Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (529)
This is Cairo
Making its debut in 1934, Radio Egypt was an instant smash. Its programmes, whether related to religion, song or comedy, were followed with vigour. Its inception was largely the result of a widespread perceived decline in the programming standards of the five privately-owned radio stations. And it was believed that the new station would have an impact on the rest of the Arab world. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* sees who ruled the airwaves
On 31 May 1934, Egypt's national broadcasting company emitted its first signal. The inaugural transmission was opened by the famous Qur'anic reciter Sheikh Mohamed Rifaat whose "distinct and melodic voice reverberates pleasantly in the ear and profoundly in the heart", as Al-Ahram wrote. Next came the recitation of the poem, "Salute to His Majesty the King", by Ali El-Garem, followed by a musical interval featuring "the magical voice and superb artistry" of the celebrated singer Umm Kulthoum. Then, Hussein Shawqi, son of the "Prince of Poets" Ahmed Shawqi, who died two years earlier, recited several verses from the late poet's The Nile.
Click to view caption
The Marconi building in Cairo. The Marconi Wireless Company helped Egypt's fledgling national broadcasting company get off the ground
Obviously, the new radio station had arranged for an impressive lineup that morning and, as Al-Ahram reports, "segment followed segment until the turn of the talented Mohamed Abdel-Wahab came to conclude the programme." The famous musician "plucked every string of our emotions, captivating our hearts with his entrancing voice and consummate skill and leaving the audience wishing, in vain, that they could hear his songs all over again".
The hope would have been in vain indeed, given that in those early days, the voices of the singers and reciters were transmitted live while in the studio they would have been unable to hear their audiences' cries for "encore". Not that this inaugural broadcast took place in a studio. Rather, as Al- Ahram's correspondent reports, it took place "in the performance chamber for singers and lecturers", although "the energetic broadcasting company chairman, Said Lutfi Bek, went to great pains to ensure that the transmission met the highest possible technical standards."
Egypt's first national radio broadcast was accompanied by an inaugural ceremony hosted by the Ministry of Communications in a large reception hall in the central telephone communications building. The first to speak was Minister of Communications Ibrahim Fahmi who proclaimed a new era in entertainment, cultural dissemination and education in the country. More important was the speech by Mahmoud Shaker, director of the Railway, Telegraph and Telephone Authority, to which the new radio company was first subordinated. Initially, he said, the project encountered considerable financial and practical difficulties but fortunately the government was able to strike an agreement with the Marconi Wireless Company to set up the facilities. It was then decided to begin with two broadcasting centres, one in Cairo, operating at 20 kilowatts, and a second, less powerful one in Alexandria. He added, "The project envisions other stations and additional programmes in order to extend the scope of this service. Work on these improvements has already begun and budgetary allocations have already been earmarked this year for the construction of new stations. This will make it possible for audiences to have a say in the programmes they would like to hear."
With regard to these programmes, Al-Ahram, for its part, inaugurated a new column: "What to listen to today". There were two channels to choose from: one in Arabic and one in English. The former opened at 6.45 with "Morning Exercises presented by Baligh Safwat", followed by "The Holy Qur'an, recited by prominent sheikhs of our time". At 10.00 there was a 50 minute segment of Oriental music, then "Women's talk on home economics, presented by Iqbal Higazi", and then another musical interval, bringing the morning programming to a close at 12.30. At 2.00pm a short afternoon segment began, featuring Oriental music and the first commercial bulletin, after which transmission ceased. At 5.00pm, transmission resumed again to the recitations from the Qur'an. The programmes in the evening, clearly considered prime time, included a number of music segments, the second commercial bulletin, "Children's Hour" presented by Zakiya Abdel- Hamid Suleiman, and a talk show featuring a major literary or intellectual figure. The undoubtedly serious content of the latter show was balanced by a comedy programme featuring one of the well-known monologue artists of the day and by "Oriental Music", airing live performances of famous singers such as Ibrahim Othman, Saleh Abdel-Hayy and Nagat Ali. The evening transmission signed off at 11.30 to the tune of the national anthem.
