Voting in Jordan, 2017 Edition

Last week saw local elections being held in Jordan. The last such happened in 2013, but the 15 August 2017 edition differed by allowing Jordanians to vote, for the first time, for governorate councils (governorates, muḥāfaāt, are Jordan’s mid-level local administrative units) in addition to municipal councils and mayors. Turnout was relatively low at 31.7%, and though the votes were as usual rather scattered, an Islamist coalition, the National Alliance for Reform – led by the Islamic Action Front (IAF) party and linked to the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood – won a respectable number of seats. (Recently the Islamists have returned to the electoral scene in Jordan, after boycotting all elections for a decade in protest at the skewed electoral system.)

It’s debatable to what extent any elections are really a genuine reflection of democratic governance, given the constant tinkering with electoral laws and gerrymandering that maximise the power of areas considered to be loyal to the Jordanian monarchy. (Not that other countries, including the UK, are immune to such criticisms…) Further, while the IAF and the Brotherhood are often portrayed as oppositional forces, they have a long history of cooperation and involvement in regime and state projects. They are a visible element in public discourse, and despite the authorities making moves against them at certain points – such as, in 2014, arresting the senior Brotherhood leader Zaki Bani Rsheid over a Facebook post criticising Emirati foreign policy – they are not directly vilified. The Brotherhood’s societal vision also accords quite nicely with the official portrayal of Jordan as a “Muslim, conservative” country – in contrast with other, especially leftist, parties. Still, it’s interesting to see how local Jordanian media responded to the most recent election round: the different framings, symbolic and linguistic, that produced them as a media event, an exceptional occasion in the otherwise regular daily flow of posting, broadcasting and programming.

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The independent media outlet AmmanNet, linked to the community radio station Radio al-Balad and heavily committed to media professionalism, limited itself to factual reporting of the events, with news stories on Jordan’s electoral commission (IEC) announcing the results as well as other aspects of the vote such as the proportion of elected female candidates (quite low at 10%) and the number and type of election violations. The most interesting is probably their round-up of opinions of columnists from Jordan’s three biggest dailies – al-Ghad, al-Dustour, and al-Rai – regarding the elections. These all betray a rather patronising tone, bemoaning the low turnout and presenting it as proof that Jordanian citizens don’t really recognise the importance of elections. Jordanians don’t know what local governance means; they should be educated; and so forth. It’s a very elitist viewpoint, and one rather typical of these outlets.

AmmanNet’s writers didn’t add their own opinion to the choir – though an impression of their position on the elections can perhaps be gleaned from the rather surreal video they published on YouTube documenting the “atmosphere of the municipal and local government elections” on 15 August. Driving through the streets of Amman and its environs, there are candidate posters everywhere; but otherwise, it looks like a perfectly ordinary summer day. Light road traffic and no crowds on the streets. And maybe that’s all the commentary that’s needed.

A much more serious take on the elections was provided by Hayat FM, the Islamic radio station linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The programme “Studio Analysis with Iris Jarrar” on 16 August featured some considerably more critical commentary of the election process. (Note, in the video below, the rather bizarre collage aesthetics of the broadcast: the host, Jarrar, postures and gestures like a television host – but other visual cues give her an unequivocal radio frame, including the headphones, studio layout, and the list of different FM frequencies on which Hayat FM can be listened to. Some intriguing material there for a future blog post…) At the very beginning of the programme, Jarrar straight out declares that, in the elections, “the state has won” (iḏan fāzat ad-dawla). “And the street has lost” (wa-fašil aš-šāri‘) – the “street,” in this case, being a euphemism for ordinary citizenry and non-elites.

The two guests Jarrar phones up to comment, the mayor of Zarqa (from the National Alliance) and the general secretary of the Democratic Popular Unity Party, both agree with her assessment. The elections don’t mean much; they’re merely surface “form” (šakl), with no true substance. The “Islamists” (islāmiyīn) may have gained a plurality of votes this round, but this is ultimately of little import, as the extant legal and political system still prevents proper democratic procedures from taking place. Reform, if this is reform, still has a long way to go.

What’s especially interesting is how Hayat’s guests frame the opinion and position of Jordanian voters – the “street” – in contrast to the elite newspaper columnists. This is still a formal, ‘serious’ analysis of the situation: the contributors speak in formal Standard Arabic, with only a few (and quite unremarkable) colloquial admixtures, and use formal terms and structures that belong to the same ‘elite’ idiom as that of the writers of al-Ghad and al-Dustour. But the substance is quite different. Where the columnists are patronising, dismissive of the people’s ignorance, Hayat’s opinion-makers give “the street” much more credit. To be fair, they still refer to it as the street – the implied stance remains condescending, framing it as folksy, non-official, non-serious. On the other hand, it is actively given agency in the electoral process. Turnout was low not because people don’t realise the wisdom of their leaders granting them local governance, but because they know, from past electoral experience, that participation isn’t really meaningful. They have lost their “trust” (ṯiqa) in democracy. They know very well what is going on. And the state is, ultimately, the true victor.

