Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
14 - 20 January 1999
Issue No.412
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Baba Sharo (1912 - 1999)

A voice from our childhood

Baba Sharo
By Mohamed Islam

Mohamed Mahmoud Shaaban filias Baba Sharo, died at the age of 86 last Saturday, after a radio career spanning more than 40 years. Shaaban, better known to his young fans as Baba (Daddy) Sharo, was one of the best-known names in Egyptian broadcasting and a pioneer of children's programming. Shaaban is survived by his wife, Safiyya El-Mohandis, another pioneer in the world of radio, and three sons.

As a fledgling announcer at Cairo Radio, I was fortunate to have observed Baba Sharo at work. It was a sobering experience to watch such a professional, yet the humility and modesty with which he approached the microphone reflected his respect for what appeared to him to be an almost sacred mission.

What a delight it was to meet Baba Sharo in the corridors on his way to and from the studio. The twinkling eyes and deep resonant voice made us feel so important, because he always had something to say -- even if it was just a passing remark. What a high this gave us: here was the voice known to millions, addressing me personally, and with obvious interest in my professional development.

Shaaban was born in Alexandria in 1912 and studied Classics at Cairo University under the tutelage of Taha Hussein, a titan among scholars of the Arabic language. It was Hussein who recommended in 1939 that Shaaban join the newly formed Egyptian State Broadcasting (ESB), which had its headquarters on Elwi Street.

The transformation from anchor Mohamed Mahmoud Shaaban to "Baba Sharo" came by chance, when a contributing speaker in one of the children's programmes was absent and Shaaban was asked to fill in. On the programme, for the first time, Shaaban creatively used music and sound effects while telling the story. A typing error on the announcer's duty roster led to his alias, well-known to millions of children in Egypt for more than 30 years: Shaaban, abbreviated on the roster as "Sha", mistakenly became "Shar", and was later refined to "Sharo".

Baba Sharo's success in children's programming came from his astute use of sound effects. He told Al-Ahram Weekly some years ago that "producing drama for children interested me because, after all, children are a very discerning audience and I was going to learn a great deal from them."

In 1948, Shaaban was appointed head of special programmes. Four years later he became director of all music programmes and, over the following 20 years, he headed larger and larger fiefdoms until, in 1971, he was appointed head of Cairo Radio. According to Shaaban, the first tip he gave radio students was: "Read the script with your ears and not your eyes."

As well as children's programmes, which he stopped presenting in 1961, Shaaban, together with the poet Taher Abu Fasha, produced Tales from the Arabian Nights for Arabic-speaking audiences from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf. The programme played an instrumental role in making the government realise the value of radio as a potent tool in forging public opinion.

Shaaban was the first Egyptian to be sent abroad to study television prior to its inauguration in Egypt in 1961, but a clash with "the powers that be", cost him his chance to head Egyptian Television.

After he retired from radio, Baba Sharo moved from the spoken to the written word, and wrote numerous children's books. Shaaban's promise to Taha Hussein to return to the teaching staff of the Faculty of Arts after a brief sojourn in radio was never kept, and for this, countless millions are indeed grateful.