The second, or European channel, opened at noon with a programme of classical music, after which transmission ceased, only to resume briefly at 2.25pm for the commercial bulletin in English. Then, at 6.30pm, the evening programme on the European Channel started. This was the channel's longest period of transmission, lasting three-and-a-half hours, ending at 10.00pm. In addition to news broadcasts and Western music recordings, the channel frequently offered a lecture, most often featuring a resident foreign expert discussing an issue pertinent to Egypt. For example, on 29 November, at 7.10pm, radio audiences could have heard the activities of the Royal Italian Archaeological Mission in Fayyoum.
Although Egypt's national broadcasting company may have had a difficult birth, it seemed destined to succeed. True, the number of radio owners would have been relatively few but like other newfangled inventions of the time, it was catching on quickly. The mere purchase of a radio set would have occasioned a neighbourhood celebration, with a festive procession to escort the new apparatus into the family home and friends and neighbours dropping in to express congratulations.
More importantly, a widespread perceived decline in the programming standards of the five privately-owned radio stations had given rise to the demand for a public broadcasting company, a demand aired in Al-Ahram and other newspapers. In Al-Ahram of 20 May 1934, Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed devoted his "Small but significant" column to precisely this subject. "These radio stations have transformed the commonest ignoramuses into learned professors, great geniuses, famous celebrities... They have turned everything head-over- heels. They are being used to make appointments: 'Wait for so and so in the such and such coffeehouse', announces some idler. Financial houses rent airspace in order to screech at one another three times a day, hurling accusations back and forth of fraud and conning the public. Any trollop can pay 10 piastres a month to have her name announced five times a day just for having made a special request for some singer's gushing and wailing, and, in the bargain, the announcer will give out her home address... They have packed these stations with nincompoops who have found in the radio a convenient way to earn a living, without having to hone a skill and without having to examine their conscience on how best to serve their country by demonstrating an element of seriousness, instead of spouting inanities and crude jokes and playing musical filth."
El-Sawi Mohamed particularly resented these radio stations' invasion of privacy and the noise pollution they caused. "In deliberately timing their transmissions to coincide with people's leisure times, they have waged an all-out assault on our nerves and peace of mind. When people most need to shed their cares in the comfort of their homes, popular coffeehouses turn up their radio sets to a blare like a donkey's bray that can be heard for miles, causing both the ear and the soul to recoil." This led him to urge the government, now that the national radio station had been founded, to clamp down on those privately-owned stations which had become an offence to public taste and morals, "because they had imagined that there was no authority to check them and that they were free of all restraints".
The Arabic press was not alone to complain. The French- language Du Caire grumbled that the assault by the privately-owned radio stations targeted foreigners as well as Egyptians. "No sooner do you turn on the switch than an unbearable din invades your device. As you turn your dial between bandwidth 200 to 500, you come across one local station after another, each more inane than the next in their gibberish and endless repetitions of that garble that does not deserve the name 'song', most of which consists of endless repetitions of a specific record by Abdel-Wahab. There is no space to hear Europe, what with these local stations choking off Budapest, smothering Vienna, drowning out Prague and cutting off Rome."
It was at least in part because of these complaints that the government, in its contract with Marconi, pledged to close down these privately-owned stations. In response, their owners declared a three-day strike in advance of the inaugural transmission of the new national station. They also announced that they had agreed among themselves to merge in the form of a single station that would "broadcast various types of programmes that are in popular demand but which the public will not be able to hear on the government-owned station". Simultaneously, parliamentary representative Leon Gindi Wissa appealed to the government to grant licences to some of the longest-established privately-owned stations that also enjoyed a reputation for programming standards.
Although the Ministry of Communications refused to respond to such demands, the pressures made an impact on the birth of the new broadcasting company. Commenting on "the government broadcasting company and its effect on public taste", a front page article in Al-Ahram of 27 June 1934 observed, "Previously, people had the choice between several stations and they were never short of entertainment at any time of the day or night. One can understand, therefore, why they grumble against the limitation on their choice and against the restriction of transmission to only a few hours per day. Another source of complaint is that the new stations broadcast too much Western music, which is unfamiliar to Egyptians and to the Oriental ear in general and which is felt to be a means to cater to foreigners in the country when the desires of the native populace should have priority."
