Visualising the (Pious) Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visualising the (Pious) Voice

Quoting God and the Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quoting God and the Prophet

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.

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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

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

There are very few people looking at language on radio in Arabic-speaking contexts, so in attempting to find scholarly parallels I’ve necessarily had to look further afield. Linguistic anthropology, especially, provides a lot of comparative fodder, and one intriguing piece of work in this tradition I’ve come across recently is this article by Paul Garrett, on the use of the local creole language Kwéyòl (or “Antillean Creole French”) on radio in St. Lucia.

In brief, Garrett argues that the use of Kwéyòl as opposed to the official language of St. Lucia, English, provides for a more accessible, colloquial style, as well as being suggestive of a particularly St. Lucian identity. He links the on-air use of conversational Kwéyòl, further, to what he calls strategies of “reappropriation” of language: a basically traditionalist nationalist orientation in which “local” forms of culture, communication, etc. are celebrated. This is contrasted to strategies of “instrumentalisation,” in which Kwéyòl is performed – for instance, in news bulletins – in a way reminiscent of (formal) English.

The goal of instrumentalisation is national uplift via linguistic ‘development,’ in which the intelligentsia takes on the role of educators by providing a full spectrum of communicative roles for the vernacular – including formal contexts such as news broadcasts. By contrast, reappropriation – and the use of Kwéyòl in ‘conversational’ radio talk shows falls into this category – is in part a reaction to such formal uplifting of language. Rather than formalise Kwéyòl, it seeks to preserve an impression of the ‘original,’ everyday, face-to-face contexts in which it would be used, such as discussions at home or in “rumshops.”

Guadeloupe creole 2010-03-30

“Slow down, children at play.” A sign in Guadeloupean Creole, a Caribbean creole variety related to St. Lucian Kwéyòl. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The concern here is that Kwéyòl, if formalised, would become too alienated from everyday life – too like the official, colonial language (for St. Lucia, English; note that the parent language for Kwéyòl is French), and hence too associated with social contexts in which inauthenticity, mistrust, and dissimulation prevail. As Garrett explains it (p. 150; emphasis mine):

[This] reflect[s] an ideologically-based sentiment that is prevalent and widely noted in creolophone Caribbean societies and has strong affinities to reappropriation approaches: the notion that the creole language is intrinsically more honest, direct, and straightforward than the official-standard language... The creole is thought of as being qualitatively and essentially different from the official-standard language in that it does not dissemble, does not obscure the speaker’s meanings and intentions. The creole, and by extension, he or she who speaks it, simply “tells it like it is.” In contrast, anyone speaking the official-standard language – particularly a speaker who could be using the creole but has chosen not to do so – is never entirely to be trusted. His or her words instantiate and uphold the persistent hierarchies, based in no small part on sociolinguistic stratification and “gatekeeping,” that pervade creole societies. Such a speaker’s words always have the potential to carry hidden meanings, to conceal hidden motives, and ultimately to disrupt (or at least taint) local solidarities…

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Reading all this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Ferguson’s classic article on diglossia. Ferguson’s reflections on the Arabic language situation – that is, a system where a language is believed to be divided into two related yet distinct codes, ‘High’ and ‘Low,’ or ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ appropriate to particular communicative contexts – put it in parallel with a number of other comparative cases – including Haiti, where Haitian Creole is spoken (according to Ferguson) as a vernacular code alongside standard French. Haitians, or at least those who can in fact speak and write French, are thus diglossic.

In St. Lucia, the situation is probably more accurately described as bilingual, rather than diglossic, since the French basis of Kwéyòl doesn’t exactly make it possible to (ideologically) argue that Kwéyòl and the ‘High’ official code (in St. Lucia, English) are varieties of the same language. But even in Haiti, the diglossia claim has been contested – primarily because such a high proportion of the population is effectively monolingual in Creole. Whatever the case may be, the attitudes Garrett describes towards the ‘High’ code seem to be broadly shared. In order to speak in a ‘true,’ ‘genuine’ manner to one’s co-locals, one should speak the creole language; the ‘High’ idiom is always potentially tainted as a compromised code of hierarchy and collaboration. Hence why, in St. Lucian radio broadcasting, Kwéyòl is the natural choice for the kind of simulation of spontaneous everyday conversation that talk radio programmes aim for.

