Magazine article The Spectator

Armchair Travels

Magazine article The Spectator

Armchair Travels

Article excerpt

It was a clever ruse by John Dryden, the director of Sunday's Classic Serial (Radio Four), to record The Cairo Trilogy on location in Egypt with an Egyptian cast.

And a brilliant bit of casting to tempt Omar Sharif, the charismatic film actor, to make his début on radio. It's a long time since Sharif's days as the to-die-for lead in films such as Dr Zhivago and age has greyed him, but he has lost none of his seductive appeal. From his first words, 'That was the day I grew up', Sharif had me hooked. 'From that moment our lives would never be the same again.' It's that languid elegance, each word perfectly paced, drawing you in syllable by syllable in that ever so slightly clipped accent.

A curtain is drawn back, a door whinges, a few chords of Arabic music. . .Naguib Mahfouz's three novels (published in Arabic in the 1950s) take us back to Egypt in 1919 and to the nationalist uprising against the British occupation (which Mahfouz himself witnessed, aged seven).

Mahfouz, who died in August aged 95, was given the Nobel Prize in 1988 after years of attempting to explain the conflicting strands of Egyptian history to his own people (and thereby to us in the West). In the radio version of The Cairo Trilogy (dramatised by Ayeesha Menon), we find ourselves on the streets of the capital amid the rioters, all shouting in Arabic for the British to leave. Kamal's eldest brother, Fahmy, is mixed up with the movement.

He and his comrades are detonating a bomb. 'Is God happy with us now?' Kamal asks him. 'Yes, I think he is, ' replies Fahmy.

Three richly drawn novels have been compressed into three hours of radio drama so there is some hectic scene-shifting between the mosque, the street demonstrations, the enclosed world of silkstrewn bedroom and scented garden of Kamal's sisters, and their father's secret life of 'sophisticated' entertainment. But on radio we have the freedom to imagine what we will, so all you need are a few notes from an oud, a fleeting snatch of birdsong, a sentence or two in Arabic and you're there -- in Cairo -- with Omar Sharif!

On the next evening, you could have found yourself in India, circa 1930, in an atmospheric Book at Bedtime (Radio Four, Monday to Friday), abridged by Sally Marmion. …

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