Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Tahrir Printing Press

This is a short excerpt of an essay I'm working on:

Mr. Sayed reminds of my uncle, who is also an engineer, in the way he responds to questions. Every time you inquire about some detail of his work at the printing press, he responds in a tone that makes you feel dumb for not knowing the answer already, or else like the answer is not worth knowing.

The actual answers, once he gives them, are meticulous and direct. The Al Tahrir printing press, where he is the “beeg boss,” the engineer in charge of operations, has “seven reel stands, four units, two folders, and two towers.” It can produce 70,000 pages in an hour, and fifty-six distinct pages per day. “How long does it take to make one copy of tomorrow’s newspaper?” He pulls out a calculator and punches in a few numbers, and then he says, “One newspaper takes 1,166th of a second.”

The statistics don’t capture the process, though. The Al Tahrir printing press, which has been owned by the state since President Gamel Abdel Nasser’s coup in 1952, is a five-story room, three above ground and two below, where an eleven year-old bright red Mitsubishi printing press clicks and clacks and whirs and snaps at a deafening roar. The floor is slick and the air smells of oil and ink. The machine warns, “High Voltage: Danger, Significant injury or death may result,” though this is not translated into Arabic and few of the workers read English.

At first they won’t let us in. My mind spins as to the reason why, generally arriving at some combination of This is the state-owned newspaper, maybe they think we’re American spies and This is a state-owned newspaper, there must be a lot of bureaucratic red tape to keep people out.

In fact, they are just worried about anyone, us included, seeing tomorrow’s news before tomorrow. The beauty of that idea, which assumes the absence of the Internet, much less Twitter or Facebook, hits me. In this room, a very different conception of news still operates, literally, in towering machines and conveyor belts and spinning wheels of paper, an industrial marching band of rubber, steel, and ink that performs in paper.

Six men race over to a vertical belt on which fresh newspapers are drifting by at an insane speed. They are checking for mistakes. The second page is printed slightly off the paper, slicing the faces of several influential politicians clean down the middle. So they punch a few buttons and try again.

Al Gumhoria, which means The Republic, used to be seen as Nasser’s mouthpiece. The military officers who took over Egypt in 1952 immediately established Dar al Tahrir, a printing house, “in order to make known the ideas and personalities of the new leadership.” They took over in July, and by December they had a daily newspaper, on a license issued in Nasser’s name.

Al Gumhoria became the standard-bearer in an alternate tradition of thinking about the purpose of a newspaper in a newly independent society, with future president Sadat as the first Editor in Chief. During the second half of Nasser’s rule, between 1960 and 1970, the paper had fourteen different editors. “In truth,” wrote a journalist for Time Magazine, “Cairo's privately owned newspapers had embarrassed Nasser by making money, an endeavor in which his house organ, Al Gumhoria, has notably failed.” After Nasser’s death, it didn’t need to succeed, because increasing censorship of the press under his successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, kept out real competition past the other state-owned papers, Al Ahram and Al Akhbar. The tradition of bureaucratic state journalism Nasser had established turned into little more than cheerleading. Many argued that this had been true in Nasser’s day, as well. But in Nasser’s day, for better or worse, there was a professed optimism about the whole thing.

Recently, Egypt again became newly independent, only this time the booted leader was not foreign. There was a palpable sense of optimism again after many years of acquiescence to corruption and decay. New questions about the role of news and information in the relationship between leaders and ordinary citizens would need to be answered. Some of the questions were similar to those raised when Nasser took power. Others questions, with the advent of television and the Internet and tools like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, invested with expectations of revolutionary potential, were new. But still, even today, there are newspapers, and that’s how a lot of people continue to get their information. There are traditional journalists, editors, and printing press engineers like Sayed, doing what they have done for decades.

As I stood in the printing press, I watched conveyor belts take freshly tied bundles of crisp newspapers into bright red trucks with Al Gumhoria written in lovely calligraphy across the side, with a logo of the Egyptian eagle looking proudly to the future, and I forgot momentarily about everything I had read about this paper being a state bureaucracy, beholden to corrupt rulers at the expense of the people’s right to the truth. I forgot about the talk of “reforming state media” and the march in October where an angry protester chucked a rock at the door of state-paper Al Ahram, and then those protesters were attacked, and then accused the state papers of covering it up.

In my awe at the beauty of industry, all of the interlocking parts and people preparing to deliver the news to Egypt, about Egypt, the next day, that I remembered that the purpose of information, as many optimistic people have written, is to liberate, and how poetic it is that this printing press should be called Tahrir, or “Liberation.” Not “freedom,” or “independence,” but the word that signifies achieving these conditions.

It might seem like a coincidence that this printing press bears the same name, Tahrir, as the storied square in downtown Cairo that grabbed the world’s attention a year ago, and now has become the name of restaurants and cafes and laundry mats. By the end of this year, I hope that this blog, and maybe someday a book, begins to tell that story.

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