PhD Findings (3): Being Local

(This is the final in a series of three posts on findings from my doctoral thesis, with the title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” A general introduction to the posts can be found here. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.)

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There’s often a tension in academic analyses of the Middle East between viewing it as a region – that is, trying to generalise processes that happen in one place to other contexts by virtue of their social, cultural, and historical similarities – and a more localist viewpoint, in which whatever is happening is described as unique and specific to its context (most often, that of a given nation-state). From one perspective, Arabic-speaking societies have enough in common for conclusions applying to one of them to apply to others as well; from another, more contextual nuance is required, and each society or state viewed as a unique product of its historical and political circumstances. Either the Arab Spring is the Arab Spring, and has and will lead to changes everywhere… Or it’s just a specific, local phenomenon, the 2010-11 Karamah Revolution a product of Tunisia’s particular social and economic hardships, or the same for the January 25 Revolution in Egypt. Similar dynamics, some similar sentiments, but ultimately very different beasts.

Both approaches can be useful in different situations, when looking at different sorts of data or to put forward particular types of arguments. But what I find more intriguing is the symbolic power of these perspectives. While grand ideologies such as Pan-Arabism may no longer be very prominent since the eclipse of Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab nationalist projects in the 1960s, there’s no denying a sense of implicit commonality between Middle Eastern and North African societies – if not through identity, through language; if not through language, through shared history, geo-politics, socio-cultural norms. But always, against this, there are also localist tendencies. Each country, each region, each ethno-religious group can also be viewed on its own terms. Jordanians are not the same as Palestinians, or Lebanese, or certainly not Egyptians. They have their own history, their own traditions, their own characteristic identity. Their interests and needs are different from those of their neighbours. They have their own desires and aspirations.

In Jordan, localism is a highly politicised issue. This is not, of course, something unique among Arab countries; but Jordan’s particular historical and political situation – as a ‘new’ nation-state entity developed after the fall of the Ottoman empire, as well as its status as a strategic buffer on the borders of Palestine and Israel – means that this aspect has been studied extremely well. The loyalty of “East Bankers” – that is, inhabitants of Jordan whose ethnic origins can be traced to the eastern bank of the Jordan River, as opposed to (especially) the Palestinian West Bank – is believed to be a crucial element in Jordan’s success and stability as a state. The Hashemite monarchy and its associated institutions dispense favours – jobs, subsidies, contracts and so forth – which in turn guarantee the support of Jordanian citizens, including prominent families with Bedouin lineages and those belonging to minorities who had historically supported Hashemite royal rule in Jordan, such as the Circassians. Clientelism and royal patronage are at the heart of this state system – what Tariq Tell names the “Hashemite compact“: a form of rule that is both spatially localised and ideologically localist in that it seeks to sustain itself through relationships with the ‘traditional’ inhabitants of one particular area only.

In his book Colonial Effects, Joseph Massad has demonstrated at length how this form of rule implicitly excludes anyone who isn’t an “East Banker” – predominantly, the considerable numbers of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. Andrew Shryock’s work is in a very similar vein, though he focuses more on mechanisms of inclusion rather than exclusion: the process of documenting the oral histories and genealogies of Bedouin lineages as a form of Jordanian nationalism, or the legacy of King Hussein (1935-1999) with his cultivation of “conflicting constituencies” all closely connected on the royal persona.

But there’s an important cultural dimension to these processes as well. Exclusionary localism doesn’t just crop up in the political sphere; it pervades, in different ways, much of Jordanian cultural production, from royal iconography and public monuments (see e.g. this article by Elena Corbett) to entertainment such as music and films – beginning with the first Jordanian-produced film, Struggle in Jerash (1957), which according to George Potter is an excellent example of an attempt to assert a distinctly Jordanian nationalist narrative. (Potter views it as a direct response to the tumultuous situation in Jordan in the 1950s, when pan-Arab nationalist movements and parties were in ascendancy and the Hashemite monarchy in heavy crisis.) It is a kind of “soft power” – though not necessarily consciously initiated for political ends; still, it builds on the same kind of narratives, and serves the same kind of ends, as localism in politics.

Poster for صراع في جرش / Struggle in Jerash (1957), the “first Jordanian film.” Image via 7iber; the entire film is also available on YouTube here.

