PhD Findings (2): Media Matters

(This is the second 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 3 is here.)

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During the first few years of this decade, the heyday of the so-called “Arab Spring,” there were more than a few journalists and scholars caught predicting that great transformations were afoot in Middle Eastern societies – not least because of the communication revolutions brought about by new media. Internet, smartphones, Facebook were all hailed as harbingers of a new social order. Regimes would be toppled, the people would finally find their voice, and so forth. Some years on, and these revolutionary consequences have pretty much failed to materialise in their predicted capacity. Authoritarian political culture has returned in force in countries such as Turkey and Egypt; in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, media have become a battleground for a spectrum of factions seeking rhetorical advantage rather than an outlet for free expression.

This is not to say that changes haven’t happened, or that new media aren’t important. It’s just that the ‘great divide’ approach to new media – we have smartphones now, so everything is will be different – isn’t the most accurate. As I’ve argued a couple of years ago on the Discover Society blog, we should rather be more attentive to what specifically each medium enables: what types of arguments, what kinds of rhetoric, what kind of language, which particular channels of meaning-making. Sometimes, these resources can be used effectively for resistance and social change; sometimes (likely more often), they are not. But without knowing in detail what they actually allow for, we also can’t provide a useful account of their potential.

I study radio. Radio is a very special medium: it is, fundamentally, sonic, as it utilises sound as the primary medium of transmission. As a listener, one might have visual or palpable engagement with your radio receiver, for example, but the essence of the transmission – that is, what is actually transmitted to you as well as all others attending to a particular station’s broadcast at any given moment – is sound. Sound is the funnel: you do not see the broadcasters talking, you do not see the people calling in, so what you hear provides the raw material needed to understand what the broadcast is actually trying to convey.

At least, that’s the theory. Media consumption never takes place in a vacuum, and our interpretations will always be shaped by external factors – cultural beliefs and stereotypes, the context of viewing or listening, subsequent discussions with other people. Still, there is a prevalent sense or belief – what can be termed an ideology, following Ilana Gershon’s concept of “media ideologies” – that radio is primarily sound-based. This is a crucial part of what has defined radio as a distinct medium ever since its inception in the 1920s, and its subsequent presence in daily life – in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

PresslerSalomon001.jpg

Photo taken in the studio of the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS), Jerusalem, 1947. The PBS, established in the 1930s during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, was one of the first radio stations to broadcast in Arabic, as explored in detail by Andrea Stanton (see this article for a useful summary). Image via Wikimedia Commons (unknown author).

The ideal of radio as a sound-exclusive medium is noticeable in Jordan as well. Non-government radio stations, which I focus on in my research, are highly invested in maintaining a relaxed, spontaneous, authentic environment during their programmes. Since sound is their main means for doing so, they resort to spoken language to present an effect of spontaneity and authenticity: they use colloquial Arabic, of the type used in day-to-day life in contemporary Amman, to impress upon listeners that their programming is meant for ‘ordinary’ Jordanians, attentive to their problems and accepting of their voices. (The extent to which they actually enable listener participation is another matter; but at least it’s a motivating factor behind the choice of idiom.) Similarly, when nationalism or patriotism needs to be conveyed – as in morning programmes, when the Jordanian nation is metaphorically brought into being – this is done through sound: language sometimes, for instance emphasising the particular sounds (such as [g] for ق / qāf) that are considered to be characteristically ‘Jordanian,’ but more often music – especially nationalist, patriotic tunes, with distinctly Jordanian or Bedouin dialect lyrics, praising and supporting some aspect of Jordan (the land, the people, a particular town or village, and so on), or the Hashemite monarchy.

Occasionally, the sound ideology also gets manipulated in a broader sense – as for example in Ṣawtunā wāḥid (“Our Voice Is One”), the 5 February 2015 memorial programme for the martyred pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. For this occasion, a number of radio stations broadcast a single live programme for nine hours instead of their regular programming as a gesture of national unity. They unified, in other words, the sound of their broadcasts, their otherwise disparate voices. Whichever of the 10 or so participating stations you tuned into on the day, you would hear exactly the same live broadcast. Sonic unity thus stood for actual unity – but it could only do so because sound was considered the main channel of transmission for radio stations.

