(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.)
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.
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 dž‘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.
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.