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

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

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

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

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

WE ARE ALL MUATH KASASBEH

#We are all Muath

Join us in these crucial hours

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

Join us in this solidarity

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

لأنّ تراب الوطن غالٍ

لأنّك من صقور الأردن

ولأنّ أقدار الأبطال الدفاعُ عن أوطانهم

نحن معك

الى النشمي البطل معاذ الكساسبة

أعادك الله سالماََ غانماََ معافاََ الى بلدك الأردن

Because the soil of the homeland is precious

Because you are one of Jordan’s falcons

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

We are with you

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

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

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

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

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

[31 JAN 2015] muath sketch

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

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

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

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


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

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

“We have a lot of faith in God.”


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

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

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

Facebook Counts

During the final days of Muhammad al-Wakeel’s stint at Radio Rotana – when his programme was still called بصراحة مع الوكيل, “Honestly with al-Wakeel” – the host dedicated one Thursday session to an on-air interview with Rajae Qawas, a comedian best known for his work on the Arabic entertainment network Kharabeesh. They touched on many topics, including family, fan interactions, Kharabeesh’s online competitors (Saudis, apparently), and the use of Jordanian dialect in comedy. Eventually, the talk turned to Qawas’s imitation act, and Abu Haytham came up with a challenge.

“Could you do an impression of me?”

Qawas rose to it splendidly. Not as much the tone of voice – though he did nail al-Wakeel’s distinctive cadence, with rises at the end of phrases followed by over-extended pauses – as the way in which the star host tends to conduct his on-air interactions: reading out listeners’ names, responding to their greetings posted on social media, and re-phrasing and appropriating the problems from their call-ins to fit into his own personal performance arc.

And, to top it all off, a reference to al-Wakeel’s personal “Page” on Facebook.

صار عندنا على صفحتنا اكثر من مليون و نصّ (..) مشاهد و

we now have on our page more than a million and a half (..) viewers and…

(The (..) stands for a longer pause. Source: bi-SiraaHa ma3 al-wakiil recording, Radio Rotana, 10 April 2014)

A clever choice – especially given that, for the past few days, al-Wakeel had worked in his number of Facebook followers into just about every third sentence he spoke on air. “We’ve reached a million and a half followers on our Facebook page.” “A million and a half friends.” “More than a million and a half.” And so on, and so on.

A star, indeed, to be liked by so many.

Presence, Everywhere

Fast forward nine months, to January 2015. al-Wakeel – now at Radio Hala – had in the meantime more than doubled his number of Facebook followers, now fast approaching 4 million. When the quota was finally reached, on 13 January, it was more than enough of a cause for celebration.

Broadcaster Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Page celebrates its fourth million follower

Afterwards, one proudly quoted estimate put al-Wakeel’s page as the seventh most “liked” Facebook “news” Page in the world.

The raw numbers are impressive, but they don’t tell the whole story. Even those radio programmes and personalities with more limited reach can make good use of social media  to assert their presence. Twitter feeds might offer live updates on road conditions, summaries of points discussed or brought up in the programme, or even just reminders of regularly scheduled programmes – such as, for example, Radio Hala’s daily tweet reminding followers of the afternoon Islamic advice programme ريّح بالك، “Comfort your Mind”, hosted by the daa3iya (= popular Islamic scholar) Zaid al-Masri:

We meet again for a new installment of “Comfort your Mind” with @ZaidAlmasri

[sponsor message omitted]

You can participate by calling 0798666000

This is a one-way sharing of information – from programme producers to followers / listeners – but the capabilities of social media also allow for more direct interaction. Here, Facebook takes the proverbial cake, especially as far as morning call-in shows are concerned: hosts spend a lot of time sifting through and reading out on-air the various comments left on their programmes’ pages (most of which just say “good morning”), or responding to and commenting on the messages they’d been sent. Not all of these involve issues to be resolved: they can be observations on current affairs, or religious quotations, or lines of poetry (quoted or, sometimes, original).

