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The BBC Arabic Channel: Welcome Back. - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The arrival of the radio to the coffee shops of Upper Egypt and the countryside ended the monopoly of the storyteller and his flute as he drew the picture of the world in the minds of the coffee shop patrons. The advent of the radio had led to competition with &#34tips&#34 to please the &#34waiter&#34 and make him change the radio dial to the favorite program on the Egyptian radio station. Apart from the residences of the mayor, the electric-powered homes of the irrigation engineers, and the mansions of the gentlemen farmers in the cities, the coffee shop was always the destination of those who were unable to get the news. It is the same case today with those who are unable to pay the price of a satellite dish to watch entertainment programs on the satellite channels.

In the old days, the radio dial in the coffee shops flipped between the shouts of the late Badr al-Din – the most famous soccer sportscaster of the time, as he cried &#34Abu-Hababah just gave the ball a long kick; Abu-Hababah just scored a goal from a distance of 40 yards!&#34 – and that of the operetta of &#34Kataj Al-Jazeera&#34. It flipped between Ali Baba and &#34Abu-Sari”s&#34 denial that he is to blame for the most famous sneeze in the Egyptian folklore. The radio dial competed between the voice of Shahrazad – that triggered the testosterone in the veins of the youth with her sleepy yawns as the morning approached before Shahrayar wielded his sword – and the newscast at eight thirty in the evening. This competition was fierce during major events, such as when Nahhas Pasha abrogated the 1936 treaty for the sake of Egypt and withdrew the workers from the Suez Canal base to punish the English. However, the competition disappears and the radio dial stops when it comes to rest at one of two programs: A song by &#34The Lady&#34, the popular nickname given to Umm Khalthum, the Star of the East, or the BBC Arabic Service. The coffee shop could be the gathering place of immigrants from Upper Egypt to the Al-Basal Port in Alexandria or in Um Durman. But you always found a savvy gentleman or two who knew about politics. These were quick to accept invitations to sit down and nod repeatedly as they confirmed the veracity of the news report since its source is the BBC, which enjoyed the same kind of integrity and confidence in the coffee shops of Basra, Kuwait, and Amman.

The BBC Arabic Service began its transmissions in 1938. It was the first foreign-language service that broadcast the news on the hour on Greenwich meantime. It first relied on Egyptian and Sudanese broadcasters when the Nile Valley was one nation under one crown and one flag and thus it gained the trust of the listeners. The first time I heard the phrase &#34Do not believe a news report until it is confirmed by the BBC&#34 was from my father, one of the important senior postal service employees. I also heard it from my grandfather, a principal of an old school in Alexandria. I also heard it from my maternal uncle, a renowned lawyer, although he disagreed with my father and grandfather on other matters since they were supporters of Saad-al-Din Pasha while he was a member of the Wafd Party. I heard it from my uncle, the doyen of the pharmacists” trade union, who disagreed with the three since he was a constitutional liberal. Each one of them reinforced his analyses and bolstered his arguments on any event in Egypt, Africa, and the world – such as the sudden rise in the Alexandria stock exchange market or the Mau Mau Rebellion or the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi or the assassination of Count Bernadotte – by repeating what the BBC had transmitted. My father also listened to the BBC English Service to verify the reports he heard on the Arabic Service and my French-educated maternal uncle listened to the BBC in French instead of listening to Radio Paris because he did not trust the French. As for my paternal uncle, the graduate of British universities, he outdid the other three with his patriotism as he waved a golden key chain made of a bullet that lodged in his shoulder during a demonstration against the English more than 25 years ago. Despite that, he too reinforced his analyses and arguments by citing the analyses he heard on the BBC. It was a love-hate relationship like that which grows between a Catholic husband and wife as they make love and exchange curses and yet remain together in good times and in bad times with no prospects of divorce. This was the relationship between Britain and Egypt and the rest of Africa and the English-speaking countries of the Middle East. The relationship was based on a joint history that made London the political capital of the Middle East.