Very similar ideas pervade Jordanian non-government radio today. Nationalism is everywhere: there are entire stations, such as Nashama FM, dedicated to playing what is known as “national” or “patriotic” music, and others such as Radio Hala draw heavily on Jordanian nationalist symbols and icons, with the flag of Jordan at a prominent place in the studio and a distinct green-red-black-white colour scheme. Stations run jingles in which they define themselves as urduniyye “Jordanian” and hāšimiyye “Hashemite” – making no secret of where their loyalties lie. Projects such as the “Our Voice Is One” memorial programme, run in honour of the fighter pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh captured and executed by the IS / Daesh in Syria, also have explicit nationalist and patriotic goals: bringing the nation together, representing the emotions shared by “all Jordanians,” and so forth.

 

Video from the Radio Hala studio webcam, reporting on the Jordanian local elections on 15 August 2017. It presents a very carefully crafted nationalist environment: note the colour scheme (including the two presenters’ polo shirts!), Jordanian flag in the background, etc. The bagpipe-heavy music playing in the background is also indicative of localist tendencies in Jordanian radio. (Video accessible here, via the Radio Hala Facebook page.)

Choice of language also plays a part in producing local authenticity. Most live programming on non-government radio stations in Jordan uses colloquial Arabic – though of a very specific kind: a colloquial that can be identified as Jordanian, or more properly Ammani, once gender differences are taken into account. This of course makes perfect sense if we assume the station wants to cultivate a local audience, for whom a local Jordanian dialect will be a familiar and comfortable way of communicating. But because dialect is linked to locality, it again implies boundaries, dfferentiation, ideologies of inclusion and exclusion. Who can lay claim to a “Jordanian” type of speech? Is it only those who speak this way, right now? Those who were brought up with a Jordanian dialect? Or those for whom this kind of language is part of their heritage, and can trace their ancestry to the East Bank several generations back?

There is, though, an important contrast between promoting and exaggerating “local” dialect for ideological purposes, and genuine attempts to find an idiom appropriate for the informal live radio setting. The latter is, I think, the case with Radio al-Balad, the Amman-based community radio station which forms a rare stronghold of media and journalistic professionalism in Jordan. Its presenters speak in a form of colloquial Arabic that is identifiably Jordanian, presumably close to their personal conversational idiolect, yet aimed squarely at engaging with listeners in a communicative manner and not shying away from specialist or formal language when this is necessary. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the language of – for example – the “patriotic songs” (aġānī waṭaniyya) music genre, where nationalist localism is heavily exaggerated in the lyrics – both in the themes (praising Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy, the Jordanian army and so on) and the actual form of the language, from the heavily strained ‘ayns to the ‘authentic’ g‘s and ‘s characteristic of East Bank and Bedouin dialects of Arabic. So there’s a rather tricky linguistic balance to maintain between “being local” for inclusive, community-oriented purposes, and promoting an exclusionary localist agenda.

Ṭārat ṭayyāra min fōg az-Zarga (“A Plane Flew Above Zarqa“), performed by Omar Abdallat. A prime example of the aġānī waṭaniyya genre. Note also the heavily militarised aesthetic of the video, another hallmark of contemporary Jordanian ethnic nationalism.

But it’s not just localist and nationalist ideas that are susceptible to this kind of boundary maintenance. One example is how Jordanian non-government radio approaches religion – specifically, Islam. Most stations assume their audience to be, predominantly, made up of Sunni Muslims; occasionally devout Muslims, as with most Islamic programmes and radio stations, but always an audience that is interested in Muslim religious and cultural affairs and holds Islamic values dear.

This is why, for example, Radio Hala broadcast the experiences of its famous host Muhammad al-Wakeel when he made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 2015. Or why, during cold weather fronts in winter (munḳafaḍāt), snowstorms and flooding are framed as acts of God and wholly dependent on his will (conveniently avoiding the question how such events are made worse in large part by the sorry state of Jordan’s infrastructure). You should, apparently, share Muslim values and convictions to be properly included in the audience – to be a part of the Jordanian public for whom radio programmes are produced, and for whom non-government stations broadcasts. Such statements naturalise a Muslim identity in both religious and cultural terms, drawing upon common beliefs and metaphors that set up a clear boundary around those they seek to include. It forms a very powerful idea of a social group, conceptualised and unified through acts of language. And it is not very accepting of non-Muslims, or atheists, or those who might not share normative Islamic values and convictions.

A photo-graphic collage announcing Radio Hala’s “comprehensive coverage” of the Hajj, the Muslim “greater pilgrimage” to Mecca. Via Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page. One among many examples of assuming a fundamentally Muslim audience, or at least one interested in Muslim religio-cultural matters, on part of Jordanian non-government radio stations.

