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By Nejla Sammakia

How do you spread the word on humanitarian issues to the widest possible audience? ICRC radio programmes in Cairo provide an original answer.

To the sound of bombs exploding in the background, drowning out the cries of women and children, a famous Egyptian movie star carefully reads out her lines deploring the devastation wrought by war and appealing for the safety of civilians. This scene is from one of 33 episodes of Humanitarian Positions (Mawaqif Insaniya), the second of five highly successful ICRC-produced radio series broadcast annually to the Arab world in a renewed effort to spread knowledge of international humanitarian law.

In this radio drama, renowned actress Nadia Lutfy shifts her skills away from the silver screen to convey strong messages about the rules of war. The other four series, also featuring professional movie and theatre stars, serve a similar purpose. Presented as mini-dramas and vignettes featuring legendary figures drawn from folk tales and medieval Arab history, the programmes cover such topics as the treatment of prisoners of war, special dispositions for the wounded and sick on the battlefield, and the protection of civilians during armed conflict. They also address the illegal use of anti-personnel landmines and the treatment of political detainees, among other issues.



Success story

The series was so popular that, in July 1998, the ICRC was awarded the Golden Prize for best production at the Cairo Festival for Radio and Television, in which 45 countries competed with almost 200 Arabic-language works. The prizes for best scriptwriter and best director went to Tarek Youssef and Ahmed Selim for their work on the series. Khaled el Dhehabi won the award for best actor and Ehsan el Kala’awy for best actress. A bronze statuette of a pharaoh in a long gown holding aloft a television satellite dish sits proudly in the ICRC Cairo office.

“I never expected the series to be a prizewinner,” says Roland Huguenin, head of the ICRC’s Middle East regional promotion office, the first of its kind. Huguenin initiated the series in 1993, inspired while recording ICRC television spots with local directors in Cairo.

As part of its mandate, the ICRC generally instructs humanitarian law through more traditional channels, such as universities and military academies, and through media interviews. Its dissemination activities are especially valuable in countries in the throes of conflict, but it is also important in peacetime to raise awareness of humanitarian issues. The new radio series have the clear advantage of reaching the public at large rather than just a select few.

“Of course,” says Huguenin, “Listening to a radio programme won’t necessarily persuade torturers to change their ways. But it does serve a purpose. There are some principles that are so evident... but who will tell the man in the street of his rights?”

A key to the series’ enormous success – they are now broadcast on the BBC Arabic service and Radio Monte Carlo among many other stations – lies in its timing. Played daily during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan just minutes before the sundown call to prayer, the programme enjoys the attention of millions of faithful as they await their first meal of the day. The series is also rerun at different hours and later in the year.

Cautionary tales

The series imaginatively blends popular folklore with music by top Arab singers and composers, such as reputed talents Ammar el-Shirii and Shawki Hijab, who composed one of the shows’ introductory songs.

The ICRC’s first attempt drew on the famous ancient Arab tale to create A Thousand and One Days, broadcasting it on one of Cairo’s main radio stations, the Voice of the Arabs (Sawt el Arab), and on Radio Monte Carlo. In a twist to the fable, Scheherazade returns not to her chambers in the royal court at the end of her evenings with the caliph, but to the outside world. There, a war is raging and, as she witnesses the caliph’s men forcibly recruiting youths to the front line and ill-treating prisoners of war, she returns to him with new stories of horror. Following the original line of suspense and intrigue, Scheherazade deftly advises Caliph Chahryar on the laws of war.

The second series, Humanitarian Positions, was inspired by real-life situations that ICRC delegates encountered in conflict zones such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. It was the first ICRC work to be broadcast on the BBC Arabic service, taking the organization’s media productions further into the world of Arabic-language radio stations and to thousands more listeners, both across the region and in Europe. Humanitarian Positions was so convincing to some people that they called up the BBC and enquired anxiously whether the events were real and taped live.

Undoubtedly, the choice of actress was a determining factor in that particular series’ credibility. Lutfy was selected as much for her dedication to political and social causes as for her talent and fame. She is currently involved in numerous development programmes in Egypt. “Her personality fits very well,” says Huguenin, noting that when he offered her the role in Humanitarian Positions, she replied firmly: “Don’t you dare think of giving it to anybody else.”

After Humanitarian Positions, the ICRC Cairo promotion office moved away from real-life situations and settled for lighter Egyptian folk tales and Arabic literature, as it had done with its first series. In one, the ghost of Ibn Iyass, an early Egyptian historian, appears to a modern-day scholar to deplore man’s progress in the manufacture of weapons and war machinery. In the 1997 Ramadan programme, Kalila and Dimna, two jackals at the lion king’s court, escape from their fairy-tale into a world of death, destruction and wanton acts of violence. Underlying themes are selected by the Cairo office and other ICRC Middle East delegations to reflect political events and conflicts in the region.

The number of radio stations playing the series has been steadily increasing, and now includes the Voice of Lebanon, Radio Palestine, Medi-Un in Morocco and Radio Orient in Paris, which beams Arabic-language programmes to Europe. Abu Dhabi and Qatar have also signed on, and as more deals are in the making, the ICRC Cairo promotion office has set up its own team of some 12 actors, all of whom are dedicated to keeping the humanitarian message on the air waves.


Nejla Sammakia
Nejla Sammakia is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.

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