Reach out, then; and there will be a response. Though it’s definitely comforting to hear one’s name mentioned on the air, dialogues between listeners and radio people sometimes take place entirely on social media. Radio Bliss, the Jordanian army’s English-language offshoot, manages this kind of interaction quite skillfully:

Tweets, and retweets, and mention threads all become tools for listener management: through song requests, or quizzes, or just general questions asking for experiences or opinions. That it’s an English-language radio station using Twitter in this way is not all that surprising, either. Jordanians listening to radio broadcasting in Arabic seem to vastly prefer Facebook. Still, it’s just one particular “twist” on the general theme. Radio listeners, in this day and age, are no longer just listeners; and those who work in Jordanian media realize this very well.

Extending the Airwaves

Social media are able to do things that radio alone never could. In the time allotted to their programmes, hosts can quite simply link up with more callers by reading out posts from a comment feed, rather than waiting for each one to call and come on air in turn. And there’s always the fact that the Internet is accessed through a screen. Laptop, or phone, or tablet; in every case, it’s essentially a visual medium. One that can transmit images – moving, or stationary – in addition to sound, and is thus able to relieve what’s probably one of radio’s biggest shortcomings.

It’s one thing to call in to al-Wakeel’s Programme about a pothole – or a traffic jam, or an offending roadside stall – but quite another if you’re also able to send in pictures of it, which the host can then upload and distribute on his Facebook page for all his 4 million followers to see. When, last April, a worried mother called in to Rotana about her child being given materials with Hebrew script on them for their first-grade English class, al-Wakeel was able to receive visual evidence of it almost instantly. To get a clearer picture of the problem – all, of course, in the interest of solving it more efficiently, once the appropriate official is  called up.

(Above: image from Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page, listing all the various ways in which listeners can link up with the Programme. From right to left: 2 phone lines, a fax number, dedicated numbers for both WhatsApp and conventional text messages, and (below) social media handles for both the radio station and the presenter himself.)

This is something that (huge jargon warning lights here) Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin have called remediation. Radio, in its classic form, connects people – and places, and times – through sound: speech, or music, or white noise, audible signals transmitted through the airwaves. You can do your best, but this kind of interaction can still never be entirely like live presence.

As digital media proliferate, more and more ways can be found to circle around this. Get a Facebook account; put images up on your website; stick a camera in your studio so that every one of your listeners – or at least those with a screen-endowed device, and enough bandwidth to stream the video feed live – can see you while you expound on bureaucratic mishaps and try to help your callers resolve the latest water main problem in their neighborhood. And yet – and this is the gist of Bolter and Grusin’s argument – all these efforts to transcend a medium’s failures only end up producing more media: each with its own characteristics, and capabilities, and limits.

Still, you can try. Somewhere, behind all this – behind all the videos, the pictures, the audio feeds, the tweets and Facebook posts and instant messages and website updates – there is a real person: coming to work; putting their headphones on; sitting behind the desk, in a studio, reading words off a screen, answering phone calls. Without all the pictures and video clips and Internet responses, they might as well have been just another disembodied voice issuing from a car speaker, or a corner radio set. But as it is, maybe – just maybe – they can become something more.

Facebook Counts

The Stars of the Studio

No self-respecting radio station in Jordan exists without a live morning show. These usually run on weekdays between 7 and 10 AM, and feature various radio hosts speaking over music, offering reflections on recent goings-on and hot discussion topics. The kind of Arabic used is very colloquial; relaxed, really, especially in comparison to the rule-bound formality of news programmes and reportage. Management of social media is also important. Hosts enjoy reading out greetings and comments left by listeners on the programmes’ Facebook or Twitter pages, and points mentioned in the show are sometimes also summarized in social media feeds:

The al-Wakeel Programme observes: Severe traffic jams on various roads in the capital Amman as work begins at 9:30

But what’s probably the most attractive feature of these programmes is that they invite listeners to call in directly, declaring their grievances or problems they wish to have solved. Calls are received in the studio and then handed over to the host to be transmitted live on-air – or discussed off-air, sometimes, if the issue is sensitive or involves names that listeners don’t want to mention publicly. It’s a good way of gaining public exposure; officials may be listening, after all, or others who might be able to give help or advice.

