Hossam El-Sokkary: London calling
Doing it for all the right reasons
" My name is sugar," Hossam El-Sokkary says in a quiet voice devoid of self-doubt as he begins to recount the inauspicious start of his career as a cartoonist in Tampere, Finland's second largest city where he free-lanced for the Finnish paper Aamulehti.
El-Sokkary the interviewee is not much different to El-Sukkary the radio interviewer. He is at once charming, witty and attentive. The urbane broadcaster from whom ideas and energy appear to pour out in torrents fiddles with his fingers as I fire my own questions. He is a short, tubby, balding man with lots of character. His bespectacled eyes are brimming with intelligence.
Not only is he one of the BBC Arabic Service's most articluate and sharp-witted presenters, but he also has a wonderful range of facial expressions. His face is ruddy, his eyes alert and his voice clear and steady.
"In my line of business you have to maximise your contacts."
He narrows his eyes and grins.
Something about El-Sokkary, though, seems calculated. He wants to be irreverent and ironic, but also positive and uplifting. It is a difficult gap to bridge. But the meeting at the Hyatt, Cairo, was an excellent opportunity to assess how El-Sokkary, now 42, is faring at this pivotal point in his career.
Word is that his bosses at the BBC are more than happy with their new appointment.
"The comic strip, My Name is Sugar, was my very first experience of working in the media," he says. Before the strip he spent four months in a pharmaceutical factory in Tampere . He was, at the time, a pharmaceutical student at Cairo University, but for the young and impressionable El- Sokkary Tampere whetted his appetite for things Western. When in 1984 he travelled to Finland on a four-month exchange programme he had had no direct experiences of Western culture.
Finland was an eye-opener for El-Sokkary. The country, a kind of remote outpost of Western civilisation, is tucked away at the northern edge of Europe and sliced in two by the Arctic Circle. It was in such terrain that El-Sokkary first sample experiences that would be reinforced by travels in a dozen other European countries.
Perhaps searching for trouble it was in Tampere that El-Sokkary plucked up sufficient courage to approach a gang of skinheads as they loitered menacingly in a picturesque square in the heart of the town. It was more with bravado than conviction that he asked them in broken Finnish the reason for their intense dislike of foreigners. He was warned against kidding with punks and skinheads, but curiousity got the better of him. He could not resist mischievously indulging in a dangerous game of verbal jousting with the Finnish skinheads.
Flabbergasted by his reckless impunity, the punks eyed him with barely veiled hostility. He fled, and shut himself up in a telephone booth. Panting and terrified out of his wits, his trembling hands found the necessary coins and dialed the police. His tormentors slowly surrounded the booth. He struggled with his poor Finnish to explain to the policeman at the other end of the line that he was in danger. But he finished off his sentence in English, much to the disgust of the provincial Finnish policeman who promptly hung up. His tormentors must have sensed his predicament.
"The comic strip, My Name is Sugar, was my very first experience of working in the media"
Everyone laughed but the mirth was muted right up to the moment he stepped out of the booth still out of breath.
"I was very ignorant and naive then," he says with a slightly embarrassed guffaw.
But the ugly incident in Tampere, Finland, unwittingly provided the impetus that was to change his life. He no longer saw himself as marooned in the waste lands of northern Europe. El-Sokkary knew that he no longer wanted to be a pharmacist. He could not break the ice with the Finnish skinheads, but he still wanted above all else to communicate with the world. He saw himself as a man anchored in the arts of communications and information technology.
There are many sides to Hossam El-Sokkary, but we are going to have to get used to hearing fewer of them. He now works mainly behind- the-scenes. El-Sokkary has earned many accolades in his life, but the biggest prize so far is that he is the very first Arab to head the BBC Arabic radio and web service.
I've interviewed many media people before. Most of them know exactly what they want to say, how to say it, and they also know what you want to hear. So why the knot of apprehension in the stomach on the way to the Cairo Hyatt, Garden City? There are several reasons, not least the fact that Hossam El-Sokkary has climbed out of obscurity and into the limelight in a relatively short time. Some of his co- workers at the BBC have been there for donkey years. They are fixtures on the landscape, but they haven't reached the very top.
So how did he make it so fast, when others got stuck in the recording studio.
He grins in mock sympathy, running his right hand across his balding head. El-Sokkary looks much buoyed by such observations. There is no doubt that he has enough talent for the task. Yet it is not his booming career that dominates his thoughts when we meet but the reputation of the BBC.