Another example are morning service programmes. This type of radio programme is built around the concept of real people calling into the radio stations, with concrete problems that they face in their everyday lives and hope the host might be able to solve – broken water pipes, electricity cuts, rubbish collections, job applications, and many others. The idea of authenticity takes on a whole new dimension here: it is now a valuable resource, a sort of cultural capital which broadcasters can use to compete with each other and assert their legitimacy. They are linking up with real people, solving real problems, providing real services. They are not just a bunch of ideologues spouting rhetorical nonsense. They have an authentic basis for their popularity. They take care of people, sometimes better than the Jordanian state itself.

The flip side of this is that service programmes can be seen as basically exploiting people’s problems and suffering for entertainment purposes. This is hardly a new phenomenon; ‘reality’ talk shows, especially those on U.S. television, have been at it for decades. No matter how staged the actual encounters on such shows might be, the logic is still fundamentally the same. But on Jordanian radio, I think it’s interesting to think about this exploitation of authenticity in parallel with other localist and particularist ideas that pervade the media sector. These are real people whose authenticity is exploited to promote the persona of the host; but they are also Jordanians. Service programme hosts don’t just serve ‘people,’ in some abstract, undefined manner. They address, and serve, the nation. Their rhetorical excursions into discussing the problems of Palestinians, or Egyptian migrant workers, or Syrian refugees, are just that: excursions. The bulk of the problems they face is still home-grown. They might criticise the state, but they still operate within its basic logic – with its accompanying ideas of militant ethnic nationalism, clientelism, and royal patronage.

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Making media content stand out is a considerable challenge. Linking it to people’s lives, to their authentic lived experiences, is one viable strategy for carving a space in a very saturated media market. Katharina Nötzold and Judith Pies call this the “going local” tendency, which they see as an explicit policy on part of national media outlets in the Arab world – Lebanese and Jordanian TV stations, for example – in competition with international and satellite television channels.

But “going local” is not just an economic strategy, or a desperate attempt to captivate attention-fatigued audiences. On the thematic level, it intersects with very relevant ideas about nations, power, and politics in the contemporary Arab world. Is each state, each national media field a context for itself? Or can they be analysed together and compared? Or is it, ultimately, more important to look at how ideas about particularism, localism, exclusivity of each particular context impact how these media operate? There is scope for  intriguing discussions here, especially regarding the mutually enabling relationship of media on the one hand and state and economic power on the other. These have often been analysed in material terms – i.e., where the money comes from – or on the level of information flows (outlet X exists because of Y, therefore it will only say what is agreeable to Y), but more rarely looking at less obvious linguistic and discursive devices.

And these devices are important. They are, as I’ve shown in this post and in my PhD, very effective at making boundaries: delimiting groups, defining insiders and outsiders. They can be very powerful in making people feel welcome – or not. Local media work for local citizens, provide services for the community and so forth; but in doing so they simultaneously transmit ideas of what it means to be local, to be true, authentic, genuinely deserving of their attention. Choice of words and language plays a big role in this – in including people, enabling participation, making interactions count. The form, the quality of communication matters, as much if not more as the content.

The discursive terrain that media producers, radio or otherwise, have to navigate is complex and difficult. Language needs to be approached with care, with good awareness about precisely what kinds of effects it might have. This is what inspires me to do my research and continue with it: the hope that it can provide new insights, and help people with their own linguistic and discursive projects. And debate, of course, the vagaries of the world today, and how to act – with deeds and words – to change it for the better.

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PhD Findings (3): Being Local

PhD Findings (1): Radio and Power

(This is the first in a series of three posts on findings from my doctoral thesis, with the title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” A general introduction to the posts can be found here. Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here.)

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When one is speaking in a public setting, there are a lot of choices that need to be made. This is true for Jordanian radio, as my PhD shows, and as I will elaborate later on in this post. But it’s true, self-evident even, every time you’re talking to an audience of some kind. You might imagine you are speaking more spontaneously or informally when ranting about your latest favourite TV series to your colleagues at work than when assigning work tasks to them at a meeting, for example. That in itself is a meaningful choice: in any language, there is a great variety of resources at your disposal – particular words, sentence structures, grammar, ways of pronunciation and intonation – that sound more or less informal or formal, relaxed or stilted, spontaneous or rehearsed.

