Sunday, March 18, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #3

Hugh and Mohssen reminisce about their work at a long-defunct newspaper, the Cairo Post, a decade ago. Their boss, the Editor in Chief, had been a general in the Egyptian army. He required that the men dress formally, and that the women wear white blouses, black skirts, white socks, and black shoes. He would stare at the ankles of all the secretaries as they arrived in the morning, and dock one a day’s pay for wearing yellow socks.

Mohssen looks a lot like Anwar Sadat. He wears the former president’s bushy mustache and even has a bit of his distinct, authoritative cadence when speaking. He has two daughters, both of whom work at the same paper as he does, the Egyptian Gazette, and a ten year-old son. He smiles when I ask if his son will also be a journalist. He writes a weekly opinion column for the paper, where he has worked for many years, and he is, perhaps predictably, very opinionated.

The news of the day, which hasn’t really made the international press, is the quiet move of Hamas’ leaders from Damascus to Cairo. It starts when I mention my Syrian heritage.

“What is happening there is horrible. Today I am writing an article about how it has caused Hamas to move to Cairo.

This is a surprising thing for him to say, at least to me, because I have not read it in the news. There had been rumors, because the newly powerful Muslim Brotherhood is tied to Hamas and Hamas has no interest in being on the frontlines of Syria’s revolution. But nevertheless the fact that Mohssen is writing an opinion piece about news before it becomes news for most people really makes me realize how different definitions of what constitutes important, breaking news can be to different communities.

Hamas’ move from Damascus to Cairo is supposed to be quiet, I suppose, but Mohssen is not quiet about it. One of Hamas’ most outspoken men, Khaled Meshaal, is reportedly in Doha. “They stay in five star hotels while their people starve,” Mohssen tells me. “It was the same way with Yasser Arafat. He said we need to destroy Israel, and then he left his people to suffer the consequences of his war-mongering.” And he does not want Hamas in Cairo. “They make trouble wherever they go, and now they will make trouble for us and our peace with Israel.”

There is a long tradition of opinion writing in Egyptian newspapers that, at least these days, looks a lot richer than its Western counterpart (which produced Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristoff, Maureen Down, none of whom I find inspiring). Around the time of World War I, according to historian of the Arab press Ami Ayalon, “newspapers featured an editorial and other political essays on the front page, with news relegated to the back of the paper.” Today, novelist Alaa Al Aswany is as famous for his political columns as he is for best-selling novels. 

The foremost among the 20th century’s Egyptian editors and writers, Mohamed Heikal, wrote a column every Friday and the circulation of his newspaper tripled. He is currently publishing a book about Mubarak's rule as serialized chapters in independent newspaper Al Shorouk. 

My Arabic tutor usually brings us literature to read, but one week he brought Heikal. “He’s an institution," my tutor said of Heikal. "He pioneered a totally unique style of writing."Although Friedman and Kristof write books, nobody credits them with stylistic innovation (though I do think David Brooks went for something unique in his most recent book).

Mohssen does not have the flare of a novelist, nor is he an “institution,” but he does enjoy evocative metaphors. “China and Russia are oiling their bulging economic muscles,” he once wrote. And another zinger: “US citizens are the victims of their administration's foolish policies over many years, according to which dictators are pampered and breastfed to coerce their people.”

He also savors literary references: “Washington introduced itself as Dr Jekyll to the Egyptian people in the early hours of the revolution,” he once wrote. “Now it’s Mr Hyde’s turn to act and cause more painful economic hardship and instability in Egypt.”

But what really puts Mohssen in line with other canonical opinionists is his historical breadth, his tendency to talk about contemporary events as having a relationship with something that happened a very, very long time ago. “We are told in textbooks about the crusades,” he says.

“But they never attacked the holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina. I never read anything about them doing this. But we were taught, because of the crusades, that the West is the enemy. But look what is happening in Syria. Arabs are the enemy, not the West. We got rid of French and British colonialism and now we have to deal with Arab colonialism.”

Photo: A poster advertising Mohamed Heikal, the "institution," and his new book.

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