Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (659)
War of the waves
World War II broke out on 3 September 1939. Two years prior, however, a different type of war broke out between the Allies and the Axis powers, a war of radio stations. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk recounts the battle of the airwaves
The radio war began on 3 December 1937 when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced the start of its Arabic language broadcast, a start that was to be extremely modest.
After determining the wave-length it would broadcast on, the BBC's announcement noted that the opening of the Arabic language broadcast would be 15 minutes long, from 6pm to 6.15pm Greenwich Mean Time. It also announced that a number of top representatives from the Arab world present in the British capital would participate in the festivities -- Prince Seif Al-Islam, the son of Prince Yehia of Yemen; Hafiz Afifi Pasha, the ambassador of Egypt; Abdel-Rahman Haqqi Bey, the charge d'affaires during the ambassador's absence during his stay in Egypt; Raouf Bey, the Iraqi minister plenipotentiary; Sheikh Hafiz Wahba, the minister plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; and Sir Bernard Riley, the governor of Aden.
In this announcement, the BBC also added that starting the following day, 40 minutes would be added to the quarter hour it would begin with, making the programme a full and complete 55 minutes long. Al-Ahram noted that the BBC had repeated its wish for listeners to write in, with any comments concerning the broadcast with the wish of improving its service.
The hostilities began with the announcement of the start of the Arabic broadcast from London. The Evening Post commented the next day that the Arabic station would have been more effective if it had started earlier "for Italian propaganda in the Arabic language has been ongoing for months and has significantly damaged Britain's dignity and prestige in the Near East. Our shortcoming in responding by the only means possible has caused greater damage, for silence is considered by the Arabic-speaking peoples an admission of committing an offence."
The response from Rome was quick. Journali d'Italia newspaper protested against the opening of the Arabic broadcast from London and stressed that the Italian broadcasts from Bari station, which used 14 languages and lasted for 11 and a half hours per day, were not propaganda against Britain. It thus held that the step the BBC had taken was a virtual attack on Italy. The Italian newspaper concluded by stating, "we will listen with yearning ears to the sound of Radio London, and if the observations we hear are harassing or annoying, then Italy will not fail to respond appropriately at that time."
In reply to this, the Daily Telegraph published that the British broadcast in Arabic would clarify its goals in all frankness and that the news it would broadcast in Arabic would become known for its precision and integrity. "The BBC will maintain this level and will foster a spirit of mutual understanding between Britain and the concerned states. There will not be propaganda, and the daily broadcasts will comprise of frank and trustworthy news."
The Daily Express recommended that Britain follow Italy's example in distributing thousands of radios that only receive one station, the Italian broadcast. Those in charge at the BBC rejected this advice, however, and did not believe the tale of a radio that only receives one station. Nor did they accept the idea that Arab listeners still lived in tents, saying that they generally met in cafes where they listened to many radio stations.
The BBC then began to organise the new broadcast. It commissioned some of the employees of Egyptian radio, Aziz Rifaat Effendi as a translator and Ahmed Kamal Sorour as an announcer, in addition to Parker as news editor in the foreign languages department. Calvert, "who is well-read in the affairs of the countries of the Near East," was the Arabic editor.
On the anticipated date, Monday 3 January, the BBC began its Arabic broadcast. At Al-Ahram the editors gathered around a radio, and the next day the newspaper published a long report about what the new station had broadcast. The announcer had begun by greeting listeners and then presented a segment of Indian music followed by a segment of Egyptian music. He then spoke about the new station, saying that it would comprise music, songs, discussions, and the most important global news of interest to the Arab world "while taking precision and veracity into account in its reportage."
Then the guests gave their statements. Yemeni Prince Seif Al-Islam gave a greeting and Abdel-Rahman Haqqi Bey gave a word on behalf of Hafiz Afifi, stating that news broadcasts were among the primary conditions for mutual understanding among peoples. He said that the British broadcast strove for truthfulness, precision and integrity, and would follow the same principles in its Arabic news broadcast. The goal, he said, was for the news of Arab peoples to be placed within the field of international politics. As for the statement of Sheikh Hafiz Wahba, he sufficed by saying that this effort was evidence of interest in the Arabic language and its speakers. The Iraqi minister was the last to speak, and highlighted the difference between the Arabic dialects, something the new station would need to pay attention to.