Report on the Ṣawtunā wāḥid memorial programme on 5 February 2015. Via Mazaj FM, on YouTube.

Digital media do transform these dynamics, to an extent. Jordanian non-government radio has a heavy Internet presence. Each radio station has its own Facebook and Twitter pages, with a constant stream of posts announcing upcoming programmes, sharing photos and videos of station personnel, or just greeting and chatting with their audiences. Webcams are also popular; these are placed in the studio – usually, there are at least two, one showing the broadcaster and another for the ‘control’ area where the producers and sound editors work – and transmit a live video feed for every programme over the radio station’s website and dedicated smartphone apps (most stations offer a free app that can be downloaded from all major phone app storefronts). Finally, hosts make good use of the textual aspect of contemporary media to engage with listeners – through classic mobile text messages, Facebook chats, or WhatsApp.

All these channels of communication clearly go beyond radio’s limitation to sound alone. Now the broadcasters can actually be seen; questions can be sent in text; announcements posted live on social media can be browsed and read by users at their own leisure, rather than going unheeded if they missed the particular moment at which the host read them out during the programme. Still, all these mechanisms are supplementary to the live radio broadcast. Sound remains at the core, the central zone of engagement for radio producers and their audiences.

Broadcasters use digital media for many different purposes, and sometimes in quite creative ways. The Radio Fann morning programme host Hani al-Badri, for example, is a very prolific WhatsApp user in communicating with listeners, allowing him to greet a much greater number of listeners within any single show than if he was just taking phone calls. Jessy Abu Faisal, the Lebanese host of the morning show on Sawt al-Ghad and the first successful female radio presenter in Jordan, was fond of using webcams for prize draws, giving out rewards to callers who could identify objects in the studio through the live webcam. Digital media here only amplify the potential already present in radio – such as its ability to connect ‘live’ to its audiences and engage with local listeners. They are an important part of the media ecology in which contemporary radio operates; they transform it, to an extent; but they do not displace it.

Hani al-Badri hosting his morning programme on Radio Fann, captured by the in-studio webcam.

Much can also be said about the impact of these media on radio language. At the most trivial level, there are the words used to describe digital media interactions, and which reflect broader trends in colloquial and formal Arabic as these media have risen in popularity in recent years: the use of English loanwords for specialised social media terms such as like or tweet, or native Arabic terms which have some colloquial traction – such as تطبيق taṭbīq “(smartphone) app,” تحميل taḥmīl “download,” نزّل nazzal(a) “to post, upload (on a social media page),” and so forth. One could perhaps quantify, as sociolinguists like to do, the proportions of kinds of words used for different social media interactions, or how different levels of engagement with digital media impact variations in pronunciation or use of different registers (Standard, Colloquial) of Arabic, and then attempt to interpret these findings in the broader context of contemporary Arabic linguistic variation.

But more than lexical or phonetic details, what is, I think, more relevant here are the effects of digital media on radio language in a broader sense, in terms of the novel communication dynamics that they enable. It’s not a revolutionary change by any means; again, what I’ve found is that it mostly amplifies radio’s existing potentials, rather than transforming it into some completely new phenomenon that will change Jordanian society in unprecedented ways. Still, it does provide interesting new possibilities for radio hosts.

When Hani al-Badri reads out his listeners’ WhatsApp messages, he’s not just engaging with large numbers of people; he’s engaging with them, addressing them directly, as individuals, usually by name. This is quite different from the classic radio dynamic of ‘speaking-to-everyone’ while giving an impression of intimate, one-to-one conversation – speaking “for-anyone-as-someone,” as the media scholar Paddy Scannell puts it. The kind of language used when communicating by means of social media messages still allows a sense of closeness and intimacy between broadcaster and audience. But this is now an intimacy of overhearing actual conversations, rather than simulating them through addressing an undifferentiated mass of listeners as if they were just one person. You may not be the person addressed, but the feeling of liveness, closeness, intimate presence, is still there, perhaps even stronger.

