BBC Arabic’s 80 years since ‘This is London’

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BBC Arabic’s 80 years since ‘This is London’

Eighty years ago, Ahmad Kamal Suroor began his first BBC broadcast with the words “this is London.”  Few would anticipate that these words would lead to Arabic becoming the largest of the BBC’s non-English language services. Fewer still would realize that this pioneering group of Arab broadcasters would create an important linguistic revolution, establishing a particular form of Arabic that has been adopted throughout the media in the decades since. From its inception in 1938, BBC Arabic has been well regarded across the Arab world. But, unbeknownst to many, its very establishment was highly political.
BBC Arabic is now the oldest Arabic language news platform, but it was not the first. The station was originally launched as a direct response to Radio Bari, the Arabic language radio station of Mussolini’s fascist government that had been broadcast to Arab audiences since 1934. The Italian station produced programs that included propaganda designed to encourage pro-fascist sentiment across the Arab world. Increasingly anti-British in its stance after the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, and with the British mandate in Palestine in the midst of a popular uprising, the decision in London was taken to match Radio Bari’s efforts.
The Italian presence in Libya was too close for comfort in respect to British possessions in the Mediterranean and their very clear interests at Suez. And the absorption of Palestine, Mesopotamia and Transjordan into the British sphere of influence after the First World War also increased the importance of Arab affairs for decision-makers in London. William Ormsby-Gore, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, was aware of the desire to appeal to Arab hearts and minds, and stressed the need “to ensure the full and forcible presentation of the British view of events in a region of such vital imperial importance.”
To this end, in 1936 the British Colonial Office, with assistance from the BBC, set up a medium-wave radio broadcast in Jerusalem — the Palestine Broadcasting Service. With a view to disseminating the British line to Arab audiences, the service was one of several plans to broadcast from the Mediterranean area so as to compete with Radio Bari. From the outset, the BBC frequently locked horns with Westminster, insisting that its fledgling service should not become an outright tool of British government propagandists.

Established to counter Italian fascist propaganda shortly before the Second World War, pioneering British radio station inspired an important linguistic revolution and is still going strong.

Zaid M. Belbagi

As events in the region grew more troublesome, the decision was taken to establish BBC Arabic in London in 1938. Beginning with 65-minute broadcasts, the service steadily expanded to three hours by 1945. Early broadcasts featured news bulletins (translations of the BBC’s Empire Service), as well as morning readings of the Quran and local news sourced through the British Foreign Office. The establishment of a local bureau in Cairo in 1943 made Egypt the key hub for Arabic media and content, which it remains today.
The British authorities, keen that their new service was not ridiculed, went to great lengths to determine the kind of Arabic in which the new service would be broadcast. Radio Bari had been delivered in the classical Arabic of a Libyan religious scholar, making it seem outdated and indeed incomprehensible to some of its intended audiences. Another of its broadcasters spoke with an acute Levantine accent, prompting laughter and cries of grammatical inaccuracy by listeners elsewhere in the Arab world. A committee was assembled to arbitrate between the very differing views of British officials in the region as to what Arabic dialect was to be used.
The Foreign Office approached Robin Furness, a professor at King Fuad University in Cairo, for his opinion on the matter. With a background in censorship both in Egypt and Palestine, he was well acquainted with the Arabic language and favored what was to become known as “Literary Arabic.” This was essentially Arabic diction which, though grammatically correct, was not so classical that it sounded farcical. In the words of Furness, it was how “an educated Egyptian would read prose, endeavoring to avoid grammatical errors, not indulging in what would be regarded as classical preciosities.” Arguing that classical Arabic was the preserve of religious services and historical texts, he insisted on a comfortable yet still formal version of Arabic. In this, he differed from Britishers based in the Gulf, who — in their fascination for the Bedouin — campaigned for Najdi Arabic to be used. The advice of the British political agent in Kuwait, Gerald de Gaury, was enveloped in the conceptions of racial purity of the time, as he insisted that Bedouin dialects were most true to the origins of the Arabic language and that therefore they would be the ideal choice for broadcasting.
However, the British ambassador to Cairo supported Furness' argument and the BBC’s first chief announcer, Suroor, formerly of Egyptian Radio, set the trend for Arabic broadcasting and quickly became well regarded for his “clear delivery.” An internal BBC review later in 1938 confirmed that the accent was “unanimously well received” by Arab audiences and, with this decision, the BBC laid the foundation for the “Media Arabic” or Modern Standard Arabic used by broadcasters across the region today.
Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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