Creoles are, in the Caribbean, also national vernaculars; markers of a distinct national identity – Haitian, St. Lucian, Guadeloupean – that further enhance their meanings of solidarity. Contrast this with the Arabic-speaking context, where calls for using the ‘Low’ form in mediatised settings have traditionally been associated with precisely the opposite sort of ideals: collaboration, colonialist conspiracies, the undermining of shared ageless Arab values, and so on. But reading somebody like Niloofar Haeri, with her descriptions of the alienation her Egyptian informants felt towards Standard Arabic, the parallels between the Arabic-speaking and Caribbean creole-speaking contexts become quite striking. There are certain hierarchies – social, educational, regional, political, religious – that use of Standard Arabic inevitably implies, and which makes it highly inappropriate for use in the informality-simulating context of talk radio broadcasts.

“The romance of first winter rain.” Transcription of song lyrics (actual or imaginary / satirical) is one limited, though ubiquitously necessary, context of use of colloquial Arabic in writing, as the above caricature demonstrates. Image via Roya TV’s Twitter account

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The situation is of course a lot more complex than that. The comparison effectively falls apart when we begin to consider the cultural, social, and historical background in more detail. Standard Arabic is not the native language of any social group – unlike colonial languages in creole-speaking societies, which can be traced to very particular social groups, ones whose historical roles have typically been violent and repressive. There are also the religious connotations of formal Arabic as the originary language of Islam, which introduces a whole new set of values into the equation.

Finally, we must beware of – and this is a point I always like to stress – black-boxing the contrasting codes of diglossic language situations into neat frames of ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ without actually examining what these labels mean. There is variability at both poles – but especially so the ‘Colloquial,’ given the existence of various dialectal varieties and linguistic forms with different levels of prestige, and different kinds of links with social identities and norms of use. Classifying a stretch of talk, or even a word or sound, as ‘Colloquial’ doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that it’s ‘not Standard’ – whereas its actual cultural associations could run from ‘prestigious urban,’ to ‘stigmatised rural,’ to ‘prestigious Bedouin,’ to ‘stigmatised Bedouin,’ to ‘devalued refugee,’ to ‘feminine,’ to ‘masculine,’ to ‘female performing forcefulness via use of a masculine-associated token,’ to ‘female performing socio-geographic origin via use of a regionally marked token which just so happens to also have masculinity associations in this particular context’… and so on. If all we can say about a bit of talk is “this is in [Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian, whatever] Colloquial,” all such nuances are lost.

Garrett, writing on Kwéyòl, seems much more aware of such issues than most writers on Arabic media I’ve encountered. (There are exceptions: see e.g. Atiqa Hachimi’s work on Maghrebi dialect feature stigmatisation on pan-Arab reality TV programmes, or Alexander Magidow’s highly intriguing presentation on dialect mocking in a Jordanian comedy series.) He actually directly engages with local debates on what Kwéyòl – the ‘Colloquial’ pole – should be: a language transplantable into formal contexts, or an exclusively conversational code. And not taking for granted what a particular linguistic variety is also allows for us to look in much greater nuance at the social and cultural meanings that might lurk in the folds of its variation. This, in particular, is an issue that studies of language in Arabic-speaking media all too often seem to forget.

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

Broadcasting the Hajj

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Broadcasting the Hajj

The Women of Zarqa

If Radio al-Balad’s official goal is engaging with and empowering local communities, then the programme Huna al-Zarqa – “Zarqa Here” or “This is Zarqa” – promises to be a prime example of this. Media in Jordan, as so many other sectors, is heavily biased towards activity in the capital Amman; the “governorates” (Zarqa among them, even if, with just short of a million inhabitants, it is the second most populous after Irbid) often go neglected, both in news reportage and otherwise. Broadcasting reports and interviews that touch on local goings-on, then, via a radio station based in the capital, might be an effective way of raising consciousness of the problems that Zarqawis face, and define them – through publicly available discourse – as Jordanian citizens equal to all others.

What’s more, Huna al-Zarqa is run entirely by women. The central goal of the project is to “empower Zarqa’s women through media,” as the programme’s mission statement goes. Every Monday, Radio al-Balad broadcasts an hour-long session of Huna al-Zarqa that features two hosts – the journalist Etaf Rawdan, who is the project’s chief editor, with a junior colleague as co-host – as well as a series of reports produced ‘in the field’ – i.e., Zarqa Governorate – by an all-female cast of correspondents. A bi-weekly newspaper is also published from these reports (there is an archive of this the programme’s website, though the files have some formatting issues).

What Huna al-Zarqa presupposes, then, is that Zarqa actually has news worthy of being treated in a professional journalistic manner; but also that there is nothing strange if the correspondents covering this just happen to be women. And this may, indeed, involve some norm-busting in a country which features one of the lowest rates of female workforce participation in the world.

