|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
2 - 8 August 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Al-Ahram: a dialectic with its timesTracing the history of the Arab world's oldest paper, Yunan Labib Rizk reveals the secrets of its success
Al-Ahram's 125th anniversary merits a warm reception. This is no inconsiderable life-span, not only for an Arab newspaper, but for any organisation in the Arab world where institutional life expectancy is normally brief.
But, it is not with fanfare and fireworks that we should mark this occasion. Rather, more in keeping with Al-Ahram's history and reputation, would be to embark on an attempt to explain the newspaper's unusual longevity, to expound on the idea that enabled it to thrive, an idea that initially appears simple but grows more profound with closer scrutiny.
What made it possible for Al-Ahram to outstrip all other Arab newspapers in age and vitality was the ability of its successive managements to sustain that dynamic dialectical relationship between the newspaper and its times. Over a century and a quarter, they ensured that Al-Ahram remained both a voice of its contemporary world and an agent for change. It was a fine line that the newspaper trod, enabling it to avoid those confrontations that could have spelled death in its infancy. This kept it fresh and vigorous, immune to the infirmities of premature aging.
Through its dialectic with its times, Al- Ahram preserved its distinct identity. That it established itself early on as the "newspaper of traditions" was no coincidence; it remained true to the standards it set for itself in terms of both form and content, in spite of the radical changes wrought by successive eras. During the newspaper's 125 years, Egypt passed from Ottoman suzerainty to British occupation, from British protectorate to independence, from monarchy to republic. In spite of these upheavals, the newspaper remained remarkably stable and consistent, yet it still periodically invigorated itself with new blood.
Because of its unique blend of venerability and youthful vigour, Al-Ahram has enjoyed a level of respect rarely accorded to another Arab newspaper since the establishment of the indigenous press in Egypt in the 1860s. This, in turn, engendered another dynamic, which was that prominent writers and intellectuals turned first to Al-Ahram to publish their views and analyses, further augmenting the newspaper's status. Simultaneously, Al- Ahram management remained keen on promoting young and unknown writers, many of whom later acquired widespread repute.
The name of the renowned Islamic scholar and reformer Sheikh Mohamed Abduh first appeared in Al-Ahram in 1877, one year after the Taqla brothers founded the newspaper, under the innocuous byline "a student at Al-Azhar." Similarly, in 1893, Al-Ahram featured a series of articles by then 20-year-old Mustafa Kamel, who some 15 years later founded the Egyptian National Party and became one of the leading figures in the national independence movement. It was undoubtedly this dynamic -- the ability to attract a variety of established writers and the desire to promote new talent -- that prompted Taha Hussein, in his introduction to the book commemorating Al-Ahram's 75th anniversary, to dub the newspaper "the chronicle of contemporary life."
But, Al-Ahram had established a time- honoured repute long before this. If successive Al-Ahram managements shared a single trait, it was a sense of history. As early as 1906, the newspaper began to feature a small column: "Al-Ahram 30 years ago." The "30 years," of course, increased with time, as did management's awareness of the newspaper's enduring place in Egyptian life, an awareness that eventually led to the creation of a centre dedicated to the study of the newspaper's history.
This investment in history explains some of its long-held traditions: the weekly editorial by the editor-in-chief, initiated in the 19th century by Salim Taqla and sustained through the 20th and into the 21st century by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Ibrahim Nafie; the daily or weekly columnist, a concept which made household names of Tawfiq Diab, Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed, Ahmed Bahaaeddin, Ibrahim Nafie, Salama Ahmed Salama, Salah Montasser and Anis Mansour; and the specialised field reporter. This latter became one of Al-Ahram's most important pace-setting traditions. It is not widely known that Al-Ahram was the first Egyptian newspaper to engage as staff members art critics, sports reporters, parliamentary correspondents and other area specialists and to allocate special sections -- eventually whole pages -- to their topical areas, innovations which other newspapers quickly emulated.
It sometimes seems that Al-Ahram's vision extends well beyond its temporal confines. No other Arabic newspaper can hope to vie, for example, with Al-Ahram's obituary pages, a tradition that could well be an extension of the ancient Egyptian "Book of the Dead" or the annals of medieval Muslim chroniclers. Simultaneously, the newspaper has been ahead of its times, with its eyes fixed firmly on the future welfare of Egyptian society, and, therefore, frequently lent itself as a forum in some of Egypt's most important social and political controversies. It backed Qasim Amin in his campaign for the emancipation of Egyptian women, and though its stance exposed it to attack, it continued to champion the social reformist's ideas after his death. It also supported Ali Abdel-Razeq and his controversial Islam and the Principles of Government, as well as many others whose causes entailed freedom of thought and expression.
There remains one more constant that characterises Al-Ahram throughout its lengthy history. Time and tradition have inculcated in its successive managements an acute ear for modulating the newspaper's voice so that it remains neither too shrill nor inaudible. Because of its tempered voice the newspaper has earned a reputation for sobriety, which, perhaps, is what tempted some to jest that Al-Ahram readers have to don their jackets and fasten their neckties before opening their morning papers.
From top: The original Al-Ahram building on Sherif Street. It was sold in 1969 in favour of the new premises on Al-Galaa Street. The old building was eventually brought down and, today, the site is used as a parking lot; working the Intertype machines; a '60s photo of a meeting of the foreign desk, with old-fashioned tickers in the background. The young man in the white shirt, leaning over the desk with his back to the photo is Al-Ahram Weekly's current chief editor, Hosny Guindy; another '60s of Al-Ahram news desk, meeting under its then chief, the late Mamdouh Taha; the first issue of Al-Ahram, 5 August, 1876; an early 20th century distribution car; one of the many generations of printing machines churning out issues of Al-Ahram
Clockwise from top: Ibrahim Nafie listens as printing manager Mohamed Taymour elaborates on the salient features of the new printing house in 6th October city. Standing to Nafie's left is Ali Ghoneim, deputy chairman and general manager of Al-Ahram; the paper being distributed at dawn; the first buyers; daily ritual: Al-Ahram with the morning tea
photos: Randa Shaath
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