Disarming Comedy

In the face of national tragedy, even the sharpest comedic minds can be stupefied. Last week’s تشويش واضح، “Clear Confusion,” a Jordanian comedy series that began on YouTube but now also broadcasts its newscast-style sketches regularly via the television channel Roya, naturally had to cover the death of Muath al-Kasasbeh. But anyone expecting a fresher or ironic take on the matter was to be disappointed. Though the basic elements of its style were still there, in the end the programme’s viewpoint was pretty much indistinguishable from any other expressed by public outlets during the protracted days of media obsession with the martyrdom.

Clearly Confused

A bit of context first. “Clear Confusion” is a video series that provides an ironic take on the newscast genre. A single presenter – Muath al-Bzour – comments on various local Jordanian news stories, often in a cynical or critical manner. The humor comes from Bzour’s treatment of the issues – often interspersed with short clips from Roya TV’s more ‘serious’ programmes, as well as Jordan state television – together with his (all-male) cast of colleagues, who play the part of producers, studio guests, or simply “citizens” that had somehow found their way into the studio and intrude upon the newscast to offer their own comments. There are ample non-sequiturs and absurd ‘behind-the-scenes’ glimpses, and also occasional short sketches located outside the ‘studio’ where the team takes on different comic roles.

Bzour serves mostly as a ‘straight-talk’ commentator, but he’s able to offer comic gems as well. This short exchange (from about 2:43 onwards in the YouTube clip below) is taken from the 28 January episode, busy critiquing the Jordanian government’s planned increase in electricity prices:

The issue is whether Jordan’s parliament would be able to challenge the government’s decision to raise electricity prices by 15%. The host on the TV clip asks his guest Hall wasaT? – “compromise?” (literally “middle solution”) – and Bzour immediately picks up on the expression, playing on the polysemy of the word wasaT (“middle” or “medium”) – which is also used colloquially to say how much sugar you would like in your coffee:

حلّ وسط؟

لا لا حلّ ع الريحة أحسن (..) أو لا السادة (..) فوق السادة


No, no, a solution “with a bit of sugar,” it’s better… Or, no, black! More than black

Here Bzour rifles through the entire range of options for coffee sweetening. وسط wasaT is with sugar; ع الريحة، with a little bit of sugar; سادة، saada, black. (The last expression – foog al-saada – is also the name of the company that produces “Clear Confusion.”) All in all, an inspired way to highlight the absurdity of the haggling spectacle played out between the parliamentarians and the ministerial side.

As mentioned, not all the show takes place from behind the newscaster’s table. Along with clips from ‘serious’ broadcasting, there are also original sketches by “Clear Confusion”‘s cast. The following, from the same episode as the coffee gag, re-imagines the “meeting between parliamentary committees and the government” on electricity prices as a back-room card game. The joke, again, depends on polysemy, this time of the word nazzil, “to reduce” or “bring down” – whether cards, or the planned increase in electricity prices, it’s not quite clear (and presumably, from the standpoint of the politicians involved, totally irrelevant). See the clip from 13:16 onwards:

(In the end, electricity prices would go up by 7.5%, following a deal between the government and the relevant parliament committees – even as parliament had in fact ended up voting against any kind of price increase.)

Political theater, indeed.

[tashweesh wadih] 1 - card game still

In Honor of the Martyr

The episode of “Clear Confusion” posted on YouTube on 10 February began with the familiar sight of Bzour sitting behind his newscaster desk with the shot of an urban panorama behind him. But from the very beginning you could tell there was something off’ about the whole thing. Bzour’s body gestures were more restrained than normal; his language, similarly, was a more elevated style of colloquial Arabic, with many formal words and expressions. All signs that this, now, was something serious.

And so it was. There was no sarcasm, no cutting comments. The out-of-studio sketches were replaced by black-and-white clips of members of the “Clear Confusion” team, reading out messages to Muath al-Kasasbeh – and his family, and the King, and the Jordanian people – all without a scrap of irony.

