17 - 23 June 1999
Issue No. 434
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Reader, she wrote itProfile byAmira Howeidy
Behind that polished look and soft voice is an adventurer, an artist and a dreamer
When she was a child, Sanaa El-Bissi had a recurring dream in which she climbed the stairs of an airplane, turned around and waved to her family before taking off. It symbolised her constant desire to "fly off" and move on with her life, unfettered. Today, the airplane could be her cherished magazine, Nisf Al-Donia, which she created nine years ago and has edited since then. She still wants to fly, but this time with a specific goal: to astound her readers with journalistic scoops and to hit the news-stands every Sunday with the unexpected. This, however, is not a dream but a reality of which she is very proud -- almost as proud as she is of her only son, Hisham.
From top: El-Bissi with Mrs Mubarak; Naguib Mahfouz; Boutros Ghali; celebrating with Al-Ahram Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Nafie; cutting the cake with Mustafa Amin; and dancing with her son Hisham
But then Nisf Al-Donia (Half the World) isn't really a woman's magazine, as its name and logo -- an apple with a bite taken out -- indicate. Nor is El-Bissi just its editor-in-chief. It's hard to define her. Writer, journalist, editor, painter? One-time fashion designer? She is all these things, and has very mixed feelings about such an eventful career. She sighs as she states "I'm a Jack of all trades, which isn't such a good thing." She is pleased enough, however, that her eclectic background has given her magazine more than the usual single dimension. "Who on earth said it's a woman's magazine? I bet more men read it than women."
Her dream first became reality thanks to the nicotine habit of veteran journalist and founder of Akhbar Al-Yom Mustafa Amin. As a guest lecturer at Cairo University's journalism department 45 years ago, Amin asked El-Bissi's class to write a news item about his visit. The following day, she was invited to join his prestigious paper. "What I wrote would have easily triggered anybody's anger, but not that of a skilled teacher with Amin's journalistic instinct," she says. The 16-year-old El-Bissi wrote: "Mustafa Amin visited us and gave a lecture, of which I understood nothing because, as he spoke, he was exhaling the smoke of the cigarette stuck in his mouth. All the words were lost with the smoke." It clicked: Amin put El-Bissi on the path of the career she so wanted. Until his death in 1997, Amin remained her mentor during a long, often poignant, journey. El-Bissi wrote his obituary, ending with the lines: "Only now do I feel old age, frailty, creeping wrinkles and the need to replace my teeth."
But this dynamo certainly isn't aging. Her close friends recall how, as El-Bissi approached 60, she decisively stated that she would retire. Today, at 62, she shows no signs of wilting despite having undergone major heart surgery. She has done so much, and it's not enough as far as she's concerned. Ambition still reigns supreme.
"I want to do something that will blow up the whole world. Every time I am successful, I find myself wanting to do better. I have no limits, no ceiling. I want to keep flying," she says with unbridled enthusiasm.
The turning points in her career are perhaps what most people know her for. The first is the successful 10-part television series, Hiya wa Huwa (She and He) which El-Bissi wrote for TV and which established her nation-wide fame. Starring Soad Hosni, of the unforgettable eyelashes and the pout that broke a thousand hearts, and the tall, dark and handsome Ahmed Zaki, the series was inspired by the collection of short stories El-Bissi had published in the women's section she founded in Al-Ahram. The stories also appeared as a collection in a book titled A Woman for All Seasons in 1984. Although preceded by another collection, Fil Hawa' Al-Talq (Open Air) and followed by Al-Kalam Al-Mubah (Permitted Talk) in '92, Hiya wa Huwa remains El-Bissi's most popular work. The impact the TV series had on the audience was significant given the wide array of talents involved. Besides Hosni and Zaki, renowned poet Salah Jahine wrote the songs to the series, which was directed by Yehia El-Alami.