Sometimes, though, the responses are more direct. Hosts such as Muhammad al-Wakeel, JBC’s Mahmoud al-Hawyan, and Radio Fann’s Hani al-Badri all have their own lists of contacts at various government offices – often simply the departments’ designated media representatives, but also higher-ups, men (most often men) of rank such as colonels and cabinet ministers. When a problem crops up that concerns a specific official, they might expect a call from the radio station, and questions from the host on-air – or, every once in a while, direct conversation with a citizen.

It’s difficult, of course, to solve every issue within the few minutes made available for each phone call. But at the very least, there’s the chance for officials to show their engagement. They respond to calls; they make themselves available. They’re present, and doing the best they can to resolve their citizens’ problems as they come along. All that needs to happen is that they are told. And this where the radio hosts come into play: making space on-air for people to speak, and linking them up with those who should hear, proper heroes riding the waves and lines of modern communicative media.

The Quest for Assistance

The topics callers discuss can vary wildly. One listener might complain about traffic light intervals; another, about refusing to be treated in a hospital, or the influence of the presence of Syrian refugees on Jordan’s labor market. There are also job requests, and charity appeals, and calls regarding lost property. Though these latter don’t usually require official intervention, they still very much fit the mold: using radio as a means of publicizing, of transmitting to otherwise what might otherwise have stayed confined, of sharing information and experiences among a community of listeners that is both heedful and responsive.

And then there are the other kind of calls. Problems too complex to handle; problems that aren’t even problems, but really only rants, sometimes so belabored and meandering that even the hosts have trouble making sense of them. Such callers are, in the end, usually sent off politely, though with the distinct undertone that they shouldn’t be wasting people’s time. The only way to really help such people might be to let them help themselves.

Or, at least, offer advice. One young Jordanian man who had obtained his Master’s degree in Malaysia and was facing problems getting it certified in Jordan decided to seek help from al-Wakeel. Though the host heard his story, it was quite clear that he had no idea about a possible solution, given that the caller had himself already exhausted all official channels that were available to him in Jordan. The response? Go back to Malaysia, and get those papers you need, as al-Wakeel put it (though perhaps a bit less bluntly). After all, it’s the law. (That the Jordanian postal service had proven somewhat inept in ensuring that letters mailed internationally actually arrived to their addressees, or that the Malaysian university’s administrators seemed to have no idea what specific document the Jordanians required in addition to what they’d already provided their erstwhile student with, wasn’t considered an issue.)

So, when all other channels fail, it’s the hosts themselves that offer on-the-spot solutions. They might not know all the details; nuance might escape them, especially if what they’re confronted with isn’t something that’s dealt with regularly (such as fuel subsidies or infrastructure maintenance complaints). But none of this matters, really. They’re there; they’re listening; their voices echo broadly, and they’re heard, and heeded, by officials as well as ordinary listeners. They’re the ones, in the end, who dispense knowledge and offer intercessions, the figures in which true power of the programme resides.

Inclusion on the Airwaves

So then, what’s the point? Do these programmes really contribute to raising awareness of government accountability – or do they end up ‘dancing around’ the issue, as Sawsan Zaydeh suggests, devolving into arenas where individuals can demand intercessions that would benefit them personally rather than their communities more broadly?

Likely, a little bit of both. Maybe, though, it’s not as much why people call in that makes the difference, but rather the way in which their calls are treated. Though the morning call-in show is a very well-defined genre on Jordanian airwaves – in terms of structure, the kind of language used, the basics of how participants interact with each other, and so on – each host has their own, very specific, very recognizable style of engaging with callers. Some offer more space for discussion, for criticism, for presenting callers’ viewpoints in their own right; others are more pragmatic, oriented squarely towards the goal of solving problems, or framing them in a particularly dramatic fashion that makes the host’s intervention seem all the more critical.