[tashweesh wadih] 2 - bw still

(Caption reads: “A message to the comrades of Martyr Muath”)

The only possible traces of a more ironic slant were the standard ‘citizen intrusions’ into the studio. But, even here, Bzour’s performance pretty much took out all the punch. At 17:48 in the clip, we can see one of his colleagues burst into the studio and begin to explain to him about a “fresh” piece of news (presumably, on Daesh / ISIS) he’d gotten from a news website with impeccable credentials – so many “Likes” on Facebook, so many تغريدات taghriidaat “tweets” per day, everything arranged with هاشتاغات haaštaaghaat “hashtags”…

[tashweesh wadih] 3 - rumors still

Bzour stops him before he can continue. He begins to explain, in an authoritative tone, how such websites have taken to spreading rumors, and that all their social media followership doesn’t matter if they’re spreading information that can’t be trusted. And, in any case, this isn’t what’s important. ISIS have made their message clear – that they’re horrendous criminals; any further mucking about with online news and tweets and hashtags is unnecessary. What’s important, now, is for all of “us” to stand together, shoulder to shoulder, and protect “our homeland.”

To this, the guest can say nothing but صحّ – “Yes, it’s true” – and leave the issue be.

In another mini-sketch (see clip above from 7:42 onwards), two other “citizens” burst into the studio and begin arguing about who is “truly” behind ISIS and has made the organization as powerful as they are. One guy claims America; the other, Iran. Their style of argumentation, their intonation, the phrases they use, their hand gestures: it all perfectly reflects the kind of heated ‘politics-argument’ that one could expect Jordanians (or, really, Jordanian men) to have over a cup of tea.

[tashweesh wadih] 3 - fitna still

Since it’s all going nowhere, Bzour again takes it upon himself to claim the floor, and save the day. But as in the news websites sketch, he doesn’t leave anything open to interpretation. Such debates happen every day – on Facebook, on Twitter, at the dinner table, and probably elsewhere – but end up resolving nothing. If anything, they’re harmful: they’re فتنة، fitna, the worst form of dissension, difference of opinion within a community that really should stand as one. If we find the argument funny, Bzour is here to tell us that, no, really, we shouldn’t. We should fight against this, and be one against ISIS and other forces of evil that sow dissent among the nation. The voice of reason here also stands for the national consensus, one which all Jordanians should follow.

There have been some ripples recently in academic work on Arab media, on the potential of Arabic web comedy series to challenge the media status quo. Layan Jawdat has analyzed this in the case of two YouTube comedy series from Saudi Arabia; Alexander Magidow, from a more language-oriented perspective, for بث بياخه، “Silly Broadcast,” another Jordanian creation. “Clear Confusion” may be different from these in that its aim is not entirely comic. As Bzour has previously explained (for example, in this interview for Radio Monte Carlo), the core aim of the programme is presenting local political and economic news – in a sarcastic manner, sure, though also one that allows people to absorb the information itself, even if they might find conventional news broadcasts tedious or boring.

And, perhaps, gain a critical viewpoint or two along the way. Jawdat makes a compelling argument for how this may work in the case of the Saudi videos:

“The messages… reveal sophistication and self-reflexivity in communicating weighty ideas related to issues of culture, society, economics, and politics. The satirical tools employed in the production of both shows enable the encoding of these messages in a pleasurable and entertaining way… Their sardonic take on media reporting indicates an actively engaged and analytical reading of the news that slyly calls viewers to do the same”

(Layan Jawdat, “Laughing in the Kingdom: On Saudi YouTube Comedy,” Jadaliyya, 11 November 2014 (LINK). Accessed 17 February 2015. Emphasis added)

Following Jawdat, and taking a page (or a couple) from Bakhtin, there is a dialogic aspect to this kind of comedic newscast – the sense that the message isn’t supposed to be just a clear reflection of reality, but that it can be challenged, understood from a different viewpoint than that which simply takes it at face value. Contrasted to this are monologic messages: those transmitted by authoritative voices, messages that are true, that have to be believed, or obeyed. (Or else.)

Normally, “Clear Confusion” riffs on the newscast genre in a way that challenges precisely these kind of claims to unilateral truth. The guests, and sketches, and intruders are left to stand on their own merit: up to the viewer to judge whether they, or Bzour with his critical commentary, might be the ones more correct in their treatment of issues.

But when talking about the nation’s beloved martyr, there was no alternative. The Kasasbeh episode ended up promoting a single voice – that embodied by Bzour: the voice of reason, one to clear up all disputes, standing ultimately for the Jordanian nation’s unblemished unity. So even web comedy was subjected to the silencing – or, better maybe, the unchallenged consensus – that swept local Jordanian media following Kasasbeh’s death. Only more proof, perhaps, that subversiveness can only ever go so far.

Disarming Comedy

All of Us, a Single Voice

In the wake of Muath al-Kasasbeh’s death, all Jordan was one. Every public voice seemed determined to honor the martyr’s memory, and take a firm stance against the extremism of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. For radio stations, there was no better way to demonstrate this solidarity than to actually speak “as one”: to unify their broadcasts, for one day, and thus show quite literally how the various voices of Jordan’s airwaves can be woven into a single strand.