In the non-government radio field, Hayat is rather an outlier. For a sharp contrast, consider the election coverage of the army-run radio station, Radio Hala. Their stance is captured nicely by this Facebook video, drawn from their live coverage of the events. Most of the discussion is on technicalities of electoral procedures, and how democratic and electoral procedures have “developed” (taṭṭawarat) in the most recent elections. The language is rather more colloquial than in Hayat’s coverage – closer to the high-level “radio colloquial” of Jordanian non-government stations – and there is less effort to capture the broadcast aesthetics of television: the camera is more ‘overlooking’ the dialogue than being the focus of the two broadcasters’ performance. But the clip is still strewn with nationalist and patriotic symbolic cues, from the giant Jordanian flag in the background (though this is admittedly always flying in the Hala live studio), to the two broadcasters’ polo shirts in the colours of the Jordanian flag, to the bagpipe-heavy soundtrack.

Subsequent reports on Radio Hala’s sister news website, Hala News, basically regurgitated the government and the monarchy’s official line: the elections were a great success for democracy, an important step towards reform, and so on. There was little to no analysis of issues with the election or its aftermath – including, perhaps bizarrely, any in-depth discussion of who had actually won. Which is, of course, quite different from international media that reported on the event. For the likes of Reuters and the New Arab, the ‘Islamist victory’ proved to be the easiest tack – even a necessary one, in the absence of the kind of intricate factional politics that English-language news are used to dealing in.

But perhaps local media realised that the results weren’t what actually mattered as far as these elections were concerned. This is best exemplified by the live studio programme ran by Jordan’s national television (JTV) the day after the elections. Although, again, couched in colloquial language, with shiny digital studio visuals, this merely repeated how great an achievement for Jordanian democracy these elections were. Discussion of results was limited to the demographic and personal qualities of the candidates: it was seen as a good sign that many were “young” (šabāb), or women, or fresh faces new to the sphere of politics… and as for the others, they were of course older and more experienced and well-trusted by their constituents. So all was good. Much shoulder-patting all around.

The JTV also featured live announcements of election results. And these, I think, are what most clearly succinctly the nature and relevance of elections in Jordan. In each case, a middle-aged man from the local electoral commission stepped up to the camera with a piece of paper, and began to read out the results: the name of each elected candidate, and the number of votes they had won. “Jamal Sanad Subh Abu Darwish Bani Hussein Abu Ashar, 3176 votes. Majed Fawaz Oud al-Sharari, 3029 votes.” A fully personalised form of presentation, and completely opaque to any outsider. Who are these people? What platforms do they run on? Do they belong to specific lists or parties? Nobody says; nobody seems to care; it doesn’t matter. It’s much more important that a set number of people have voted, that the elections have really taken place. And all that remains – as many of the vote-readers do – is to give congratulations to the voters and the winners… but, even more so, to the king, for making all of it happen, and being the ultimate leader of all of Jordan. No illusions as to who holds the real power here.

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Regarding the political aspects of elections in Jordan, there isn’t much more to be said than what’s covered in this (almost year-old) post by Naseem Tarawneh, published on the occasion of last year’s parliamentary elections. Apathy is, really, the prevailing response. But looking at local media coverage, and especially the language and symbols of this coverage, is also important for giving texture and context to such events. These are public statements, public debates, with time and resources invested into them. And the priorities and biases that they betray are quite telling – both in terms of the structures that are in place, and the long road ahead for anyone wishing to challenge them.

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Voting in Jordan, 2017 Edition

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.

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.

~

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

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

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

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

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

PhD Findings (1): Radio and Power

An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

The recent rounds of violence in the West Bank in the past few weeks – sparked by assaults on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by radical Israeli groups in mid-September, and now ongoing with regular deadly crackdowns on Palestinian protesters by the IDF as well as isolated assaults targeting Israelis – has, of course, hardly gone unnoticed on the far side of the Jordan river. Jordan has a large population of ethnic Palestinians, but perhaps more important for regime-friendly media in the Kingdom is the fact that the Jordanian state still claims formal custodianship and administrative control over the Haram al-Sharif (which houses both al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock). When events in the occupied Palestinian territories are mentioned, it’s often difficult to judge whether what is involved is actual compassion for the Palestinian cause – or interest in the Jordanian public’s opinion regarding it – or merely a rhetorical strategy pursued to shore up the Jordanian regime’s legitimacy.