The secret behind the credibility of the BBC is its adherence to its independence. This put it in a conflict with the government of Tony Blair that is obsessed with putting its control on the news sources that influence its image. This government accused the BBC Corporation of instigating British public opinion against it but the BBC responded that it reflects the opinion of the majority of the people that oppose the involvement in Iraq. The source of the BBC”s budget is 28 million households that pay an annual television fee that amounts to 126 Sterling pounds ($214) per household. In other words, this amounts to about 44 pence per person per day. The BBC”s refusal to accept paid commercials advertisements guarantees its independence. The World Service – that has been transmitting in 43 languages throughout the Empire where the sun does not set for more than four decades – gets its budget from the Foreign Office. Nevertheless, the Foreign Office does not dare interfere in the editorial policy. Otherwise, the official that pokes his nose would discover that his scandal is equal to that of the politicians that were involved in Saddam Hussein”s oil coupons and that praised him openly. The BBC”s policy is to verify a news report. It does not mind being &#34scooped&#34 by children and teenagers in years of experience like the CNN or Sky or the US networks that have not yet reached the age of maturity and that carry the news report superficially the moment it takes place. The BBC waits to ascertain the veracity of the news report and then takes it to the newsroom where it is dissected and scrupulously analyzed by the most accurate specialists to get to the bottom of it.

It is this tremendous credibility – that is the sole window to the free world of peoples that have been suppressed by dictatorships and fenced off behind iron curtains of censorship – that encouraged the BBC to proclaim this week that it will launch a television news channel in Arabic in 2007. Its television programs will be beamed to a region whose peoples have been anxious to see the same credibility that they have been hearing on the radio for seven decades. Its programs will consist of newscasts and documentary programs on the small screen. The statistical research indicates that 85% of the people in the Middle East are asking the BBC to produce independent television programs in Arabic from London. They are anxious to hear the objective truth after they have been exhausted with &#34pseudo-pan-Arabist&#34 ideologies and the falsehoods of immature satellite channels that have insulted their intelligence. The BBC television service in Arabic – that will also be available via satellite dishes, the Internet, mobile telephones, and the I-Pods – will not replace the radio that has become an institution for true information from Juba to Al-Arish and from the hills of Amman to the Atlas Mountains. It will only complete the huge &#34bouquet&#34 offered by the BBC. As Husam al-Sukkari, the Egyptian born and educated chief of the BBC Arabic division says, this bouquet consists of video on the Internet, information web sites, radio, and DVD discs. By the way, Al-Sukkari broke the tradition by being the first non-English chief of the radio service.

As the cries welcoming the new BBC forum in the Middle East rose – reminiscent of the enthusiasm of the demonstrators for freedom behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War – the left, unfortunately, was confused. It was confused between its opposition to Blair”s foreign policy that is tied to the Americans and between the urgent historic need of the peoples in the region for an independent television station that has the capabilities, technology, and expertise of the BBC and of its great message. The great leader Nelson Mandela has praised the BBC as the most important external factor and catalyst that turned South Africa toward democracy. The United Nations Secretary General has described the BBC as the greatest gift that Britain has given the world. The idea had emanated from the Arabic division itself upon the request of the listeners. However, the left – that is made up of youthful holders of media diplomas whose teenage fingers are still wet with the ink of the classroom – accused the British Foreign Office of erecting a &#34window shop&#34 to improve its image before the Arabs and to compete with the Qatari Al-Jazeera satellite channel. By the way, Al-Jazeera grew on the ruins of an experiment between the BBC and another television company that could not bear the neutrality, objectivity, and independence of the BBC. So Al- Jazeera and its sister channels hired broadcasters that had been fired by the BBC after the experiment failed. They suddenly turned into stars like Ahmad Said (Egyptian radio demagogue of the 1950”s and 1960”s) and cursed British colonialism five times a day during the five prayer times.

On behalf of the deprived and disenfranchised masses, we welcome the new free forum that has been late in being born. We expect the stars of so-called pan-Arabism to drown the BBC with telephone calls as they repeat the words of the song by Najat al-Saghirah &#34how wonderful is the return to him&#34!

Adel Darwish

Adel Darwish

Adel Darwish s a veteran Fleet Street foreign reporter and commentator on foreign affairs.

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