Friday, February 17, 2012

In the Press Archives: The State of the Tsar’s Health is Entirely Satisfactory

I met Hugh, the crime journalist, as the workday was winding down and a new issue of The Egyptian Gazette, Egypt’s state-owned English newspaper, was going to press. He works in the building of Al Gumhoria (The Republic), the publishing magnate which rises like a monolith of 1960’s glass and steel amongst the decayed colonial grandeur of its shorter neighbors. If you crane your neck up, you’ll read the names of the publisher’s products, slanted in unlit neon logos across the side of the granite edifice: Al Messa, Le Progres Egyptien, Shashaty, The Egyptian Gazette.

When I arrived, Hugh was busy editing the next day’s front page, scribbling small notes where a space between columns was too wide or an unnoticed misspelling marred an otherwise fluid read. One of three native speakers among a staff of forty, he is clearly a resource relied upon desperately, and stayed late to get the paper as close to perfection as possible.

A hundred and thirty years ago, several British men founded the Gazette shortly before several more British men invaded and occupied the country for seventy years. One of the paper’s first editors eventually rose to the managing editor position at the Times of London.

In 1954, Nasser, Egypt’s first Egyptian president, forced the paper to become purely Egyptian and the Gazette was the English-reader’s only daily option until after 2000, when the Daily News Egypt, where I’ve been writing, started publishing and multiple online news outlets sprouted. The Gazette now caters to a few businessmen, a few more diplomats, and others scattered around Egypt who do not read in Arabic.

While chatting with Hugh’s Egyptian colleagues and watching several older men with big mustaches fill the room with cigarette smoke, I noticed massive stacks of huge bound books on the wall. Sitting in the office, looking over the shoulder of the paper’s modern editors, are collections of every issue of the paper going back to 1880. Everyone seemed too busy to peruse these tomes, but they were happy to let me look through them.

I grabbed the oldest one in my first glance, from 1900. Back then, I realized quickly, the idea of a newspaper was almost entirely different. The whole front page displayed small, neatly arranged advertisements. The Gazette’s offices were housed in Alexandria, the Egypt’s major port city, so these little boxes promoted steamer lines and shipping services. On page two, one could read the current prices of grain, cotton, and other commodities in Egypt, England, and Continental Europe. After that, the weather, and then “Legal Notes” (about current trials), and “Entertainments,” which were light, quick reviews of local theater. Then, in a strange editorial decision driven either by space constraints or a sick sense of humor, were the executions of convicted murderers and the details of their crimes.

Finally, one gets to “General News.” Brief articles on loans, trade, and infrastructure were spread out over a huge page in the middle, in both English and French. Politics were restricted to very short updates about world leaders. “The Tsar’s temperature rose to 103 ½,” we learn, next to news of a new train route.

The next day, the Gazette reported another one sentence article. It read: “The state of the Tsar’s health is entirely satisfactory.” I couldn’t help but think that some writer had a sense of humor, as the word “entirely” seemed a little added bit of purposeful snark.

Much about the Gazette changed drastically after 1954. Under Egyptian leadership, and later government ownership, the Gazette’s front page advertised no products but instead the nation, its leader, and his decisions. On April 23rd, 1969, a smiling picture of President Nasser tucked up into his own quote: “IF ISRAEL GETS ATOM BOMB, WE GET IT TOO --- NASSER,” next to an ad for a casino.

The writer explained that “Nasser, in an interview with the American commentator Clifton Daniel, taped in Cairo and televised in the U.S., has said that peace in the Middle East can only come through the UN, and only after Israel has given up her expansionist policy.” The purpose of the article was not only to relay Nasser’s statements, but to make English-readers in Egypt know that English-readers in the U.S. had gotten the message too. It was not enough to give them the news. They had to know, to be told, why they should take it seriously as news.

On closer look, it seemed as though every article on the front page of that late April paper had something to do with peace and war in the Middle East: Suez, cease fires, revolution, arms races. The only exception had the usual taste for odds and ends: “He does it first-first solo, non-stop round-world voyage,” an article about a man named Robin Knox-Johnston, who had recently sailed around the globe.

A week later, Nasser gave a speech to an assembly of factory workers, saying that Egypt, then called the United Arab Republic, was “PLANNING FOR ATTACK.” The Egyptian Gazette’s editors must have decided that assigning a writer to summarize Nasser’s comments would take too much time and not fill enough space, so they had the entire speech translated. They published it over several pages of endless block text, broken only by helpful subject headings.

But the paper could not only be a dry dispatch of official speeches. It retained its sense of humor. As Nasser trumped up war, the Gazette published a wire article about two police officers in London who went after some thieves, taking along their police dog. The crime hound turned on its owners and forced them to lock themselves into a bathroom, where they remained for the better part of a day before anyone realized what happened. “No thieves were found,” the article concluded.

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