29 Apr. - 5 May 1999
Issue No. 427
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Clarity and enigmaProfile bySamir Sobhi
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Profile Focus Special Travel Sports People Features Living Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
When anyone mentions Ahmed Nafie, one inevitably thinks of Kamal Naguib. Both have worked as journalists for well nigh half a century -- much of that time together. True, Nafie is the Arab affairs editor at Al-Ahram, while Naguib is the editor of the aviation column, among other things; but the central desk at Al-Ahram brought them together: both work to bring the paper out, writing and editing much of the material. They have shared an office for over two decades. They even come to work together in the same car.
Ibrahim Nafie receiving an award from President Mubarak on Ahmed Nafie's behalf;
with Robert Kennedy;
with Yasser Arafat;
with Fouad Pasha Serageddin;
with Salah Salem, member of the Revolution Command Council;
with Kamal Naguib
Ahmed Nafie and Kamal Naguib are like two brothers with very different personalities and many similar characteristics. Nafie's real younger brother, however, is Ibrahim Nafie, chairman of the board and editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram. And this is Ahmed Nafie's story.
"Mine has been a long journey indeed," Ahmed Nafie recalls. "I started out by working in translation, after having mastered English and perfected my Arabic. Through translation, I was attracted to political work, particularly in the '40s. Egypt was then going through an extensive transition period, given the British occupation, the situation of the Palace, the Wafd, and the other political parties, the political assassinations, the Second World War and the war in Palestine. Altogether it was a very eventful era, fraught with political and social upheaval. All that gave rise to an unprecedented efflorescence of journalistic activity, a boom that will never again be repeated, at least not before the end of this century!"
At the time, Nafie was working at the daily newspaper Al-Misri, translating and writing. Eventually, he became a political editor. This epoch of rapid and thoroughgoing change was filled to bursting with exciting, often incomprehensible events. "I remember an encounter with Nahas Pasha, who was then both premier and foreign minister. I was waiting for an interview, with other reporters, on the staircase at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He stood there, leaning on his cane, and I asked him: 'What about the 1936 Treaty?' His reaction was surprising. Nahas Pasha waved his cane in my face and shrieked: 'What treaty? You...!' I ran all the way back to Al-Misri from Tahrir Square."
Some years later, Nafie was appointed office manager of the Middle East News Agency (MENA) in Damascus, after participating in its establishment. He also worked as sub-editor at Al-Ahram. During that period, he shadow-wrote both the daily lead article and the editorial. He also participated in founding, and subsequently became editor-in-chief of, the Emirates News Agency. Then he returned to Al-Ahram to take up the post as Arab affairs editor, and became known for his weekly column, titled "The Arab Nation".
I worked with him for several years during that long journey. He would always say: "The longest road in journalism is the shortest." The first time I heard him say it, I asked him to clarify. He explained: "It is a matter of proficiency, not the ability to climb the ladder as quickly as possible." After that, we would often repeat this sentence to each other, even at the worst moments, as we stood at the press. This was always followed by a burst of laughter, which invariably relieved the tension.
But let us begin at the beginning -- where Nafie began. In 1947-'48, he worked as a translator at the paper published by the Muslim Brothers. Then the paper was closed down following the assassination of Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nokrashi Pasha, the prime minister.
He spent the next several months at another paper that was not destined to survive either: the Evening Journal, published by Ahmed Hamza Pasha, a former Wafd minister.
In May 1949, he went to work at Al-Misri as editor and reporter. Several months later, he became the local Reuters correspondent as well. He left in 1954, when Al-Misri was also closed down. Thereafter, he was jobless, until the founding of MENA.
"I got to know Kamal Naguib during the period when our work took us both to the Ministry of War. We met there repeatedly. I was the Al-Misri reporter, while Naguib was Al-Ahram's. Our relationship grew stronger after I started working at Al-Ahram in the early '60s. We share the same office, no. 434 on the fourth floor of the main Al-Ahram building."
