Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 March 2004
Issue No. 680
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Shahira Amin:

Bringing it all back home

A face of Egypt

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
Shahira Amin

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Amin with Ted Turner in Atlanta Amin with Eason Jordan, head of news at CNN; Amin, far right, with Ted Turner, centre, and international journalists in Atlanta, Georgia

Amin, far right, with Ted Turner, centre, and international journalists in Atlanta, Georgia

Newscaster Shahira Amin crosses the room and offers her hand, flashing her trademark megawatt smile. Amin was on assignment, and so was I. She had come to interview me at Al-Ahram Weekly for a report on the Nile Basin countries quest for an equitable utilisation of the river's waters scheduled to feature shortly on CNN's Inside Africa, a half-hour current affairs weekly programme which provides global viewers with an inside look at political, economic, social and cultural affairs and trends in Africa.

"Africa is not about poverty and disease. There is so much negative reporting about Africa. On Inside Africa, we focus on success stories," Amin stresses.

Her assignments have ranged from exclusive interviews with heads of states and governments to reporting diverse social issues. I am grateful for the chance to participate in a programme that aims at correcting misconceptions about Africa. I feel the adrenaline flooding my body.

"You interview me first and then I'll profile you for the paper," I venture. "But, I'm not worthy of a profile," she protests in a demure and self-effacing fashion. She acquiesces grudgingly to the deal.

Maybe it was the physical circumstance, or the subtle nuances of our profession, but I had this tremendous sense of affinity with my interviewer. My disorderly office crammed with papers, the cameramen hard at work rearranging the background setting. We complained about the hectic pace of our lifestyles. "No, I don't go swimming anymore, I walk. I don't have the time," she shrugs her shoulders and sighs.

After the interview, she must dash to a particularly scenic riparian vista on the outskirts of Cairo. "The viewer is entitled to a feel of the place," Amin explains. She laughs resignedly at the time- consuming tasks of her profession. Five days of gruelling work, researching and interviewing academics, officials and technical experts for a few snippets on a five-minute televised report.

But then the purveyors of newsworthy information, those who present the news to the world, are in a better-placed position than most others to understand that there is no logic, or limit, to the folly of mankind.

But there is more to the special affinity I feel for Amin than our mutual interest in the media.

Shahira Amin, like myself, has lived most of her life outside Egypt. She has travelled and lived for long stretches in different countries around the world. We have both made a conscious decision to return, raise our respective children and live in Egypt.

There is something about Amin's well-formed dark features that instantly gives her Egyptian identity away. Hers is the face of Egypt of the Pharaohs.

On screen, Amin is every inch the slender pillar of Pharaonic elegance. She may not be an instantly recognisable face in Egypt, essentially because she broadcasts in English; a language that a sizeable segment of the population cannot understand. But her face has come to represent Egypt abroad.

Shahira Amin's broadcasting career did not have an auspicious start. Unlike most of today's newscasters, she did not read mass communications at college. Amin took a joint degree in economics and sociology at the American University in Cairo.

After graduation and marriage she found herself wearied by her newfound status of housewife in an oil-rich Arabian Gulf emirate. She sought and found a part-time job in Radio Abu Dhabi where she produced and presented social and cultural programmes and a live music show.

Amin has come far from her Abu Dhabi days. Today, as a contributor to CNN's daily show World Report, Amin represents Egypt to the world.

Ironically, she says that she is still in the process of rediscovering the country after her return as a mother of two children in 1989. She first left Egypt at the tender age of six, only to return as an impressionable adolescent of 16. Amin schooled at various British international schools around the world in cities as far afield as Accra in Ghana, Colombo in Sri Lanka and Tripoli in Libya.

Amin feels that her frequent travels as a child and teenager were a blessing in disguise. It opened windows of opportunity later on in life and paved the way for her success in the media. Her secretarial training course in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, stood her in good stead. Amin still finds shorthand an invaluable tool at press conferences and for interviews.

Her assignment at the premises of the Weekly was not her first. Indeed, her association with the print media predates her current identification with television. She says that when she retires from television she will go back to writing. "That's when they no longer see my face as appropriate for appearing on television," she chuckles. I first met her in 1992, when the paper was barely a year old. She was one of two television presenters recommended to contribute articles for the Weekly.

Our late Editor-in-Chief Hosny Guindy had asked her to write a profile on the late celebrated singer and musician Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. It was one of the Weekly 's earliest profiles. We reminisced a little about old times. "He was such a gentleman. Every time I enter these offices, I cannot help but remember Ustaz Hosny. I miss him," she confesses.

Her face is expressive, concentrating intensely as she listens to me. I focus on the hazel eyes, which in spite of her dark skin have a rich honey-coloured hue.

