Inas Gohar: Radio days
Hitting high notes with both message and medium
Inas Gohar's is a most familiar voice. Generations of Egyptians were brought up on a diet of her morning radio programmes. Radio was first introduced to Egypt in the 1920s, but it was only in the 1960s that it was developed as a mass medium, and as such was very much part of the socialist atmosphere of the time.
It was at this crucial historical juncture that radio in Egypt was developed largely through state sponsorship, rather than through private ownership. And, Gohar is of the old school. She strongly believes that the state should fund and direct the media. She concedes though, that the radio is no longer the dominant medium of the mass media in Egypt today. The Internet and television are the rising stars.
Still, she has an emotional bond, and a deep affection for the medium that she has devoted her entire life to.
It was not as if she was catapulted to instant success. "Chance is no guarantee of success," she says. In the mid- 1970s, Gohar had toyed with the idea of television at one point, but it failed to inspire her. It was a special and exciting time as far as television was concerned. Colour television had just been introduced to Egypt. "I did not feel, though, that I was offering anything new. I quickly retreated back into my world -- the radio," she muses.
Gohar started out as a newsreader in the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (Middle East) radio station. She began presenting her own programmes -- the distinctive, titillating laugh, piercing the airwaves. Her ear for dialogue is superb, and she exudes wit and exhibits sharp perception.
By sheer coincidence she replaced another colleague of hers, Ola Barakat, who took leave to accompany her husband current Chairman of Board and Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Ibrahim Nafie whose job at the time took him to the United States.
Gohar starred in countless plays translated from European originals and aired on Egyptian radio -- Shakespeare, Anton Chekov, her voice filling the air.
Gohar's rise has been reasonably orthodox. Soon after graduating from Cairo University, Faculty of Literature, the Hebrew Department, in 1969, Gohar's first taste of broadcasting came in 1971. She sat for an exam, an Arabic-Hebrew translation test, and then they tested her voice. She was accepted for the job and was quite content at first to read the news in Hebrew. Baba Sharo spotted her and felt that she could do much better in Arabic. She was then moved from the Hebrew to the Arabic section, having to learn the classical Arabic language anew. In those days the presenters' Arabic had to be flawless. "While Hebrew is very close to Arabic, there are important differences between the two Semitic languages."
Indeed, the combination of life and politics has positively whizzed her down the line. It was during the recording of her programme, "The Story behind an International Film", in the late 1970s that she hit on the idea of acting for the radio. Gohar is especially fond of the British Broadcasting Corporation which she holds in very high esteem.
There is an immediate aspect to radio. And Gohar fell instantly in love with the medium. Ironically, as a teenager she had dreamt of becoming an air hostess and flying around the world. She did eventually travel extensively, but her world was largely confined to the dim-lit room, and where she was left with the microphone as her only companion. Her programmes are often entertaining and almost always informative. She ponders social issues with a certain depth and intelligence.
Heartfelt simplicity is her hallmark. Given only the sound of a play, her listeners were obliged to broaden the scope of their imagination, fill in all of the senses -- especially sight, but also scents, touch and texture.
Some say that her greatest achievement in broadcasting was not her rapid rise to stardom, but the dignity with which she dealt with fame. "That's why the most important thing is to keep your friends around you, people who know you and who are used to seeing you work."
Gohar receives people warmly in her spacious office on the fifth floor of the Radio and Television Building with spectacular views of the Nile. A box of chocolates was perched on the edge of her enormous desk which was strewn with notebooks, papers and pens. She offers her guests a chocolate. Well-wishers stream in to congratulate her: she now heads the Egyptian Broadcasting Corporation. Five men -- Fahmi Omar, Amin Bassyouni, Hamdi El-Kunayisi, Farouk Shusha, Omar Batisha -- preceded her. Not since the days of Safeya El-Mohandes had a woman headed the Egyptian Broadcasting Corporation and Gohar is evidently proud of the remarkable feat.
As Providence would have it, Gohar's appointment was made on 16 March, Egyptian Woman's Day.
Gohar struck me as sharp, self-possessed and modest. She has brought more than a dash of seductive glamour to Egyptian radio. Her melodious voice was talk of the town for generations of Egyptians from the 1970s to the present, with the seductive voice of a pubescent girl. And she still does.
But Gohar is not one to indulge in nostalgic reminiscence. She is focussed on the future.
