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Flying without wingsProfile bySamir Sobhi
Measured, precise, eloquent: here are words, and there is the sky
Kamal Naguib's passions -- history, aviation, and the Arabic language -- bloomed fairly late in life. It was perhaps inevitable that a man born on a train should come to love space and flying so ardently. His interest in history and Arabic, though, were heralded by no portents of the sort that biographers love to unearth in their subjects' early childhoods. Naguib's interest in history, certainly, did not begin at school. Studying the subject during those years, in fact, filled him with a terrible frustration. Later, when he began to discover that sources other than his text books existed, he was so fascinated that he thought he would become an historian. At the time, he was studying at the Faculty of Law, though he never joined the Bar.
By then, his passion for journalism -- and the proper use of the Arabic language -- had taken root. Here, again, no one could have foretold that this would be the case. Naguib remembers his early school years, and how he hated studying Arabic then. Sheikh Abdel-Ghaffar, his Arabic teacher at Al-Fayoum Secondary School, insisted that the pupils learn thousands of Qur'anic verses and stanzas of poetry by heart, but it seemed to Naguib, who showed no aptitude for the task, that the teacher singled him out for special persecution. More than once, when he called upon young Naguib to recite poetry, the 12-year-old boy just stood there, as if struck dumb. Finally, when he stammered that he had not studied, the sheikh sarcastically ordered: "Philosopher! Sit down. Zero!" Naguib remembers with a wry smile: "I knew then what failure tasted like!"
Today, at over 70, that taste is no more than a distant memory. He can be found hard at work every day of the week, usually until after midnight. Thousands of pages could be written about his eventful career, the multitudes of stories stranger than fiction, his constant pursuit of news and his flair for scoops, only a few of which may have eluded him. He is forever and every bit the journalist.
Kamal Naguib receiving an award from President Mubarak;
in the Shura Council
with the United Nations secretary-general in the late '60s (note Foreign Minister Amr Moussa in the background);
with Ahmed Nafie;
with Ali El-Gammal, then managing editor of Al-Ahram, and renowned editor of the home news section Mamdouh Taha;
with Wafd Foreign Minister Mohamed Salaheddin
He reported the news of Prime Minister Ahmed Maher Pasha's assassination in the '40s. He knew Maher personally, and, despite the differences in their political views, respected him greatly. He was deeply saddened by the incident. He was working for Al-Mussawar magazine at the time, and exerted every effort to strip himself of partisanship and write with absolute objectivity. In that sense, the assassination was no different from other events he covered.
I myself have known Naguib for over 40 years. His elegant appearance remains unchanged. He is always dressed in an impeccably cut suit and incredibly sharp tie -- always absolutely elegant, always perfectly subdued. In his office, he invariably starts by wiping his desk with a slightly damp tissue. Next, he picks up his fountain-pen, that well-known gold pen, and fills it with ink -- real ink, none of those cartridges favoured by many for the convenience they afford.
His personality is unique. He masters three languages: English, French and, of course, Arabic. He studied German, too. He is editor of the sports, society, and aviation features, as well as being Al-Ahram's senior editor, and is responsible for writing aviation news and revising the first edition of the paper every day. He is also honorary chairman for life of the International Aerospace Education Committee, having served five consecutive terms -- the longest number permitted -- as its chairman.
Naguib's early days at Al-Ahram must have exorcised the bitter memories of Sheikh Abdel-Ghaffar. He often spent time with poet Kamel El-Shennawi, visiting him in his office, where he listened to his friend recite verses of his composition. Naguib remembers El-Shennawi's literary salon as "one of the most delightful and enjoyable gathering of journalists I have known". It was there that he came to hear and love Tagore's poetry. He paraphrases, extempore, a piece he particularly loves: "Lord, make me not a butcher killing sheep, nor a ewe for butchers to kill. Help me, O Lord, not to utter falsehoods!"
Naguib is proud of his job, and of the establishment. "Al-Ahram is a respectable newspaper, both conservative and progressive. More importantly, it is truthful, and always the first to report important news, without sensationalism. It provides accurate investigations and balanced analyses, constructive criticism and sober opinion without prejudice."