Mohamed Hassanein Heikal used to preside over the renowned five o'clock meeting of the central desk. He always brought with him an elegant folder containing the titles of news items from various news agencies, together with the reports received by each section during that day. "We used to discuss how each article was to be dealt with, and allocate space according to priority after the editing was done. Concern mingled with fear surrounded this process." Members of the desk -- those that played a crucial role in this delicate decision-making process -- included managing editor Naguib Canaan, Ali Hamdi El-Gammal, managing editor and editor of the Letters to the Editor and Society sections, Kamal Naguib, Amoun Wahid Riad, and Nafie himself, joined later by Abdel-Hamid Saraya and Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, Youssef Sabbagh, Mohamed Hakki and Salah Montasser.
"During that period, I was in charge of writing the Editorial, as well as the Middle East news items and the other main articles. Furthermore, three to five nights a week I had to be on the job until the first edition came in from the print shop. We lived through many momentous events in the '60s, very different from those we had witnessed in the '50s. In 1968, we started another era. On 2 November, when we moved to the new Al-Ahram building, there was an Israeli air-raid on Esna Bridge." Such is Nafie's chronology: history, in his mind, is punctuated not only by political events, but with changes in the life of the paper.
In 1962, he went to Beirut, where he attended the trial of the "Great Conspiracy". In 1963, he was sent to Bonn, following the commotion stirred up by Israel regarding the presence of German scientists in Egypt. In 1964, he was in Iraq for talks about the summit.
Matters of concern to the Arab world have always interested him the most. Rumour has it that he was the first to write in the Egyptian press about Abu Dhabi in 1966. "But there is no accounting for the unexpected!" he cautions. "Other events occurred and pulled me away, if only temporarily." Such events include his interest in the Nile Basin region. I remember him saying that the union of the Nile Valley is both natural and essential. Egypt and Sudan are an indivisible entity. He believes that a new age is about to dawn for the region: "All future irrigation projects, particularly the large ones, must be part of an integrated whole. No country can undertake such projects alone. Go to Toshki and see what has been done there," is his advice.
He travelled through the Great Lakes region, from Uganda to Khartoum? "The Nile was cruel there, and the trip, all 6,700km of it, was even harsher. But it reaffirmed the importance of the Nile Valley's unity."
His chief concern during the '80s was Sinai (he dismisses the '70s with a nonchalant wave -- "We all know that decade by heart.") He wrote 20-odd long studies about the peninsula, its history, geography and people. The poet in Ahmed Nafie, hidden behind the hard-headed political analyst, emerges here: "I talked not only with human beings, but also with the mountains and the rocks."
I ask him at last: "Have you noticed that I haven't asked you about the Middle East?"
"I'm the one who won't talk," he replies, quick as a shot. "Don't I write about it each week?"
Though he has been around the world and back again more times than he would care to count, Ahmed Nafie's own world will always be the Arab nation, and the Palestinian problem his chief concern. The war, the peace process, and developments in the Arab crisis are all focal issues for him. Why the Palestinian problem? Because it is an international one, and Jerusalem lies at its heart. True responsibility, he believes, must be sought not in the war, but in peace, after Camp David. The most important question now, he believes, is that of the policy the Arabs envision for supporting the Palestinians in the final stage of negotiations.
Egypt, its development and future, also occupies Nafie's thoughts. He has seen it change, been there for every step of reconstruction and reclamation. He visited the agricultural projects put in place after the construction of the High Dam, and those of West Nubariya.
He has published several books on war, politics, journalism and the Palestinian problem, of which the most important, perhaps, are The Road to Madrid, and The Art of Journalism and Revision. The latter volume is a guide for journalists, a source to which they can return time and again, to avoid errors and learn all about his favourite newspaper, Al-Ahram. He quotes his brother: "Al-Ahram is a school in itself. It teaches people what they do not know about their own country and the world at large. It provides news as soon as it occurs, and presents articles by prominent Arab writers. It translates the best of Western thought, and thereby enriches the Arabic language." The newspaper, to Ahmed Nafie, is a living being, one which can grow through enlightened opinion and creative thought. Al-Ahram can indeed lay justified claim to being a school from which many of today's top Arab journalists graduated.
Journalists, to Ahmed Nafie, are still their nation's conscience. His work is unceasing, his concerns diverse. All his waking hours, he spends thinking and writing. This, to him, is not just a form of worship -- it is life itself. He respects those who take their work seriously, no less than those seeking to change the map of Egypt, and helping the Nile reclaim the desert.
Photo: Randa Shaath