Because of such grievances, the new radio station came under the close scrutiny of the press. If the privately-owned stations had come under fire for the decline in their programming standards, the press saw it as its task to ensure that the same did not occur to public broadcasting. Under the headline, "Vulgar music on government radio", the Wadi wrote that people had hoped that the new radio station would bring and end to this type of music on the air. "Sadly, however, this hope was destroyed when, on Thursday night, we heard the song of the licorice juice vendor with its crude music and offensive lyrics."
Airing a similar grievance against "stand-up comedians", a letter to Al-Ahram asked, "Is it proper that we let our daughters and wives listen to this nonsense? Was it not for this very reason that the privately-owned radio stations were abolished? Does it honour Egypt's reputation that its official radio station broadcasts such inanities?"
Nor would Al-Ahram's Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed remain silent on the subject. He, too, took issue with the song, "Hey licorice man, cheer me up, reward me". On the hand, he did find something to praise. He was glad to have had the opportunity to hear the lectures of Saheir El-Qalamawi on the programme "Women to Women". "I listened to her twice," he wrote, "and I took great pleasure in that melodious voice with its pure tones, perfect Arabic and excellent diction. I was as impressed with how lucidly she spoke in her last broadcast on the Arab woman, from the divine revelation to the hijra, as I was with her eloquent discussion on the valour and heroism of Arab women."
As an official radio station, it was perhaps only natural that it assume a sterner, grimmer face than the commercial channels. Broadcasting officials thought it only appropriate to give more air time to news bulletins and lectures. Of the latter there was that 20-minute segment in which the secretary of the Programming Board spoke every evening on matters pertaining to public health, irrigation, education and morals. That such serious content caused some eyes, at least, to close is evident in the letter-to-the-editor appealing to the government channel "to reduce the number of those boring official programmes, such as lectures on agriculture, which are best deferred to the time when there will be receiving stations in the countryside since they are of no benefit whatsoever to city dwellers".
Indeed, in the provinces, inability to access the broadcasts, whether due to financial reasons or lack of electricity, was another concern. Writing from Assiout, Ahmed Ahmed Muntasser suggested that the people in every village chip in to purchase a transmitter and a generator powerful enough to pick up the signals from Cairo. The radio would then be installed in the village guest-house or in some other spacious room "so as to enable all people from the village to hear the programmes on healthcare, agriculture and other educational topics and various forms of entertainment".
Most likely, many rural landowners and mayors took this advice and used it as another means to exert their control over farmers, whether by selecting what they listened to or limiting the amount they could listen to the amazing talking machine. Certainly, they would not have wanted the peasants to get any ideas in their heads; nor would they have looked kindly on them staying up late at night when they were supposed to wake up at dawn in order to tend to the fields.
The establishment of a public broadcasting company and the disappearance of the privately-owned ones had another unexpected effect on radio owners. They were now subjected to a tax for their transmitters and the Rail, Telegraph and Telephone Authority was responsible for collecting it, as we see from the following announcement that kept appearing in the newspapers at the time:
"Licences for the installation and use of wireless devices will be issued in accordance with regulations, with the cognisance of the Inspector- General of the Telegraph and Telephone Authority. Licences can be obtained from the authority's official telegraph offices upon payment, in advance, for a fee of eight piastres. Licences must be renewed on 1 June every year." The announcement further cautioned radio owners against using their machines without paying the required fees.
Nevertheless, many perceived a brighter side to the national broadcasting company. One was its broadcasters' use of classical Arabic, or fus-ha, as opposed to the colloquial Egyptian, or ammiya, used by the privately-owned networks. Under the headline, "Broadcasting in Classical Arabic", Al-Balagh remarked that the pleasant- sounding recitation of Arabic entices even the uneducated to listen. It continued, "If a beautiful delivery of a text does this, even if the substance is weak, imagine then the effect were good substance to converge with good delivery? Certainly, it would contribute to elevating the general level of public taste and culture, and those who look askance at Arabic literature would realise that, in fact, it holds treasures that are worth struggling to attain."