On 11 October, Hala Akhbar – “Hala News,” a recently established ‘news’ offshoot of Radio Hala – published a recording of an interview the star broadcaster Muhammad al-Wakeel had made with Ziyad Abu Hlayyil, a Palestinian man who had challenged Israeli soldiers on the margins of a demonstration in Hebron. Video footage of the event – see the al-Jazeera-sourced clip below – was subsequently shared widely on social media as an example of anti-occupation heroism (in what some observers have already dubbed a new intifada). In the clip, Abu Hlayyil yells and pushes at the soldiers, telling them to not shoot at “the kids,” refusing their orders to move away and giving generally irreverent responses – including “you can’t arrest me” and the (racist) “go back to Ethiopia” (reference to  Beta Israel members of the IDF). He loses his balance and falls to the ground at the end of the clip – though apparently not suffering significant injuries, as he confirms in subsequent interviews.

This act was, ostensibly, why al-Wakeel had invited Abu Hlayyil to speak with him in the first place. But from the very beginning of the interview, it was clear that the story would be subjected to a somewhat different framing than that of a heroic Palestinian man single-handedly resisting occupation forces. This was still the basis of Abu Hlayyil’s “message” – the pitch, if you will, through which his tale was presented as one worthy of attention. But to appear on a show such as al-Wakeel’s, on a radio station run by the Jordanian army, this tale had to be subsumed under a different narrative: one where heroism, sovereignty, and ultimately agency are assigned not to Palestinians, but to their Jordanian “protectors,” embodied in the twin public personas of the Army and the King.

~

 

There are two talk-based techniques in the interview that make this very clear – one more rhetorical, the other reflected in quite minute details of language. First, thanks and praise for the king of Jordan and the Hashemite leadership are constantly on Abu Hlayyil’s lips.  Looking closely just at the beginning of the interview: Abu Hlayyil’s first turn, after al-Wakeel greets him, involves extensive praise for Jordan, its security agencies, and in particular King Abdullah II, as if he were the ultimate agent of anti-Zionist activity in the region:

[0:48-1:57]

ZAH: Good morning to beloved Jordan
Good morning to the Jordanian Hashemite government, and with honour also His Majesty the King Abdullah II, son of Husayn, Guardian of Jerusalem and the noble al-Aqsa [Mosque]
Good morning to the Jordanian tribes, good morning to the “ever-vigilant eyes” of safety and security from the sister[-state] Jordan
And I would like to speak with you, ((sir))

MaW: ((Yes))

ZAH: Also with all respect to my Majesty, Abdullah, His Majesty the King Abdullah II, father of Husayn
Who has risen up in glory and threatened the Zionist forces with – with – with cutting off relations if they continued to desecrate the sanctuary of Jerusalem
Also we should not forget last year, when Netanyahu’s gangs began to prevent all worshipers from entering Jerusalem, and my Majesty ordered that all roads be opened for entry, and especially in the blessed month of Ramadan

MaW: Yes

Similar praise for Jordan and its government recurs several times – e.g. at 2:16, 5:02, 9:06, 14:46 in the Facebook video above – so extensively that it nearly equals Abu Hlayyil’s account of his own experience (the ostensible topic of the interview). Throughout this, it is never clear what exactly Abu Hlayyil is thanking King Abdullah II for. He resorts mainly to vague, formal terms of reference – such as “loyalty of the free [Palestinians?] to the Hashemites,” “heroism,” “protection,” “positioning,” and so on – which defer, or at least put at a slight distance, criticisms one might have of Jordan’s acts in the drama of the occupation. This is, in turn, a crude but effective way of asserting the legitimacy of the Jordanian monarchy: stating its formal role as the protector of Palestine and the Muslim holy sanctuary in Jerusalem, without ever delving into the messy details of what actually substantively fulfilling such a role might imply – but still upholding, in talk, the Jordanian regime’s impeccable political position, its deep dedication to the Palestinian cause.

The second, less evident technique is that of linguistic accommodation. The argument is on slightly shakier grounds here, given that a lot of the particular elements of colloquial Arabic which Abu Hlayyil uses and which are widely stereotypical of (male) Jordanian speech – in particular, using [g] for the Standard Arabic equivalent (q) – are also traditionally present in southern Palestinian dialects, and indeed around Hebron where Abu Hlayyil comes from. There are still some points, though, where I would argue Abu Hlayyil’s deference to a Jordanian style of speech shines through – in particular, the handful of instances where he uses the distinctly ‘Jordanian’ second person plural pronoun form -ku instead of the more standard -kum. This is essentially an echoing of al-Wakeel’s usage – which, in turn, invokes a markedly ‘Jordanian’ speech style. A linguistic concession, then, to the host’s speech, which mirrors the more explicit discursive concession of authority to the Jordanian regime – for which al-Wakeel, let us not forget, also stands in as a communicative proxy, as the primary voice of the radio station of the Armed Forces.

