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

Visualising the (Pious) Voice

Based as it is on sound, radio programming tends to focus on people’s voices to a much greater degree than other types of media. But with the rise of Internet streaming and remediation of radio more generally, the visual component has come to play a much greater role than it perhaps used to when ‘radio’ was hardly more than a disembodied voice issuing from a box.

In Jordan, the heavy use of social media such as Facebook and applications such as WhatsApp by radio broadcasters is one way in which this kind of media boundary-crossing comes into play. Another is YouTube, which is effectively becoming a comprehensive digital archive for more than a few Jordanian radio stations and programmes.

But of course, having been designed as a video-sharing platform, YouTube uploads presuppose a visual component as well. The simplest way for radio programmes to resolve this is to simply put up a logo of the station (or the programme, if there is one) to ‘play’ as a still for the duration of the recording. Often, a photograph of the host is added to the graphic as well, especially if they have some degree of local celebrity (such as Muhammad al-Wakeel, or Hani al-Badri, or Jessy Abu Faisal). And the identity- and image-building associations of exploiting visuals in this way can be quite subtle – as, for example, with imagery of broadcasters on ‘Islamic’ stations such as Hayat FM.

Below is a clip from one of Hayat FM’s programmes, the early morning half-hour Aḥlā ṣabāḥ (“Nicest morning” or “A very good morning”), hosted by two female broadcasters, Alaa Abu al-Faylat and Du’a al-Bushayti. The visual element of the clip is limited to a static graphic collage which includes the Hayat FM logo in the upper right-hand corner, the name of the programme in large letters in the middle, and an appropriate “morning-y” photograph as background, with blossoming flowers and a steaming coffee cup. The colour green is dominant, in keeping with the station’s official logo and promotional colour scheme. Finally, there is a photo of one of the broadcasters on the left-hand side – complete with headphones and microphone that emplace her firmly in a radio station studio, but also a full-face veil (niqāb) indicative of an explicitly pious Islamic identity.

Radio tends to be conceived as a medium limited to sound. Listening to Hayat FM’s presenters, one does not necessarily know what they look like. But archiving recordings on YouTube suddenly provides space for visual assertion of the radio station’s Islamic identity as well. This image seems to suggest that Hayat FM’s female presenters – of which there are more than a few – are indeed behaving impeccably according to local understandings of how particularly pious Muslim women should behave (i.e., wearing a full-face veil in public and when communicating with strangers). The religious aspects of on-air talk on Hayat are, in this way, amplified by the visual, when the visual becomes available – as is the case when radio content is “remediated” on a website such as YouTube.

Male presenters – such as the Islamic scholar Ibrahim al-Jarmi, whose image appears in the recording of a recent Fatawa (“Fatwas”) programme above – aren’t exempt from this kind of visual identity assertion, and might also appear in stereotypically “Islamic” clothing in publicity photos used in YouTube clips. In any case, when considering images of presenters generally, there is a marked contrast between the visual material published by Hayat and that used for promotional means by other radio stations. Browsing, for example, through the Twitter feeds of JBC, Radio Hala, or Sawt al-Ghad reveals hardly any “Islamic” or pious imagery as far as images of broadcasters are concerned, in terms of female headdress or otherwise – excepting the occasional excursion into explicitly religious territory, such as when Muhammad al-Wakeel heads to Mecca for the pilgrimage.

A station’s degree of commitment to piety is, then, just as important an aspect of identity and brand-building as the music it plays, the programme lineup it offers, the kind of topics its hosts like to discuss. In the diverse and dynamic media ecology in which radio exists today, visual imagery can be an important aspect of this – and at least in the case of Hayat FM’s Islamic identity, this is deeply intertwined religious rulings and local attitudes towards gender roles. In this day and age, visualising pious voices is not merely a mental exercise for the listener; rather, it’s a central – or perhaps even necessary – component of how radio stations define and present themselves to the public.

Visualising the (Pious) Voice

Quoting God and the Prophet

I’ve recently been hacking at the final chapter of my PhD, which will (hopefully) be an analysis of the use of religious language on what I like to call “Islamic advice programmes” on Jordanian radio. These programmes involve a host, typically a scholar well-educated in the principles of religion and Islamic law, taking calls from listeners on a variety of questions – whether a certain course of action is religiously appropriate, for example, or how to interpret some obscure part in an Islamic religious text. (With the recent rise of the so-called Islamic State, for example, a few listeners called in as to whether their appearance may have been “predicted” by the Prophet Muhammad in one of his sayings (hadith). Judgments on this vary.)

