number of cases. What’s going on in the minds of the people talking to each other is irrelevant – for CA’s purposes, it’s what they say, and how they say it, that matters; and that alone. All the “shared understanding” that CA goes on about is in fact only what is demonstrated in conversation; the “understanding” here isn’t a cognitive understanding, necessarily, but rather enough common ground for the conversation to continue in order to make sense. (Obviously, there needs to be some prior common cognitive understanding – at the very least, of the language that is being spoken – before the understanding-emergent-in-Conversation can come into play; but that’s merely a background assumption, rather than a topic of analysis for CA.)

A corollary of this is that in CA the analyst can’t argue for the relevance of any issue unless an “orientation” to it on part of speakers is discernible from the transcript. Variables such as gender, class, age etc. are irrelevant, unless there is proof in the transcript that participants are making it relevant for each other. Which makes sense on the very basic level of constructing and exchanging turns in conversation – but any attempt to broaden your argument, and you soon run into problems.

Take, for example, gender. Unless the gender identity of a speaker is made relevant in Conversation – explicitly, or implicitly, e.g. by being systematically denied long turns because of their gender identity – whether a speaker is male or female is not a variable for CA. Of course, comparing across cases – of, for example, all-male and all-female conversations – one could find consistent differences linked to gender; but the absurd conclusion you are forced to take if you follow the CA line religiously is that gender is simply irrelevant as a variable within these interactions. Unless you assume that speakers are also making the same kinds of links, across contexts, that the analyst is… but then there is no transcript-based proof that this is the case. (I think – or hope – that nobody would be insane enough to question the conclusion that gender is relevant in such a hypothetical scenario on the basis of this latter point; but the point is that any such conclusion already moves us away from the strict ’empirical closeness’ badge that CA wears so proudly.)

CA methods are also silent on how gender norms may make only certain kinds of conversations, rather than others, come to happen in the first place: it looks only at what actually happened (i.e., the transcript), not how this situation, with these participants, as opposed to any other, even came to pass – even though the fact that there are these participants present rather than others likely has an influence on how they converse with each other. (This is all relegated to the background, to “broader social context,” something that CA acknowledges but is essentially agnostic upon since it can’t (always) be reliably read off the transcript – even though it’s a crucial factor in how this transcript in particular is available.) Talking about media, if there’s an all-male panel broadcast somewhere, and none of the feisty males present produces a turn for which gender would be an issue… then it’s just not an issue! Gender inequalities aren’t brought up, so there are no power differentials at play, and it’s a perfect public sphere as long as any troublemakers (e.g., women) are kept out of the Conversation.

Picture 2: An example of an interactional context with no displayed power inequalities whatsoever. Hasselhoff-approved. (Via  here)

In other words: for CA, unless the analyst can find an evident (to them) “orientation” to a concept such as gender in the transcript they are poring over, that concept is determined to be irrelevant to the interaction. Which is true only to the extent that it is irrelevant to the way the conversational exchange is unfolding at any particular moment. How this exchange is made possible in the first place, or where it might lead to, may well be influenced by “broader context,” but CA is not interested in this as much as in the micro-structures that make talk possible.


And this is the main issue I have with approaches like Hutchby’s. They seem to be convinced that CA is the only possible way in which talk on media can be analysed with an empirical basis for identifying asymmetries of power and other features of context, rather than simply saying such asymmetries are present. The analyst imposes their own understanding, the argument goes, rather than letting the data speak for itself.

But I’m not sure how identifying “orientations” in the micro-structures of talk involves any less imposition of the analyst’s own understanding compared to working on broader scales. In classic CA, at least, there’s the “next turn proof procedure”: the requirement that the other participant demonstrate, in their talk, that they have understood a certain orientation as such before this orientation can be said to be present. In other words, unless my interlocutor confirms (or plays on, or challenges) me making my own or anyone else’s gender relevant in my talk, there’s no basis for the analyst to claim that a certain understanding of the relevance of gender is shared between the two participants. But in media talk, where the interlocutors – the audience – are not present, there are no such subsequent confirmations. There is no way to prove that an orientation that a media analyst of Conversation identifies is actually shared by anyone else but the broadcaster – or, on the contrary, that orientations that the broadcaster does not bring up in their talk may not be relevant for some (or indeed all; there’s just no way to know) members of their audience. For all that, we have to fall back on the analyst’s intuition.