Critics also applauded A Woman for All Seasons. El-Bissi's friend since 1945, prominent writer and critic Safynaz Kazem, nominated El-Bissi best writer for 1984, and dubbed her "the most important short story writer to appear in Egypt". Pioneers of this form of literature, such as Yehia Haqqi and Youssef Idris, contributed to creating a school of short story writing in Egypt, wrote Kazem. But many of those who followed, she argued, confined themselves to the rules set by Idris. Some rebelled against the "school", but all short story writers began and ended with its pioneer. "All this time, El-Bissi was silent, writing and publishing shyly, refusing to call what she wrote 'short stories'. The shyness reflected not a lack of confidence but her 'passion' for her creations," says Kazem. "Sanaa El-Bissi loves what she makes, whether it is a painting... or a form she has created in the art of the Egyptian short story. This infatuation has made her protective -- just as she is protective of her son. Withdrawal and the desire to disappear have therefore become basic features of Sanaa El-Bissi's character."
Kazem offers many insights into El-Bissi's surprising reticence: "She withdraws when she feels she must be at the helm of anything, because she prefers people to ask 'where is Sanaa?' rather than 'why is she here?'"
As she speaks about her career, El-Bissi, like Kazem, finds it relevant to go back to the beginning, when she was a little girl pulling down book after book from her father's library. Hussein El-Bissi, who was head of the Arab Antiquities Authority, naturally had an enormous and rich library that intrigued the second of his three daughters. "He had such rare books as the original One Thousand and One Nights," recounts El-Bissi, adding with excitement that she read it all, "uncensored, at such a young age -- and he let me!"
The library also contained all the usual publications: Al-Mukhtar (the Arabic version of Reader's Digest), Al-Risala cultural magazine, and the works of Jirji Zeidan, founder of the Al-Hilal publishing house. Inevitably, El-Bissi was, in her own words, "culturally very well fed."
.. at an exhibition of her paintings; El-Bissi by Mounir Kanaan
Her mother's conservative family, from the Delta town of Mansoura, did not allow its women to go to school. But being a book-worm by instinct, her mother secretly read at night with the torch she hid by her bedside. Fluent in French, she published short stories in Al-Asas newspaper as translations from foreign languages. "She loved reading, spending hours and hours buried in a book, with her eyeglasses on the tip of her nose. She'd forget to cook us dinner because she was reading. It was that bad," El-Bissi says, laughing. Eventually, her mother would quickly fix them snacks and run back to her book. Her urge to read and love for the Arabic language motivated her to give her daughter sophisticated works such as El-Manfalouti's.
Inevitably, El-Bissi's linguistic and writing skills spoke for her. In primary school, Kazem who was seated next to her, would tease her friend and yell, "Sanaa's father has been writing her essays." Shyly, El-Bissi explains: "They couldn't believe I could write like that at that age."
The relationship with Hussein El-Bissi was a unique one. His daughter was conscious of the fact that her father had no sons. "This is why when I sign my paintings, I write El-Bissi, not Sanaa, so that my father can see the name even though it's not his son's," she explains.
Her excellent marks on her high school exams had earned her a scholarship, but El-Bissi submitted his daughter's papers to the Law School, of which he was a graduate, instead. Kazem's irruption into their house in Abbasiya changed everything, though: she had come to announce the creation of a journalism department at Cairo University's Faculty of Arts. Immediately, El-Bissi's father enrolled her, and she and Kazem were together again.
At this early stage, it was still unclear what the curriculum should be, so visiting professors from other faculties and universities were called upon to fill in the gaps. One of them was Amin, whose cigarette put El-Bissi in Akhbar Al-Yom.
Because El-Bissi's fame was established through her weekly column and the short stories she published in Al-Ahram from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, her name is associated with that organisation. But when she mentions her formative years, she speaks of Akhbar Al-Yom.
She began in the archive department, the "reception room" for the apprentice journalists whom both Mustafa Amin and his twin brother, Ali, took in. El-Bissi's group "created" the archive department, she declares proudly. Amin himself contributed in the task. "We began learning the minute he brought us a pile of newspaper clippings to be archived. He made us read and summarise each one: this is why we were knowledgeable in all fields."
Because she did such a good job, Amin dubbed El-Bissi "Miss Dictionary". He then appointed her the paper's aviation correspondent. "I went to the airport and got in a plane which flew over Cairo. Mustafa Amin told me this field would open doors, give me a chance to see the world, learn things." But that wasn't her type of work -- although it did involve the airplane she had dreamed of as a child. At the time, El-Bissi was secretly sketching cartoons of Akhbar Al-Yom's staff, and decided to show them to Amin. Impressed, he asked her to do the illustrations for the whole paper. Aged 18, she was illustrating articles by the likes of Taha Hussein and Abbas El-Aqqad.