This is part of what linguistic anthropologists mean by the term indexicality. Words don’t just ‘mean what they mean’; they also have other meanings lurking behind them. They convey ideas of what the speaker is like at that particular moment. Are they cheerful and relaxed and enthusiastic? Do they project confidence about what they say? Do they stammer and stumble and don’t make much sense? (And is this just because they’re nervous? Or are they maybe doing so intentionally, for some nefarious purpose – like protesting a task they didn’t enjoy doing by giving a half-assed report on it?) All of these interpretations are based to a significant extent in the way we speak and use language.

Over time, these momentary impressions congeal into more stable ideas about personality and character. A person who can’t give coherent reports might be seen as lacking confidence, or just inept at giving reports; or (more grimly) inept at their job, period (if giving reports is the only “front” through which their colleagues see them). Or they might be seen as carefree, relaxed, stodgy, arrogant, confident, and so forth.

A poem about uptalk, a sarcastic take on an earlier poem by Taylor Mali (see it at NPR.org). The stereotypes which the original poem reproduces are deconstructed rather ruthlessly by Mark Liberman in this 2005 Language Log post.

Sometimes, ideas like this get attached not to individuals, but to social groups. In English, stereotypes about “uptalk” – or rising intonation at the end of sentences – are directed at whole generations of young people supposedly lacking the confidence to speak without making every sentence a question. In Arabic, with its immensely rich repertoire of different dialect forms, the best examples of such stereotypes are pronunciations of particular sounds. The qāf  ( ق, voiceless uvular stop [q] in IPA) is probably the most well-known of these. In Jordan, the pronunciation of this sound carries clear connotations not just regarding a person’s ethnicity and gender (Jordanian men pronounce this as g, for example; urban, female speakers might use the glottal stop [ʔ] instead), but also their personal characteristics – ‘masculine’ and ‘Jordanian’ pronunciations being associated with strength, aggression, local flavour, rural authenticity, Bedouin values and so forth, while ‘feminine’ or ‘non-Jordanian’ pronunciations stand for sophistication, urban values, but also delicacy and weakness.

Language can thus be a very powerful tool. It can promote ideas about what certain people – women, men, Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Muslims, non-Muslims – are really like. About their similarities, but also their differences. And these differences all too often translate into inequalities – that is, differences in power.

On Jordanian radio, there are countless examples of this. There is the male-female divide: there are certain stereotypical sounds that should, normally, be part of the repertoire of a woman speaking Ammani Arabic (which is the broadly accepted ‘standard’ on Jordanian non-government radio stations). But these same sounds are also ideologically compromised: they are ‘soft,’ ‘delicate,’ even ‘weak’ – compared to their ‘strong’ and ‘forceful’ equivalents in male speech, and in rural Jordanian and Bedouin dialects. Further, the very fact that women’s speech does not include some of these characteristically ‘Jordanian’ sounds makes them compromised as Jordanians. It may be true that they project an urban, sophisticated identity – but it is also an identity that falls precariously on the border of Jordanian national identity as it has been promoted by the Jordanian state and monarchy for at least the last 40 years. Women aren’t quite equal nationals; they aren’t quite equal citizens. And day-to-day radio language seems to conform to this stereotype. (This article by Salam al-Mahadin sets the issues out well, and in much greater detail.)

But it is not just words and their pronunciations that are implicated in power relationships. Take, for example, the well-known genre of “service programmes” (barāmiž ḳadamātiyya), in which listeners call in to radio stations to request some sort of mediation or intervention in their relationship with government agencies or other institutions. The most famous Jordanian service programme host, Muhammad al-Wakeel, takes full advantage of his position to present himself as a heroic figure: solving citizens’ problems, always being there when he’s needed, doing what needs to be done to make the lives of Jordanians better. The mayor may not respond; the ministry may ignore you; but al-Wakeel is always there for you. When all else fails, he’ll be the one to get that pothole fixed, or your electricity re-connected, or those pesky Syrian refugees shunted out of an overloaded local school. Because he’s just that amazing.

Again, this is about power: it is al-Wakeel who has the connections, the wit, the clout to solve these issues. And empathically not his listeners. The service programme host is the ultimate authority. If his callers complain, or claim an issue still hasn’t been resolved despite numerous phone calls, or want a bit more detail about a platitude an official has just given in response to a problem on the air… well, surely it’s they that are wrong. al-Wakeel can, and will, solve everything. Don’t believe that, and you might as well not even bother calling in.