New technologies are being introduced and she is determined to introduce state-of-the-art technology to Egyptian broadcasting. Gohar does not see television, or even the Internet as rivals to the radio. Indeed, she believes that the Internet, in particular, is complimentary to the radio. Gohar points out that these different mediums are not necessarily conflicting. Radio, still has a "special place in people's hearts."
Gohar made good of her years at the helm of the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat radio station. "I started to think, 'Something's seriously wrong here, what can I do about it?' I was searching around for answers that would get me back on the winning trail," Gohar says nonchalantly. She turned around the unmanageable behemoth that was the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. "I did not do it single-handedly. It was a collective effort," she says modestly.
Gohar believes in good management. Patience is of the essence. And, she makes sure she has enough wise counsel around her. During her time there, she infused the Sharq Al-Awsat with dynamism. "I don't take decisions lightly," Gohar said only half in jest. "I knew there must be answers there somewhere."
Gohar is a daughter of Heliopolis. "The broad tree-lined boulevards, the relatively clean air, the sporting clubs -- I was raised in the special atmosphere of Heliopolis. It's different from the rest of Cairo. It stands apart." She remembers her father as being very strict, overly obsessed with good behaviour and knowledge. A combustible combination she readily admits.
Her mother, on the other hand, was the epitomy of tenderness. "She guarded me 24 hours a day. She was always on the watch, protecting me from prospective danger."
From an early age, Gohar and her brother Mamdouh, were introduced to the world of arts, music and theatre.
Radio was a prerequisite staple of her life. The weekly outing to the cinema or the theatre was de rigueur. She sang at school, played music and acted in school plays. She says that she was a lissome and indefatigable little girl bubbling with creative energy. Gohar got into the habit of imitating the singers of the time -- Sabah, Um Kalthoum, Faiza Ahmed. Her family, friends and teachers discovered her talent for mimicking the voices of celebrities. And, she soon developed a special relationship with the microphone.
Gohar has always been popular, and she recalls with affection the bags of mail she received from people of all ages.
For what seems like an eternity now, Gohar has been telling anybody who might listen that they are within a whisker of a magical, and very personal experience. With radio, the listeners' imagination is set free. Her voice carries her listeners into a magical world of knowledge. The resonating echoes of her voice leave a lasting impression on the listener.
Gohar is a great believer in the auditory power of radio. She feels comfortable with the compelling nature of the microphone. It doesn't really matter what she is reading out, what is of vital importance is how the message is delivered.
Gohar is not just fiercely bright, but also amusing and funny. But the wit that peppers her conversation is seen only in flashes. "I am jovial by nature," "I love to laugh," she giggles girlishly.
Together with her life-long friend and colleague Doreya Sharafeddin, Gohar read aloud the military communiqués and broadcasts of the October 1973 War. "It was the very first time that I heard a woman broadcasting military communiqués. It was a memorable and tremendously exciting experience."
Gohar's career may be on a steady trajectory and it does have many moments of inspiration. Having put career ahead of both romantic liaisons and sedate family life, she does not regret anything.
She muses about the "great broadcasters" of her day. "We used to clock in at work very early in the morning and clock out very late," Gohar explains. "Today, they come in for half an hour and they're off," her eyes bulge, her cheeks swell.
Gohar was a protégé of the celebrated broadcasters Amal Fahmi and Madiha Naguib. Omayma Abdel-Aziz was her mentor. Gohar soon developed a unique style of her own. Her programmes were invariably made under strict deadlines and on a tight budget. Indeed, her programmes were almost always even-handed and sometimes a tad too idealistic. She tried never to do the same things twice.
She followed in the footsteps of Madiha Naguib and Amal Fahmi. Among the men, Farouk Shusha was very special and she says that she learnt a great deal from him. Shusha as always polite, and yet very strict, but his admonishments were always carried out in a calm and collected manner. "He never raised his voice."
Gohar says that she learnt many of the management techniques from Shusha. "He can walk past and query something in the way you handle things, and that puts a doubt in your mind. He had a tremendous impact on me."
"The decision-making process cannot be left to men alone. Women must have a say in how the country's media is run," Gohar admits with a slight grimace.
Gohar's beautiful voice was enough to sustain the attention of her listeners. Her eternal sunny disposition, keen intellect and her choice of absorbing topics have kept her audiences captivated.
"When I first started here, it felt like a boy's club," Gohar points out, "but then they eventually began to put women in leading positions."