Al-Ahram noticed widespread response to the new station upon its opening, leading it to say that listeners were motivated by a desire to know whether this occasion could truly be described as the beginning of a war on the ether waves. It added that it had been heard in practically perfect clarity in all corners of the Near East, Yemen, Syria, and Turkey "despite the interference of an unknown station that began to function at the same time but which was unable to cut off the British broadcast."
The source of interference did not remain a mystery to listeners. The following day, the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera wrote that Britain wished to commence an era of radio lies and fabrications about Italy, and had found an excuse in Bari station's alleged campaign against it. The newspaper added, "the war of speech is easier than the war of trenches." The same was done by Poplu De Roma newspaper, which ridiculed the British foreign secretary Eden who had diagnosed the cause of the problem as the Bari wireless radio station "and soon found the cure -- another wireless radio station."
The British newspapers let fly with a response to the Italian accusations. The Manchester Guardian wrote that if the duty of the new broadcast was to correct distorted, deceitful statements, then the mission of those entrusted with this work would be weighty. The Daily Telegraph wrote that the British government was now thinking of the means that would allow the world to obtain a true picture of British life, goals, and purposes. The Daily Herald wrote that Mussolini's response was quick, and that some interference had taken place and that Bari station had played the voice of Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, so loved in the East. The matter reached the point of the British ambassador in Rome submitting a protest to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the paper's vicious campaigns against England, in connection to the first English broadcast in Arabic.
It was under these circumstances that the German press entered the battleground, on Italy's side of course, and with deliberateness. Deutsche Zeitung newspaper wrote that the Bari station had broadcast Mohamed Abdel-Wahab's songs at the same time, making people in Arab countries turn away from London and listen to Bari instead. And thus we can witness a radio war, and although we might call it a war as they wished, it did not harm the East but rather caused it mirth and laughter.
SOME FANCIED THAT THE STERN RECEPTION the Italian press gave to the British broadcast would soon soften with the passage of time, but this did not come to be. Rather, the opposite was true.
The songs of the famous Egyptian singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab were one manifestation of its ire. Bari took to broadcasting these songs on a wide scale, and while the British broadcast did not wish to copy its competition, it did not easily find an alternative, as the Daily Mail put it. This newspaper wrote that in London they were studying an endeavour to acquire a large collection of Arabic records, "but the quantity of this kind of music that can be obtained is limited. Some of it, especially the songs, is not fit for broadcasting. The British Corporation does not have a plan for acquiring competition to Abdel-Wahab."
The same was said in the Daily Herald newspaper, which mentioned that the British broadcasting station was searching everywhere for Arab singers and artists but that it had had no success of note. "It has determined to invite every important Arab visitor to speak to their compatriots from that station during the programme."
Another step the Italian government took was its decision to close Radio Bologna, and strengthen the Bari radio station. Despite the Italian authorities denying that this measure resulted from a desire to increase its ability to compete with the British broadcast, no one believed that. At the same time, the wave Bari broadcast from was very close to that of the Arabic broadcast from London, which caused overlap between the two. This led the British newspapers to urge the government to seek a solution to the problem at an international wireless convention that was to be held soon.
Yet it appears that the circumstances frustrated the determination of those enthusiastic about the British broadcast. The Daily Telegraph 's correspondent in the Egyptian capital sent to his paper an indication that Egyptian interest in the Arabic broadcast from London was limited, and that they were disappointed that the news broadcast often appeared in the morning's papers. In addition, Egyptians were not comfortable with the time of the news broadcast on the English station, for it coincided with the timing of the Quran broadcast on the Cairo station.
The Manchester Guardian expressed this same disappointment. It held that the British broadcast was determined to follow the example of Italy, which relied on aggressive and false statements. "It is believed that truth is great, and that it will prevail without exaggeration or eloquence. Yet unfortunately the Arabs take pleasure in coarse statements, and, like all listeners to the radio, do not listen unless they feel an inclination to do so."
Most of the detailed criticisms were presented by the Daily Express, which laid them out in the following points:
"Announcers who speak in Egyptian Arabic are not much concerned with the residents of Arab countries such as Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The BBC has failed to appreciate the Arab mood, which necessitates including a great quantity of religious matters in the programme. Quran recitation is considered one of the most important distinguishing features of the Bari broadcast.