[14 JAN] hani albadri studio 9-13AM

(Above: snapshot of Hani al-Badri in-studio. From Radio Fann’s live on-air camera stream)

But to understand these differences properly, we can’t just analyze language – linguistic interaction – voices alone. Radio, in this day and age, is no longer just a disembodied flow of sound issuing from a (stationary, or mobile, or vehicle-embedded) machine. For one, there are the video feeds: online transmissions live from the station’s principal studio, where one can see the host at the same time as they listen to them: their facial expressions, hand gestures, behavioral tics such as smoking, or drinking coffee – all components of each particular broadcaster’s public image. And there’s the constant obsession with social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – where hosts both encourage listeners to get involved on their programme or station’s pages with their comments, but also participate themselves, via photographs, sound recordings, and videos that feature their voices and likenesses.

(Above: photo of Muhammad al-Wakeel behind the microphone, from Radio Hala’s Twitter account. Caption reads: “With commitment and vigor, we join you to begin the ‘Morning of the Beautiful Homeland’, and a new installment of the al-Wakeel Programme”)

All part of the performance; though one that’s carefully managed. While the video feeds might show the hosts in their own ‘element’ – making comments, receiving calls, responding, communicating – they only tell one side of the story. As I’ve mentioned – not all calls actually make it to air. Sometimes it’s the callers themselves who request this – though even these are often name-checked by hosts, to reassure them they’re “on the issue” if nothing else – but there’s also sifting going on at the intake level. The studio stars are, really, only ‘frontmen’, supported by a whole team of producers and engineers that choose which calls to patch through, which might be deserving of a spot on the air, which are worthy of the host’s attention and which might perhaps be solved in some other way.

[14 JAN] radio hala production studio 10-30

(Above: snapshot of the al-Wakeel Programme’s production team in-studio. From Radio Hala’s live on-air camera stream)

al-Wakeel calls this ‘backstage half’ of the programme the “programme producers”; for al-Badri, they are simply “the guys” (aš-šabaab). Though they’re just as important for the programme’s airing as the actual hosts, they are, effectively, silenced; absent – at least as far as the audio stream is concerned. Still, they never entirely disappear. The hosts mention them constantly – chatting with them, teasing them, asking for clarifications or information on incoming calls. And there’s also always at least one camera that curious listeners can bring up to check on what they’re doing.

There’s a certain sense of inclusion, then; of community; of the call-in show not being just the product of a lone star lounging in a comfortable chair in the studio, but also a host of others, callers and web commenters and producers. And, last but not least, those who only listen. Radio, done this way, can hardly ever be lonely, or intimate.

The Stars of the Studio

Muhammad al-Shaker, Buried in Bread: Storms and the “Weather Business”

Another trending topic during the days the Huda winter storm hit Jordan was the name Muhammad al-Shaker. Shaker (pronounced SHEH-kur) is a self-professed meteorology enthusiast who started out as a pharmacist; and, in recent years, as founder of the ArabiaWeather / طقس العرب website, and a familiar face for its forecasts and predictions (especially through the web TV channel Ro’ya), he’s become a proper guru as far as weather issues are concerned.

In business-speak, Shaker discovered a niche – accurate, detailed, locale-sensitive weather forecasts presented in Arabic – and managed to fill it splendidly. Though he started with Jordan, now the ArabiaWeather website also offers forecasts for other Arab countries. Public exposure followed, though not always positive. One caustic tweet during Huda – which I’ve sadly lost the link to – had Shaker for a “weather businessman,” “trading” in weather like it was some kind of commercial article, a way of building his image and promoting himself through his regular online performances.

