An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

The recent rounds of violence in the West Bank in the past few weeks – sparked by assaults on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by radical Israeli groups in mid-September, and now ongoing with regular deadly crackdowns on Palestinian protesters by the IDF as well as isolated assaults targeting Israelis – has, of course, hardly gone unnoticed on the far side of the Jordan river. Jordan has a large population of ethnic Palestinians, but perhaps more important for regime-friendly media in the Kingdom is the fact that the Jordanian state still claims formal custodianship and administrative control over the Haram al-Sharif (which houses both al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock). When events in the occupied Palestinian territories are mentioned, it’s often difficult to judge whether what is involved is actual compassion for the Palestinian cause – or interest in the Jordanian public’s opinion regarding it – or merely a rhetorical strategy pursued to shore up the Jordanian regime’s legitimacy.

On 11 October, Hala Akhbar – “Hala News,” a recently established ‘news’ offshoot of Radio Hala – published a recording of an interview the star broadcaster Muhammad al-Wakeel had made with Ziyad Abu Hlayyil, a Palestinian man who had challenged Israeli soldiers on the margins of a demonstration in Hebron. Video footage of the event – see the al-Jazeera-sourced clip below – was subsequently shared widely on social media as an example of anti-occupation heroism (in what some observers have already dubbed a new intifada). In the clip, Abu Hlayyil yells and pushes at the soldiers, telling them to not shoot at “the kids,” refusing their orders to move away and giving generally irreverent responses – including “you can’t arrest me” and the (racist) “go back to Ethiopia” (reference to  Beta Israel members of the IDF). He loses his balance and falls to the ground at the end of the clip – though apparently not suffering significant injuries, as he confirms in subsequent interviews.

This act was, ostensibly, why al-Wakeel had invited Abu Hlayyil to speak with him in the first place. But from the very beginning of the interview, it was clear that the story would be subjected to a somewhat different framing than that of a heroic Palestinian man single-handedly resisting occupation forces. This was still the basis of Abu Hlayyil’s “message” – the pitch, if you will, through which his tale was presented as one worthy of attention. But to appear on a show such as al-Wakeel’s, on a radio station run by the Jordanian army, this tale had to be subsumed under a different narrative: one where heroism, sovereignty, and ultimately agency are assigned not to Palestinians, but to their Jordanian “protectors,” embodied in the twin public personas of the Army and the King.

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There are two talk-based techniques in the interview that make this very clear – one more rhetorical, the other reflected in quite minute details of language. First, thanks and praise for the king of Jordan and the Hashemite leadership are constantly on Abu Hlayyil’s lips.  Looking closely just at the beginning of the interview: Abu Hlayyil’s first turn, after al-Wakeel greets him, involves extensive praise for Jordan, its security agencies, and in particular King Abdullah II, as if he were the ultimate agent of anti-Zionist activity in the region:

[0:48-1:57]

ZAH: Good morning to beloved Jordan
Good morning to the Jordanian Hashemite government, and with honour also His Majesty the King Abdullah II, son of Husayn, Guardian of Jerusalem and the noble al-Aqsa [Mosque]
Good morning to the Jordanian tribes, good morning to the “ever-vigilant eyes” of safety and security from the sister[-state] Jordan
And I would like to speak with you, ((sir))

MaW: ((Yes))

ZAH: Also with all respect to my Majesty, Abdullah, His Majesty the King Abdullah II, father of Husayn
Who has risen up in glory and threatened the Zionist forces with – with – with cutting off relations if they continued to desecrate the sanctuary of Jerusalem
Also we should not forget last year, when Netanyahu’s gangs began to prevent all worshipers from entering Jerusalem, and my Majesty ordered that all roads be opened for entry, and especially in the blessed month of Ramadan

MaW: Yes

Similar praise for Jordan and its government recurs several times – e.g. at 2:16, 5:02, 9:06, 14:46 in the Facebook video above – so extensively that it nearly equals Abu Hlayyil’s account of his own experience (the ostensible topic of the interview). Throughout this, it is never clear what exactly Abu Hlayyil is thanking King Abdullah II for. He resorts mainly to vague, formal terms of reference – such as “loyalty of the free [Palestinians?] to the Hashemites,” “heroism,” “protection,” “positioning,” and so on – which defer, or at least put at a slight distance, criticisms one might have of Jordan’s acts in the drama of the occupation. This is, in turn, a crude but effective way of asserting the legitimacy of the Jordanian monarchy: stating its formal role as the protector of Palestine and the Muslim holy sanctuary in Jerusalem, without ever delving into the messy details of what actually substantively fulfilling such a role might imply – but still upholding, in talk, the Jordanian regime’s impeccable political position, its deep dedication to the Palestinian cause.