~

For Radio Hala, at least, stories of Palestinian heroes are never just that. The ultimate hero, the ultimate agent, is always Jordanian: the authority of the state, the king, the army, as vocalised by the host, deferred to symbolically and linguistically even when voices from the West Bank are actually given their own space to speak. Interventions such as the Abu Hlayyil interview are, ultimately, less participations of Palestinian voices than they are re-affirmations of a particularly Jordanian state authority – to all, actual and imagined, domestic and foreign, audiences of Jordanian radio.

An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

Gender and Emphatic Colouring in the Arab Homeland

Phonetic details can, sometimes, make all the difference. A few days ago, the Lebanese pop singer Elissa released a version of the popular Arab nationalist anthem “Mawtini.” (There’s some info on the song on its Wikipedia page; its lyrics are a poem written by the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Touqan (brother of Fadwa), and it formerly served as the anthem of Palestine as well as being the national anthem of Iraq since 2004.) Elissa’s effort was bound to stir up some reactions all by itself; it isn’t often that tacky female singers choose to tackle such deep-grounded symbols of Arabist (and pro-Palestinian) belonging. At least in Jordan, though, what attracted the most critique was Elissa’s alleged mispronunciation of the lyrics. A single consonant was at issue – but this was enough to arouse the ire of a gaggle of social media commentators, and draw out broad-ranging responses regarding gender, language, and the current state of the Arab nation.

Some phonological background first. Arabic – Standard, and all of its dialect variants – features a series of sounds that linguistic analyses like to call “emphatic.”  Phonetically, this involves both ‘pharyngealization’ – that is, constricting the pharynx or the epiglottis while pronouncing the sound – and ‘velarization’ – that is, raising the back of the tongue upwards so that it is in contact with the velum / soft palate (sort of the place where the tongue touches the roof of the mouth when you’re pronouncing or g). (For those mad souls who want more details, there’s a pretty thorough explanation of the phonetic issues in this 1972 article.)

emphatic schema

(A sketch showing differences in tongue position between an “emphatic” and “non-emphatic” sound. The dotted line (emphatic) touches the back of the mouth; the straight line (non-emphatic) does not. From Ali and Daniloff (1972); LINK)

The sin that Elissa committed was pronouncing one of these sounds – the alveolar stop, /ṭ/, ط (Taa’) in Arabic script – apparently without emphatic coloring. Even this might have been written off as a one-time ‘error’ (though more on whether it even is an error below) – if the mispronunciation didn’t occur in the very title of the song; which also serves as the refrain (and is repeated a total of 12 times throughout the lyrics). Instead of موطني، people claimed – which means “my homeland” – Elissa was singing موتني. mawtinii, not mawTinii.

Listen to the track above; you can judge for yourself. (Fingers crossed it will stay up for a while; the YouTube version has already been removed on Friday, apparently following a copyright claim.) The responses, in any case, were striking. Ro’ya TV’s news website did a roundup (as they sometimes do, for contentious issues) of social media comments. These include a few tweets and Facebook posts from Lebanon praising the recording, but many more critical ones from Jordan (and a couple of Gaza) taking issue with Elissa’s purported mispronunciation. (The writer of the roundup piece, ever diplomatic, characterized the enunciation as “delicate,” in “Elissa’s own special manner.”)

In many of these comments, the authors exchanged the “soft,” non-emphatic ت <t> for ط <ṭ> – not just in the title of the song, but in other words as well. فلسطيني falasTiinii “Palestinian,” for example, is normally spelled with a <ṭ>; in one tweet, Elissa was claimed to now have become فلستينية falastiniiyya, with a <t>. Another claimed that Ibrahim “Tou’aan” – توئان; the surname is properly spelled طوقان، with a <ṭ>, but suffered a change to <t> here, in addition to the stereotypically feminine and Lebanese shift from <q> to the glottal stop (<ʔ>) – did not die; rather, he “committed suicide after he heard Mawtini.”

The target here wasn’t just an isolated mispronounced sound, but purportedly ‘feminized’ variants of Arabic more broadly. To be expected, perhaps, from a Lebanese starlet such as Elissa; although, given that her error was conspicuously located in a self-consciously  nationalist song so often invoked as a symbol of Arab strength and resistance, the ‘corruption’ of “Mawtini” here seemed to be indicative of something deeper.