With features full of character and a genial look that goes instantly into the heart, Amin has over the past decade become a familiar face on Egyptian television.

Her public profile is high on glamour. In her line of business looks matter. Amin spends far less time now on make-up than she did at the beginning of her television career. Today, she applies her make- up half an hour before she appears on air.

Make-up is now often applied at traffic lights. "I would be listening to the news from the moment I got into the car and I'd be making notes at the traffic lights when I wasn't applying mascara."

Amin is up with the lark, and usually combines attending to domestic chores with preparation for work. "Normally my day would have started about seven and by eight I would have showered, dressed, got some sort of breakfast, listened to the radio in an attempt to keep abreast of the news of the world, collected papers lying around from the night before and have made at least one work-related phone call, before calmly getting into the car on my way to the television studio."

Amin married young when she was still a university student and moved to Abu Dhabi soon after graduation. She mingled with the expatriate community of the Emirates, returning for short visits to Egypt only occasionally. Amin experienced a severe cultural shock upon her return to Egypt. She soon fell in love with everything Egyptian. After 11 years abroad, Amin returned to Egypt in search of her roots. Her rediscovery of Egypt began in earnest.

Amin looks back in amusement. "I yearned to understand my country and its people. Each assignment was an invaluable learning experience."

Some of her high profile interviews include Naguib Mahfouz, who impressed her with his "zest for life and modesty".

"He smokes, drinks lots of black, Turkish coffee, which the doctors have advised against. He loves to share the latest jokes." Soon after the interview, Amin delved into Adrift on the Nile. Amin is more comfortable reading Mahfouz's novels in English.

In 1989 Amin anchored and edited Egypt's TV's Channel Two News in English. Her star was fast ascending. In 1993, Amin became a reporter and news anchor on Nile TV, Egypt's satellite channel. Amin produces and presents a number of programmes in English including the bi-weekly Hotline. Amin also produces and moderates the weekly programme Front- line -- a 45-minute cut-to-the-chase interview-driven and political debate forum where public personalities who hold diverging views confront each other.

Amin's career in Egyptian broadcasting has not been restricted to television. Between 1990 and 2000 Amin was news anchor and programme presenter on Radio Cairo's Local European Service.

"In Abu Dhabi we read news that other people wrote. But the first Egyptian newscaster in English, the late Ali Gohar, taught us to write the news ourselves and in our own words," Amin says.

Gohar was a strict and exacting teacher, and Amin was his diligent disciple. "I learnt so much from him. He was my mentor," she remembers.

Amin's reputation as a world-class broadcaster began with her association with CNN in 2000. From there the only way was up -- and that is very much the direction that Amin has been travelling ever since. The crowning of her successful career in the media came when three years ago she became the first woman in the Arab world to present a CNN programme.

Amin wears her success lightly. She has an affable and easy-going personality. "I am working on developing more aggressive interviewing techniques," she chortles in jest. She understands both the powers and limitations embodied in the person reading news bulletins.

"The challenges are complex and exciting," she says.

Amin never thought of herself as a political animal until quite recently. "Back in Egypt, I began to develop an interest in politics. Reporting on major political events and developments has become part of my life," Amin says. "The love of politics came with the Internet," she explains. "I used to read papers but it wasn't the same. Research for a story's background has become very easy," she adds.

Brimming with confidence and vivacity, Amin derives deep satisfaction from her work. "I never feel nervous before the cameras. When the lights are dimmed, I pretend that I am alone by myself in the studio. I pretend to be reading aloud to myself. Ali Gohar used to say: 'Think of your best friend, your mother, daughter, sister,'" Amin reflects. "And, when I am speaking to those I love I never get frightened. It's a trick that always works and I this is what I tell the young people I train today." She realises how defined by her work she has become. "I learnt a lot during the one month in the Atlanta headquarters of CNN," Amin confides.

"I learnt more in that month in Atlanta, Georgia, than in 10 years of on-the-job experience back home," she says with a weary smile.

"I learnt a great deal about the different technical issues, voice training really changed my voice. The posture is vitally important. I would never have suspected that the way one sat changes one's voice. My coach, Judith Sullivan, couldn't believe the change."

She believes that the same guidelines she learnt in Atlanta apply whether the broadcaster is in Egypt or in America. In October 1999, Amin flew to the United States for the US State De0partment's International Visitors Programme for Journalists -- a one-month tour of America, acquainting foreign journalists with the American media. She flew back to the US in July 2000 for the International Professional Programme, a one-month training period at CNN's Atlanta headquarters for journalists during which she had to produce and present a number of stories on attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims in the US after 11 September which were aired on CNN and Nile TV. Amin was with 14 journalists from countries as far afield as South Africa, Korea, China and Switzerland.