 

Muhammad al-Wakeel, the great broadcast hero of the ‘Jordanian people.’

It is through language that these ideas are constructed and reinforced: through the service programme host’s daily addresses, his (yes, always his; there are no female service programme hosts) conversations with callers, his posts and interactions on social media. Another important aspect here is the construction of audiences. Not just who is actually listening to the radio programme at any given moment – and despite some attempts at measuring ratings, in Jordan that’s still a bit too elusive – but who should be listening, or better yet who you imagine should be listening. al-Wakeel is always at pains to point out that his programme is for solving the problems of Jordanians. It is the “Jordanian citizen” that encounters problems that need to be solved.

Or, for another example, take Islamic advice shows, a type of programme where people call the radio station in order to ask a learned Islamic scholar advice about proper pious Muslim conduct – prayers, inheritance law, interpretations of verses of the Qur’an, and so forth. This is a programme meant for “Muslims.” “Every Muslim” should do this, should believe that. “Most people in Jordan,” the radio shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi once declared on his Fatāwa (“Fatwas”) programme on Hayat FM, “follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic law.” Well, obviously not those Jordanians who aren’t Muslim, or who may not care about which maḏhab they follow… but those aren’t supposed to be listening anyway. Language includes and excludes, makes it clear who is welcome to listen and who is not. Who is accepted – has status enough to be in the audience, to be a participant – and who will always remain on the margins, disempowered, excluded even from the otherwise so utterly informal and relaxed conversations on non-government radio.

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But let’s turn back now to my previous examples of indexicality, and how it’s connected to what people sound and seem like at any particular moment. That is the key: at any particular moment. There may be stereotypes – “women speech,” the speech of “broadcaster heroes” – but these are not set in stone. Change the language, even momentarily, and you’ll challenge the stereotype. And all at once the linguistic authorities don’t seem quite as powerful as they used to be.

Linguistic anthropologists absolutely adore studying this. There are tons of examples, from all around the world, of how identities – ethnic, racial, gender – can be challenged and problematised simply through using language in creative and unexpected ways. So it is with transgender hijra in India, who refer to themselves and other hijras with either masculine or feminine pronouns depending on who they’re talking to and what they’re talking about (see here; PDF). This article (PDF) by Elaine Chun explores how this is done by young Korean-Americans who appropriate African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to strategically manipulate stereotypical assumptions about language and race. These are all ways in which marginalised groups can use language to resist and subvert discourses of power.

On Jordanian radio, a close parallel is the occasional challenge to male and female speech norms. Women are stereotypically ‘soft’ and ‘delicate,’ simply due to the way they speak. But if they speak differently, they can perhaps give off a different impression. So for example, in the memorial programme a number of Jordanian radio stations ran on 5 February 2015 in honour of the pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh recently executed by the IS in Syria, one female host, Randa Karadsheh, strategically appropriated male language by pronouncing certain words with the form g for qāf – not something she would ordinarily do, but a practice which fit perfectly well with the patriotic, militant atmosphere promoted by Jordanian media after al-Kasasbeh’s death. And it was a powerful claim over Jordanian identity by a female speaker no longer compromised through her association with non-Jordanian sounds, but fully integrated into the nation… at least for the moment.

Randa Karadsheh from Radio Hala (left), with co-host Samir Masarweh from University of Jordan Radio (right), during the Ṣawtunā wāḥid (“Our Voice Is One”) memorial programme, 5 February 2015. Note also Karadsheh’s undeniable visual claim to Jordanian national identity with the red-checkered shmagh (‘keffiyeh’) she is wearing (in contrast with her male co-host). Screencap from this YouTube video.

Changing your pronunciation can mount a subtle challenge to power. Karadsheh is still doing so from a relatively privileged position: she is a broadcaster, someone whose words and ideas will inevitably be put front and centre in any radio programme that she hosts. The issue gets more interesting when the audience gets involved as well. On-air time is valuable, and it will always be allocated sparsely to non-broadcasters. But there are different ways in which this allocation can be managed.

Service programmes are again a great example of this. They field a huge amount of calls, allowing large numbers of listeners to participate every day. Patterns in the management of this participation easy to observe. al-Wakeel, as mentioned, is controlling, authoritative, the Great Hero of Jordanian broadcasting, subsuming everyone and everything under his dramatic arc of Solving People’s Problems. His callers have little scope for debating their problems at length, or critiquing aspects other than those that al-Wakeel seizes upon.

