Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 -21 January 2004
Issue No. 673
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
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Emad Adib:

Egypt's Larry King offers lessons in dedication -- and success

The newspaperman

Profile by Youssef Rakha
photo: Youssef Rakha

It took a 15-minute wait to be admitted into Emad Adib's office, a minor inconvenience for which the journalist apologised profusely. Following the somewhat disorienting ascent through one of Cairo's busiest high-rise office blocks, waiting in the sparsely furnished secretarial area -- generously attended by more than one member of staff -- was in fact a pleasant antidote to the hectic atmosphere of the entryway, the elevator, the reception desk. It also provided a much needed opportunity to collect thoughts rather than plunging directly into conversation with one of the most formidable interlocutors imaginable. Vaguely familiar faces were coming and going: an impeccably dressed man puffing on a Havana cigar, the source of which was subsequently to be located on one corner of Adib's spacious desk top; and another, so dilettantish it would have been safe to assume he was a fashion designer -- he was to keep coming into the office in the course of the conversation, to exchange brief, ambiguous remarks with Adib before going out again. Moving into Adib's office was like being transposed into a different world, one of luxurious comfort, stringent organisation and palpable plenty. Contrary to expectations the man himself turned out to be remarkably unassuming. Dressed simply in trousers and a white shirt, he seemed perpetually preoccupied even as he demonstrated a notable capacity for patience. More interestingly, if a little disturbingly, he understood precisely what a newspaper interview was all about, consistently providing the required information with the minimum of stimulation on the part of his interviewer.

Adib was the child prodigy of post-1952 journalism. It was partly to do with his father, the script-writer, film producer and well-known public figure Abdel-Hayy Adib. Mostly, however, it was to do with a precocious sense of self and limitless ambition.

"My interest in the media had a lot to do with my family background. My father's office was in the house, so the atmosphere in which I grew up was characterised primarily by the abundance of books and guests -- one or more of the best known journalists and writers and artists of the time. Salah Jahin in particular was a very close friend of my father's, and he was a major influence on me. I also encountered Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Chahine, Farid Shawqi, Fouad El-Mohandess, Soad Hosni, Fateen Abdel-Wahab -- that's just off the top of my head. They came to do work with my father, or simply to spend time with a friend. Because the house-office was downtown, and many of them worked in the area while living in other parts of the city, they would show up for lunch uninvited. I grew up listening to discussions on politics and culture and art -- it was like being trapped in a cauldron of culture, art and journalism. So it was only natural that, when it was time to settle on a career, I should be inclined in this direction."

"To my father," Adib adds, "my education was very important, his priority being that I master English. I spent the first 12 years of my academic life at Victoria College, and I was frequently sent to summer schools in London and elsewhere. This opened up a whole, enormous world before me, especially because in those days people didn't travel as frequently, so it was easy to get trapped in your surroundings -- and if you were given access to other things, other people, other societies, they really made an impact on you. Your mind began to work much harder."

Almost as soon as he enrolled at the faculty of mass communications, Cairo University, Adib began training at Al-Nihar, one of Lebanon's best known newspapers, during the summer. Beirut was a stimulating backdrop in which, he remembers, the Horseshoe Café ("a kind of Lebanese equivalent to Café Riche" in the early 1970s) was a particularly active melting pot where a wide variety of artistic and political orientations mingled. Adib absorbed all this energy.

"It all gave you a wider perspective on the world. My father," he digresses momentarily, "was so eager for me to keep up with international events he always bought me the powerful, shortwave radios."

Notwithstanding "being blessed with a delightful group of professors", Adib's university years were charged with the upheavals of the 1970s -- the 1973 war, and subsequent demonstrations against the peace process.

"At university I came across all the main political factions: the Marxists, the Muslim Brothers... I became familiar with the convictions and thought of each orientation but I never joined a group. Throughout my life, in fact, I've continued to adopt this position: I would never be part of a movement. Rather, I would observe and make up my mind independently, speaking and acting according to the dictates of my own conscience."

As a second year student Adib interviewed Naguib Mahfouz ("my role model in the novel"), reflecting his "young man's confusion" regarding the unavailability of a single political orientation that answered to his needs.

"It was a political interview," Adib says, "and it gave me one of my life's mottos."