But most of those who pay attention to Shaker’s forecasts seem to be little troubled by the riches he might have gained. His performances – detailed, authoritative, to-the-point, supported with eye-catching interactive graphics – are a much slicker, much more palatable, and to a smartphone-armed public much more accessible version of weather forecasts than official pronouncements. It’s no surprise, then, that when he declared Huda might be a ‘big one’, his words didn’t go unnoticed.

Weather Talk

When the storm hit, Shaker himself provided regular updates to the forecast, broadcast live by Ro’ya and later accessible in online archives. Even winds and snowfall, as battered Amman on Wednesday evening, weren’t enough to stop him. Here’s a clip of him giving a kind of “field” forecast from outside the studio – still worth a watch, I think, even if you don’t understand Arabic:

The tie stays on, of course.

Shaker includes a lot of detail in his forecast here. Time and location of expected snowfall are dissected thoroughly; so are the predicted developments during the night, and in the next few days, as well as warnings for people to stay at home (and explaining why they should do so). The language he uses is quite high-level; on the near side of MSA formality, fluent and confident without being stilted. There are the “explanatory” gestures as well, and the posture. Though Shaker falters a bit in places – e.g. at about 1:38 when the wind picks up – his entire presentation seeks to radiate authority and professionalism. A man, then, who knows his stuff, and whose predictions can be trusted.

Soon enough, every word that came out of Shaker’s mouth came to be watched very closely. His forecasts on Ro’ya continued through Thursday: reports on accumulated snow,  complete with fancy graphics, animations of the cold front moving across Jordan as well as  interactive marking of areas that would be affected.

The Maligned Forecaster

Woe to him, though, that sows undue panic among the people. Throughout Thursday daytime and during the night, Huda gradually eased off, leading some Jordanian internet-nauts to question Shaker’s integrity in “playing it up” as similar to last winter’s Alexa (which at that moment seemed much more severe in comparison). Before the storm hit, Jordanians had been encouraged to stock up on supplies and be prepared not to leave their homes for several days straight. Now, though, despite the warnings that extreme weather would continue (and snow hit the country’s southern regions), it seemed things might be settling down.

Was Shaker to blame? Some seemed to think so. There were voices denouncing him as a meteorological “hobbyist” rather than a proper expert, and even whispers of a smear campaign against him on some authorities’ part. People talked a lot about bread – something citizens might be expected to stock up on, before the storm – and, half-jokingly perhaps, whether Shaker had in fact conspired with bakeries in order to scare people about the storm and push them to spend more than they otherwise might have.

Whenever people see #Muhammad al-Shaker they run to buy bread

Others took the situation with better humor.

Dear Muhammad al-Shaker.

I swear by God that if it doesn’t snow in Tafileh I will not bury you in all the bread that I’ve bought

Still, it seemed that, for this young man who had appeared so confident and professional, the times could turn tough if his predictions proved off the mark.

Redeemed by the Ice Apocalypse

On Friday night, the situation changed again. Shaker had already declared in his Thursday forecasts that by the weekend Jordan would be exposed to the full brunt of the cold front, bringing ice and freezing temperatures, and warned people not to leave their homes.

These warnings, at least, proved timely. The situation on the roads grew quickly worse as temperatures plummeted after sundown. A slew of traffic accidents followed, with at least two casualties. By late evening, when roads in Jordan were announced officially closed due to weather conditions, Shaker’s image seemed to have recovered.

#Muhammad al-Shaker you’ve proven your worth

For somebody like Shaker – disseminating their wisdom from the private sector, without an established apparatus to support them – worth and reputation in the public’s eye might rise and fall on the strength on their predictions. Weather forecasting is a risky business to get involved in; even more so when a storm like Huda hits, when you can expect audiences to hang on your every word, question every claim you make and your qualifications to do so. Though in the end it’s difficult to tell whether it’s the forecaster’s beloved subject – the weather – or their public that’s the more fickle, or predictable.