What’s particularly striking to me is how the host-scholars talk about and quote the religious texts in which they’re supposed to be experts. Whenever the Qur’an or a hadith of the Prophet is quoted, it impeccably resembles the written form in terms of grammar and pronunciation – a standard which is rarely kept up in “fresh talk” on Arabic-language radio, even for hosts that do tend more towards the “formal” (or Classical/Modern Standard) pole of the Arabic linguistic spectrum (as opposed to being purely colloquial). Every Islamic scholar worth their salt should, of course, know such lines by heart – or at least be able to pretend well enough that they do. But quotations are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, usually pronounced in a different way than the talk which surrounds them. They are not merely said – not even read in the kind of droning, measured style typical of modern formal Arabic reading (see e.g. here). Rather, they are – more often than not – recited, in a way that sets them clearly apart from ordinary speech. Vowels are elongated, pitch is heightened, and there are relatively long pauses after each line (often lasting half a second or more).

So I rummaged a bit through literature in linguistics to see whether anything much has been written on this issue – that is, the distinct prosody of Standard or Classical Arabic phrases when recited or inserted into mostly colloquial talk. I turned up some quite interesting bits of research, including experiments claiming that native speakers of Arabic are able to distinguish between ‘Western’ (i.e. North African) and ‘Eastern’ (i.e. everything east of Egypt) dialects on the basis of accent and intonation alone, and explorations of patterns of poetic recitation on the Arabian peninsula shared beyond linguistic boundaries. There seems to be quite some work on prosody in Arabic going on, sometimes in quite interesting directions, such as the extent to which phenomena like contrastive emphasis (as in “wrote this article, not him”) might affect (or not) the way Arabic words are pronounced.

There are two issues, though, with this kind of research generally speaking. First, most look at ‘dialectal’ Arabic only. This makes sense for linguistics research that looks to examine ‘natural’ languages – that is, replicating conditions of normal communicative interaction, where formal/Classical Arabic is virtually never used wholesale – but doesn’t provide much to go on for the kind of context on which I’m currently working, where Classical and colloquial language is often used interchangeably. And second, they all tend to see prosody as a feature of linguistic production. That is, they approach dialects as ‘having’ (or maybe ‘exhibiting’) a certain kind of prosodic pattern under certain conditions. Again, this makes sense if you’re trying to describe language as a communicative system. But it tells us very little about how prosody may be manipulated, strategically, for specific ends – such as, for example, setting religious quotations apart from ‘normal’ talk.

It’s not a difficult thing to notice. In the recording below, for example, between 1:46 and 1:54, the Islamic advice host Ibrahim al-Jarmi (on his Fatawa programme, broadcast by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hayat FM) gives a religious quotation which involves a marked change in pace of speech (mostly, longer vowels) and intonation (heightened pitch) towards the end:

Researching the details of this phenomenon, though, may prove to be slightly more difficult. For one, the classical schemes of research in linguistics don’t do a very good job of capturing these kind of contrasts. Even sociolinguists, when talking about Arabic, tend to focus to a large extent on distinctions between “codes” – formal / Standard / Classical versus colloquial Arabic, for example, or different ‘dialects’ defined as distinct linguistic systems. But for al-Jarmi in the recording above, the “code” remains more or less the same throughout – i.e., ‘formal’ or ‘Classical’ (even as the standards are more strictly applied to actual quotations than to talk that accompanies them). The distinctions, rather, hinge on sociocultural factors in a much broader sense – including the way in which religious texts, in particular, are understood as ‘quotable’ or ‘recitable’ in ways that ‘normal’ speech may not be. (This is not just an Islamic religious issue either; it is also true to an extent of poetry, which in mediated communication in modern Arabic usage is often involved in many of the same prosodic strategies; see e.g. the recitation at the beginning of the programme here, from about 0:38.)

Classical linguistic categories have their place, of course, and can be a powerful tool when trying to analyse the intricacies of human communication. But occasionally, the lens does need to be broadened a bit; otherwise, certain potentially interesting and important phenomena – like the way radio personalities treat Islamic texts – might recede from view.

Quoting God and the Prophet

Broadcasting the Hajj

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Broadcasting the Hajj

Tuning In to God

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

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

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

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

The Genre

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

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

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

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

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

ibrahim al-jarmi islamway

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

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

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

The Questions

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

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

ZaM in studio 16 March 2015

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

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

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

Question Types

1. Ritual

2. Social

3. Scripture

4. Host Favor

5. Family

6. Finance

7. Personal

TOTAL

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuning In to God

Mourning the Custodian

By Sunday, 25 January, pundits and journalists had already milked the Saudi king Abdullah’s death for about all its worth. There were obituaries, and eulogies, and op-eds. Western corporate media were swift to provide  assessments of his life and legacy – accompanied, of course, by the obligatory fretting about oil prices. There were more critical voices too, calls for a more nuanced assessment of the legacy of a man who many of his Euro-American political colleagues insisted on praising as a modernizer and reformer (though, really, he was anything but).