The second, less evident technique is that of linguistic accommodation. The argument is on slightly shakier grounds here, given that a lot of the particular elements of colloquial Arabic which Abu Hlayyil uses and which are widely stereotypical of (male) Jordanian speech – in particular, using [g] for the Standard Arabic equivalent (q) – are also traditionally present in southern Palestinian dialects, and indeed around Hebron where Abu Hlayyil comes from. There are still some points, though, where I would argue Abu Hlayyil’s deference to a Jordanian style of speech shines through – in particular, the handful of instances where he uses the distinctly ‘Jordanian’ second person plural pronoun form -ku instead of the more standard -kum. This is essentially an echoing of al-Wakeel’s usage – which, in turn, invokes a markedly ‘Jordanian’ speech style. A linguistic concession, then, to the host’s speech, which mirrors the more explicit discursive concession of authority to the Jordanian regime – for which al-Wakeel, let us not forget, also stands in as a communicative proxy, as the primary voice of the radio station of the Armed Forces.

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For Radio Hala, at least, stories of Palestinian heroes are never just that. The ultimate hero, the ultimate agent, is always Jordanian: the authority of the state, the king, the army, as vocalised by the host, deferred to symbolically and linguistically even when voices from the West Bank are actually given their own space to speak. Interventions such as the Abu Hlayyil interview are, ultimately, less participations of Palestinian voices than they are re-affirmations of a particularly Jordanian state authority – to all, actual and imagined, domestic and foreign, audiences of Jordanian radio.

An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

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

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

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

Stars of the Studio (1): Muhammad al-Wakeel

The morning of 28 September 2014 began much like any other for Muhammad al-Wakeel’s  programme on Radio Hala, the radio station of the Jordanian Armed Forces. There was the standard repertoire of Jordanian patriotic music; comments and greetings from Facebook, read out by al-Wakeel himself, as he does constantly throughout the show to reinforce the sense of connection with his listeners through social media. With Eid al-Adha approaching, there were news related to that: the exact dates of the public holiday, as well as details of the preparations, including prices for sacrificed animals (أضاحي، aDaaHii; usually, sheep) and reports on Jordanians making the greater pilgrimage to Mecca.

Soon after 8 AM, though, the programme’s tone changed abruptly. The lively beats of Jordanian tunes gave way to a sentimental piano piece. al-Wakeel spoke of Eid al-Adha, and how even though many people might find it a time of warmth and celebration there are others with much less – who live in very difficult conditions; as the Programme’s listeners know quite well, from the phone calls that al-Wakeel receives on a daily basis. There was one especially moving story, al-Wakeel said, that he wanted to speak about today, that of a 19-year-old boy down on his luck – without a proper job, with no close family to help him, or even a decent roof over his head.

And who was, at that moment, right there in the studio.

[MaW Drama] 1 - abd al-salam

(Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 28 September 2014 – link)

The young man’s name, as listeners soon learned, was Abd al-Salam. He had come to Amman from Aqaba on an early morning bus, with 42 Jordanian dinars in his pocket, driven to desperation in finding government bureau or some other agency that could assist him. He was searching for his mother, whom he had never met, and who had given birth to him in prison. He’d been trained to do hotel work, but wasn’t employed in a hotel now. When al-Wakeel asked him whether he had a place to live in Aqaba, his only response was silence.

“Okay,” al-Wakeel said. “See. He doesn’t want to speak about this.”

Abd al-Salam’s voice was shaking. There were sniffles; he’d been crying. His story, in al-Wakeel’s own words, had “shaken” everyone in the studio, and of course the esteemed host was on the case immediately. Contacts were called up, in the police and in the prison administration, searching for the boy’s mother. “It’s fine,” Abu Haytham reassured him. “We will find her.” And perhaps most importantly, at about 9 o’clock, a phone call came in from a manager at a well-known chain hotel in Aqaba, declaring that he’d heard Abd al-Salam’s story and wishes to help him out, and that they have a job for him.

The airwaves fizzled with joy. For a while, all al-Wakeel could utter was praise: for his friends in the government offices; for the generous hotel manager; for everyone on Facebook who’d declared their compassion for poor Abd al-Salam, and their readiness to help him in any way they could. It was a proper grand conclusion to the spectacle: a touching story of loss and longing and deprivation, resolved through heroic intervention. And though Abd al-Salam’s plight was what drew the eyes and ears of listeners, the actual focus of the story – its true hero – was the man who’d brought it all together, and made it happen. Muhammad al-Wakeel.