But there are other possibilities. One example is Hani al-Badri, the host of the Wasaṭ al-Balad programme on Radio Fann. He still solves problems – but the way in which he does so, the way in which he talks about his actions and engages with his audience, is fundamentally different from al-Wakeel’s. al-Badri jokes with his callers; he makes cynical remarks about government figures. And, more important, he allows his callers to do so in turn. When, for instance, a media furore erupted in December 2014 following a number of disrespectful and sexist remarks made in the Jordanian Parliament towards deputy Hind al-Fayez on part of another deputy, Yahya al-Saud, al-Badri took a call from a listener whose sole comment on the event was a rather oblique joke mocking the kind of masculine ‘power’ represented by al-Saud:

CALLER: Sir – I walk around Amman, and I see signs saying “Hairdresser for Men”…

HANI AL-BADRI: “Hairdresser for Men” – what’s wrong with that?

C: Sir, that’s inaccurate. They should say “Hairdresser for Males

HB: Why?

C: We don’t have any men here, sir, honestly

(Source: Wasat al-Balad recording, Radio Fann, 4 December 2014.)

Jokes like this are frequent on al-Badri’s programme. But they would be simply unimaginable on al-Wakeel’s. al-Wakeel, indeed, fields very few calls at all that aren’t some kind of requests of assistance in the first place – in sharp contrast with al-Badri, who allows much more critical comments and humour on part of his callers even if they don’t directly contribute to his heroic dramatic arc of problem resolution. Moreover, al-Badri himself makes similar jokes frequently, and presents himself as an ‘ordinary citizen’ not unlike his faithful callers – again, different from the accessible-yet-authoritative al-Wakeel, whose very reason for fame is that he has more power, more connections than the poor citizens asking him for aid. Thus the way in which al-Badri uses language allows his callers more scope for creative resistance and challenges to power. These challenges are still rather restrained, still rather oblique (this is Jordan, after all). But they’re nevertheless possible, to a much greater degree than in programmes where the host reserves all authority for himself.

 

Hani al-Badri of Radio Fann building rapport with his listeners. Jordanian radio, a platform for peace and love? Well, at least it can be.

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If Jordanian radio language is about power, it’s a very everyday kind of power. It doesn’t involve lofty debates about human rights or democratic values. It doesn’t involve sabre-rattling speeches or gunfights between armed militias. Even as part of the Arabic media scene, it is a little marginal, a little limited, compared to flashy Ramadan serials or Egyptian blockbuster films or reality shows spurting out of Lebanon and the Gulf.

But that doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high. There are debates and contests and dramatic arcs and power plays. The most ordinary issues, the most inconsequential personal spats are scaled up when heard by an audience of many. Air time is valuable; callers might wait hours or days for their slot on the air. In the two or three minutes that they eventually get, they are in the spotlight. How they speak, what they say, how they present themselves in those few minutes matters a lot. Not, perhaps, a life-or-death difference – but still important. It might net you a job, or bring momentary social media fame, or just give you the one opportunity to push back against authority you might not find otherwise, and nudge things in the right direction.

There are two ways, I think, in which we can think about the relevance of ‘everyday’ practices like these. First, there is the thematic aspect. These are links made outside of language, outside of talk – the indexical links, if you will – to themes that encompass grander subjects and aspects of life on a wider scale. And they are important subjects, as we have seen: themes like nationalism, gender equality, religious rights.

Second, there is what can be termed the metaphorical aspect. What interesting, exciting thing can we compare these practices to? On the surface, the topics may still be too ordinary, too quotidian – but the techniques and strategies through which they are framed and contested certainly aren’t. Dramas, theatre, power plays. Adding the necessary flair can feel a little artificial; as an analyst, one might feel more or less comfortable with this – and this is certainly a topic that can be discussed further. But metaphor is, again, another possible way to show how apparently boring everyday affairs are actually quite interesting.

It is this second part, the techniques and strategies of language, that deserve more attention in our discussions of media generally, and media in the Arab world in particular. Media form impacts these techniques and strategies in a very real way. A Facebook comment fight between random friends-of-friends is a very different beast from a round-table TV debate involving carefully picked analysts and spokespersons. It matters if the contests are being conducted on radio, or TV, or Twitter, or over audiocassettes (for the latter, see this fascinating article by Flagg Miller – though with fair warning for jargon density). But that’s already the subject of my next post.

PhD Findings (1): Radio and Power

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.

~

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