512px-King_Abdullah_bin_Abdul_al-Saud_January_2007

(King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons)

Abdullah was not, in fact, just the “King of Saudi Arabia.” His official royal style was خادم الحرميْن الشريفيْن، “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (ie. Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram and Medina’s Mosque of the Prophet) – a legacy of his predecessor, King Fahd, who attempted to shore up his Islamic credentials by declaring himself a bearer of religious and not just worldly power. A dubious claim, in the eyes of many – including within Saudi Arabia itself – but it still imposes a very pressing formal requirement to refer to the Saudi regnant with this title whenever his name is mentioned in Arabic.

Like other Arab regnants, the Royal Hashemite Court expressed its “deepest and utmost sorrow” at the Custodian’s passing, and declared that it would enter a 40-day mourning period beginning from Friday (23 January). Official mourning in Jordan more generally – media blackout, flags at half mast, and so on – would last for three days, ie. Friday to Sunday.

Radio Hala, at least, took it all very seriously indeed.

Radio Hala programmes suspended on Sunday… in mourning for the passing of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz

Image text reads:

MOURNING

Truly we are God’s, and to Him we return

(This latter is a Qur’an quote – part of verse 156 of the Sura of the Cow, quoted / recited / posted often at mentions of death)

And – indeed. Instead of the familiar voice of Muhammad al-Wakeel and bagpipe-friendly  nationalist tunes, on Sunday morning Hala’s airwaves were overtaken by the supremely pious sounds of Qur’an recitation – much the same as on Radio Jordan, the Jordanian government’s official (official official) radio station.

A bit of skipping around the airwaves, though, soon showed this was more the exception than the rule. Hani al-Badri’s programme on Radio Fann was unaffected. On JBC, Mahmoud al-Hawyan did linger for a sentence or two longer on the news of Abdullah’s death than he did on other headlines – his comments had all the standard ‘solidarity bases’ covered: “he was a great man,” “all Jordanians mourn his passing,” “Muslims and Christians alike” – but in the end it was just one piece of news among others. King Abdullah was honored – as befits him – but eventually set aside. There were flowery-worded rants to make, and callers to soothe and assist. Even the Custodian could not compete with imperatives of the morning call-in show.

Nashama FM – my impression of it is a kind of “Hala Junior”, indeed quite literally as its broadcasts include a programme hosted by Muhammad al-Wakeel’s son – straddled the fence a bit more, with much of its morning slot being taken over by a host speaking over music about Abdullah’s legacy and what might happen now his brother Salman had succeeded him. (All good things, of course.) Perhaps most glaringly, Hayat FM – the prototype of an “Islamic format” radio station – showed no trace of being in mourning at all. Its live programmes went on as usual, punctuated by religious addresses, sermons, and calls to prayer; and its news bulletins were much more concerned with the most recent round of police brutality in Egypt than with the Custodian’s passing. Yet even within the confines of its own format – that of Arabic-language stations providing live programming and call-ins, and playing (pretty much exclusively) Arabic music – Hala was the exception, and just about the only channel that followed official guidelines on media suspension.

The reason? I would point to two factors. First, the more obvious – and cynical – one: Hala was simply following the official political line of “solidarity and support” with Saudi Arabia, which given its status as the premier ally of the United States in the region could hardly be otherwise.

But there may be something subtler at play here as well. Recall that Radio Hala is the official station of the Jordanian Armed Forces: the voice of the Arab Army – and, by extension, also this army’s supreme leader, the commander-in-chief, His Majesty Abdullah II of Jordan himself. The king is, as is well known, a first-rate military man, and the Armed Forces one of the most prominent organs acting in his name outside the walls of his palace.

Hala is not just a station that happens to have been founded by the Armed Forces (like Radio Fann, or Bliss), but an integral part of the army itself; its ‘voice,’ if you will – though one that’s rather varied and nuanced in its expression, and certainly not a straightforward mouthpiece. Still, it’s subject to obligations that other stations whose links to the state apparatus are not as explicit might be able to dodge. With the Court in mourning, there’s no choice for it but to fall into pious silence too.

Mourning the Custodian