The interview appeared under the title "The outsider in search of a sense of belonging", and from then on Adib would uphold a relatively simple principle, "the greatest possible freedom in the context of the greatest possible equity". He would support neither "brute capitalism" nor "socialism that kills individual initiative", while maintaining positive relations with everyone and working to understand the prevalent mentalities. Apart from this non-affiliation two factors have contributed to Adib's sustained energy throughout the years: the diversity of the topics he tackles ("if you only dealt with one topic your batteries wouldn't be recharged") and his focus on people, their simple and day- to-day needs and concerns.

"The worst fate of a journalist is the feeling of a schoolboy who hates school, which is why you have to deal with issues that you're really interested in, and to keep moving from one topic to the next -- never stopping at one thing."

Following the Naguib Mahfouz interview Adib's next breakthrough -- as a third-year student -- was an interview with President Sadat, "the first ever interview with an Egyptian president to be conducted by a student" he says. He was given an hour with the head of state, and he used it so constructively -- "I asked him about everything, even the most ticklish issues, very openly" -- it was not only published in Al- Ahram but brought him an instant job offer from Mahmoud Taha, the then head of the political news department.

"I told him I was only a student in my third year, he told me I would attend the meeting the next day -- as a student in my third year."

Soon afterwards Adib managed to procure an exclusive interview with then UN Secretary- General Kurt Waldhiem. Immediately he was called into the office and questioned about the source of the information he had provided.

"None of the news agencies," he explains, "had quoted Waldhiem, and people thought I was making it all up." So he played them the tape of the interview, and the next day his performance was publically commended and he was given a pay rise. On graduation Adib continued climbing the professional ladder at unprecedented speeds: he became the presidential affairs editor at Al-Ahram, then moved to the Cairo office of the London-based Asharq Al- Awsat newspaper, establishing his reputation while working with well-known figures like Ibrahim Se'da.

Following the departure of Salaheddin Hafez, the man Adib credits with teaching him how to write "the analytical story, the story that not only communicates the news item but provides an explanatory take on it as well", Adib tendered his resignation from Al-Ahram. In 1982 he established the Washington office of Asharq Al-Awsat, a gargantuan task that involved single-handedly recruiting 25 staff members and establishing a vibrant news office in the US capital. He proved so successful he became a frequent guest on American political talk shows.

"I was an office manager and an editor in chief at the age of 26," he remembers.

Adib spent eight years in London editing Sayidati and Al-Megalla, two publications produced by the Saudi Company for Research and Marketing, where he quickly became the head correspondent. With sufficient support in the 1990s, Adib resigned from the company and returned to Egypt to start a publishing career. He began with Kul Al-Nass, a society magazine that proved so popular Adib was soon able to follow up with a daily newspaper, Al-Alam Al-Yom, the first of a series of Al-Yom daily newspapers covering everything from the business world to night life. Finally he founded the Good News Network, in whose offices the present conversation is taking place, the organisation responsible for Egypt's first two private-sector FM channels (Nile FM and Nugoum FM). Good News Network is one of the region's largest content providers, with a role to play in advertising, film and musical production and franchise, the Internet and mobile phone networks.

"In the middle of all this," Adib recounts, stressing what would appear to be the favourite part of his many-sided job, "Orbit channel offered me the chance to host a live political talk show, to be modelled on the Larry King show and to take place five days a week." The show, among the most popular in the Arab world, has since received 11 best-programme awards. It does take up a lot of Adib's time, however -- a fact that makes you wonder how he manages to do everything else.

"My day is very strictly organised," he explains. "In the morning I follow up the companies and publications, and in the afternoon I do my show. Of course," he goes on, alluding in passing to his 25 assistants, "there is no way you can do so much without serious authority delegation and time management. You have to be very cruel in your social and private life, and very disciplined with your time keeping."

Yet the newspaperman still manages to enjoy extracurricular activities during weekends and his annual vacation of four weeks. Aside from the biographies and memoirs of notable personalities that he reads on a daily basis, for work-related purposes, he is interested in interior decoration, landscaping and cooking -- the latter being the activity to which he devotes much of his free time at home. He also travels extensively for pleasure, and looks forward to an early retirement.

"This is my only ambition, yes. To retire in five years' time, while I still have the energy to be able to enjoy it, to spend time with my family and travel and cook. If I go on working for another ten or 15 years, I might never be able to do any of that."

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