Picture 3: Conversation Analysis in action, as explained by linguistic anthropologists. From Charles and Marjorie Goodwin, “Participation,” p. 222-244 in A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, ed. Alessandro Duranti, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

The fact that it’s the analyst’s intuition that counts causes problems even for classic CA. CA’s charter is to uncover general principles of human Conversation, but Jefferson, Sacks and Schegloff based most of their empirical conclusions and analytical guidelines on data from English. And though CA methods themselves are perfectly neutral in this respect, it’s difficult to see how somebody poring over transcripts in any language would be able to avoid bias without a good knowledge, or at least a vague intuitive sense, of what kind of communication ‘sounds normal’ for that language.

This is, of course, just the kind of work that many linguistic anthropologists do – but linguistic anthropologists also (usually) know the context of the conversations being produced fairly well, given that they’ve spent months or years with the people who produce them. But CA, in its traditional form, imposes no such requirement upon the analyst. One can (maybe even should) do CA based on transcripts and recordings alone, with no necessary knowledge as to where, how, for what purpose etc. such transcripts and recordings were made. But then one is limited to studying the principles of English (or Slovene, or Xhosa, or Yukaghir, or whatever language one can claim to know intuitively) Conversation; since even such simple things as long silences between turns – which might indicate some sort of problem, hesitation or disagreement, for (American) English speakers, but are perfectly normal in e.g. Apache – can vary considerably in what they mean in different cultural and linguistic contexts.

What I’m trying to argue here is not that using CA for analysing media is inappropriate. If you know how to do it, and do it consistently and carefully and with good knowledge of the broader context at hand, it can tell you a lot. It’s only that it is not inherently any less biased than any other kind of analysis of media texts (such as Critical Discourse Analysis, which Hutchby rather histerically seeks to demolish in his Media Talk book). So it’s probably not necessary to cling desperately to CA analytical methods and still produce some kind of sensible argument about the media text that you’re studying.


There are aspects of CA I still find attractive. It gives unrivaled access to the way in which conversation is organised, on a very minute level, and can reveal principles and asymmetries that more broad-based approaches can’t But in analysing talk on Jordanian radio (or any other media context for that matter), I don’t think it makes sense to sacrifice the broader arguments one can make – about power, politics, language, gender – simply to locate one’s analysis more firmly in a particular disciplinary tradition. Transcribing 50 calls from Muhammad al-Wakeel’s programmes according to strict CA conventions and looking at – say – sequences of turn-taking, or types of acknowledgment, or the way people put forward claims as to the veracity or relevance of their problems would of course be perfectly possible. But then I would be studying structures of turn-taking, or types of acknowledgment, or the way people put forward claims as to the veracity or relevance of their problems – and it would still be me deciding how relevant these are to power and inequality as it comes up in radio talk. (After, of course, a (hopefully) well-considered analysis.) So why not look more broadly as well?

Some Thoughts on Conversation Analysis

Stick-poking on Ro’ya

Jordan’s most recent sandstorm has faced strong competition in news sources in the past week from the most recent controversy regarding Roya TV, a Jordan-based, locally oriented web and satellite TV channel whose which has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. The point of contention was a video clip showing a sketch from a satirical programme broadcast on the channel a few weeks ago, in which a female presenter – sitting in a studio made to look like it was a show aimed at children – read out what apparently began as children’s stories but ended up describing situations with clear romantic or sexual overtones. The clip was widely circulated and critiqued by “activists” (نشطاء، nušaTaa’) – as the press put it – on social media, and culminated in legal proceedings being initiated against the channel as well as a judicial order to suspend the programme in question by Jordan’s Audiovisual Media Commission, for broadcasting “obscenities” that had offended “public opinion.”

roya storytelling

The clip (screenshot above; the full video can be seen embedded in various news stories e.g. here and here) has the presenter stopping abruptly whenever she reaches an ‘ambiguous’ (i.e., sexually or romantically loaded) section of a children’s story, giving a grimace of surprise or horror, and then rifling through the pages of the book she is holding in order to find a more appropriate story – only to find yet more sexual overtones (and, at the end of the clip, what seems like an especially ‘interesting’ drawing). A long white pole occasionally appears from the left side of the clip, ‘prodding’ the presenter to either continue the current story or look for another one. The most common criticisms – summarised well in this article from the website of the Islamist newspaper al-Sabeel – involve the presenter using “expressions containing sexual overtones” and “perverted scenes” aimed at corrupting younger generations, offending public morals and Islam, etc.

