|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
31 May - 6 June 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (392)
Of all the writers who contributed to the widely popular "Brief but Significant" column in Al-Ahram, Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed was undoubtedly the most prolific. His dry wit and daring critiques of day-to-day matters -- the religiously-charged turban versus tarboush, the British in Egypt and the rights of women -- kept the newspaper true to its guiding principle as "custodian of the conscience of the nation." Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* covers over 60 years of El-Sawi's very unorthodox works
"Brief but Significant" was the father of a particular form of Egyptian newspaper commentary. This parentage stems not only from precedent -- the column first appeared in the turbulent year of the 1919 Revolution -- but also from longevity, for it continued to appear regularly for 70 years until the death of the most famous of its writers, Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed, in 1989.
Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed
Nevertheless, El-Sawi himself was keen to correct a commonly held belief that he alone was responsible for "Brief but Significant" since its appearance in 1919. The fact was, however, that at the time he was a young man on the threshold of his career, having just received his Baccalaureate and obtained a position in the Ministry of Interior. The true founder of "Brief but Significant" was Aziz Khanki, a prominent lawyer of the time, who wrote the column for several months until other obligations prevented him from continuing. This, in turn, may explain why, initially, the column neither appeared regularly nor was of a uniform length and why it disappeared briefly from the pages of Al-Ahram until El-Sawi reintroduced it five years after its birth.
Despite the fact that "Brief but Significant" was born on the pages of Al-Ahram, its long association with El-Sawi amounted to virtual ownership. When, later in his career, the noted journalist moved to other newspapers, notably Al-Akhbar, he took the column with him. But then, too, so closely had the column become identified with El-Sawi that, in his later years when his health prevented him from writing regularly, he allocated its customary space to a letters column. In other words, "Brief but Significant" suffered the infirmities of old age as well.
In his highly informative series, "This Man is from Egypt," in Al-Wafd newspaper, the historian Lamie Al-Mute'i wrote that El-Sawi worked for the Mining Authority until the end of 1926 and that in 1927 the famous Egyptian feminist, Hoda Sharawi, who patronised many talented young men and women, was so impressed by the young El-Sawi's intelligence and eagerness to learn that she arranged to have him sent, at her own expense, to the Sorbonne to study journalism. Then, according to Al-Mute'i under Sharawi's auspices as well, El-Sawi began to send from Paris news reports and commentaries to Al-Ahram, which he continued to do until he graduated, cum laude, in 1930, after which he returned to Cairo, took up work in the offices of Al-Ahram and began "Brief but Significant."
The eminent journalist Hafez Mahmoud agrees with Al-Mute'i. In the 20th episode of his series "Stars of the Press," which appeared in Al-Gumhuriya in the 1960s, Mahmoud wrote that when El-Sawi was in Paris on the study mission sponsored by Sharawi in 1927 he met the owner of Al-Ahram who, having learnt of the aspiring journalist's studies, hired him to work for the Al-Ahram office in the French capital. "This is where El-Sawi established his association with the newspaper," Mahmoud writes, adding: "He was a correspondent for Al-Ahram in Paris, but soon discovered that this form of journalism did not fully satisfy him and, having been exposed to new forms of opinion columns in the European press, invented a style for this form of journalism for the Egyptian press. It materialised as 'Brief but Significant' which became linked with his name for the rest of his life."
As we have seen, the accounts of Al-Mute'i and Mahmoud are not quite accurate. But even if we discount Khanki's original "Brief but Significant" on the grounds that its author was not a professional journalist, let alone a columnist, El-Sawi's version of this column did have a predecessor. This was Mohamed Tawfiq Diab's "Glimpses," the column of a career Egyptian journalist that conformed to all the criteria for opinion pieces which were then known in Europe.
El-Sawi's association with Al-Ahram did not begin in 1927, as these authors claim, but rather in March 1924, more than two years before he left to Paris. In other words, El-Sawi got his first shot at a career in journalism in Al-Ahram while he was still a 23-year-old official for the Mining Authority. It was his writings for the newspaper at this time, not merely some mysterious aura of brilliance, that drew the attention of Sharawi and inspired her to promote his career by underwriting his studies in the Sorbonne.
That El-Sawi had a much earlier start with "Brief but Significant" than is commonly believed means that his biographers and historians in the Egyptian press in general largely overlooked his initial forays under this headline despite their significance in terms of the development of his career and the future shape of his unique column.
Even before he undertook this column, however, El-Sawi established himself as talented, original and daring writer, ready to tackle subjects others deemed too sensitive to broach. The Al-Ahram management clearly appreciated these qualities. On 19 March 1924 they allocated a column on the front page to an article by this yet unknown Mining Authority official on the Young Turks' recent abolishment of the seat of the caliphate in Istanbul. Contrary to many who had expressed their shock and sorrow over "the alienation of Islam in its homeland," as one commentator described Ankara's recent action, El-Sawi was of the opinion that the caliph was little more than a civilian servant whose appointment or dismissal "has no bearing on Islam's covenant with the caliphate." He then approached the issue from a different angle: "My fellow countrymen, in the past you had caliphs because there were no kings. Today we have kings, so why do we need caliphs? I trust that those who cherish freedom of thought will permit me to express my belief. I believe that we had fastened ourselves to the seat of the caliphate with illusionary ropes. When the Kemalists came and severed these cords with a single stroke of the sword, we were profoundly shaken following an eternity of being bound and we screamed in panic and alarm. But we have now been released from illusions forever."