Ted Turner asked provocatively, "If I were to marry you, I could also marry three others. 'I wouldn't permit you to'," she replied pointedly. He was surprised by her tart answer, and she felt that she had made an impression.

What intrigued her most was the huge stuffed lion in his office, a beast he claimed he had shot himself during a safari in Africa.

It was during this visit to the US that Amin had a notorious and widely-publicised brush with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "You scored a goal for Egypt," she was later told by friends and colleagues.

Diplomatic she may be in her new role as CNN correspondent, but it seems her impassioned heart beats in the same way as the vast majority of her compatriots. Amin has received wide acclaim for a report she made about discrimination against Arabs and Muslims in America. She spoke to people who'd lost their jobs because they were Arab or Muslim, relatives of people who had disappeared without trace, kids expelled from schools and others whose parents thought it was best to remove them from school.

Another report Amin is proud of is on how ordinary Egyptians perceive the war on international terror in the aftermath of 11 September. "One woman told me that her main concern was how to feed her kids. She was not in the least bit interested in the war against terrorism."

When Amin filed her story, she was shocked and angered to find that whoever edited her story had inserted the phrase "fear of terrorism". "I strongly objected, and they agreed to remove the phrase 'fear of terrorism'. I'd never say something like that," Amin shrugs her shoulders.

Still, Amin is very proud of her association with CNN. "It's a marvellous chance to promote Egypt. It is the first time for CNN to employ an Egyptian or an Arab," she points out. "I've travelled extensively with CNN."

Egyptian TV doesn't object to Amin's work for CNN. "They've given me permission to work with CNN," she says. "Hassan Hamed backed me and I'm privileged to have worked with him. I owe a lot to him and his guidance during on-the-job training with Nile TV. He showed me how to create sound bites and how to present fast-paced news."

Amin considers the late Ali Gohar and Hassan Hamed, chairman of the Radio and Television Union, as her professional mentors.

Like many people in today's stressed-out life, Amin is dreaming of downshifting, of working less and living more. But she does not feel it is time yet to quit the rat race. She recognises some of the drawbacks of her job. She has little time for the gym or swimming, art galleries, and would like to devote more time to watching good movies, reading good books and socialising with friends.

Amin does not work exclusively for Egypt's Nile TV and CNN. She has produced a number of reports for BBC aired on their monthly Arab World Direct in 2003 about peculiar Egyptian traditions celebrating the Holy Month of Ramadan and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

So does Amin compare CNN favourably with other international broadcasts? She sings the praises of CNN's feature-format programmes. "I feel that they [the BBC] are credible," Amin concedes. "Not that CNN isn't," she quickly corrects herself. "CNN relays news in an entertaining, more dramatic fashion. CNN is big on entertainment."

Now as CNN's World Report correspondent she seems a fundamentally secure person who knows and enjoys her own mind. Any spare time she invests in diverse interests and in family. Fame has not spooked her into a rarefied lifestyle, and she has lived an unostentatious and unpublicised life with her son Ahmed and daughter Amina.

"Ahmed is in Sharm El-Sheikh at the moment scuba diving. Last year he flew to Thailand for a diving adventure," Amin proudly praises her son. "Both children are artistic," she says. "They are both interested in graphic design."

Amin cherishes happy memories of her childhood -- mainly cycling in the leafy Cairene suburb of Maadi, where she was born. Her mother still lives in the family home in Maadi, and Amin spends much of her free time with her mother and sister, Nelly, who she describes as her "best friend" and "who used to take care of the kids while I travelled abroad".

Amin says that she takes after her father who taught his daughters to be independent and career- oriented. Her father, Mohamed Amin, developed vocational training projects for the International Labour Organisation in a number of developing countries. "I appreciate my background better because it gave me an insight into other cultures."

She hails from a distinguished family of writers and intellectuals, deeply rooted in Egyptian tradition. Her grandfather, Ahmed Amin, was an Azharite Sheikh, or religious cleric and scholar, albeit a liberal and open-minded thinker. "I read his works, and I am especially fond of his autobiography Hayati (My Life)." Another favourite is Risala ila Waladi (Letter to My Son) which was addressed to my father who was completing his doctoral thesis in England."

Again she invokes family. "My father was only one of two of his siblings who married an Egyptian. I have seven uncles and all of them save Hussein Amin are married to foreign-born women." Most of Amin's cousins have foreign mothers, and "we celebrate both Christmas and New Year as well as the traditional Muslim festivals. We are a close-knit, cosmopolitan family." Yet another similar experience I share with Amin.

photo: Randa Shaath

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