(Video: example of the kind of reports that Huna al-Zarqa usually broadcasts. This particular report collects local reactions around the murder of a female Zarqawi university student in December 2013. More frequent, less spectacularmight  topics include public work projects at municipality or governorate level; complaints made by locals; local cultural events, workshops, or celebrations; or Zarqawis’ reactions to issues affecting Jordan more broadly.)

Training for Media

Huna al-Zarqa’s correspondents are all drawn from their yearly cohorts of trainees that apply to participate in the project in Zarqa governorate. In January, the project entered its third consecutive year, and the 19 January show was dedicated in part to collecting recent alumnae’s reflections on their journalistic training and work with the programme. Most were grateful for the opportunity, though they also alluded to some of the difficulties they faced as female field journalists:

بداية الأمر كمحافظة الزرقاء كانوا يستغربوا موضوع انه فيه مراسلة سيّدة في المحافظة.. لكن مرة على مرة… بلّشوا يجاوبوا معنا اكثر المسؤولين.. وكمان المواطنين

In the beginning [people in] Zarqa Governorate found it strange that there should be a female correspondent in the governorate… but as we went on the officials began to respond to us more… as did citizens

قوّى شخصيتي.. خلّاني الجرءة اني اتفاعل مع المسؤولين.. وكتير اشياء حلّ مشاكل

[The project] strengthened my personality… it gave me the courage to interact with officials… and it solved a lot of issues

(Extracts from statements by Huna al-Zarqa journalists. Source: Huna al-Zarqa recording, Radio al-Balad, 19 January 2015)

According to Etaf Rawdan, many of the trainees’ “lives were changed” through their participation; she was also eager to cite the real results of all this “empowerment” by mentioning how many correspondents had moved on to hold proper jobs in media and journalism. What goes unsaid here, of course, is that – as opposed to such positions – working for Huna al-Zarqa can’t really be considered proper journalism. Ultimately, it’s just training; the real thing comes after. (If it does; Rawdan also hinted that, for whatever reason, not all women continued to seek employment in the sector.)

It’s not that the reports aren’t up to scratch. The aim is professionalism, plain and simple: carefully chosen, well-researched stories, read out in impeccable MSA, as one might here in news bulletins on Radio al-Balad or any other respectable radio station in Jordan. Often, the reports include statements from Zarqawis themselves, and are careful to balance official pronouncements with local voices and opinions – a rare occurrence, in Jordan’s government-friendly media field.

logo

(Huna al-Zarqa logo. Image via the programme’s website: LINK)

Still, the edges remain rough. Sometimes the reports aren’t recorded as clearly as one might wish; there may be strange gaps or overlaps with the speech of the hosts. Rawdan’s co-hosts – voices picked from among the programme’s trainees; a different person every week – also let their lack of experience show. Hosting a live broadcast is of course a whole different level again from preparing and recording news stories. Rawdan herself may be more weathered, but even she is unable to handle segment transitions and live interviews with the kind of seamless skill exhibited by some of her colleagues at Radio al-Balad. (Even her language departs from the norm somewhat: Rawdan’s is the only voice (from among the journalists) that can be heard speaking in colloquial Arabic during the programme, but rather than the expected Ammani, she exhibits features – such as pronunciation of /q/ as [g], and /j/ as [dʒ] – that aren’t frequently heard spoken by women in the capital.)


 

 

Huna al-Zarqa, then, remains essentially a training field. It is rather ‘efficient’ in that it brings together two areas – female participation and local news coverage – that Jordanian media is sorely lacking in. At the very least, it provides a point of entry into public discourse: an arena which demonstrates the possibility of treating local issues in a way which conforms with journalistic standards, and a chance for them to spread beyond the borders of the governorate.

There’s still the fact, though, that in this project, Zarqawi news continues to be covered by trainees – in their own programme, no less, safely quarantined from the ‘serious’ programmes and news sessions, even on as ‘community-oriented’ a station as Radio al-Balad.

Better, surely, than the complete silence of other media outlets. But even here, inequalities persist.

The Women of Zarqa

Tuning In to God

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

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

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

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

The Genre

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

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

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

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

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

ibrahim al-jarmi islamway

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

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

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

The Questions

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

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

ZaM in studio 16 March 2015

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

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

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

Question Types

1. Ritual

2. Social

3. Scripture

4. Host Favor

5. Family

6. Finance

7. Personal

TOTAL

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuning In to God