Provocative Sounds: Work, Leisure, and Malayalam Radio in Qatar

What can the radio-listening practices of working-class Malayalis in the Gulf, and the inter-ethnic tensions they produce, tell us about migrant lifeworlds, longings, and labour? Irene explores.

Irene Ann Promodh 

Picture: Irudayam | Flickr

What can the leisure practices of single-earning, working-class Malayalis in the Gulf tell us about their lifeworlds and longings overseas? How does migrant radio—a seemingly outmoded but highly accessible infotainment medium—bring together the worlds of work and leisure for Malayalis away from kin and home? By exploring the social life of vernacular migrant radio in Qatar, I show how Malayali radio listeners craft distinctive soundscapes of belonging in and outside their workplaces. These soundscapes defined by Malayalam radio, I suggest, braid together leisure and work for Malayalis overseas, enabling them to inhabit a private world circumscribed by their ethnolinguistic identities. 

To inhabit this private world by simply listening to Malayalam radio is, however, a contested exercise. My interlocutors, who worked in a range of occupations—from late-night taxi drivers and tailors to beauticians and cleaners—recounted their many unpleasant encounters with non-Malayali colleagues, employers, and clients whenever they turned on their radios at work—a seemingly banal provocation. But they grew aware of the ways in which the raucous, ‘foreign’-sounding stream of sounds from their Malayalam radios could provoke non-Malayalis to anger and unease. By looking at the radio-listening practices of these migrants in their workplaces, we can better understand how diasporic ideas of Malayali-ness emerge from everyday encounters of ethno-racial hostility and contestation in the contemporary Gulf as much as from the forms of community and sonic companionship that vernacular radio fosters among Malayali migrant-listeners.

In this piece, I tease out the complex, entangled relations that Malayalis overseas forge with their radios as well as with those who co-inhabit their workspaces. I do so by delving into a single ethnographic vignette that, I find, is both distinctive and representative across my sample of interviewees. 


Radio is my best friend. In the parlour, people call me the ‘radio lady’—I listen to the radio from the morning itself. I even go to sleep listening to the radio—it makes me feel like someone is talking to me. I don’t have anyone else with me here, but as long as I have my radio, I don’t feel so lonely [translated from Malayalam].

– Aji, a single-earning mother from Ernakulam who earns 2000 QAR/month as a beautician in Doha, Qatar

Tears trickled down Aji’s face as she spoke these words. For the past thirteen years, Aji has worked as a beautician in small salons across Doha, waxing arms and threading eyebrows for long hours each day. As the only earning member of her family, she works overtime most days of the week to earn enough to support her two daughters’ education in Kerala. Grappling with arduous work shifts and feelings of loneliness, Aji has always relied on Malayalam radio to keep her company away from home. ‘When I listen to my favourite Malayalam songs on the radio’, Aji tells me, ‘I feel like I’m back home again, I don’t feel so lonely…. And these male [radio] jockeys have such a soothing voice, I like to think that they’re really talking to me!’ 

As I continued to meet with Aji and some of her Malayali colleagues at the salon, however, I grew aware of how contested Malayalam radio—or Malayalam sound, rather—was within this workspace. Aji—the ‘radio lady’ of the salon, as she was called—turned on either English or Arabic radio channels during work hours. Listening to Malayalam radio, however, was an activity that she reserved for her lunch and dinner breaks with her Malayali colleagues. Intrigued, I asked Aji why she never turned on Malayalam radio channels during work hours too. She replied with a scoff: 

Because no one likes listening to our radio! Qatari customers shout at us if we turn it on—just the sound seems to irritate them. Even these Filipino girls [pointing to two Filipino beauticians at the other side of the salon] get angry with us for turning it on. But they can do KEE-KO-KEE-KO [sarcastically mimicking her colleagues speaking in Tagalog] loudly all the time, no problem. But if we play Malayalam radio, everyone has a problem. What can we say… [translated from Malayalam].

Aji’s narrative leads us to ask: What makes Malayalam radio so provocative to Qataris and ‘other’ migrants alike? Is it a question of competing vernaculars in a multi-ethnic migrant workplace? 

By looking at the role that migrant vernaculars play in shared workspaces, we can better appreciate how those lumped together in everyday parlance as ‘migrants’ manage ethnic difference and embitterment among themselves. In tense, precarious, and often lonely work settings, vernaculars allow co-ethnic migrant workers to craft distinctive ethnolinguistic spaces or ‘soundscapes’ of belonging, familiarity, and solace. Indeed, their vernaculars help them to stake new, more meaningful claims to their workspaces overseas—spaces that they can, through language, navigate in more familiar and less alienating ways. At the same time, these vernaculars establish an ethnolinguistic difference between native and non-native speakers in shared multilingual spaces. In the salon that Aji works at, for instance, beauticians speaking in Malayalam and Filipino (Tagalog)—two ubiquitous migrant languages in the Gulf—compete over claims to their shared workspace through their vernacular speech-acts and radio-listening practices. To assert one’s identity in this workspace is to also make one’s native language heard by native and non-native speakers alike, establishing an ethnolinguistic difference in a socio-economic context that homogenizes all migrant communities from the Indian Ocean rim as poor ‘guest-workers’. 

However, while migrants often vie over vernaculars as co-equals at work, they engage differently with language in the presence of Qatari citizens or ‘locals’. For Aji and her Malayali colleagues, their use of and engagement with Malayalam as a migrant language in public (non-Malayali) workspaces is both discouraged and curtailed. As Aji herself put it, ‘Qatari customers shout at us if we turn it [Malayalam radio] on—just the sound seems to irritate them’. A spate of foreign-sounding Malayalam phonemes from her radio, Aji is aware, can offend Qataris who visit the salon. But unlike the everyday tensions that animate her relations with her Filipino colleagues, offending a Qatari customer by turning on her Malayalam radio at the salon could prove costly to her already precarious job. 

The social life of vernacular radio brings to light overlapping processes of belonging and contestation among migrant communities in the Gulf today. Radio yokes the work lives of migrants to the deep longing they experience in leaving behind their families and cultures back home to work in Qatar. At the same time, listening to vernacular radio in their workspaces can lead migrant-listeners into unpleasant, often hostile, encounters with non-Malayalis. In encounters with Qataris or ‘locals’, in particular, the provocation of Malayalam radio lies in its subtle subversion of nationally reified portrayals of South Asian migrants as transient, homogenous, and voiceless ‘foreigners’ or resident-outsiders. These portrayals are, however, far removed from the region’s pre-oil histories of cross-cultural exchange across the Indian Ocean. Reverberating through workspaces that host a Qatari clientele, the sounds from Malayalam radio counter the strategic downplaying of long-standing maritime cultural influences in the contemporary Gulf states. Straddling the work-leisure lives of working-class migrants, Malayalam radio emerges as an unwitting reminder of the region’s cosmopolitan pasts that are stifled and brushed past in presentist, economistic renderings of ‘migrant labour’ in the Gulf today.

About the Author: Irene Promodh is an incoming PhD student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on mobile forms of Christianity across the Indian Ocean, particularly among migrant communities circulating between their places of work in the Persian Gulf and their home societies in South India. She also works on cultural production in the Indian Ocean and the migrant media practices of South Indians living in the Gulf. This piece draws on research she conducted for the paper ‘FM Radio and the Malayali Diaspora in Qatar: At Home Overseas’ (Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2021). 

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