The Arab world is agog with doubts about the proverbial impartiality of the BBC. Today it is seen as biased, anti-Arab nationalist and anti- Islamist.
"The basic message of the BBC's Arabic service is quite straightforward. And listeners are encouraged to send their comments to the BBC Arabic Service," he says furrowing his forehead.
The United States-led invasion of Iraq coincided with the launching of the BBC's Noqtat Howar, Point of Discussion, a hugely popular programme that attracts thousands of listeners and in which many prickly subjects, some virtually taboo, have been tackled. Among the subjects broached were racism against blacks in the Arab world, the so-called honour killings and homosexuality, three subjects that unleashed heated debate. Arab homosexual listeners were encouraged to recount their experiences, something that would never be permitted on domestic Arab channels which deny the existence of homosexuals. They were even asked to give their opinion on gay marriage.
But it is precisely topics like these that ingnites suspicion among some Arab viewers about the credibility of the BBC. Charges of cultural imperialism and the penetration of Western cultural influences abound. El- Sokkary scoffs at such attitudes. He strongly believes that the Arab world cannot be shielded forever from other cultural influences, not just Western but African, and Asian too.
When the BBC launched an Arabic television venture El-Sokkari was hired as a producer and, later, presenter. But the operation was abruptly terminated in 1996 after a contractial dispute betwen the BBC and the company distributing the channel.
BBC Arabic is by far the largest of the BBC's foreign language services, broadcasting round the clock, seven days a week. But Hossam El- Sokkary aims at developing BBC Arabic further. He wants to bring together state-of-the art information technologies to reinforce cross- cultural communication.
"The world is a global village and there is no escaping the fact," says El-Sokkary.
In 1992 he started writing an online column, Al- Khatt Al-Sakhen or Hotline. Again it was a pioneering work in Arabic language media.
I commend him on his multifarious professional activities.
In Berlin he had a stint with Deutsche Welle as a freelance radio journalist. After Berlin he moved back to Cairo where his career in the print media blossomed. He feels that the future lies in applying modern communications technologies to the Arab media.
In 1990 El-Sokkary moved to London to write for the Saudi-funded, London-based Al-Majalah magazine and became infatuated with IT. He freelanced for a number of Arabic language publications, including the Saudi Asharq Al- Awsat, and he enrolled at the London School of Economics where he strudied design and management of information systems. He kick- started the BBC Arabic Service website in 1997 and found it a challenging opportunity to execrise his skills. He became the manager of BBC Arabic Online in 1997.
So what is the recrutiment criteria of the BBC Arabic Service?
"First we insist on perfect classical Arabic. And a proven track record as a good journalist, of course."
In November 1999 El-Sokkari relaunched and upgraded the entire BBC Arabic Service website, doubling the traffic with a simple page restructure. The website now receives 12 million hits every month. With El-Sokkary in charge BBCArabic.com announced the succesful launch of its redisigned website. It now has a new look and enhanced interactivity.
"In the early days," he says, eminiscing, "you're working really hard, you're under a lot of stress and it can be hard to convince people that you're on to something. You've got to be tenacious and tough."
Among the most interesting interviews he had was with an even more polished speaker than himself -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
To his credit, El-Sokkary grasped quickly that among his assets are excellent communications skills. First and foremost he is a PR man.
Cartoons reflected yet another strand of his life -- particularly during his Finnish sojourn. But he also worked as a cartoonist with the Egyptian weekly Rose El-Youssef. He started out as a cartoonist, and the passion for cartoons has not entirely left him. I ask him to do me a quick sketch and he obliges. He does his sketches with a flourish that may well betray a desire to go back to the simple pleasure of the sketch pad.
While talking about his career El-Sokkary manages to sound as if he is giving out a well- rehearsed line for the first time during our interview: in 1994, El-Sokkary launched Al Maqha Al-Elektroni, or the Electronic Cafe, a hugely popular programme that attracted a young audienece throughout the Arab world. Electronic Cafe, he insists was not just a chat room.
"We cover not only what is happening, but how and why," El-Sokkary explains.
BBCArabic.com, the online news, infomation and education service, is also something of which El-Sokkary is proud. "This initiative provided those interested in Arabising cyberspace with an opportunity to develop a standardised Arabic terminology on the Internet," he explains. And he sees the future in terms of Internet Arabsation. "
"This is really only the start," he chuckles.