Tarek Osman, the EBRD’s Principal Political Counsellor for the southern and eastern Mediterranean region, authored and presented a four-part radio series on the modern history of the Arab world. The next episode airs on 17 December.
Which countries does the series focus on and what are the main themes?
The Arab world is a large territory with different cultures. This series traces the grand political visions – and key characters – that shaped its history from the mid-19th century to the first decade of the 21st, yet with a strong focus on Egypt and the Levant.
What are the main historical influences that define today’s Arab world? Is its history a burden?
The first episode [broadcast on Tuesday 10 December] presents the Arab liberal age in the first half of the 20th century. This was a period of immense promise and a fascinating cultural effervescence. The second episode discusses Arab nationalism, especially in its heydays in the 1950s and 1960s. The third episode looks at the Arab Islamist movement. And the fourth and last episode presents what happened in the past thirty years, the time when a new generation of young Arabs came to the fore. They inherited a score of challenges that they did not contribute to, and yet were living their consequences on a daily basis.
Is the Arab world a prisoner of its past?
No. This generation of young Arabs – the almost 200-million under 35 years old, two thirds of them are in their teens - has been very creative – from their cultural and artistic productions, to their political activism.
How did you get started on your career as a documentary maker? How has your career brought you to the BBC?
I am not really a documentary maker. I’ve just had a lot of media exposure, following the publishing of the first edition of my book, and especially after 2011 and the Arab uprising, and these included several interactions with the BBC.
Is this your first radio documentary? Do you see your career moving into television or other mediums?
I’ve done one before for BBC Radio 3 called “Coffee Culture of the Middle East”, which – to me – was very interesting as it looked at the history of some of the oldest café-houses in the world, and how they influenced different trends in Arabic and Ottoman cultures. But this new one is a much bigger project – four programmes, each 45-minutes; a much larger BBC production; and of course the themes here entail major historical events, political trends, and socioeconomic underpinnings.
Is there anything you particularly enjoyed or didn’t enjoy about producing this series? What did you learn?
I interviewed a score of very senior politicians, academics, historians, as well as artists, activists, and very ordinary people. The human stories were fascinating. The challenging part was how to tell the story of the Arab world in the last century to a very wide audience that you have to assume does not know much about that story, and how to keep the audience engaged and interested to follow the twists and turns of the narrative.