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Middle East

Jim Muir
CAIRO - Not very often in our lives do we hear a piece of news so stunning that the hearing of it is burned into our memories. Like most of my generation, I remember vividly where I was and what I was doing when news of John F Kennedy's assassination swept like a forest fire through my school in Yorkshire. But from then until that Sunday morning at the end of August last year, I can't think of any other public event that attained that rare category.

For some reason, I had woken up unusually early. I was lying in bed listening - yes! - to the BBC World Service. It was some time before the top of the hour, and the station was playing classical music. Although half-dozing, I snapped alert as the music suddenly faded and an announcer broke in, saying : "We interrupt this music with the sad news of the death of..."

Like millions of others around the world, I was - gobsmacked is the only word that meets the case - to hear that it was Diana, Princess of Wales.

Lucky I was already lying down.

The shock was all the more stunning because I was in Egypt. Diana had always been an object of interest here for the same reasons as she was everywhere else (and she'd also visited the country with Prince Charles).

But her liaison with Dodi - alias Imad al-Fayed whose family origins were the Egyptian port city of Alexandria - had ensured hothouse coverage of the romance in the Egyptian press in the weeks leading up to the couple's dramatic demise.

Many Egyptians were anticipating a sensational marriage. More than one leading commentator had also drawn attention to "crude Arab- and Muslim-bashing" in the establishment British press as a result of the romance.

This explains why, in the hours and days that followed, many ordinary Egyptians instinctively and spontaneously embraced the conspiracy theory: that the hapless couple were done away with by the British establishment, aghast at the prospect of an Egyptian, Muslim Arab becoming stepfather to the future monarch.

Nobody ever produced a convincing explanation as to how physically this could tally with the facts of the tragedy as they were known. But the theory surfaced repeatedly in the coming months. The Egyptian reading public went into a feeding frenzy. At least six books on Diana appeared in short order, with such giveaway titles as: "Did She Die a Muslim?", "Diana's Conversion to Islam" and "The Assassination of a Princess".

That theme has continued through the first year of Diana's death. Egypt is an extremely litigious society, and its Byzantine laws allow unusual cases to be brought.

A publicity-minded lawyer named Nabih al-Wahsh seized on this to sue the Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair for 100,000 ($160,000), arguing that they must have had a hand in dispensing with the embarrassing duo.

"You wove the threads of the plot in collusion with the devil and the British intelligence services," his complaint said. The case, as they say, continues.

Another Egyptian who has made Diana part of his career prospects is one of the country's top film directors, Khairy Beshara. He's planning to make a movie on the life of Diana and her romance with Dodi, and is taking his time, delving into every possible source of information and insight.

"We've been living obsessed with Diana this past year," says his long-suffering wife Monica. "I hope he'll make a very very good movie - it has to be the best."

As the anniversary approached, Diana was again high in the Egyptian public mind. Sympathy was still much apparent, as well as distress at the commercialisation of her memory.

The diarist Ismail al-Nequib wrote in the daily al-Akhbar : "She was a girl whom fate turned into goods to be merchandised. The media and certain people have traded on Diana's life and her death, prompting us to say that she has become Saint Diana. Nor did the impudent - or cunning - merchants spare the lives of her children; they too became goods like their sainted mother, who in life was sad, broken, defeated. They even traded with the smashed car..."

Middle East