"Bari uses a first rate Arabic orchestra and broadcasts the songs of beloved Arab artists. As for the British broadcast, it relies on Western music, most of which is not to Arab taste.
"The average Arab appreciates speech that reveals pride. Bari station always boasts of Fascist advantages with influential pride, something the British broadcast cannot go along with.
"Criticisms have been made concerning Egyptian news dominating other news in the British newscast. Holders of this opinion view that Egypt has a radio broadcast that is competent enough to be able to address local events."
Criticism of the British broadcast then spread to the House of Commons. In its 16 February 1938 session, several representatives spoke out, recounting its forms of shortcoming.
Among the conservative representatives, Killing spoke. He held it necessary that two essential concerns be fulfilled by the new broadcast -- that it reach Arab listeners and be entertaining and attract attention. "In my opinion, it will not achieve these two concerns, for the information I have indicates that it is not able to reach the Arabs because a small number of the radios in Egypt and a meagre proportion of those in Palestine are able to receive the short waves of the British broadcast. If there were a broadcast on medium wave, then everyone in Egypt and Palestine would be able to listen to it."
Among the Labour representatives, Whitkens spoke, pointing out that Bari station broadcast Arabic music permeated with phrases like their own sayings: "Palestine is for Arabs, kill the Jews, let the Arabs in Palestine take up arms." He also noted that the Italian broadcast presented an entertainment programme that was better than that presented by the British broadcast.
Yet Major Trion held a different view and presented it in council. He said that the Arabic broadcast had been received in a wide area that included nearly 40 million people. "London station broadcasts truthful news free from propaganda. While the British broadcast has been the object of criticism, I believe that all the obstacles up until now have fallen, and that it will now proceed in a satisfactory manner."
During the following months it indeed occurred that the Arabic broadcast from London drew up a new plan that began to draw more listeners. On 3 October 1939, the Egyptian ambassador to the British capital, Hassan Pasha Sabri, said a word on the value of the British broadcast in the Arab region. On 26 October, the station announced a special programme for the broadcasting of Quran recitation and talks about the month of fasting. "We have learnt that an agreement has taken place between the Cairo and London stations to provide Quran recitation on Wednesday of every week for a period of 40 minutes. We have also learnt that Sheikh Abdel-Fattah El-Shaashaai and Sheikh Taha El-Feshni will take turns in reciting the Holy Quran and that a week will be set aside for each, starting with Sheikh El-Shaashaai."
The nascent broadcast grasped the occasion of the one-year anniversary of its inception to prepare a related programme whose segments included a special concert by Mohamed Abdel-Wahab transmitted from Cairo. It was also decided to expand the Arabic broadcast's scope by offering English lessons to Arab students. Moreover, the BBC decided to broadcast in the future an attention-grabbing discussion of political events in addition to a series of talks given by Mohamed Hussein Heikal Pasha to the Cairo broadcast about holy sites.
On 4 January 1939, Al-Ahram dedicated a great deal of space in its issue to the much-anticipated celebration that was broadcast simultaneously from London and Cairo. It commenced with a word by Hafiz Afifi Pasha in which he congratulated the British broadcast for its success over the past year. He said that it was the best medium for fostering friendly relations between the Arab peoples and the gracious English nation, as he put it.
This was followed by Sami El-Shawa playing a "salutation to the East that he performed in a beautiful melody. Then the musician Mohamed Abdel-Wahab performed with his orchestra a poem composed by the late prince of poets Ahmed Shawqi Bey. He was followed by Mustafa Rida Bey performing short solo pieces on the qanun accompanied by Mustafa El-Aqqad on the tambourine. The celebration concluded at 8pm Big Ben time. Mohamed Fathi, the top presenter, and Abdel-Wahab Hafiz broadcast it from the Cairo station."
This obvious cooperation that had begun between the Egyptian and British stations stemmed, in our opinion, from two sources. The first was that the Cairo broadcast was the first government broadcast in the region (1934) and had behind it a long history of local broadcasts, which provided it with sufficient experience. The other was that due to the early presence of a broadcast in Egypt there was a large audience of wireless radio owners, the likes of whom were rare in other Arab countries that did not have radio broadcasts until much later than Egypt.
THIS CELEBRATION WAS A TURNING POINT in the radio war. In this connection the Times recalled how on the opening day of the British broadcast, Bari radio had succeeded in causing it disturbance by broadcasting the songs of Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. It then noted how the man himself participated in the celebration of the London radio's one-year anniversary with a new song.