Her fashion design sketches also captured the attention of editors of Elle, who asked her to contribute to the magazine. "Of course I was overwhelmed at this offer and instantly made up my mind to accept," she recalls, then falls silent. Why? El-Bissi shrugs her shoulders and with a warm smile states: "Oh, it was Ali Amin. He didn't approve." At that time Akhbar Al-Yom was launching a women's magazine, Hiya (She), and Ali Amin appointed her its deputy editor-in-chief. "He wanted me to do this. And that is exactly what I did." And designing? "I still do my own. I love designing, it's such an aesthetic art form."
In fact, El-Bissi does a lot of things, which she keeps safely tucked in her drawers. This applies to the hundreds of paintings and sketches that no one sees: only a few paintings in her office are on view. Unpublished short stories and plays are in no better position. These too are placed in drawers although she says she has enough material for 20 books.
Before and during the early years of her marriage to eminent painter Mounir Kanaan, El-Bissi displayed her work in exhibitions. But she soon decided to put that on hold, publicly at least. "Some people tried to create problems, and it frightened me. I thought, I'm a good writer and well established, why take the spotlight away from him? It's not a very smart thing to do." When El-Bissi met Kanaan, he was Akhbar Al-Yom's star, the painter and artist who was admired by many women. El-Bissi was flattered when he painted her and published the portrait on the cover of Akher Sa'a magazine. Their love story was an eventful and certainly unconventional one, widely spoken of in journalistic circles. As she grew older, El-Bissi preferred to keep the details out of the public eye.
Kanaan is the "Ustaz", the teacher, who, says El-Bissi, encouraged her to develop her own identity. Today, "when I am writing, my hand unconsciously reaches out for a piece of paper and I find myself drawing something -- anything."
The association between her writing skills and her talent for painting was made by critics who reviewed the Hiya wa Huwa collection. The consensus was that El-Bissi writes like she draws: intricate details, circular patterns, and quick delicate strokes.
El-Bissi worked in Al-Akhbar from 1954 until 1964. After Mohamed Hassanein Heikal became editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, he invited her to join him. At that time, the Amin brothers were briefly removed from Al-Akhbar, which had been nationalised. Officially, they no longer owned the newspaper, but they still had a say in its policy. Still, the curtailment of their influence in Al-Akhbar affected the staff. El-Bissi was no exception.
For the first time since she had become a journalist, El-Bissi was on her own. "Heikal took me under his wing, but I didn't know what to do at the beginning," she admits. The first seven years at Al-Ahram were difficult. "Heikal gave me the chance to act big, but I didn't. For example, he'd give me a desk adjacent to [prominent writer] Bint Al-Shati's, but I preferred sitting with my friends. You can't imagine the number of resignations I gave Heikal, more than five. He tore them all up." But she finds some humour in this, explaining that a resignation is the "most beautiful letter I can write... It is the height of integrity."
It wasn't until Ali Amin was appointed Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief in 1974 that she resumed writing, as head of the women's section. Says El-Bissi: "This was the only decision he made during his brief stay."
El-Bissi excelled in her new position. Her stories were frequently the talk of the town, since it was widely believed that she was writing about real people and events. She argues that her realistic style gives the erroneous impression that she is writing about real people. "It comes from talking with all sorts of people, including the maid and the ironing man, whom I can spend hours listening to. I have the ability to put myself in people's skin, and go places in my imagination that I have never actually seen," she explains. When writing about old age for example, El-Bissi can easily find herself suffering from a severe back-ache, or arthritic pains in her knees.
At any rate, despite her prolific production, the process of writing, says El-Bissi, is "a very painful one", unless the idea is already there "and dying to get out."
She works all day, and "even while I'm asleep". She was working when she delivered Hisham. "It's non-stop, never ending because I want to do more, I want to do everything." She is speaking in a very soft voice now. Like many ambitious women, she is not a feminist and believes that, contrary to mainstream "intellectual" arguments, Egyptian women are not oppressed. "My maid got married and divorced six times. I asked her how she had managed, and she smiled and said, 'we have our ways'. Women are much stronger than you think," she says. And Sanaa El-Bissi, after all, should know that better than anyone.