Nevertheless, the sudden leap from colloquial to classical on the airwaves became the subject of a debate that unfolded on the pages of Al-Ahram. The adversaries in this debate were Abbas Mustafa Ammar, advocating fus-ha, and Zakariya Nameq, championing ammiya. As Ammar had pointed out, the controversy was not new, having arisen on numerous occasions in the past with regard to the language of the press. However, it appears that Nameq won the contest, for Sheikh Abdel-Aziz El-Bishri, in his radio programme of 22 October, criticised Ammar for his weak defence of fus-ha. Ammar had his riposte two days later in Al-Ahram. Sheikh El-Bishri, he charged, obviously did not understand the rules of debate, which he -- Ammar -- had scrupulously observed. Nor was the debate mere playacting as the sheikh had claimed.
It was also perceived that the new broadcasting station would have an important impact on the rest of the Arab world. The old privately-owned stations could barely reach their home cities, let alone the borders of the country, whereas the government-owned transmissions, operating at 20 kilowatts, could be picked up in Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Syria and Libya. In addition, there were plans to build a booster station in Upper Egypt that would eventually be able to relay radio signals to Sudan.
Nor was it long before Egyptians had some feedback from those parts. Following his return from a visit to Syria and Lebanon, an Al-Ahram columnist declared that the new radio station was the greatest step forward Egypt had taken in the cause of Arab unity. "It has facilitated the spread of Egyptian culture and has established a permanent link between Egypt and its sister Arab nations. In those countries, this action has been warmly received. Radio sets have multiplied in public clubs and private homes to the extent that almost everywhere you go in Syria and Lebanon the strains of Egyptian music accompany you. What more could Egypt aspire to in its drive to promote closer bonds of communication."
However, the writer believed that in order to increase its appeal, programming officials should begin to present recordings from some of the most famous singers in other Arab countries. "In so doing, we will have encouraged those nations to draw closer to Egypt while accustoming Egyptian ears to the music of other Arab countries." He went on to urge the broadcasting company to acquire the necessary recordings from those countries, for the sooner it does so the sooner the benefits will be felt. Not that this in any way will diminish the status of Egyptian performers in those countries. "Our singers' names are uttered with the greatest veneration over there. It would be difficult to find someone who does not know the lyrics to most of their songs and who can perform a quite acceptable rendition of them. Wherever you go, on the plains or in the mountains, you will hear the voices of Egyptian song playing day and night."
Abdel-Qader El-Mazni of Al-Balagh had the same impression during his trip to Lebanon. People there would crowd into the coffeehouses and other places in order to hear Radio Egypt, he wrote, adding, "What most impresses and fascinates listeners there -- Muslims and Christians alike -- are the recitations from the Qur'an. I have seen them gathered around the radio, listening intently and uttering exclamations of surprise, delight and praise."
At the same time, Al-Ahram correspondents in the Levant soon began wiring in their stories on the popular reaction to Radio Egypt. We have, for example, the following report from Palestine: "The use of the radio has spread greatly over the past few days, even in small villages. The cause of this is the recent founding of the Egyptian Broadcasting Company and the invaluable sermons that can be heard on it."
And from Iraq: "Public establishments that own radio sets are filled to brimming with eager audiences. It has been observed that reception only becomes clear after 9.00pm, which is why listeners here have requested that certain programmes, especially those featuring Egyptian music and comedy routines, be aired after that time so that the voices and talents of Egyptian artists can be appreciated in their clearest form."
Finally, from Syria: "Although Egyptian radio has been warmly received here, Syrians have registered a curious complaint. They have asked to hear a particular sheikh -- Mohamed Rifaat -- recite the Qur'an. Unfortunately, the radio has scheduled Qur'anic recitations for the mornings, at which time Sheikh Rifaat refuses to sit before a microphone. Broadcasting officials have promised to give their attention to this problem."
The reaction from other Arab countries barely hinted at the impact Radio Egypt would have in 20 years time, when it raised its voice to a boom in the cause of Arab unity and the Third World independence movement. It was consequently hardly surprising that the Abu Za'bal transmission station was targeted for bombardment during the tripartite invasion of 1956.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.