I’ll withhold my opinions as not to litter the blog with too many expletives. From a more measured standpoint, it’s probably worth pointing out how well the whole case fits into the broad “Islamic conservative versus Western moderniser” narrative that outside observers of Jordan love to latch on to (Elena Corbett’s article on the “Halloween ban” controversy last year sketches out the problem well, if tersely). Roya has been dragged into such spats before, with a (not too well populated) Facebook group calling the station out for not broadcasting Islamic calls to prayer – one issue brought up by many criticising the channel in the most recent controversy, along with doubts regarding the station’s ownership being Israeli.

Fadi Zaghmout has a good blog post up (in Arabic) explaining just how utterly misaimed the criticisms of the contentious sketch have been. What its creators were satirising was precisely the kind of social hypocrisy that has little to say against sexual insinuations in certain contexts – including children’s stories, but also for example films and music videos – but is exceedingly paranoid about any kind of attempt to discuss issues of gender and sexuality more openly. (Seen this way, the response then, maybe, proves the creators’ point.)

But as someone who is interested in how Jordanian media functions more broadly, what I think is just as important is how the case reflects on the broader dynamics of media legislation and the media environment in Jordan. This is an environment where social media campaign can drum up a three-week-old programme to the point where the Media Commission can order a broadcast suspension – even as the most recent amendments to Jordan’s Audiovisual Media Law no longer give the Commission the power to do so; an environment pervaded by a kind of constantly hovering, you-never-know-what-will-tick-it-off sense of overarching control, which stimulates self-censorship far more than any attempt at creativity or critical discussion.

Stick-poking on Ro’ya

Traffic Light Poetry

I just thought I’d share this little clip from the Fooq al-Sada team’s latest Tashweesh Wadih episode:

I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the consonant pronunciations there – likely an attempt to riff on Sudanese colloquial, according to the comments, as well as the lyrics / melody being a parody of this widely distributed clip – but all in all it’s a genius little take on recent traffic regime changes in Amman; in particular, putting up traffic lights at the “Eighth Circle” intersection in the west of the city.

[EDIT: h/t to Farah on Facebook for letting me know about the full clip of the original poem: LINK

Hilarious all on its own, and also direct example of how Bzour manages to parody all the other parts of a performance that don’t necessarily involve language (but are equally important for the general effect).]

(Note that the “Circles” in Amman are just enormous roundabouts, which however to guarantee any kind of traffic flow usually need to be manned by police officers at every sub-intersection (as in the image here: LINK) – which in essence isn’t all that different from a traffic light. Still, this didn’t stop people making up jokes last year when traffic lights were being put up at Seventh Circle – al-duwaar as-saabi3, الدوار السابع – re-imagining it as “the Former Circle,” al-duwaar as-saabiq الدوار السابق. )

Here are the “lyrics,” along with my attempt at a (working) translation:

قصيدة رثاء الدوار الثامن


علقنا بأزمة كبيرة مش خفيفة
قالوا نشيل الدوار الثامن ونخلص من عجقة خبيسة


نركب مكانه اشارة تنظم السير وتكون للعين لطيفة

صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
صفت السيارة صفت ,ما فتحت اشارة

صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
صفت السيارة , ولعنا سيجارة
صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
صفت السيارة صفت ما فتحت اشارة
صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
صفت السيارة وخلصت السيجارة

صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
جنبي غاعدين بيبنوا في عمارة
صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
جنبي هسا هما خلصوا العمارة

وكله هذا صار، ما فتحت الاشارة

صفت السيارة صفت , صفت السيارة
عشت عمر طويل وانا قاعد في السيارة
قولولي كيف قولولي كيف
نخلص من اشارة

ولعنا سيجارة، تلعب العمارة، حافروا مغارة
كله هذا صار، مفتحت الاشارة

An Elegy for Eighth Circle

We were stuck in a great traffic jam – not a small one!
They said: We will raise Eighth Circle and get rid of the horrible crowds
Instead we’ll set up a traffic light, one that orders traffic and pleases the eye.

