Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Penning the game

Two weeks ago a delegation of 14 senior editors and writers toured Egypt to assess the nation's chances of hosting the 2010 World Cup. The delegation discussed with local journalists the state of sports writing around the world. It instigated Al-Ahram Weekly to delve into its archives and re-remember the man who created a name for himself as the nation's pioneer sports critic Naguib El-Mestekawi (1918-1993)

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The El-Mestekawi family name is not unfamiliar -- not to the older generation, nor to the younger. Its reputation was built under the penmanship of Naguib El-Mestekawi, the Tanta-born gentlemen who grew up in the close-knit atmosphere of the Delta village, spending many a day watching his father ploughing his own fields. As the sun tanned their faces, Naguib and his two brothers and sisters would run through the fields, content with nature and exercise as their sole means of entertainment.

When it came to schooling, however, his father hoped to offer his children the best. Naguib was sent-off to a well-known Tanta college where he was said to have excelled both academically and in the sports arena.

"I was Egypt's secondary schools' sprint champion," he shared with the Weekly several years before he passed away. "And I also played football for Tanta."

In class, he vied for first place amongst the likes of colleagues Ahmed Lutfi Hassouna (who went on to become an Al-Akhbar journalist), and Mohamed Mahmoud El-Ayad (who later became dean of the faculty of arts at Cairo University). In 1935, was his secondary certificate in hand, he packed his bags and made the move to the big city to start university.

His father wanted him to be a lawyer -- the "prestigious" and accepted thing to do -- and he adhered to that wish, as was the expected thing of a young man to do.

"He wanted a lawyer in the family," Mestekawi recalled. "And it was also common at the time for lawyers to become government ministers. Most of the ministers in the 1930s and 1940s were ex-lawyers"

At university his sporting career reached its pinnacle. He was universities champion in the 100 and 200m sprints, taking part in several international events. He was also right wing for Tersana Club's football team and played for the university's rugby 15 -- a game, he said "which somehow vanished from Egypt". Mestekawi also cycled and wrestled.

Graduation in 1939 set him off to a rocky career start -- the first of what would be a series of short-lived legal jobs not living up to his youthful satisfaction.

"I was supposed to receive LE12 a month for my work," he said. "But at the end of the first month I received just LE9, so I resigned."

Mestekawi moved on to an apprenticeship in the law office of the then-famous Mohamed Amer.

"I won my first case, but decided to leave the job when butchers whose case I had been opposing in court came after me with knives and meat cleavers!"

A few odd and unpleasant experiences later, he found himself -- through a family connection -- interviewing with a top official at the Ministry of Finance. He was offered the prestigious opportunity to work in the legal department -- an offer which he promptly, but politely, turned down.

"I asked if I could be appointed to the sports department," he said, referring to the department that was the forerunner of the Supreme Council, and now Ministry, for Youth and Sports. The year was 1942, and Mestekawi was told to supervise local sports.

It was one of those random occurrences in life that prove to be pivotal: Mestekawi found himself in the post. A decade of rigorous work propelled him to the post of chief inspector of the department -- a momentum interrupted by the revolution of 1952.

Proving himself a survivor amidst the political upheavals, Mestekawi was asked by former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to revamp the country's sports system. It was this request that was to lead him to the career in which he ultimately made his name.

"I suggested forming a committee for local sports," he said. "Nasser issued a statement agreeing to its formation and to my appointment as its secretary. I then prepared a report to be given to all the sports editors and reporters in Cairo, detailing the changes and informing them of any new resolutions affecting sports in Egypt."

The report in itself was groundbreaking.

"Kamal Naguib, who was then head of Al- Ahram 's sports department, read my report, called me immediately and said he was going to publish it verbatim and that I was a natural journalist."

Naguib made the lawyer-turned-sports figure an instantaneous offer.

"I was getting LE60 a month from the Ministry of Finance," he said. "Naguib told me I would get the same from the Al-Ahram and would only need to work in the afternoons."

It was October 1953 -- a date which back then reflected what he thought would just be a dabbling with the media. Two years later, however, a law was passed prohibiting government employees from holding two posts at once. He had to make a choice.

"I was given a salary of LE120 a month," he recalled of the Al-Ahram choice. "Offered to me by Beshara Takla (son of the paper's founder). This was later raised to LE140 a month -- a salary which no journalist had ever taken before."

For five years, Mestekawi wrote and edited for the sports pages of the paper, not once, however, with his by-line on the work. It was common practice at the time -- reporters expected to bring news in Al-Ahram 's name -- voucher to their loyalty to the paper.