In addition to his courage in addressing such a sensitive issue so forthrightly, it is interesting to note that El-Sawi took this stance a year before Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq declared in his controversial Islam and the Principles of Government that the caliphate was more a political than religious office.
It was two months after the article that El-Sawi's byline appeared again in Al-Ahram, now as the author of "Brief but Significant." Evidently, in the interim the Al-Ahram management decided to revive Khanki's column and felt that the independent-minded and outspoken young writer was the man for the job. El-Sawi's ability to cast things in a fresh and sometimes wry perspective would not disappoint them.
He devoted his first "Brief but Significant" to the British clampdown in Egypt following the assassination of Commander-General of Sudan Sir Lee Stack. In defiant tones he asks, "Where are the Hyksos, the shepherd kings? Where are the Persians and the ancient Greeks? The great Ptolemys and the glorious Arabs? Did they not all die while Egypt remained immortal? Were they not doomed to extinction while eternal Egypt continued to cast its proud smile down the expanse of time?"
In a subsequent column he paints a vivid portrait of the British forces' iron grip on the country. "Their mighty tanks, soldiers clustered on top, patrol the streets and squares... Yes, armoured vehicles rumble menacingly through the streets and squares. At sunset and in the evening, women watch two British cavalrymen on horseback wearing caps as red as Chianti wine strutting on their noble steeds down King Fouad Street, looking haughtily down their noses to the left and right at the pedestrians and occupants of the chairs on the sidewalk cafés."
But, he asserts, if today the Egyptian people are downtrodden that will not always be the case. He continues, "Egypt's friendship is more important to the British than Ireland. If they use the language of the prison key and artillery and address us as the wolf does the lamb, it is because today we are a thorn in the British side, a thorn that tomorrow will grow sharper and become a double-edged dagger."
In view of the young El-Sawi's obvious antipathy towards the British, it is not surprising to detect a certain malicious joy following the collapse of one of the symbols of the occupation: the Anglican Church, located between Fouad and Al-Madabegh streets. The church, which "fortune seemed to have singled out among all other houses of worship, from the church to the mosque to the synagogue," had caved in and now lay in ruins."
If it was Al-Ahram's editorial policy to steer clear of contentious religious issues, it made an exception for El-Sawi. On 16 February 1926, the young commentator entered the fray in the controversy over whether students at Dar Al-Ulum (an Islamic and Arabic language college), should be allowed to don the turban instead of the tarboush. El-Sawi favoured the latter headgear, but he found the subject perfect fodder for his wit. Students should be forgiven for their desire to cast off the turban, for they find it most detrimental, he wrote. "Have you not noticed that the beautiful girls on the street turn away when they see the turban, although there is nothing dearer to the hearts of young men than those girls. What else do they have these young men who spend their days and nights peering into the sullen faces of their books? What will become of them if they are deprived of those tender glances which are their only consolation in their long, dull day? I feel for them!"
However, the young columnist abandoned this levity when treating issues with a more direct bearing on religious concerns. In Ankara, Mustafa Kemal had initially banned the turban, then issued a decree ordaining that religious officials could wear it upon obtaining a special permit. El-Sawi remarked that the decree served "to uphold the dignity of the turban as a religious symbol and to safeguard esteem for those who wear it."
El-Sawi kept the length of his articles down to less than half a column except on special occasions. "Al-Ahram 52 years ago," as he called the "Brief but Significant" instalment of 25 January 1926, was one such occasion. It occupied a half page.
After a brief account of the newspaper's early history, including the several run-ins with the authorities that almost spelled its premature death, El-Sawi went on to outline the guiding principles established by its founders. Al-Ahram would be "bold, unwavering and forthright in its defence of the heritage of our forefathers and the interests of our descendants; truthful, never printing spurious reports or information incurring retractions or censure; methodical, assigning to each subject its appropriate weight and place; and ever vigilant of rights, for it is the custodian of the conscience of the nation, the protector of the spirit of the people and the guardian of morals."
The preceding list of the newspaper's qualities was the prelude to an appeal to mark the passage of more than half a century since its founding. El-Sawi writes: "I will be honoured to be the first to sound the trumpet summoning all men of religion, science, literature, politics, economics and culture, and all proponents of free thought and all zealous patriots to celebrate Al-Ahram's golden jubilee which, in effect, should be a national event for all Egyptians, for Al-Ahram is the daughter of the Egyptian nation and an eloquent ambassador of the will and aspirations of the Egyptian people throughout the world."
In spite of this noble appeal, Al-Ahram commemorated its 50th anniversary in a much more modest manner. The corner that was dedicated to the column "Al-Ahram 30 years ago" was simply changed to "Al-Ahram 50 years ago."
