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20 December 2013


THERE are some programmes that you feel duty bound to tune in to, because they are either important, or timely, or both - even if the preparatory blurb gives one that heavy sense of worthiness. And I am afraid The Making of the Modern Arab World (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) was one such programme, which lived down to expectations.

The muddled narrative strategy at the start did not help. In typical journalistic fashion - start with the particular, and move to the general - Tarek Osman began his account of modern Arabic history by launching in at Huda Shaarawi, the nationalist and feminist who, in the early 20th century, led protests against the British in Egypt, and later picked fights with her own people over the question of wearing the veil.

Then we were thrust into the world of the post-Napoleonic Middle East, and then were whizzed through a century and a half. I coped by having Wikipedia open on my laptop, as a Tolstoyian list of dramatis personae, skirmishes, and treaties entered and exited.

The ambition behind the project is laudable. Focusing on Egypt and Syria, we were told about the secular liberalism which, albeit under the watchful eye of British and French governments, was fostered then, and can still be seen in the literature, films, and architecture from the early 20th century.

The same polemical rhetoric that one finds in the politics of 1920s Egypt and Syria is being heard now, as the Arab Spring stumbles and collapses in these two countries. The Islamic scholar al-Tahtawi who, in the 1820s, travelled to Paris and recorded with fascination the social and political customs of the West, is - in the context of these debates - a prophetic figure; not least because it was within that tradition of Western liberal scholarship that men such as the founder of Ba'athism, Michel Aflaq, and the Islamist founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Baan, identified themselves.

I hope that Osman is given the opportunity to slow down. At this speed, only those who already know the story are going to manage; and they are the ones who do not need such programmes in the first place.

A Cause for Carolling (Radio 4, weekdays) also felt like one of those series that commissioning editors feel to be a necessary adornment to a Radio 4 Christmas: you can do tinsel and Nowells, but only if you throw in something educational, ideally with lots of dates. Fortunately, Jeremy Summerly's expert presentation and charmingly self-deprecating style saved this from the fate of many a carol history of yore, which was overladen with actors putting on funny accents, and medieval musicians with farty instruments.

What distinguished Summerly's account was that, in the process of telling us about medieval carols, he ended up composing some new ones. Thus, we were party to the creation of a new 15th-century carol with the refrain "Nunc gaudet Maria"; and indulged with a soupy harmonisation of a 12th-century song by Godric of Finchale.

If the spirit of Christmas music could be encapsulated in one song, it would be that: medievalism refracted through the lens of late-Victorian and early-20th-century harmony. Mark my words: it will be in the repertoire at King's College before you can say "Balulalow".

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