Muhammad al-Shaker, Buried in Bread: Storms and the “Weather Business”

Snow

European media has been flooded this week with reports and analyses of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. In Jordan, the event did make the headlines; but there was also the snowstorm.

There seems to be a general obsession with precipitation in Jordan’s Arabic-language media – which, given we’re talking about one of the water-poorest countries in the world, is probably not that surprising. Still, winter storms in the Levantine hinterlands can be quite rough; and Huda, as this particular cold front was named (in Jordan; the Lebanese call it Zina), was one such. High winds, low temperatures, and snow arrived suddenly on Wednesday during the day, and continued well into the night. Social media were awash with comments (e.g. the #عاصفة_هدى, “Huda Storm”, tag on Twitter); and, of course, radio broadcasts – never slow to seize on a trending topic – joined in as well.

What follows are some rough reflections gathered from my following radio broadcasts on Thursday morning.

First, though, a quick word on naming. Huda was not the first named “winter storm” affecting Jordan this winter; there had been Bushra in November, which brought ample rain and low temperatures, though no snow. In December 2013, there was Alexa, with intense snowfall, blizzards, and a host of related problems. While these names might smack of naming conventions for tropical storms, for winter cold fronts affecting Jordan, the practice is somewhat more arbitrary. The weather guru Muhammad Shaker explains that “Huda” was chosen in reference to the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (12 Rabi’ al-Awwal for Sunni Muslims in the Islamic lunar calendar, which fell on 3 January 2015). It’s also not a very well established practice; again, according to Shaker, Alexa was the first such weather event to be given a distinct name.

Whether singling out and dramatizing “winter storms” in this way – which, in Jordan, aren’t in fact all that unusual during the winter season – is in fact helpful could be up for debate. It does, though, make for some pretty good media fodder.

Broadcasting the Storm

On Thursday morning, after a day and night of heavy snowfall, some radio stations decided to suspend their usual morning broadcasts altogether. Not so the intrepid Muhammad al-Wakeel, Radio Hala’s superstar host who has been solving Jordanians’ problems on air for many years now. With only a couple of hours’ delay on their usual broadcasting schedule, he and his team were up and about.

من هنا يبدأ مشوار حلقة اليوم من #برنامج_الوكيل

A post shared by Radio Hala | راديو هلا (@radiohalajo) on

“So begins today’s installment of the al-Wakeel Programme”

Radio Hala is the official radio station of Jordan’s armed forces, and it has provided a home for al-Wakeel’s morning show since mid-2014 (following a much-publicized move from Radio Rotana). In its current incarnation, the show is called – quite concisely – برنامج الوكيل (“The al-Wakeel Programme”), and is a staple of morning radio programming in Jordan.

So much so that, on Thursday morning, when the programme’s familiar introductory jingle failed to appear in its regular 7AM (or so) time-slot, Radio Hala’s Facebook page already had people asking whether the Programme would be broadcast today at all. I was getting a bit anxious myself – though maybe not as much as the commenter who claimed she’d been “following the broadcast since 5 and waiting”:

By 9 o’clock, though, all was ready.

Arabic caption reads:

Našaama [= “gentlemen” or “heroes”; this very Jordanian word is probably deserving of a future post in itself] from the Armed Forces transport Radio Hala employees to their studios at King Hussein Business Park in preparation for the live broadcast of the al-Wakeel Programme that will begin at 9 AM”

At about 9:20, al-Wakeel entered the studio – still wearing his jacket and fatigues, along with a grey scarf – and the show began in earnest. The live in-studio video feed showed him chain-smoking, drinking water, and talking to the programme’s producers during periods that his voice wasn’t on the air. (When al-Wakeel isn’t dealing with call-ins music is constantly running in the background; the volume goes up when he’s not speaking.)