Medicine in the Ruins

Abd al-Salam’s visit provided a spirited start to the week; but there was more to come. For days before on Radio Hala’s airwaves, announcements and jingles were building up hype for an “unprecedented media event”, a special installment of the Programme that would astound listeners and completely change their thoughts on what a Jordanian morning call-in show could be like.

The big secret? A field trip to Gaza.

[MaW Drama] 2 - gaza - field studio

(Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 29 September 2014 – link)

For the next three days, the Programme would be broadcasting not from the comfort of its studios in Amman, but from the Jordan Field Hospital in Gaza, a continually-renewed Armed Forces mission that has provided medical aid to residents of the Strip since 2009. The hospital staff welcomed al-Wakeel and his crew with open arms: eager to participate, to make themselves heard, to show off the good work they were doing, as well as demonstrate quite concretely the Hashemite leadership’s generosity in lending aid to the people of Gaza.

Again, a carefully managed performance. And one in which, for all of al-Wakeel’s drama and  posturing, Gazans themselves barely featured. The focus was firmly on the Jordanian cadres – officers, doctors, nurses – and their work, the efforts and heroism of the “intrepid” (baasil) Jordanian armed forces. (Let’s not forget either that al-Wakeel visit took place right after one of the bloodiest summers in Gaza’s history, after constant strikes and bombardment by the Israeli army in July and August left more than 2,000 people dead and much of the Strip reduced to rubble.)

[MaW Drama] 3 - gaza - in hospital

(Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 29 September 2014 – link)

Certainly, there were Gazan voices present. Hospital patients, for one: al-Wakeel spoke to quite a few of these, and gave them air space to talk at length about their health problems and the way that the Field Hospital has been helping them. But the way in which these mini-interviews were framed made it quite clear who was in the center of the picture. Not the Gazans themselves, or their problems, or their opinions, but rather the Jordanian army, the valiant našaama and našmiyyaat (the homeland’s “heroes”; both male and female) who toiled day and night to treat injuries and diseases in the middle of a land torn apart by war.

The patients had little to offer, in the end, other than blessings and praise – to their doctors, and the hospital workers, and the Hashemite leadership, with all their selfless generosity. Bland voice-boxes, compared to the Jordanian staff, each with their own rank and skills and profession, and personal experience and opinions worthy for al-Wakeel to discuss and engage with whenever he pinned one of them down for an interview.

A clear imbalance, then, in terms of agency – and who in the end really mattered. For al-Wakeel, details of the drama of Gazan life were not nearly as significant as the stories of the Jordanian medical champions who worked to make things better.

The Master of Drama

Everyone knows that there’s suffering in Gaza. It might not be necessary to dwell on others’ misfortunes too much, if your listeners already have a sense of what is going on. Sometimes, though, the arc requires a little more buildup; and this is something that al-Wakeel – and the members of his team who manage his programme as it comes on air – is very well versed in. There’s nothing random about the choice of sappy piano music to accompany Abd al-Salam’s story – just as there isn’t in the following phone call, recorded and published via YouTube (see especially from 7:20 onwards):

“The Story of the Girl Who Brought Muhammad al-Wakeel to Tears.” The title of the video itself makes it very clear. We’re dealing with emotion; with compassion; a tale so tragic and so heart-breaking that it even wet the eyes of the great Abu Haytham. (Imagine!) The “girl” – Sara – contacted the programme in order to seek assistance from the programme for her father, a taxi driver beset by eye problems who had difficulties providing for his family. The man himself came on air later, and after they’d spoken for a while about his troubles al-Wakeel was so overcome with emotion that for almost a minute he could manage nothing but sniffles and whimpers. With, of course, appropriate musical accompaniment.

The more tragic, the more hopeless, the more emotionally stirring a caller’s problem is made to seem – the more spectacular, then, al-Wakeel’s eventual solution. Even it involves something as prosaic as surgery at an eye clinic that is (no coincidence there, either) one of the Programme’s regular sponsors.


During the final hour of the 28 September programme, al-Wakeel received another call from Aqaba. It went on air: a man, declaring he had heard Abd al-Salam’s story, and was moved by it – so much so that he’d decided to offer him a job!

Alas, he’d have to be disappointed. As far as Abd al-Salam went, the script was finished. The arc was done: the boy had a job already, through the hotel manager that had called up earlier. In the end, al-Wakeel didn’t quite know what to do with this living exemplar of Jordanian generosity. A greeting; a blessing, a polite dismissal, and he was sent on his way. Time was short, and there were callers waiting, more anguished souls for the hero of the day to save.

Stars of the Studio (1): Muhammad al-Wakeel