The car stood still, the car stood still
The car stood still, the traffic light didn’t turn green
The car stood still, the car stood still
The car stood still, we lighted up (a cigarette)
The car stood still, the car stood still
The car stood still, the traffic light didn’t turn green
The car stood still, the cigarette went out

The car stood still, the car stood still
Next to me they’re building (a building)
The car stood still, the car stood still
They’ve finished the building now

All this happened, and the traffic light didn’t turn green

The car stood still, the car stood still
I lived a long life, sitting in my car
Tell me how, tell me how
We can get rid of the traffic light

We lighted a cigarette
The building opened
They dug a whole cavern
All of this happened
And the traffic light didn’t turn green!

Traffic Light Poetry

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.


(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

Gender and Emphatic Colouring in the Arab Homeland

Phonetic details can, sometimes, make all the difference. A few days ago, the Lebanese pop singer Elissa released a version of the popular Arab nationalist anthem “Mawtini.” (There’s some info on the song on its Wikipedia page; its lyrics are a poem written by the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Touqan (brother of Fadwa), and it formerly served as the anthem of Palestine as well as being the national anthem of Iraq since 2004.) Elissa’s effort was bound to stir up some reactions all by itself; it isn’t often that tacky female singers choose to tackle such deep-grounded symbols of Arabist (and pro-Palestinian) belonging. At least in Jordan, though, what attracted the most critique was Elissa’s alleged mispronunciation of the lyrics. A single consonant was at issue – but this was enough to arouse the ire of a gaggle of social media commentators, and draw out broad-ranging responses regarding gender, language, and the current state of the Arab nation.

Some phonological background first. Arabic – Standard, and all of its dialect variants – features a series of sounds that linguistic analyses like to call “emphatic.”  Phonetically, this involves both ‘pharyngealization’ – that is, constricting the pharynx or the epiglottis while pronouncing the sound – and ‘velarization’ – that is, raising the back of the tongue upwards so that it is in contact with the velum / soft palate (sort of the place where the tongue touches the roof of the mouth when you’re pronouncing or g). (For those mad souls who want more details, there’s a pretty thorough explanation of the phonetic issues in this 1972 article.)

emphatic schema

(A sketch showing differences in tongue position between an “emphatic” and “non-emphatic” sound. The dotted line (emphatic) touches the back of the mouth; the straight line (non-emphatic) does not. From Ali and Daniloff (1972); LINK)

The sin that Elissa committed was pronouncing one of these sounds – the alveolar stop, /ṭ/, ط (Taa’) in Arabic script – apparently without emphatic coloring. Even this might have been written off as a one-time ‘error’ (though more on whether it even is an error below) – if the mispronunciation didn’t occur in the very title of the song; which also serves as the refrain (and is repeated a total of 12 times throughout the lyrics). Instead of موطني، people claimed – which means “my homeland” – Elissa was singing موتني. mawtinii, not mawTinii.

Listen to the track above; you can judge for yourself. (Fingers crossed it will stay up for a while; the YouTube version has already been removed on Friday, apparently following a copyright claim.) The responses, in any case, were striking. Ro’ya TV’s news website did a roundup (as they sometimes do, for contentious issues) of social media comments. These include a few tweets and Facebook posts from Lebanon praising the recording, but many more critical ones from Jordan (and a couple of Gaza) taking issue with Elissa’s purported mispronunciation. (The writer of the roundup piece, ever diplomatic, characterized the enunciation as “delicate,” in “Elissa’s own special manner.”)

In many of these comments, the authors exchanged the “soft,” non-emphatic ت <t> for ط <ṭ> – not just in the title of the song, but in other words as well. فلسطيني falasTiinii “Palestinian,” for example, is normally spelled with a <ṭ>; in one tweet, Elissa was claimed to now have become فلستينية falastiniiyya, with a <t>. Another claimed that Ibrahim “Tou’aan” – توئان; the surname is properly spelled طوقان، with a <ṭ>, but suffered a change to <t> here, in addition to the stereotypically feminine and Lebanese shift from <q> to the glottal stop (<ʔ>) – did not die; rather, he “committed suicide after he heard Mawtini.”