Or take the obsession of broadcasters with their social media followings. The most blatant example of this is Radio Hala’s Muhammad al-Wakeel, whose public Facebook page currently (as of August 2017) sports over seven million ‘likes’ and ‘follows.’ How many of these are genuine individual profiles doesn’t really matter; again, the media ideology of sites such as Facebook presupposes that each of these likes and follows stands for a singular, unique person. And so al-Wakeel is able to mention his social media following on the air whenever he needs to shore up his legitimacy – whenever he needs to claim, for example, that his voice is what truly represents the Jordanian people, or that his show is the best, most popular radio programme in Jordan, providing news and ‘services’ (such as putting people in touch with officials) to nearly the entire Jordanian population. In his day-to-day language, al-Wakeel can thus directly define and enumerate the audience his programme supposedly represents – a linguistic strategy that simply wouldn’t be possible without a deep investment in social media.

Image published to celebrate 4 million “Likes” on Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page, January 2015.

This takes me to a final point regarding the relevance of media and media context. Hosts such as al-Badri, al-Wakeel, and Abu Faisal are radio celebrities. They take up the majority of the on-air time on their respective shows. They claim, and sustain, a particular kind of authority simply through being given more space to speak in the radio setting. This matters because the things they say, and the ways in which they say them, will be heard by large numbers of people – on a regular, everyday basis, in a setting which simulates the impression of intimacy, often in direct conversations with the very people who constitute their audience. The language they use is not just a data point to be compared with a slew of others in a statistical comparison: they build rapport with audiences in different ways, construct unique personalities. They might be authoritarian heroes, or simple ordinary citizens who make light-hearted jokes with their listeners and allow them to make jokes in turn. When scrutinising their language, we can’t just claim that this is how media language in Jordan today looks like, or equate their positions with beliefs shared by all Jordanians (however much they might claim that this is in fact the case). They must be viewed with caution, in context, for the unique language users and personalities that they are. And the media which they use to communicate, whether radio or social media or something else entirely, are an important factor in this.

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What kind of medium you use to communicate matters greatly. The initial enthusiasm about the potential of new media to bring about social change in the Middle East may have been unwarranted. But challenges and transformation can happen; we just need to be more precisely aware of what any new medium is capable of achieving, and what it is not. On Jordanian radio, the Internet, webcams, and social media are used to supplement classic radio communication – often to sustain the very same arguments and dynamics already possible in classic radio, such as constructing a single Jordanian national public or seeking a live, authentic connection with a local audience. But this is not to say that these new dynamics could not be used in different ways. They won’t cause a revolution all by themselves; but perhaps they can be used as tools for one… if they are taken up.

I think it helps to think of media as an arena. It is less a ‘stage’ for putting up rehearsed performances than a space in which struggles and competitions take place, among whoever is able to enter. There are paths to victory, to making your voice heard, to change and revolution; but there are also obstacles. Rules of the game. Restrictions on equipment, match-ups which are often unfair to novices. You cannot just participate; the way the arena is shaped – media form, if you will – affects the way you need to shape your contributions, your strategies for participation. You need to talk in specific ways, with specific people, through specific channels, in order to be heard and heeded.

This might be self-evident to many of us today, moving in the highly dynamic, highly reflexive world of multiple media in which we are all producers and participants. Different social media are used for different purposes; they demand different repertoires, different ways of expression, different kinds of language. Even as prosaic a device as a hashtag (#) is used in different ways on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram. This has, slowly, come to be recognised by analysts of language and discourse as well – though perhaps less so for Arabic than for other languages (i.e., English, where most of this kind of work is being done); and, even more frustratingly, not as much for ‘old’ media (radio, film, music, television, and so forth) as for the ‘new’ offerings of the smartphone age. But it is not just new media that shape language; classic media do as well. And they continue to be relevant. The contemporary media ecology is dynamic, reactive, and complementary, an environment – a discursive arena – built of many possibilities, rather than each new medium simply steamrolling over all previous ones.