From 10 AM on Thursday, 5 February, more than a dozen local radio stations – as well as two from beyond Jordan’s borders, one each from Saudi Arabia and the West Bank – all chose to suspend their normal broadcast schedules, instead carrying a single cooperatively produced programme, broadcast live from Amman for ten consecutive hours.

#”Our Voice Is One”

For the first time in the history of Jordanian radio stations, more than 14  stations unify their broadcasts: for Muath; for Jordan; for the King

The initiative was dubbed صوتنا واحد – “Our Voice Is One” – which also came to be used as a common  Twitter hashtag for updates during the day. The programme itself featured conversations about the martyr Kasasbeh, Jordanian national unity, and news on the activities of the King and the Jordanian army, all accompanied by a generous helping of patriotic tunes. Live call-ins came from Jordan and beyond, with people honoring the pilot’s memory and describing their feelings and experiences in the aftermath of the announcement of his death on 3 February. And, in what was probably the most explicit demonstration of media solidarity, presenters you would normally hear alone during their allotted programmes now worked together – in shared slots, each lasting for an hour, where voices from participating radio stations each received their own turn on-air.

(Tweet reads: “Rose al-Soqi, Ammar Madallah and Shorouk Hijazi are with us now on the air, #Our Voice Is One in honor of the #Martyr Muath al-Kasasbeh. #We Are All Muath”)

That such an initiative could take place points to a very vibrant, very responsive media context – which the field of Jordan’s non-government radio stations most definitely is. It was also a valiant attempt to take advantage of what could be seen as radio’s greatest technical limitation: its restriction to broadcasting sound. Switching through the frequencies while “Our Voice Is One” was on air, there was literally no way one could distinguish between the stations. In sound, at least, all were one – including stations with such different images and programming philosophies as Radio Hala, JBC, Mazaj, and the radio station of the University of Jordan.

But of course, there’s always more to radio than sound alone. This is where the cracks in the illusion of unity begin to show: in all the various media ‘supplements’ that accompany radio, those that usually help it to overcome its limitations but on this particular day may have actually worked against the initiative’s overarching goals.

Images posted on Twitter showed “One Voice”‘s hosts chatting along amiably together, but they did so from one specific place: namely, the studios of the radio station of the Jordanian Armed Forces, Radio Hala (which, as Ayman Shuqair explains in this report for Roya TV, was also the initiator of the event). For all their shared-image- and hashtag-driven linkages, the tweets and posts issued from each station’s particular social media account – which remained firmly separate, with their own names and distinctive logos, brands which even solidarity with Muath could not be allowed to jeopardize. And even as the various presenters came together in close collaboration, each brought with them their own particular voice and style, cultivated on and bearing the traces of the diverse stations on which they normally appear.

(Tweet reads: “Šabaab [= literally ‘youth’ ] from various Jordanian radio stations in the shared producers’ section making the #Our Voice Is One initiative happen in honor of the #Martyr Muath al-Kasasbeh. #We Are All Muath”)

And, naturally, there were exclusions as well. Jordan’s official state radio didn’t join in; neither did Radio al-Balad, or the Islamic format channels, or any of the various stations that normally broadcast in English. The commercial giant Rotana ran its own programme in Muath’s honor, as did Radio Fann – hosted by Hani al-Badri well outside his accustomed morning time-slot.

Traitors, then, to the venture of solidarity? Perhaps. But this abstention from broadcasting what a large swathe of media has over the past few days assumed to be the prevailing viewpoint of “the Jordanian people” might also be read in a more charitable way. The field of Jordanian radio is so vast – so diversified – that not even such an overbearing national project as mourning for Muath is able to subsume all of its voices. The soft norms of Jordan’s media communication, as dominant as they might sometimes seem, still allow for difference – even if one needs to listen against the current (as it were) in order to discover it.

All of Us, a Single Voice

Lost Falcon of the Homeland: Muath al-Kasasbeh and Official Solidarity

The fate of the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh – captured by the Islamic State in late December 2014, after his fighter plane had crashed close to the Syrian city of Raqqa – came to occupy Jordanian media anew from late last week onwards. On Wednesday, 27 January, the Jordanian government announced its preparedness to negotiate for Kasasbeh’s safe return – in exchange for releasing Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi national involved in the 2005 terrorist attacks in Amman (the so-called “hotel bombings”), and in Jordanian custody since then. IS responded by setting a Thursday night deadline by which the exchange should take place; otherwise the hostages would be killed. Cue much posturing by government and media figures, and what seemed to be a resurgence of solidarity for the pilot among Jordanians active on the Internet.

