I groaned. Two hours after Diana's death was announced, I had contemplated the reaction in the Arab world, where the moamarer - "the plot" - is an essential part of all political discourse. They would, I feared, find some reason to believe that the car crash in Paris was deliberate.
And so it came to pass. Emboldened by the ravings of Colonel Gaddafi - who within days would demand the production of the "murderers" of Princess Diana and her lover and their driver in advance of the trial of the Lockerbie culprits - the Arab world convinced itself that the people's princess had been done away with by MI5. On my plane home to Beirut, a senior Lebanese police officer sitting next to me admitted that he had himself driven his BMW through the Paris tunnel to test the story, but was unable to reach the speed of Henri Paul's Mercedes. "The story of the fast car is impossible," he announced.
No sooner had I returned to Lebanon than I was deluged by Lebanese who insisted that Diana's death was a criminal conspiracy. The most preposterous theory came from an Arab banker. "The British Royal Family couldn't contemplate the idea of a Muslim mother for the future king," he said. "Perhaps she would even have persuaded her sons to convert to Islam - and where would Britain be with a Muslim Royal Family? The Queen must have called the British embassy in Paris and said 'Kill them!'"
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. No, I said. That is what your Arab leaders sometimes say. I was quite sure that Saddam Hussein had many times reached for his telephone and, speaking of domestic threats, shouted "Kill them!" to his secret police. But my banker friend had no right to transfer this ruthless way of life on to the tragedy of the Pont de l'Alma.
Of course, it was to no avail. Egypt's allegedly prestigious Al Ahram, a pro-government newspaper if ever there was one, was making just such speculations in the week after Diana's death. Within days, the English- language Cairo Times was recording how its reporter was confronted by his local grocer, Haj Ahmed, who told him: "Either you're as blind as a newborn kitten, or you're an agent of the same secret service Queen Elizabeth hired to bump off her daughter-in-law." This tale was rightly headlined: "If you can't trust the official version, make up your own." In lands where the press and television are rarely free to tell the truth, you might as well decide the truth for yourself.
And so it was that by last week, Diana's death had not only produced six Egyptian books on her "mysterious" fate but two producers announcing films about her - films which will be about as true to life (or death) as Cecil B DeMille's epics were to the Bible. Khairi Beshara, one of Egypt's top directors, said he was working on a script for the first Diana film - "collecting material from England and working out my approach [sic] to the subject" - while the entertainment weekly Akhbar al-Nugoum ("Film Star News") speculated that one of four well-known actresses would play the role of Diana.
One of them was Yousra - described as "Egypt's classiest actress" - and a 1970s star called Nagli Fathi. "The biggest problem here," declared Akhbar al-Nugoum, "is the different looks of Egyptian actresses and Diana." Indeed: rather a lot of Egyptian actresses are, to put it frankly, rather larger than Diana. This is unlikely to worry another director, Atef Salem, who proposes a Diana film in which, it is rumoured, the somewhat elderly Omar Sharif would play Dodi Fayed. Yousra and Sharif are currently starring in an Egyptian television commercial for ceramic floor tiles.
On the bookstands, meanwhile, is Who Killed Diana? with a cover blurb saying: "On the orders of the Palace - the death of Imad [Dodi] al-Fayed." Another paperback is titled Did Diana Die a Muslim? Its author, Magdi Kamel, states that the princess had already seen Islam as her salvation and had intended to convert. Cover photographs show Diana wearing a Muslim veil, taken when she visited the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo five years ago.
There is no way of stopping these Egyptian soap operas - nor of reminding their creators that, had they tried to fictionalise the deaths of the daughters or sons of Arab leaders, they would have been behind bars (and possibly without heads) within hours. The sensitivities Arab authors so cringingly show towards their local dictators are not applied to the British royals or to Mohamed Al Fayed.Reuse content