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PhD Findings (2): Media Matters

Stick-poking on Ro’ya

Jordan’s most recent sandstorm has faced strong competition in news sources in the past week from the most recent controversy regarding Roya TV, a Jordan-based, locally oriented web and satellite TV channel whose which has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. The point of contention was a video clip showing a sketch from a satirical programme broadcast on the channel a few weeks ago, in which a female presenter – sitting in a studio made to look like it was a show aimed at children – read out what apparently began as children’s stories but ended up describing situations with clear romantic or sexual overtones. The clip was widely circulated and critiqued by “activists” (نشطاء، nušaTaa’) – as the press put it – on social media, and culminated in legal proceedings being initiated against the channel as well as a judicial order to suspend the programme in question by Jordan’s Audiovisual Media Commission, for broadcasting “obscenities” that had offended “public opinion.”

roya storytelling

The clip (screenshot above; the full video can be seen embedded in various news stories e.g. here and here) has the presenter stopping abruptly whenever she reaches an ‘ambiguous’ (i.e., sexually or romantically loaded) section of a children’s story, giving a grimace of surprise or horror, and then rifling through the pages of the book she is holding in order to find a more appropriate story – only to find yet more sexual overtones (and, at the end of the clip, what seems like an especially ‘interesting’ drawing). A long white pole occasionally appears from the left side of the clip, ‘prodding’ the presenter to either continue the current story or look for another one. The most common criticisms – summarised well in this article from the website of the Islamist newspaper al-Sabeel – involve the presenter using “expressions containing sexual overtones” and “perverted scenes” aimed at corrupting younger generations, offending public morals and Islam, etc.

I’ll withhold my opinions as not to litter the blog with too many expletives. From a more measured standpoint, it’s probably worth pointing out how well the whole case fits into the broad “Islamic conservative versus Western moderniser” narrative that outside observers of Jordan love to latch on to (Elena Corbett’s article on the “Halloween ban” controversy last year sketches out the problem well, if tersely). Roya has been dragged into such spats before, with a (not too well populated) Facebook group calling the station out for not broadcasting Islamic calls to prayer – one issue brought up by many criticising the channel in the most recent controversy, along with doubts regarding the station’s ownership being Israeli.

Fadi Zaghmout has a good blog post up (in Arabic) explaining just how utterly misaimed the criticisms of the contentious sketch have been. What its creators were satirising was precisely the kind of social hypocrisy that has little to say against sexual insinuations in certain contexts – including children’s stories, but also for example films and music videos – but is exceedingly paranoid about any kind of attempt to discuss issues of gender and sexuality more openly. (Seen this way, the response then, maybe, proves the creators’ point.)

But as someone who is interested in how Jordanian media functions more broadly, what I think is just as important is how the case reflects on the broader dynamics of media legislation and the media environment in Jordan. This is an environment where social media campaign can drum up a three-week-old programme to the point where the Media Commission can order a broadcast suspension – even as the most recent amendments to Jordan’s Audiovisual Media Law no longer give the Commission the power to do so; an environment pervaded by a kind of constantly hovering, you-never-know-what-will-tick-it-off sense of overarching control, which stimulates self-censorship far more than any attempt at creativity or critical discussion.

Stick-poking on Ro’ya

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.

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(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

Jana

A cold front dubbed “Jana” (جنى) hit Jordan on the night of Thursday, 19 February, and brought two days of snowfall and cold temperatures throughout the weekend. On Saturday evening, warning sirens sounded in Amman, vindicating those who had argued last autumn (as they were being installed) that there might be other reasons for using them other than a military attack. (Fears of entanglement in the war against ISIS / Daesh had loomed large in this debate – though of course these are void, now, in a post-Kasasbeh Jordan, where ‘the public’ has been brought to agree that war is indeed the way to go.) The reason, this time, was ice on the roads – which had paralyzed traffic in Jordan’s capital during January’s Huda ‘snowstorm’ already. School holidays were declared for Sunday, as well as a general postponement of working hours until 10 AM to allow people to get to their jobs without endangering themselves.

Bread and Holidays

The obsession with stockpiling bread to live through the storm had, by now, turned into a bit of a meme in itself. (The tagline in the tweet above reads TO THE BAKERIIIIIIES.) Perhaps one weather spectacle had been enough for the winter; in any case, there was a sense that Jana was less of a ‘grand event’ than Huda.