Kasasbeh’s story is, in some respects, a strange one. There had been little news or information on his status since December, and continued doubts as to whether he was in fact still alive. The Jordanian government wanted assurances, which IS refused to give; instead all information about Kasasbeh and his possible exchange for Rishawi was conveyed through the words of another hostage, the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.

All this was hardly reassuring. Protests took place in Kasasbeh’s home governorate of Kerak, demanding that every effort be expended for the pilot’s release. Social media were overcome with messages of solidarity, with hashtags such as #Muath and #كلنا معاذ (= “We are all Muath”) dominating tweets by Jordanians and Japanese alike. Media outlets joined in as well, including radio stations – again, in ways that went beyond their core ‘duties’ of broadcasting sound. So the Twitter-friendly Bliss tried to draw its listeners into a conversation on the topic, with at least some success:

And Sawt al-Ghad – a radio station which prides itself on its ‘contemporary’ image and heavily promotes its Lebanese-colloquial-speaking broadcasters – put up the following impeccably patriotic image:


#We are all Muath

Join us in these crucial hours

The solidarity which reveals the ties that bind the Jordanian people together in these moments

Join us in this solidarity

The airwaves themselves didn’t go unaffected either. Live broadcast hosts checked in regularly to inform of any news regarding the pilot. Young children called in to morning shows, asking His Majesty the King to help “free Muath.” The most brazen example was probably a minute-and-a-half long ad that combined declamations in formal Arabic with dramatic sound accompaniment – orchestral music, along with sound effects of a fighter jet flying by. Here’s an extract from the text:

لأنّ تراب الوطن غالٍ

لأنّك من صقور الأردن

ولأنّ أقدار الأبطال الدفاعُ عن أوطانهم

نحن معك

الى النشمي البطل معاذ الكساسبة

أعادك الله سالماََ غانماََ معافاََ الى بلدك الأردن

Because the soil of the homeland is precious

Because you are one of Jordan’s falcons

And because it is the fate of all heroes to defend their homelands

We are with you

To the heroic našmi [champion], Muath al-Kasasbeh

May God return you safe and sound and healthy to Jordan, your country

(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin programme recording, JBC Radio, 26 January 2015)

“To all the falcons of the homeland. To all our intrepid soldiers.” Fear not.

“Jordanians,” the ad concludes, “will never abandon you.”

[31 JAN 2015] muath sketch

(“We are all Muath.” Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 31 January 2015 – link)

One could be forgiven for feeling that there’s something altogether artificial about this overflowing compassion. What solidarity there is needs to be constantly reaffirmed – through social media contributions; through patriotic clips eating time away from commercial ad blocks – in order to give the impression of a ‘nation breathing as one.’

Kasasbeh was publicly framed as a قضية وطنية، a “national issue” – not surprising, given that he comes from a family with some prominence in the Jordanian army. If Jordan is to appear unified, everyone, indeed, has to “be Muath”; and none more so than private media outlets – who, with their morning shows punctuated by patriotic songs, simply have too much invested in this narrative not to join in.

This much, at least, a look at local Arabic media can tell us. Knowing whether all Jordanians actually feel this way, though, is another thing entirely.

The excitement fizzled out, gradually, over the weekend, with no news regarding Kasasbeh’s well-being. Late on Saturday, 31 January, a video was released showing the execution of the Japanese hostage (Goto). As the new working week began, this prompted a new round of doubts and questioning. What was IS planning? Were they ever even sincere in their calls for exchanging Kasasbeh for Rishawi? Has the deadline now passed, for real? Have the authorities dithered too much – could it be that Kasasbeh is now dead, too?

Perhaps it was all just psychological warfare, a provocation to “stir up the Jordanian street,” as some callers on Radio al-Balad’s Rainbow programme commented Sunday. Given there was still no firm information about Muath, the reply made by his brother Jawad – when asked (on the same programme) how the pilot’s family felt during these moments – was laconic but telling.

“We have a lot of faith in God.”

UPDATE – 3 February (19:45 PM EET) – News are just coming in that Kasasbeh had been burnt alive by IS already at the beginning of last month. Horrific news, needless to say.

I’ll try to put up some updates on local responses as the story develops. I think Rana Sweis put it succinctly enough on Twitter:

Lost Falcon of the Homeland: Muath al-Kasasbeh and Official Solidarity