Farewell, Agony Uncle
Abdel-Wahab Motawie (1940-2004)
Abdel-Wahab Motawie, the managing editor of Al-Ahram newspaper and editor-in- chief of Al-Shabab (Youth) magazine, passed away last Friday, at the age of 64. A career journalist, having plied the trade for 43 years, Motawie was a household name, best known for the advice he dispensed to millions of readers, as the editor of Al-Ahram 's "Letters to the Editor" section.
A large funeral took place in Motawie's hometown of Dessouq, in the governorate of Kafr Al-Sheikh, on Saturday. Family, friends, colleagues, disciples and faithful readers were in attendance. A representative of President Hosni Mubarak, as well as other government officials, members of parliament, and top Al-Ahram figures, led the funeral procession.
Motawie became the editor of Al- Ahram's "Letters to the Editor" section in 1982. He was 42 at the time, and had been working at the paper since the age of 17. The pages he ran -- Bareed Al-Quraa (Readers' letters) and Bareed Al-Gomaa (Friday Mail) -- were perennial favorites. Going beyond the traditional newspaper's letters to the editor format, the sections delve into reader's problems, and suggest solutions -- and are often looked to as one of the only ways to enlighten the public about some plight or other. Millions found his style and advice indispensable.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly a few years ago, Motawie recalled that when he was put in charge of the Letters section he wanted to expand its scope to include problems other than those involving "electricity or telephones... Many people's problems stem from their relationships with others," he said. "I started broaching these issues cautiously, taking into consideration the conservative nature of Al- Ahram. I don't think the paper had ever published letters recounting emotional problems before."
The first such letter was from a young father who had just lost his child, but whose sister had just given birth; he wrote to Motawie, describing his insistence on celebrating the new baby's arrival -- despite his own loss. Motawie's response was very encouraging, and the young father's letter ended up catalysing some 30 or 40 letters of sympathy and encouragement from other readers.
And so, for 22 years, Motawie continued to receive hundreds of letters seeking advice every week. He even took meetings with some of his readers, who insisted on speaking with him personally. Armed with a large arsenal of his readers' real-life problems, Motawie became an expert on human relations, and especially gender relations.
Having graduated from the department of journalism at Cairo University's Faculty of Arts in 1961, Motawie was also well read in psychology and sharia (Islamic law). Despite the unconventional and groundbreaking nature of some of the subjects discussed in the letters he published, Motawie's advice was always well grounded, rational and conservative leaning. He rarely published messages about adultery or incest, often advised mothers to remain in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the children, and cautioned men not to take a second wife in order to maintain a normal family structure for the children.
"I'm biased towards the children," he told the Weekly. "I believe that children prefer to be with both parents, no matter how many quarrels they have or how little they love each other. Children... want security with their parents, no matter how happy or miserable they are together."
While not a psychiatrist, therapist or social worker by training, Motawie was celebrated by many as a humanitarian. He wrote some 40 books on relationships and social trends, including Friends on Paper and Please... Give Me your Lifetime ; in the latter he argued that we need more than one life to understand and master the very art of living. Many of his books are compilations of the letters he received through Al-Ahram 's mailbox. His much-sought out advice was also available on TV, on a programme he hosted called "Moment of Truth". Motawie also scripted several films and television series over the course of his career.
Motawie always said reading about, and living, other people's pain and suffering had enabled him to put his own suffering in perspective, and not exaggerate or become engulfed in personal problems and pain. To avoid overburdening himself with other people's heavy issues, he would routinely take breaks -- usually to Paris -- to recuperate and recharge his batteries. Being a firm believer in his own words of wisdom -- "Nothing wins in the end except death; we should be good people" -- he strove hard to fulfill that ideal until the end.
Motawie is survived by his wife, his son Karim, and his daughter Reem.