Still, on Sunday morning, radio stations’ Twitter accounts were almost completely silent. Radio Hala announced, in the very early morning, that Muhammad al-Wakeel’s programme would begin at 9 AM, and later posted a photo documenting ice on Jordan’s roads – a problem exacerbated, I would guess, by poor drainage infrastructure:

(Tweet reads: “Most of the Kingdom’s roads witness black ice”)

Most other morning programmes also postponed their broadcasts by two hours. Unlike Huda, though, there were no major changes to the programme format. No street-rolling antics for al-Wakeel this time; the other hosts also read out news headlines and take call-ins as usual. The callers, too, seemed to take this as just another working day in the life of their beloved service programmes, complaining about problems facing private schools or bureaucratic blips in providing job opportunities.

As far as Jana itself was concerned, the greatest controversy was stirred up by the general holiday which the government imposed on both the public and private sectors on Thursday – when, during the daytime, the weather was still relatively fine. As one would expect, the shows varied in their criticism. al-Wakeel classified it as one of the of the (few) negative aspects of Jana – which, as with Huda previously, he only ever called المنخفض الجوي، al-munkhafaD al-jawwii, “cold front,” though he contrasted Jana with the previous storm by calling it “nice” or “relaxed” (dammu khafiif; literally “light-blooded”). Hani al-Badri was a bit sharper, calling the government out for their “mistake” in acting rashly on the weather reports on Thursday. He also couldn’t help himself but add his own cynical jokes on the bread issue, given the 65 million loaves of bread that the 8 million (or so) Jordanians had apparently consumed during the storm’s first two days (almost double the normal amount).

The general atmosphere on the morning shows, though, was positive. Badri’s morning video clip (embedded above; posted originally on Radio Fann’s Facebook Page) says it all. The “whiteness” brought by Jana was, ultimately, a message of optimism, and positive feelings, a sense that “good things” are all that God wants to bring for His people.

Government Impositions

Jordanian media personalities tend to adore the “positives-negatives” frame when talking about the “effects” of weather events such as Jana. This is a rather simplistic frame, and not very accommodating for making more nuanced arguments. Radio al-Balad once more proved one of the few dissenting voices in this respect. Muhammad al-Arsan, host of al-Balad’s afternoon call-in programme “Rainbow”, took the ‘citizen’s viewpoint’ approach that the station promotes wholly in his stride. The economic effects of the Thursday holiday were brought into special focus here – in particular, those Jordanians working in the private sector (services, especially) who lack the set wages and job security of public employees, and for whom every suddenly declared holiday means a loss of clients and working hours (and therefore income).

It’s not just that the weather turned out better than was expected; the issue was whether the government should have the right to impose such orders on its citizenry in the first place. So far this winter, every time heavy snow has been forecast, the Prime Minister decided to declare a blanket public holiday. “So if a snowstorm comes that will last for ten days,” Arsan asked during a debate with one of his callers, “will we shut the entire country for ten days?” As Daoud Kuttab pointed out in his weekly web column (excerpts from which Arsan also read out on air), the issue has less to do whether the government’s decision was sound than with the fact that it still reserves for itself the final say on what is good for its citizens.

And it is this final step that most radio commentators failed to take. For the morning hosts, the issue was still whether the government had made a mistake by declaring Thursday a public holiday. But its ultimate authority to make such a decision was never questioned. After all – as al-Wakeel pointed out – they did well delaying work hours on Sunday, didn’t they? Who would want to drive on ice? It’s the people’s safety that’s at stake here!

Give the ministers the advice they need, and next time they might do better. It is only this particular government, then, that may have been at fault; but not the system itself. However riled up private radio hosts might get over certain issues, there are limits to their criticism – and the controversies over Jana’s enforced holiday only made this the more clear.

Jana

ISIS and the Elephant

Not radio-related, but I couldn’t help but share this caricature by Latif Fityani that Roya TV has just posted on its Facebook page:

The reference here is to the Qur’anic Sura of the Elephant, in which God is said to have sent “birds in flights” against the enemies of the faithful (as a sign of His power), which in the Sura are referred to as أصحاب الفيل (People of the Elephant).

