The voice of A-Shams

Makbula Nassar is not afraid to air her views on anything, including Zionism, polygamy and homosexuality.

Makbula Nassar 521 (photo credit: ARIEL ZILBER)
Makbula Nassar 521
(photo credit: ARIEL ZILBER)
Just after 4 p.m. on Remembrance Day, as Jewish Israelis mark one of the most somber days on their calendar by remembering the fallen soldiers of the country’s wars, Makbula Nassar takes her place behind a microphone inside a cozy radio studio just outside Nazareth. The outspoken host of Straight Talk, Radio A-Shams’s most popular show and one of the most talked-about call-in programs in all of Israel’s Arab-language media, has gained a reputation for being an opinionated, feisty host who is not afraid to spar verbally with those who voice opinions that she regards as illegitimate.
Nassar sits alone inside a sound studio while her engineer and producer, Firas, communicates with her from a tiny, glassencased office, where he fields telephone calls from listeners eager to voice their opinion on today’s hot topic: Should Arab citizens of Israel observe the commemorative siren that is sounded on Remembrance Day? The opinions vary. A number of callers said that while observing the siren for Holocaust victims is acceptable, doing so for fallen Israeli troops is not. One caller, a man who claimed to be an Arab veteran of the IDF, noted that Arabs also died fighting for Israel. When Nassar quizzed him as to why he agreed to serve in the Israeli army, he responded that his main motivation was to receive stipends and benefits.
Another caller surprised Nassar by citing the Koran in advocating for observing the siren. Since all the dead are holy irrespective of why or how they died, it is incumbent upon Muslims to honor them, the caller said. A Jordanian listener from Irbid called in to the show to express solidarity with the Israeli Arab community while slamming those who take part in commemorating fallen Israeli soldiers.
After the show, Nassar is apoplectic.
“Some of the people who called me today were full of nonsense,” she says after her hour on the air comes to a close.
“When someone tells me, ‘We have to stand and observe the siren because that’s how it is in this country and we shouldn’t stir up trouble,’ that means that this is an individual who doesn’t have an opinion. So I’m going to rip into him and blast him. I have no tolerance for people who are unfamiliar with the reality.”
Uncompromising and acid-tongued as always, Nassar, who was brought to Radio A-Shams shortly after its founding nine years ago, is the talk of the airwaves in Arab-language media. She was hired after making a name for herself as a social and political activist, particularly on women’s issues. Having appeared numerous times as an interviewee on the station’s news programs, Radio A-Shams management was impressed enough to offer her a position as host of an afternoon drive-time call-in show.
“I saw that she was an opinionated, freespirited woman,” says Suheil Karram, the founder and general manager of Radio A-Shams.
“She is very capable, and I saw the potential in her. Initially, it was very difficult for her to get used to the exposure in front of an audience, especially with Arab society, which was much more closedminded at the time. People didn’t want to talk, and whoever did talk wasn’t interested in dialogue. Today, though, things are different, and people know who Makbula is.”
Indeed, since her show’s popularity has skyrocketed, Nassar has attained semicelebrity status among her faithful listeners.
Her Facebook page numbers over 5,000 friends, and she has had to cope with fans calling her cellular phone just for the chance to converse with her. She is also a regular commentator on Arab affairs in both the Hebrew and Arabic press. Though she has become accustomed to the notoriety, her humble roots continue to shape her worldview.
A native of the Lower Galilee village of Arrabe, Nassar is one of 10 siblings and the daughter of a farmer who was forced out of business due to the rise of nearby agricultural kibbutzim in the 1970s. After high school, she took a job in a sewing factory in Afula that employed hundreds of women. That experience was an eyeopener for the budding social activist.
“It was really a model of exploitation and oppression of a labor force,” she says of the sewing factory. “That experience provided me with one of life’s most powerful lessons. I saw, with my own eyes, disenfranchised Arab women who worked but did not receive salaries directly. Their wages were given to their families. I saw how the bosses exploited them and paid them below minimum wage since the authorities did not enforce the minimumwage laws. I saw how women were victimized by the capitalist system, which goes hand-in-hand with social chauvinism.”
After she had saved up enough money for an education, she enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she was active in campus politics during the tumultuous period following the signing of the Oslo Accords. It was during this time that suicide bombings were claiming victims on Israeli streets, and the tension was palpable, particularly for youngsters sympathetic to the Palestinian side.
“This was a difficult experience, because this was after the Hebron massacre [in which 29 Palestinians were killed and scores wounded while praying at a mosque near the Cave of the Patriarchs],” she says. “I went to demonstrate against the massacre by Baruch Goldstein. I found myself in central Jerusalem lighting candles for the victims of the massacre.
Suddenly, we had Jewish women attacking us verbally and bitterly. This was my first exposure and initiation into the conflict that pitted people who don’t want any more bloodshed and who condemned violence and a society that sympathizes with this murderer. We were always trying to remain sane, because the Israeli discourse at the time was very emotionally charged.”
AFTER SPENDING years dealing with women’s issues, Nassar finally found a platform to air her views within Arab society.
Ten years ago, Karram and a consortium of Jewish businessmen from Israel and abroad founded Radio A-Shams, which is recognized as the first legal, commercial Arab-language radio station to operate in the country. Since its inception, it has succeeded in making inroads to the Arab public, so much so that it has dominated the ratings and unseated the previous radio king, Israel Radio’s Arabiclanguage news service.