The BBC continued on its way without a care, grasping the opportunity of the Eid Al-Adha holiday in 1939 to send an elegant congratulation to numerous notables in all the Arab countries in the form of a small notebook. Its first page carried its congratulations and on the next two pages was printed the opening chapter of the Quran taken from an antique copy stored in the British museum in London that had been written in the era of the Mameluke Sultan Rukineddin Baybars, in 704 of the Islamic calendar.
Yet none of this stopped the Italian Bari station from continuing its campaign. On 14 June 1939, news was broadcast, stating that a revolution had begun in the Near East and that the revolutionaries had defeated the regime forces. It was added that an Iraqi journalist had witnessed the assassination of the British consul in Mosul and had then travelled by plane to Germany and that the German Ministry of Propaganda had employed him in one of the departments overseeing the Arabic language broadcast.
It was not long until the real war began, which fanned the flame of the radio war Germany had also joined via the Arabic department in the Berlin radio station. An Iraqi announcer called Younis Bahri was in charge of this department's affairs; he had been invited by the German legation in Baghdad to travel to Berlin with the aim of spreading propaganda against the Iraqi government. There he turned towards waging the campaign against British policies in addition to the "disgrace against his nation" as Al-Ahram put it. This resulted in Iraq's government trying him in absentia on the charge of grand treason. He was sentenced to death.
When the war began, some Brits were beset once again with anxiety over the short-wave the BBC broadcast from. This matter became a subject of discussion within the House of Commons and a government representative responded, reassuring the members that listening to the Arabic programmes broadcast from London was generally satisfactory in Egypt, while admitting that listening to the English programmes was not as strong.
At the same time, the BBC supported its employees through the appointment of Baxton as an organiser for its Arabic programmes. The man had a lot of experience behind him; he had earned academic degrees in Eastern languages from Oxford, had obtained an academic degree in the Arabic language, and had been a high school principal in Egypt as well as a lecturer at Fouad I University.
The real war resulted in all the rules that had been followed in the radio war and which had been approved in international agreements being violated. Al-Ahram highlighted this during the Nazi forces' attacks on Poland when the German government hacked the Polish radio station to broadcast false news. It noticed this and mentioned that the spurious radio station had broadcast several pieces by Chopin, followed by the anthem that the Polish stations usually broadcast. It said that the German forces had occupied all of Polish territory, which the Polish announcer denied. He accused Germany of stealing ether waves, an act considered a violation of the Geneva conventions.
But let us return to London's Arabic broadcast that continued to strengthen its transmission to attract more listeners and turn them away from the broadcasts of the two axis states, Italy and Germany. Starting on 1 October it presented a creative short story written by Mahmoud Taymour Bey. The story was titled "A heart's tragedy", and was read by one of the broadcast's Arab presenters. Al-Ahram commented that there would be great interest in listening to this story given the wide-scale fame of its author.
A few days later, the broadcast announced that it would continue to present its Arabic programme at its usual time, 5.17pm Greenwich time. It would start with a radio statement, followed by a short summary of the most important news "and then a programme to entertain listeners that will last between 30 and 40 minutes. We hope that this system will receive the same welcome and appreciation from listeners that our past broadcasts have."
It seems that some listeners complained about the British broadcast beginning at 5.10, leading those in charge to change the time to 5.00 by adding 10 minutes, with the news scheduled at 5.45.
Officials at the Arabic language British broadcast allowed for some to criticise them, underlining the concept of democracy under whose banner their country was fighting. A letter from a reader was broadcast in which he stated that it was wrong to broadcast discussions of literature given that the fact of reality was that "there are 14 and a quarter million Egyptians, 12 and a half million of whom are illiterate."
A final observation on the radio war is that it was not limited to the major states fighting in WWII, for it was one of the most effective weapons of small peoples in the national liberation movement following the war.
It is well-known that Egypt used this weapon effectively following the 1952 Revolution, and that the Voice of the Arabs broadcast in particular earned an outstanding reputation in this regard and that interest in listening to it exceeded all expectations. This made it one of the goals of destruction for the old colonial powers, Britain and France, whose forces destroyed transmission stations in Abu Zaabal during the so- called Suez War of 1956 in an attempt to be rid of it, but to no avail.