55428d7cdc498

(Elissa wearing a T-shirt with a misspelled “Mawtini.” Image via: LINK)

First, though, to clear the matter of whether it’s incorrect from a linguistic standpoint. Phonetically speaking, I’d say it’s at least up for debate. The release of the t – that is, the point at which the tongue leaves the roof of the mouth to allow airflow through – may be closer to the non-emphatic version; but if we consider the word as a whole, the preceding syllable – maw- – definitely has some ’emphatic’ coloring. (I’m pretty confident a phonetic analysis would confirm this; perhaps somebody with better skills than me might be able to check the formants in Praat or something…) The most marked feature of /ṭ/, the retraction of the tongue – the dotted line in the picture above – happens; just earlier than expected. It’s called “leftward emphasis spread” – basically, anticipating the ’emphatic’ sound before you actually pronounce it. Due to the particularities of human oral physiology, this kind of pre-coloring may actually be more likely than spread of emphasis “rightward” (i.e., following the “emphatic” sound rather than preceding it). Normally, you’d still expect it to sound different; but the traces are there.

It might be a phonetic peculiarity; non-normative, and possibly non-standard. But from a purely phonological perspective, it doesn’t mean that Elissa is not pronouncing the Taa’, or exchanging it for the non-emphatic version. It’s just that all the phonetic features that some of her listeners might expect aren’t present. In other words, she’s not pronouncing the lyrics as if she were actually saying mawtinii; it’s just her mawTinii that is different. (And it most certainly does not mean that Elissa is unable to enunciate ‘deep’ sounds altogether, as some commentators have claimed. The rest of the song features a couple of quite impeccable emphatic r-s, as well as /q/ in its standard form, [q], in its proper place, as opposed than the stereotypically feminine glottal stop.)

The song’s male chorus, by the way – see from about 3:10 in the video clip above – features a pretty much identical pronunciation of mawTinii. But of course, Elissa’s voice is the one fronting, and hence the more exposed.

On @anghami in less then hour #mawtini

A post shared by Elissa (@elissazkh) on

 

And that may, in fact, be the heart of the matter. A female singer attempting an Arab nationalist song will always be putting herself in the crossfire. Fully exposed, as a transmitter of the nation’s values – putting herself, metaphorically, in the position of the model Arab, the Palestinian longing for strength and independence – she needs to be nothing less than perfect. Even the most minute phonetic details become subject to scrutiny.

Double standards might be invoked here: the stereotypical position of women as ‘repositories of the nation’s virtue,’ and hence held to task for every slight or slip. But even for more sympathetic commentators (such as Hiba Jawhar) who say that “it’s not Elissa’s fault,” there was no doubt that Elissa’s pronunciation was, first, non-normative; and, second, indexical of femininity. The association with gender, though, is a higher-level one – perhaps almost incidental. Rather, the basic value conveyed by a non-emphatic pronunciation in place of an emphatic one – as with [t] for /ṭ/, or [ʔ] for /q/ – is that of ‘softness’; delicacy, in a sense, but one which also stands for degradation of linguistic rules, for people too meek or feeble to enunciate the more forceful sounds of Arabic.

Since Elissa is, in fact, female, all this comes round again, compounded. When a widely valued nationalist song that suffers linguistic degradation, it’s not too big a step to imagine the downfall of the nation as well. And if Arab women can’t even pronounce “Mawtini” correctly anymore, where is our homeland headed?

Where, indeed. For her most hardened critics, even an emphasis-perfect rendition by Elissa might not have been enough. As it was, though, it was phonetics that provided the ideal point of departure for critiquing her supposed transgressions – and the wave of responses it inspired proves just how deeply, and how scrupulously, Jordanians care about their homeland’s language in this day and age.

Gender and Emphatic Colouring in the Arab Homeland

The Nation’s Mornings

In the sound texture of Jordanian morning radio shows, human voices tend to take center stage. Mostly it’s the hosts, ranting on current affairs, or reading out news, or greeting listeners; or guest voices, studio guests or callers, speaking about their problems or topics the broadcasters have put up for discussion. Accompanying all this talk, though, there’s a constant undercurrent of music.

For Arabic-language stations, the songs played are (pretty much exclusively) Arab in origin: Egyptian and Lebanese pop, for the most part, with some Jordanian domestic production, and the occasional classic by Fayrouz or one of the great Egyptian singers thrown in. After a while, it all starts to sound the same – though this is less due to clichés of Arabic pop (though these certainly exist!) than the simple fact that the actual repertoire of songs being played is quite limited.

Much airtime is taken up by what could be called “patriotic” or “nationalist” songs: a playlist of approximately two dozen tracks, sung by Jordanian artists in Jordanian colloquial Arabic, all of which in some way praise either Jordan as a country or its institutions. These tend to be repeated over and over, to the extent that you could hear a single song being played several times in a single day. (This is especially likely with a station such as Nashama FM, which tries to make playing “Jordanian” music a central part of its image; but it’s true of others too.) I’ll be looking at some of these songs below, and try to explain why it’s so imperative for morning shows to play them – over and over again, every single day. Listeners’ tastes might play a part here; though what I think is more relevant is the role such songs play in putting the Jordanian nation into being.