The target here wasn’t just an isolated mispronounced sound, but purportedly ‘feminized’ variants of Arabic more broadly. To be expected, perhaps, from a Lebanese starlet such as Elissa; although, given that her error was conspicuously located in a self-consciously  nationalist song so often invoked as a symbol of Arab strength and resistance, the ‘corruption’ of “Mawtini” here seemed to be indicative of something deeper.


(Elissa wearing a T-shirt with a misspelled “Mawtini.” Image via: LINK)

First, though, to clear the matter of whether it’s incorrect from a linguistic standpoint. Phonetically speaking, I’d say it’s at least up for debate. The release of the t – that is, the point at which the tongue leaves the roof of the mouth to allow airflow through – may be closer to the non-emphatic version; but if we consider the word as a whole, the preceding syllable – maw- – definitely has some ’emphatic’ coloring. (I’m pretty confident a phonetic analysis would confirm this; perhaps somebody with better skills than me might be able to check the formants in Praat or something…) The most marked feature of /ṭ/, the retraction of the tongue – the dotted line in the picture above – happens; just earlier than expected. It’s called “leftward emphasis spread” – basically, anticipating the ’emphatic’ sound before you actually pronounce it. Due to the particularities of human oral physiology, this kind of pre-coloring may actually be more likely than spread of emphasis “rightward” (i.e., following the “emphatic” sound rather than preceding it). Normally, you’d still expect it to sound different; but the traces are there.

It might be a phonetic peculiarity; non-normative, and possibly non-standard. But from a purely phonological perspective, it doesn’t mean that Elissa is not pronouncing the Taa’, or exchanging it for the non-emphatic version. It’s just that all the phonetic features that some of her listeners might expect aren’t present. In other words, she’s not pronouncing the lyrics as if she were actually saying mawtinii; it’s just her mawTinii that is different. (And it most certainly does not mean that Elissa is unable to enunciate ‘deep’ sounds altogether, as some commentators have claimed. The rest of the song features a couple of quite impeccable emphatic r-s, as well as /q/ in its standard form, [q], in its proper place, as opposed than the stereotypically feminine glottal stop.)

The song’s male chorus, by the way – see from about 3:10 in the video clip above – features a pretty much identical pronunciation of mawTinii. But of course, Elissa’s voice is the one fronting, and hence the more exposed.

On @anghami in less then hour #mawtini

A post shared by Elissa (@elissazkh) on


And that may, in fact, be the heart of the matter. A female singer attempting an Arab nationalist song will always be putting herself in the crossfire. Fully exposed, as a transmitter of the nation’s values – putting herself, metaphorically, in the position of the model Arab, the Palestinian longing for strength and independence – she needs to be nothing less than perfect. Even the most minute phonetic details become subject to scrutiny.

Double standards might be invoked here: the stereotypical position of women as ‘repositories of the nation’s virtue,’ and hence held to task for every slight or slip. But even for more sympathetic commentators (such as Hiba Jawhar) who say that “it’s not Elissa’s fault,” there was no doubt that Elissa’s pronunciation was, first, non-normative; and, second, indexical of femininity. The association with gender, though, is a higher-level one – perhaps almost incidental. Rather, the basic value conveyed by a non-emphatic pronunciation in place of an emphatic one – as with [t] for /ṭ/, or [ʔ] for /q/ – is that of ‘softness’; delicacy, in a sense, but one which also stands for degradation of linguistic rules, for people too meek or feeble to enunciate the more forceful sounds of Arabic.

Since Elissa is, in fact, female, all this comes round again, compounded. When a widely valued nationalist song that suffers linguistic degradation, it’s not too big a step to imagine the downfall of the nation as well. And if Arab women can’t even pronounce “Mawtini” correctly anymore, where is our homeland headed?

Where, indeed. For her most hardened critics, even an emphasis-perfect rendition by Elissa might not have been enough. As it was, though, it was phonetics that provided the ideal point of departure for critiquing her supposed transgressions – and the wave of responses it inspired proves just how deeply, and how scrupulously, Jordanians care about their homeland’s language in this day and age.

Gender and Emphatic Colouring in the Arab Homeland