Tuesday, February 7, 2012

In the Press Archives: Nasser and the New Yorkers

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the Information Department of the United Arab Republic (the UAR, a short-lived union of Syria and Egypt), published a yearly collection of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speeches and press interviews. A brilliant public relations move with an eye towards future scholars, each volume began with a somewhat campy proclamation:

“In this volume, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, world-acclaimed father of arab [sic] Nationalism and maker of the UAR, tells yet once more, in his simple, straight-from-the-heart way, the story of the past, present, and future of the Arab World, revealing as he speaks, truths that have been for so long either maliciously distorted or buried deep to suit some foreign interest.”
The titles of many of these speeches add in the phrase “to cheering crowds,” or “to the huge crowds who cheered him,” so that we know that we’re not reading some minor oration. Most of the speeches are filled with sweeping statements about workers and farmers and anti-imperialism that read years later as pomp, but at the time addressed Egyptians in an informal tone not unlike that of U.S. President FDR’s fireside chats a few decades before.

At the end of each annual volume, the Information Department compiled transcripts of Nasser’s press conferences. These texts are fascinating in part because they put Nasser into dialogue with the questions of journalists, turning the leader’s oratory into a conversation that he clearly leads but cannot totally control. Reading the archival material decades later, it’s jarring to get to the press conferences, where you see an invincible leader become human.

Every once in a while, the journalists were Americans, and asked questions that primarily Americans would ask. At one conference, a journalist (they are unnamed in the record) posed, “Mr. President, we can’t find Newsweek magazine at the hotel. I wonder why Newsweek isn’t allowed.”

Nasser, showing his impressive memory, did not struggle to remember why. His response: "Yes, it contained an article in which it was asserted that Mr. Dag Hammarskjoeld [then Secretary-General of the U.N.] talked harshly to the President of the UAR [Nasser]. This of course was an insulting attitude, because nobody could speak harshly to the President of the UAR… such an article is not polite, and we cannot accept that; we really cannot permit such a magazine to be distributed in our country.”

Nasser, it seems, wanted to explain censorship not as a matter of political maneuver, but rather as a response to a perceived personal slight. If the newspapers of the U.S. are going to be mean to me, then I’ll fight back by not letting them sell here. 

Nasser explained this even more frankly in another conference with “American Editors and Commentators” in 1958. Here’s what he told them:

“Reading newspapers is a favorite hobby of mine, and I read almost all the newspapers of the world, which naturally include those of the U.S. A. The main point is that your press is not fair, particularly the New York newspapers. What disappointed me most was that after meeting many American newspapermen and spending long hours with them, their reports were still not fair. For instance, I once spent three hours in an interview with the representative of one of your leading broadcasting and television companies during which I answered about 80 questions without any preparation beforehand. Then I learned that the whole programme was omitted and was replaced by an old film of me in which I appeared in military uniform delivering a fiery speech in Arabic.”
Nasser appears to have been hurt personally by the way he was represented to the American people. He even mentions that the “fiery” speech is “in Arabic,” a seemingly obvious detail, suggesting that he knows how such an image will come off in the U.S. He will seem like an angry dictator, whose military uniform is a symbol of strong-armed autocracy rather than a symbol of resistance to colonialism, which is what the uniform means for him and his Egyptian audience.

What Nasser was giving away in this press conference was the fact that he did not understand the role of journalists in the U.S., who see themselves as catering to the egos of the powerful only to call them to task in public. He refused to play this game, because he found it petty and insulting. He interpreted the standard procedures of the Western press to be affronts to both to his person and to the nation of Egypt, which had so recently thrown off the shackles of humiliating foreign domination. He simply didn’t get it, and wouldn’t take it.

Nasser then tried to impress upon the American opinion makers that their audiences wouldn’t be fooled either. He knew, he argued, because the audience had told him. “I receive about 35,000 letters every month, in which the writers express their own personal viewpoints,” Nasser said to the gathered journalists. “Naturally, it isn’t possible for me to read all these letters, but those which I read are full of warmth and genuine feelings."

Having been to a handful of press conferences with American politicians in Egypt this past year (Kerry, Panetta, and Carter), I can say that this kind of anecdote would absolutely never come up. Every word is carefully considered, and emotions other than the scripted "joy" and "pride" never, ever make an appearance in the record (though they might in the tone of voice used). 

Nasser, though he may have aspired to be a statesman, was in the estimation of many not really a politician. Egyptian writer and public intellectual Tawfiq al-Hakim once said of the man: “He never thought an effective thought about war. He was a man of feeling, of excitation and anger, of imagination…Abdel Nasser had more of the nature of a dreamy, emotional, artistic writer.”

So Nasser told the American journalists about all the letters he was getting from ordinary Americans. “Practically all those letters from the U.S.A. were filled to overflowing with noble sentiments,” he said, “that could not be traced in newspapers or felt in diplomatic circles…So striking was the contrast between these letters and the attitude  of the U.S. press that one simply could never believe they came from one and the same country. We are a sentimental people and I must say I was very deeply touched by these letters.”

Later on in the same press conference, a journalist asked Nasser about the High Dam, for which the U.S. government had offered to loan the necessary funds but then pulled out support with a public letter that cast doubt on Egypt’s ability to pay them back. “The withdrawal of the offer was meant to humiliate Egypt,” Nasser told them, “and this, the USA does not have the right to do. A kind word means more to me than 10 million dollars.”

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