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

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

Swearwords and Racism in Slovenian Football

Yesterday (18 April), the ranks of those who follow (willingly or unwillingly) Slovenian domestic football league news have been ‘shaken’ by the announcement that Ljubljana’s major club, Olimpija, is firing its coach, Marko Nikolić, following a racist slur he’d directed against one of the players on his team, Blessing Eleke, after he’d celebrated a goal perhaps a bit too enthusiastically in a match on 10 April. International football organisations spoke up; Nikolić was suspended for 7 matches, i.e. until the end of the season; all culminating in his sacking, announced by Olimpija’s president at a press conference yesterday. A strong message, it would seem, that racism can’t be tolerated.

There’s absolutely nothing to excuse Nikolić’s behaviour, but what raised my eyebrows just as much were some of the responses to what has been going on in the endlessly exciting arena of Slovenian professional football. Specifically, there’s been article published this morning on the Slovenian state TV’s website, which aggregates a few local sports pundits’ opinion on the Eleke incident – together with another recent one in which Zlatko Zahovič, the sports director of Slovenia’s other major club, Maribor, insulted one of his club’s players, Agim Ibraimi (who just so happens to be a Macedonian Muslim) via text messages. Ibraimi came forward with these and had them published in a local newspaper, but apparently things were smoothed over internally. All forgiven – except that one of the pundits in said article, Andrej Stare, called Zahovič (who is of Serbian descent) for being, essentially, a cultural impostor:

“I wouldn’t take a side here, though there seem to be some hitches in communication, since people from outside the Slovenian athletic-cultural environment use combinations of words and adjectives [SIC] in a different way than our norms would require [them] to. In Serbia, “jebemtimater” [“I fuck your mother”] means “how are you, you look well,” but here among us it’s an inexcusable swearword.”

Obligatory screenshot:

stare quote

Stare is called out, and rightly so, in the article’s comments. Kicking your greetings off with “I fuck your mother” – phonetically almost identical, by the way, in both Slovene and Serbian –  wouldn’t win you many friends in any corner of the former Yugoslav world. But Stare’s statement is just one symptom of a more widespread phenomenon that I’ve written about before: the ease with which discourse in Slovenia slips towards assigning a greater leniency towards swearwords among those South Slavs of non-Slovenian descent – most frequently, Serbs and Bosnians (though others, in the fumbling fuzzy reaches of the ideology, are certainly not exempt).

There are many reasons for why this ideology persists, some of which I explore in the article linked to above. But what I find intriguing about Stare’s comment is that he does not use this ideology to ‘explain’ Nikolić’s behaviour. Nikolić had, similarly, used a swearword to insult Eleke – but in his case, the racist dimension is seemingly amplified enough to block any kind of quasi-culturalist explanations. These are as equally available for Nikolić as they are for Zahovič, given that Nikolić is himself Serbian. But not, it seems, once the publicly fronted line of racism is crossed.

Why is Zahovič different? Well, for one, he’s culturally and nationally much more ambiguous than Nikolić. He was born in Maribor, Slovenia; he has played (and very well) for the Slovenian national team; Slovene is his mother tongue. And yet, still, he is, really, a Serb. ‘Euphemistically,’ a južnjak (‘southerner’). The -ič at the end of his name fools nobody; everyone knows it’s really just a hidden -ić (the ć/č distinction is probably the most highly contentious orthographic shibboleth between Slovene and other South Slavic languages written in the Latin script). That is why, for Stare, Zahovič is so much more pernicious: an impostor, a hidden Balkan-born brute who, no matter how hard he tries to fit in, will always remain from “outside the Slovenian… environment.” Nikolić went against the rules; he has to go. Zahovič, on the other hand… well, that’s just how they talk, isn’t it? What can you do? Shrug it away cynically, and move on, and mutter to yourself, oh but of course a real Slovene would never say something like this. Of course it’s just the crypto-Serbs polluting our nice, pure, polite athletic-cultural environment. Et cetera, et cetera.

Having to deal with stuff like this is tiring, because the prejudices are so deeply rooted and so entangled with a host of other things – linguistic nationalism, migrant xenophobia, anxieties about Yugoslav history, post-socialist politics, and so on and so on – that it’s difficult to diagnose clearly what’s involved. Be that as it may, outbursts of linguistic ethnicism such as Stare’s are deeply, utterly wrong. A person speaking in the name of a state television outlet (Stare works for Slovenian state TV) should really know better.

There’s still a long, long way to go before such issues are resolved. But we shouldn’t lose sight of them. Idiocies like these should be called out; and maybe, by doing so, we can chip away at least a bit at the deep inequalities in public discourse hiding behind the Balkanist ideology of swearing-prone Serbs.

Swearwords and Racism in Slovenian Football