The “birds” here are, of course, symbolically, Jordan’s air force bombing the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (the flag sticking out of the frontmost elephant says “Daesh” [= ISIS]). The cloth (saddle blanket?) over the animal’s back says أصحاب الضلال والتضليل – “those who delude and deceive/misdirect,” which refers back to the Qur’anic quote both through the initial  أصحاب – literally “owners,” “friends” or “companions,” but also used to mean “those who…” or “people associated with…” – and the final تضليل “misdirection” or “leading astray” – which also occurs in the Qur’anic original (though as something that God inflicted upon the Elephant people, rather than one of their attributes), and is also in keeping with the verse-final -iil rhyme that occurs throughout the Sura.

The rest of the iconography – noble hawks / falcons / eagles, with Jordanian air force symbols on the underside of the wings, flying across a bleak landscape – fits very neatly into the various graphics posted by Jordanians and Jordanian media outlets on social media websites over the past few days.

ISIS and the Elephant

All of Us, a Single Voice

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

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

#”Our Voice Is One”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of Us, a Single Voice

Martyr #2475

As of yesterday, the Jordanian fighter pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh (captured by the Islamic State / ISIS in December 2014) is officially a martyr. Late afternoon on Tuesday, 3 February, a video was published online showing his execution by burning at the hands of IS, which Jordanian state television was quick to announce had already happened on 3 January. In light of the circumstances, King Abdullah cut short his visit to the U.S. and announced an immediate return to Amman. There were also demonstrations in both Amman and Kerak calling for retaliatory measures (which in fact happened at dawn this morning with the carrying out of the death sentences of Ziyad al-Karbouli and Sajida al-Rishawi, two convicted terrorists associated with al-Qaeda).

Within the space of an hour after the news broke, the #كلنا_معاذ (“We are all Muath”) hashtag shot up to first place among Jordan’s Twitter ‘trends.’ Tributes and eulogies of various kinds abounded, from individual users as well as media outlets. Some examples of the latter below.

From Radio Hala’s Twitter account. An image of the Sura of the Elephant, which tells of God’s might in destroying the enemies of the believers. Tweet reads: “The Almighty said: ‘And he sent upon them birds in flights / Who pelted them with stones of baked clay.’ #Martyr_2475”

Video from Radio Fann’s Facebook page. “Muath al-Kasasbeh. Martyr of duty, martyr of the homeland. Martyr of righteousness”

From Bliss Radio’s Twitter account. Radio Hala had published much the same image a few minutes before, though with the text in Arabic.

JBC radio’s own contribution. Tweet and image read: “God increase your reward, oh homeland. #The Heroic Martyr”

Radio stations dedicated Wednesday’s morning broadcasts to honoring Muath’s memory and calling for the fight against IS to continue. Listeners called in to offer their respects and reflections. Radio al-Balad had already “opened its airwaves” late Tuesday night, with a direct broadcast of the Jordanian army’s statement on the martyrdom followed by live call-ins taken by Muhammad al-Arsan (who usually hosts Rainbow, al-Balad’s weekday afternoon call-in programme).

Arsan, as always, tried to draw callers and guests into discussion and question their preconceptions – including questioning the word “retribution” or “revenge” (انتقام) against IS that was at that moment close to everyone’s lips. One of the callers, the parliamentarian and tribal leader Abd al-Kareem al-Doghmi, was especially insistent that the Jordanian state should respond “with force” – even against Arsan’s more subtle suggestions as to what “retaliation” might entail: waging more of a “war of ideas” against IS, combating it by engaging with beliefs and sensibilities that go against its precepts and conduct, and thus weaken it by narrowing the pool of potential recruits for the organization (some number of which have also been drawn from Jordan).

As for the IS’s angle here, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was, really, just a form of psychological warfare: gambling on the almost complete lack of news about Kasasbeh since his capture,  exploiting the uncertainty that comes from carefully controlled channels of disseminating information and seeing how far they can go. In any case, it guaranteed IS the top spot on the Jordanian media agenda for quite a while. Media manipulation is, of course, an important battlefield for the group – through their magazine Dabiq as well as other kinds of media activity (including social media).

Though maybe I’m just imputing logical motivations where there really are none.

Martyr #2475