Army and King

Some tracks make no secret as to their allegiances. Consider the following tune performed by Omar al-Abdallat – with the title جيش أبو حسين، “Abu Hussein’s Army”:

From the bagpipe-laden intro onwards, it’s clear this is an army song. Abu Hussein is, of course, King Abdullah II – father of the (since 2005) heir apparent, Prince Hussein – seen also in the photo in the YouTube video embracing al-Abdallat. The bagpipes and heavy drum rhythm are complemented by the lyrics, with ample references to marching columns, and gunpowder, and waving flags, and the valiant “guards of our borders.”

This song extols the Jordanian army in general terms; others are more specific, dedicated to particular divisions (or indeed other branches of the state apparatus such as the police). This track, also by Abdallat, praises Jordan’s air force – literally, نسور سلاح الجو، the “Eagles of the Air Force” – and has received quite some air time in recent weeks in light of the media obsession with Muath al-Kasasbeh (and Jordan’s subsequent airstrikes on ISIS territory):

“Where they fly, over the desert / Above the clouds, over the seas.” “Defending the skies of the kingdom, supporting the ground forces.” Morning shows feature such songs every day – even on stations which aren’t explicitly linked to Jordan’s army apparatus (such as Radio Hala). Music clearly meant for people proud of their nation, and all those who serve to protect it.

The Sweetest Country

Marches and martial tunes may not be to everyone’s taste. But there are other songs, equally patriotic, that can do the trick. Many of these seem to be songs composed and recorded for Jordan’s yearly Independence Day celebrations that have gradually built up into a ‘validated’ repertoire from which morning show producers are now able to make their picks. One popular track is راسك بالعالي “Your Head Held High,” sung by Diana Karazon:

Still, a hard-hitting rhythm; but there are no explicit military references here. The lyrics are more neutrally ‘patriotic,’ praising Jordan as a country, honoring the beauty of its physical features – and especially its people, whom the refrain addresses directly:

راسك بالعالي مرفوع الهامة

انت أردني أهل الكرامة

Your head up high, your head raised up

You’re a Jordanian, of the noble people

The obligatory YouTube slideshow also includes the usual suspects: shots of the Jordanian flag, Amman’s landmarks, Petra, and Karazon herself wrapped in a red shmagh.

Yousef Arafat’s احلى بلد “The Most Beautiful Country” falls into much the same category. Here the melody is softer, drifting more into conventional pop, and includes a chorus of childlike voices singing janna, 7anna – “paradise,” “longing” – only confirming about the land Arafat is gushing over (“sweet Jordan, to her we sing our praises”; “this country is the most beautiful, the dearest…”):

These songs’ lyrics refer mainly to place: Jordan as a land, with borders and defined territories, a North and a South, and so on. There are others, though, that add the dimension of time. Not history – that would perhaps be too contentious – but time in its ordinary, ‘regularized’ form, as experienced by Jordan’s citizens. Saad Abu Tayyeh’s يسعد صباح بلادي “Happy Morning to My Country” fits so well into the morning show lineup it could easily have been written specifically to ‘wake up the nation’ by being played on the radio:

“A happy morning to my country / People of the mountains and the valleys / City-dwellers and Bedouins / All who live in our homeland.” Abu Tayyeh goes on to mention coffee, and canaries, and našaama “on their horses,” all beautiful visions of a land readying itself for a new day. Any land, in theory, but the particular assembly of imagery (the ‘joining together’ of urbanites and nomads, and not to mention the word našaama) that it’s Jordan we’re talking about.

Making Jordanian Audiences

Marketers might argue this is all a matter of taste. Jordanians like Jordanian music, after all, and all the radio station is doing is catering to listeners who like to be told how great and glorious “their” country is.

But radio audiences are never simply discovered. Globs of radio consumers don’t just exist naturally before coagulating around programmes or playlists; they are made, brought into being through the very act of listening to the same things together at the same time. And since these songs are addressed to ‘Jordanians’ – patriotic Jordanians, at that; those who truly care for their army, their King, or at least their country – playing them is an attempt to bring together precisely the kind of audience that can fit into this category. This is, then, what the classic-format morning shows strive towards: a listenership familiar with, and appreciative of, music that praises the homeland. Those who refuse to do so can just tune out.

Danny Kaplan has written on how commercial radio stations in Israel use music in order to mark out times of “national emergency,” or other nationally significant periods of time such as memorial days. The music plays during these times forms a closed, and distinctive, repertoire: the songs are in Hebrew, praise the homeland, and contrast markedly with the usual offerings of foreign pop. On Jordan’s stations, though, something comparable is being played every morning – not just in moments of national crisis. With a pinch of cynicism, we could say that Jordanian national identity is so artificial, so precarious, that radio needs to affirm and promote its presence every morning, over and over again, in order to keep the fiction going.