In 1958, his loyalty appeared to have been proven. Kamal Naguib decided it was time to bring Mestekawi recognition for his work, and at last his name became known.

That same year, Mohammed Hassanein Heikal took over as editor-in-chief of the newspaper.

"He and I got on very well. He told me he wanted to appoint Kamal Naguib as secretary to the newspaper, and asked me if I would take over as editor of the sports page."

The enthusiastic answer, he had smiled of the moment, has been a yes.

It didn't take long for Mestekawi's distinct sharp style to preside over the sports criticism of the paper; he wrote in an erudite, precise manner -- his training as a lawyer, perhaps, reflecting through.

What Mestekawi brought to readers was something of another class -- steering far from the mere reporting of matches and their results. He gave nicknames to clubs and prominent sportsmen in order to create an intimacy between the readers and the personalities in the sports sphere. Football legend Salah Selim became "The Maestro". Footballer Rifaat El-Faragili became "The Engineer" because of his skill at manoeuvring his players. The fleet-of-foot Mimi El-Sherbini was "The Jet", and Mustafa Abdu became "Al- Magari", after the express train which had just been introduced to Egypt.

And there were many more. One of his stranger creations was the description of the Suez football club as "El-Miri", which means "the government" in slang. The team consisted of the Mazoun, the Ghafir, the Umda, and Sheikh El-Balad.

With Mestekawi's ink, players and teams also received grades, which changed in tandem with their fortunes. And even their coaches were subjected to the humorous and usually sardonic pen.

It was a style that captivated the nation. Indeed his distinct style and determination to create a solid field of sport journalism in the country moulded the field and its followers.

One of Mestekawi's first big accomplishments was the creation of the four-page weekly round- up of sports news in the Friday Al-Ahram -- the country's most widely circulated paper. Through these pages he was able to feed one of his priorities, championing young journalists who have gone on to become big names in their own rights (Abdel-Wahab Moutawi and Ezzat El-Saadani).

His responsibilities expanded to include post of supervisor of Al-Ahram Al-Riyadi, the weekly sports magazine published by Al-Ahram Organisation.

In the decade or so before his death, Mestekawi's writing became increasingly sceptical of the state of national sports.

"Where Egypt used to set records in the 1920s and 1930s, it is barely capable of winning medals outside the region," he said. "We won't see any real achievement I don't think for another 50 years."

Followers of Mestekawi today say that the sudden turn-around of Egyptian sports would have pleased him greatly -- the international accomplishments and presence of Egypt on the global sports map was not something he had foreseen for the near-future.

What bothered him, was not just the apparent decline in the level of athletic prowess, but also in the quality of sports criticism. He offered advice to those entering the field: "A sports critic should live every moment in stadiums and sports-grounds so he can be accurate and objective in what he's writing. We used to work from 9am to 6pm every day, and three-quarters of our time was spent in the field. Now," he continued, "our self- proclaimed critics all work through the phone and television. Can you imagine it: no-one comes to his office before 2pm now. And rarely do they go to matches, unless its football."

The last point was a particular bugbear of Mestekawi's. As a sports editor, he assiduously tried to give all sports in Egypt similar emphasis. He used to say that while he recognised that football was undeniably the nation's most popular sport, it was important not to concentrate on it alone at the expense of other sports. And he also spoke of the sports critic's need to read beyond the field. Those who did not read Mestekawi's sports columns likely knew him for his translations of major works of European history and philosophy. And for his own books. His works on the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau took him ten years to research; he wrote a biography of the great boxer Mohamed Ali, and compiled a volume about the travels of Ibn Battuta, the 11th century Arab traveller. Perhaps his best-known work, however, is the 800-page Crisis of Conscience in Seventeenth Century Europe, the forward written by Taha Hussein.

He was admittedly a patron of Taha Hussein: "I was a permanent member of his salon, which met every Sunday. Egyptian and orientalist intellectuals would gather and discuss a range of topics. I remember vividly Hussein's now-famous talk, in which he called for free education for all Egyptians. He described education as being as necessary to existence as air and water."

Education was something he emphasised in his young staff -- urging and encouraging to open their minds to the richness and depth of the world around them. When Mestekawi passed away in 1996, he left a legacy of knowledge, commitment, and creativity behind.

His family of three sons, two daughters, and a slew of grandchildren, are perhaps a mirror of that which was both a passion and profession: his grandchildren are nationally-competing athletes, and his son Hassan heads Al-Ahram's sports section -- the seat his father held for years.

To reflect on the depth of the legacy Mestekawi left behind is tricky, but it was perhaps the words of Kamal Naguib that best described what Mestekawi brought to the sports reporting field: "He makes reading about sports in Egypt a literary activity."

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