Naguib has played a pivotal role in shaping Al-Ahram, not least through his selection and encouragement of new talent. Sports critic Naguib El-Mistikawi, one of Naguib's old schoolmates, was among those who benefited from his patronage. El-Mistikawi soon developed his own terminology and unmistakable way of reporting on games, attributing special characteristics to the various clubs and eventually creating his own school of sports commentary.
Naguib also discovered science editor Fawzi El-Shetwi, who reported on the space technology of the '60s and pinned all his hopes for the future on science and technology. The two men worked together, reporting on aviation affairs. Writing about aviation was Naguib's chief task at the time; while he worked as an editor and contributed to the sports and society sections, aviation continued to be his main concern. He was the first Egyptian to be appointed president of the World Aerospace Education Organisation (WAEO).
His greatest wealth, however, lies in "the few words of the languages I command. As the world progresses, those who master more than one language can become acquainted with the new findings of science and culture." This apparently utilitarian approach is the true modesty of an accomplished polyglot.
His deep interest in technological advances also means that he is not unduly pessimistic about the fate of the written word. He believes the future is bright for print journalism in Egypt, despite the strong competition from the audiovisual media. "There is an undeniable difference between the two, although each has a role in serving millions of people. With the spread of education and the gradual elimination of illiteracy, the importance of journalism is enhanced. The printed word provides what television or radio cannot offer. Newspapers can be a reference to the reader, while broadcasting is lost."
He is not overly sanguine, however: "In the race between the newspaper and television or radio, the last two will win. But newspapers remain the most important. People will always be keen to buy them. A newspaper's way of dealing with the news, which is the first task of any daily, differs very much from that of TV or radio. There is greater opportunity for journalists to collect material, to verify and enrich it with details, background information, and commentaries. They generally have the time to dedicate their efforts to such end -- at least, that is true of those journalists who wish to fulfill their task to perfection." The caveat is typical of this man, whose words are always measured: if he sometimes speaks slowly, it is simply that he is searching for the most appropriate expression. He always finds it.
It is this caution, too, that allows him to perceive a vital fact: technology is no panacea. "At present, Egyptian journalism is going through a vital phase of development. Editors are being trained to use computers and other devices. But these cannot produce the hoped-for results, unless our younger colleagues combine those skills with a good command of the language in which they write. That was the criterion used by the older generations in evaluating a story. In those days, there were no printing, spelling or grammar mistakes in the papers, although the methods we used were backward as compared to those we use today."
If linguistic standards have deteriorated, Naguib believes, this is due to the decline of education in general: "Overcrowded classrooms, and the tendency of many teachers to increase their income by giving private lessons." Such factors, combined with decreased willingness on the part of journalists "to go out and look for a story, to verify facts or research an article in depth", result in a paradox that saddens Naguib: "Technology in the field of journalism has made tremendous progress. Unfortunately, the standard of the written news item has regressed, even in comparison to several years ago."
Before the dawn of the computer age, he remembers, journalists were constantly looking for a scoop. Honest competition enriched the news, and ultimately benefited the readers. "Today's papers," notes Naguib, "have increased the number of their pages and diversity of the topics they cover, but the difference should lie in the research, investigation of articles, the analyses, and reports by correspondents abroad. If I were to criticise the Egyptian press today, I would focus on the way accidents and crimes are covered. These topics should be dealt with in a way that takes the human aspect into account with far more sensitivity than is currently the case."
Reporters' responsibility, then, is a point Naguib takes very seriously, on every level. "Instead of focusing only on leaders' names, we need to mention those who do not hold key posts. The future is really theirs, and they must be encouraged if they are to prepare themselves for the tasks they are to accomplish."
Soaring through the skies while remaining firmly grounded; the ease afforded by technology, and the burden of responsibility; more readers, and greater accuracy and humanity in reporting: such are the apparent paradoxes that Naguib would reconcile. If there is a man for the task, it is he.
Photo: Randa Shaath