The announcement came swiftly that the programme today would take the shape of a “field tour.” True enough, by 10 AM, the studio was empty, and Radio Hala’s live camera feed switched to the view through the front windshield of a car driving behind an armored vehicle through Amman’s snow-lined – and, miraculously, nearly empty – streets.

Caption reads: “We have arrived to Jabal Amman

Throughout the drive, al-Wakeel offered a running commentary via phone line: mostly gushing on the “beauty” of the views, referring to the snow but also the deserted streets, which indicated that Ammanis did indeed obey the government’s instructions to stay indoors. There were also regular updates – some offered by officials patched in through phone, others by al-Wakeel himself – on weather conditions and the state of the streets. People were warned several times not to enter tunnels, since quite a few were impassable due to accumulating snow.

At about 10:45 the mini-convoy stopped at the side of the road, and al-Wakeel got out of the car, positioning himself in the middle of the road for a longer phone conversation with a weather forecaster. Since, at that point, there’d been no snowfall for a while, the forecaster warned that the cold front is not yet over – that the weather might get worse again.

Cautiously put; but al-Wakeel immediately seized the opportunity. He addressed his listeners in a deep, clear voice, warning them – much more solemnly – that the storm might start again at any moment. A dramatic statement, and one that’s even more striking seeing that al-Wakeel was still out in the streets at his point. The storm might continue – there is risk – citizens should be warned! But our host is still there, in the field, standing firm-footed behind an APC with a phone in his hand and a red keffiyeh around his neck. And, of course, not letting up a chance for a photo op with the našaama of the Jordanian Police, when one of their own 4WDs passed by to see what all the fuss was about.


Connecting through the Snow

It doesn’t take a snowstorm to draw al-Wakeel out of the studio. Last September, after a summer of Israeli shelling and assaults that left Gaza devastated, the Programme moved to the Strip for three days, broadcasting live from the Jordanian Field Hospital. Still, the Huda front was a perfect pretext for al-Wakeel to show his engagement, his readiness to help the noble people of Jordan in the face of adverse conditions. Even if the road before him had to be cleared with an APC beforehand.

Others, though, chose to perform their “service to the nation” in more sheltered locales. Over at Radio Fann, Hani al-Badri – whom I confess to having a bit of a soft spot for – also delayed his regular morning show (called وسط البلد, “City Centre”) for several hours, though unlike al-Wakeel’s he broadcast it entirely from his studio. Well wrapped up, for sure, as one should be, when a cold Arctic front hits the Levantine hills.

al-Badri’s topics were much the same as al-Wakeel’s: warnings on weather; the state of the roads; reports on electricity cut-offs, in Amman as well the Governorates. There was a similar effusion of praise for the efforts of the army, police, and the Civil Defence in keeping the roads safe and solving citizens’ ongoing problems.

Unlike al-Wakeel, al-Badri couldn’t in any way claim to be a direct participant in these struggles. But, even from inside the studio, he was able to do his bit: transmitting official reports and pronouncements to his listeners, but also allowing them a voice of their own, a way to enter the airwaves and link up with others cooped up in their homes while they waited out the ravages of Huda. Whether the call-in was from a woman warning of poor conditions on a nearby roadway, or a young boy goaded on by his mother to speak up about how he’s been living through the storm; it all proved that other Jordanians were there – listening, and all in the same boat.

Two different styles, then; for two different people. For Jordanian morning call-in shows, it’s the personality of the host that gives the programme its distinctiveness, as much as (or perhaps even more than) the radio station’s stated image or ideological commitment.

But it’s also important to keep in mind that, even though both al-Wakeel’s and al-Badri’s voices eventually did emerge on Thursday, they were both delayed; both affected, very similarly, by the storm. Not even the seeming constants of scheduled radio programmes are a match for Huda’s wrath. And while the hurdles can be overcome, it ultimately takes a special kind of person – an on-air hero, somebody who dares to brave the cold and wind in fatigues and a shmagh, or at least clamber over to the studio and take and present phone calls – to be able to do so.

Snow