For Nassar, the decline of Israel Radio’s Arabic-language service and the appeal of A-Shams, which attracts between 300,000 and 500,000 listeners in Israel and abroad through online streaming, can be easily explained.
“The Arabic-language service of Israel Radio is considered a radio station of nonstop government propaganda,” she says.
“The news there is worded in a manner that is deemed appropriate by the government and intended for consumption by Arab society. Usually, these are Zionist messages.”
“There was always a great deal of anger at this radio station on the part of the Arab public because of the terminology that they use, like the word ‘terrorists,’” she says. “This is terminology that isn’t really acceptable in Arab society. There are words and phrases that are more nuanced and impartial, and there are various ways to describe settlers, army operations, the aid flotilla, and other things.”
Dr. Amal Jamal, director-general of the I’lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, concurs. “It’s obvious that more people in the Arab community listen to Radio A-Shams,” says Jamal, who heads the executive graduate program in political communications at Tel Aviv University. “This was a shift that took years to develop, and there are a few reasons for this.
“The programs and the language and terminology that one hears on Radio A-Shams are more authentic to the Arab public,” Jamal says. “It is more connected to Arab society, and it provides a platform where issues that are critical to the community are discussed. There are Arabs who listen to Israel Radio, but they are further away from the Israeli Arab mainstream.”
Jamal says that the perception of the Arabic-language Israel Radio station as closely tied to official government policy is one that is too difficult for overcome. As a result, Radio a-Shams was able to move into the vacuum.
“The Arab public feels that Radio A-Shams represents it and tends to its needs,” he says. “Whether Israel Radio is or is not a propaganda mouthpiece is subject to one’s judgment, but the commentary is too closely aligned with the interests of the state.”
Israel Broadcasting Authority spokeswoman Linda Bar says Israel Radio’s Arabic-language station is gaining in influence.
“The editors and presenters on Israel Radio in Arabic are considered stars in their sector and enjoy huge popularity, which promotes the station. As proof, three Radio A-Shams presenters have moved to Israel Radio in Arabic,” she says. “Regarding [nuanced] terminology, as a station we reflect reality, including calling things by their names.”
Regarding the claim that Israel Radio is propagandistic, she adds that “the same professional verification that guides Hebrew radio also guides us.”
A-SHAMS offers programming that is backed up by its team of field reporters and commentators who at times have produced scoops that have been picked up by the mainstream Hebrew press. In just nine years, it has gained a reputation as an independent voice, not shying away from soliciting points of view from figures as diverse as far-right Jewish extremist Baruch Marzel and Hezbollah militiamen based in south Lebanon.
“We do journalism par excellence,” says Karram. “That is what gives us the right to hold our heads high. Every community or nation needs-media to represent it, and radio is a key medium. In the Arab sector, radio takes on double importance because the Arab predicament in Israel is a very unique one. The Arabs live in a country that is at war with its people. We straddle the line between the Jewish population and the Arab one, and we strive to be professional from a journalistic standpoint to serve our audience, even if at times we pay a price with the Jewish community in Israel.
“But what protects us and keeps us going is our professionalism. This is the uniqueness of Radio A-Shams. There is a pluralism here that you just won’t find in any other place on the Israeli media landscape. You can hear all of the different opinions here.”
According to Nassar and Karram, the radio station has been a thorn in the side of both the Jewish establishment which is weary of an Arab voice that strays from the government’s talking points, and the traditional, male-dominated Arab leadership that has been incensed at A-Shams’s willingness to address previously taboo subjects such as women’s rights, birth control, and homosexuality in the Arab community.
“When I first started out, people didn’t like the fact that a loud, opinionated woman was behind the microphone,” Nassar says. “There was a lot of opposition, and people attacked me because of my opinions. After a while, though, more and more people came to view me as an authoritative voice. But my views are consistent, and people saw that I wasn’t a hypocrite and that I didn’t seesaw just to satisfy listeners.”
Nassar has rankled Islamic figures in the Arab sector due to her eagerness to tackle hot-button issues like honor killings, polygamy, the marriage of minors, women in the workplace, all issues related to personal freedoms.
“The way I look at the issue of women’s rights, there are red lines that must not be crossed,” she says. “The dominant discourse in Arab society is conservative and religious, and it is one that seeks to impose taboos on women within the society. It is a discourse that has a wide platform throughout Arab society – in mosques, in homes, in religious schools and in society in general. This is the prism through which the mainstream views women.
“So I decided that I would not provide a platform for those opinions and positions that are against women or that limit women’s freedom, like telling women what they can and cannot wear in public. Whenever I get phone calls to the radio show about rape, people will say, ‘Maybe she is guilty. Maybe she is the one who enticed the man to rape her.’ We are still wrestling with these types of questions.”
The impact that Radio A-Shams has had on the Arab community is immense, according to Karram. Its rising popularity has accorded it a status not unlike that of a government agency, and listeners often call the station to solve problems that normally fall under the responsibility of elected officials. More importantly, it has created a culture of debate among Arabs in Israel who have traditionally been unwilling to speak up about issues critical to their society.
“Eight years ago, we launched the talk-show format, and people were afraid to call in,” Karram says. “They didn’t want to talk to us, because there was a lot of fear in the Arab sector.
They were afraid to criticize the state, the host, religion, everything. We broke all the taboos and we opened up the discussion with the listeners. The listeners attack us, and that is their right. But we accept this, and we try to answer back honestly. Our success is rooted in the fact that we are honest with the listeners. I don’t treat listeners as dumb.”