This also fits with official state anxieties about Jordan lacking a unified national identity. Though I’m not sure whether Jordanians themselves feel as much of a lack of belonging as is sometimes claimed, the issue has certainly been high on the official powers’ agenda – including identity-focused campaigns such as “Jordan First” and “We Are All Jordan” (the motivations for which have been described in some detail by Curtis Ryan here).

Maybe the constant morning repetition of the same patriotic songs is less an official conspiracy than a way to present one’s national loyalty, in what is for most radio stations their most ‘visible’ timeslot. Kaplan’s Israeli example makes for an interesting comparison, but the parallels only go so far; especially since, unlike in Israel, Jordanian ‘nationalist’ songs don’t contrast that much with the standard music background of Arabic-language stations. Perhaps it’s just another marker of a media field that, despite its apparent format diversity, tends to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jordan’s political leadership.

Whatever the reason, today you can hardly listen to a morning show without hearing at least a few of the songs mentioned above. At such times, the hosts’ practice of constantly babbling over their chosen music background feels almost a blessing.

The Nation’s Mornings

The Father by Day, the Son by Night: Nashama FM and Haytham al-Wakeel

Among the radio stations that boast of their Jordanian credentials most proudly is Nashama FM. It’s there in the name itself: nashaama نشامى , the plural of نشمي nashmii, is a word that could be translated literally as something like “gentleman,” “knight,” or “champion,” but it’s also strongly associated with Bedouin values of generosity and valor. Add to this the fact that it’s used regularly in the media to refer to valiant members of the Jordanian state apparatus – the nashaama of the Armed Forces, the nashaama of the police, and so on – and it’s easy to see how it fits a Jordanian nationalist framework that places a high value on (what have come to be understood as) Bedouin ethnic and identity markers.

Other aspects of the brand only confirm this further. Nashama’s logo (see below) proclaims the station to be “100% Jordanian,” and uses the seven-pointed star copied from the Jordanian flag – with inverted colors (red on a white background instead of vice versa), but still perfectly recognizable, and another distinctive Jordanian symbol. (Of the flag’s four colors, green is missing from the logo, though it is present on the station’s Twitter and Facebook profile pages.) Even the station’s media kit claims a unique compatibility with the “cultures and values of Jordanians” – whatever these might be – and promotes itself as providing proper “Jordanian” music of the kind that is “much closer to the heart and mind of every Jordanian than any other.”

NashamaLogo-White&Red-NEW-JPEG

(“Nashama FM 105.1. Jordanian, 100%.” Source: Nashama FM website)

Nashama’s morning show, إبشر (literally “Be Happy”) – hosted for the past few months by Ammar Madallah (follow this link for a telling photo) – is pretty much par for the course. Over a selection of highly patriotic music, the host offers his comments on current affairs; reads out messages sent by listeners – especially those that include some kind of praise the King, or the army, or other branches of the state – and reads out headlines from local newspapers. In the vein of other “service programmes,” like Hala’s al-Wakeel Programme or Fann’s Wasat al-balad, it also features call-ins from listeners, and occasionally phone conversations with government ministers or other officials.

So – apart from the name – what’s there to distinguish it? Outside of the morning programme, Nashama’s playlists do appear to be slanted a bit more heavily towards Jordanian music than that of other private stations – though that’s more a matter of degree than of absolute difference.

It does, though, boast an afternoon show hosted by Haytham al-Wakeel. Son of none other than, yes, the great Muhammad al-Wakeel – also known to his listeners as Abu Haytham.

A Voice to Lead You Home

When Haytham’s show was first announced – a result of a slight restructuring of programming that Nashama underwent at the beginning of the year – one Facebook commenter immediately remarked how fortunate listeners are, as they can now hear both representatives of the al-Wakeel clan on the air – every weekday!

الأب بالنهار وبالليل الإبن

The father in daytime, and at night, the son

Father and son do, in fact, complement each other quite neatly. The elder Wakeel’s Programme runs in the morning, from 7 to 10 AM, while Haytham’s timeslot is in the afternoon between 4 and 6. Both fall squarely in the times a commuting crowd would be most likely to tune into the radio, either in their own vehicles or (often, perforce) on public transport. The name of Haytham’s programme,  تي روّح , “Tii Rawwih,” brings this up directly by including the verb روّح rawwaHa, “to return home.” (Hayat FM’s afternoon programme is similarly explicit: it is called ترويحة، tarwiiHa, a noun derived from the same verbal stem – literally “the act of returning home.”)

Like most shows in the same programming slot, Tii Rawwih features music, call-ins on select topics, and the host’s own miscellaneous musings on the events of the day.

(“It’s time to start our evening with Haytham al-Wakeel… Listen and be a part of the sections and subjects of today’s “Tee Rawwih” programme!”)