Another early trait of "Brief but Significant" was its author's disinclination to deal in intangible moral issues, preferring instead to discuss the down-to-earth practical ramifications of current concerns and day-to-day problems. As most of his readers belonged to the same educated middle class to which he as a government functionary belonged, he tended to select his subject matter from the issues that preoccupied this segment of society. Women's rights, a subject of heated debate in his day, was one such subject, and it is interesting to consider how his concrete approach to it may have influenced the thinking of his contemporaries.
More than 984,000 adult women, or 94 per cent of that segment of the populace, had never received a primary school education, he writes in one instalment of "Brief but Significant." He goes on to ask, "How is a woman who has been deprived of the opportunity to develop the gifts of thought and discernment expected to raise her children? How is she to know what is best for them? How is she to instill in them a love of virtues of which she, herself, is ignorant? Certainly, such a woman would be capable of no more than pampering her children until they become impudent or scolding them until they become cowards."
But El-Sawi shared the conservatism on women's issues of many of his contemporaries. While their right to education was one thing, their deviation from certain traditional codes of dress and behaviour was another. It was an issue that catered to his sense of humour. Women, he said, were guilty of many "shortcomings." They wear their hair too short, their sleeves too short and their dresses too short. The only thing that needed to be shortened was their wagging tongues!
He also criticised the obsession women had with the latest dance hall craze. "She is now quicker to learn the tango than how to mend her husband's shirts, should she marry, or how to cook beans if the cook has a day off." On a more sober note, he reprimanded the aristocratic airs of young upper class Egyptian women whose main obsession seemed to be to model themselves after French women who frequented the soirées at Casino San Stephano and the like. "Social elevation is not a question of hairdos, dancing or clothes, nor of one's fluency in French, a dabbling in a portion of Western literature in order to make an impression in the salons, or any of these attention-seeking superficialities," he said reprovingly.
Perhaps El-Sawi's lifelong conservatism on women's issues stems in part from his one experience in marriage. This was to Doria Shafiq, who would later become one of Egypt's pioneering feminists. It was a short-lived marriage, and afterwards El-Sawi appears to have become quite a misogynist. Indeed two of his better-known books bear the titles The Woman is the Devil's Toy and Man is a Woman's Toy. He believed that a woman's place was in the home. Yet he was also quick to condemn what he perceived as superficial nods to traditional propriety. On one occasion he wrote, "How odd it is that some of the most ardent adherents to the veiling of women allow their wives and daughters to go out to the market on their own where they visit such merchants as that courteous jeweller who obligingly fits bracelets onto their arms up to their elbows, and affixes jewels on their ears and anklets on their legs, while the mindless shoppers are in a world of their own."
There were a few occasions when he seemed to depart from his relatively conservative attitudes towards women. One such occasion was when he suggested that some streets should be named after prominent Egyptian women such as Safia Zaghlul, "the political hero and the mother of the Egyptian people," Aisha Taimur, an important literary and political figure, and the anthropologist Malak Hefni Nasef. One suspects this column was influenced by the fact that he had just begun to receive the patronage of Hoda Sharawi.
The young El-Sawi also seems to have had a conservative streak on more general social issues, if we are to judge by one story in "Brief but Significant" in which he commented on the government's sale of Gezira Palace to a group of wealthy entrepreneurs who transformed it into a public club. "Poor Gezira Palace," he mourned. "People used to pass through you in reverential silence and hushed rapture. Now you are available to all and sundry. Your luxurious halls are now lovers' trysts. The telephone operator and the tie and handkerchief vendor stand before your splendid mirrors contemplating their beauty and strutting coquettishly in their cheap dresses. And there is your luxurious red carpet now being trod upon by anyone in the country who has five piastres in his pocket."
He did have some commiseration for the plight of ordinary people, or at least those of his class. The condition of public transport, for example, was one pet peeve. The Misr Al-Gadida tram "has become very crowded in the first class, in spite of the intolerable heat, because the tramway company decided to split the train in two, making the front carriage first class and the back carriage second." Even the Heliopolis tramway, which had formerly earned his praise, was soon found to be scandalously deficient. It was always behind schedule and the company that owned it was apparently very tight-fisted with its money. "For what other reason does it have for failing to repair or replace the parts and machinery that have become worn out and dilapidated from overuse."
El-Sawi afforded us a glimpse of one of the problems the poorer segments of society had with transportation, a glimpse from inside the Cairo-Helwan train. "This railroad passes in the middle of residential areas in a manner void of decency, thought or engineering. All day and night the trains rumble back and forth, coming to a stop, starting, stalling and taking off again, all the while issuing a shrill, deafening whistle that jolts the nerves of residents and produces fissures through the walls of their homes."
Unlike other Egyptian newspaper columnists, the author of "Brief but Significant" never entered into a dialogue with readers moved to comment on his critiques or observations. The sole exception to this rule, during the column's infancy, occurred when he decided to run a letter written by Abdel-Latif Abdel-Mut'al who responded to a "Brief but Significant" column on ways to commemorate certain national occasions. Apart from this, however, El-Sawi preferred to go solo, a role he played until he found he was no longer able to write regularly, at which point he left the stage, leaving the space he had occupied for decades to Al-Ahram readers.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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