After days of preoccupation with the martyrdom of Muath al-Kasasbeh, at the beginning of this week, a new issue finally began to move into the Jordanian media spotlight: the upcoming cold weather front. (The initial idea – bandied about already at the end of January – was to name it Falha, but given everything that had happened in the past week Jordanian media rather settled on Karam, which is the name of Kasasbeh’s eldest son.) So, on his 9 February programme, the question Haytham posed to his listeners was: how do you think the authorities will act in dealing with the upcoming storm? Are all the preparations we hear so much about going to be effective? Will they do as well as they have during Huda?

كل الإحترام (..) وقفة إجلال وإحترام للأجهزه الحكوميه اللي تعاملت مع المنخفض الجوي السابق (..) اشتغلوا بمهنيه (..) بتنسيق (..) أكيد منْوَجّه إلهم تحية (..) والله يعطيهم ألف عافيه

Respect… all honor and respect to the government agencies that dealt with the previous weather front… they worked professionally… they coordinated… for sure we give them our greeting… and God give them strength a thousand times over

(Source: tii rawwiH recording, Nashama FM, 9 February 2015)

The calls that made it on air seemed to agree with the host’s observation – similar to what his father had said in the aftermath of Huda – that, if there had been problems, they were caused by citizens not obeying government instructions, rather than official agencies not doing a good job. Haytham then turned to another favored bugbear of radio show hosts: the spread of unverified information through social media – what is derisively called إشاعات، “rumors,” as opposed (implicitly) to the reliable news spread by professional journalists and officially licensed media sources. Again, listeners were asked to call in with their views on the issue; and Haytham also encouraged them – several times – not to post any piece of information on their social media profiles unless they’re “100% sure” that it was true.

يعني شخص يكتب عنده معلومه (..) انت بتروح بتنشر نفس المعلومه اللي هو كتبها (..) طيب انت عارف شو المصدر لهذا الشخص؟ عارف انّه حكى صحّ؟

Okay so a person writes a piece of information… you go and publish the same thing that they’ve written… right so do you know what this person’s source is? Do you know what they’re saying is true?

(Source: tii rawwiH recording, Nashama FM, 9 February 2015)

Once again, the callers supported him. One older man called in to say that he’d been hearing rumors for “70 years” now, and had never believed a single one of them. Trusted sources only. A woman described how she feels bombarded by all sorts of information – from her friends, mostly, on social media – but, also, only takes heed of proper outlets.  “You only trust information from the government then?” was Haytham’s question. Well, of course! Even at work – when her colleagues talk about all different sorts of things, controversial things, politics and so on – she never joins in the debates…

Such discussion – if it can even be called such – is very much confined; sanitized, almost, never going far from the boundaries the host had set through his own reflections and opinions. Though, all in all, this isn’t much of a departure from what happens on most other stations with afternoon programmes. Light topics, accompanying people on their drive (or ride) home. Like the morning show, it’s a very well defined genre. Haytham’s voice may be distinctive – resembling, in some ways, his father’s, with his deep cadence and occasional booming laughter, though with slightly more colorful variation in pitch at times – but his topics and style hardly bring anything new to the afternoon broadcast scene.


 

Two points, I think, that can be drawn from the Nashama case. First is the impression of social tightness one gets when looking at the field of Jordanian radio. Not just the father-son link; even more generally, many broadcasters know each other well, and it’s easy for them to switch to another station to present their programmes, usually with little fuss or changes in style or language. In the past year or two there have been some high-profile shuffes among the morning show stars – al-Wakeel the Elder’s move from Rotana to Radio Hala probably the most notable – but Haytham also hosted a programme on Farah al-Nas before starting his current show, and Ammar Madallah (Nashama’s morning voice) had as his previous home Amen FM, the official radio station of the General Security Directorate (= the Jordanian police force).

Ammar Madallah (left) in the Nashama studio with a guest. From Nashama FM’s Facebook Page

The second point relates to the density of the Jordanian radio field. There are a large number of stations with very similar programming schemes – morning, daytime, and afternoon shows; each with their dedicated host, usually with call-ins and text messages – playing a very similar repertoire of Arabic-language music. The language used is also very similar, the kind of high-level Jordanian (really, Ammani) colloquial that has in recent years become the implicit norm in media.

Still, even here, there are nooks that stations can insert themselves into, targeting (or, indeed, inventing) ever more finely tuned listener segments. With its name, and its image, and its music choices, Nashama FM takes the ‘real Jordanian’ part of the audience to its furthest possible extreme.

For the moment, at least, this seems to be viable move; though I get the feeling this might tell us just as much about the cultural coordinates of the Jordanian media scene as it does about its purported listenership.


(Thanks to Abla Oudeh)

The Father by Day, the Son by Night: Nashama FM and Haytham al-Wakeel