Ahmed Farrag: A voice beyond
Whether on radio or TV, his trademark, sonorous voice is virtually synonymous with religion programmes. Known to most as the pious media figure who at a young age had a paradoxical passion for the Lebanese-Egyptian singing star Sabah (whom he famously married), he is better appreciated for the ideas he brought to religiously oriented media. As former aspiring politician, spontaneous preacher, social critic and creative thinker, he has inspired minds and souls alike. Often propelling his guests to fame (indeed many of them were to become ministers), he also invested religious discourse with the fluid, compelling edge of audiovisual entertainment. Ahmed Farrag is by no means an ordinary television presenter, nor is "Nour 'ala Nour" (Light upon light) -- his best known show, named after a verse of the Quran -- a run-of-the-mill programme, however good. Four years ago, Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama, noticing that it was aired at the same time as presenter Hamdi Qandil's "Raais Al-Tahrir" (Editor-in-chief) asked that "Nour ala Nour" should be rescheduled. The programme, perhaps the only one of its kind that became a blockbuster, brings back childhood memories of Ramadan family gatherings before the TV and, more recently, adult moments of reflection and wonder
The most striking aspect of Ahmed Farrag's office, adjoining his living quarters in Giza, is the number of books it contains. From novels to encyclopaedias, seemingly in every language under the sun, the place gives off a quaint bibliophilic scent. Furnished in the sedately elegant style typical of its occupant, it also evokes the good old days. At eye level, as you enter, a ceramic plate bears the mantra "nour ala nour". Yet no sooner have you looked at it than you notice the eyes below. Boring into you, they have a hypnotic effect; and within two hours, astoundingly, they, or rather the mind they service, will have seen right through you. The colossal body reveals little of the personality, you will have observed by the end, but grey hair notwithstanding, it signals the vigour within. Indeed he comes across as far younger than his 73 years -- a fact that finds expression in his sharp memory, constant enthusiasm and sense of humour, however conservative the latter. Though clearly of another age -- the sheer eloquence of his classical Arabic intonation is remarkable -- yet he speaks to the present with an increasing urgency. And it remains impossible not to give in to the paternal warmth with which he engulfs you.
Initially, I was to find out for the first time, Farrag wanted to enter the diplomatic corps. And on graduating from Cairo University's Political Science Department, he awaited the Foreign Affairs Ministry admission exam dreaming of an ambassadorial life -- until, one fateful day, a friend invited him along to sit the radio announcer exams just for the fun of it. When it turned out he was among 15 out of 2,000 candidates chosen for appointment, Farrag was not as glad as you might expect: "I felt like I'd be wasting my time and delaying the progress of my career." The feeling changed remarkably after a few sessions behind the microphone, however. Unbeknown to the frustrated ambassador, such sessions would form the centre of his life for the next 51 years.
Two incidents he recounts now made him realise, eventually, that this was a job for him. He had been a secondary school student leader in anti-colonial movement, largely on account of his skill as a speaker. And when two of his comrades in arms fell dead while he fought in Suez as an undergraduate in the so called University Troop -- in the winter of 1952, months before the July Revolution -- he delivered an account of the incident on the radio: "I couldn't recognise my own voice." Though an avid reader, ironically he had never listened to the radio much. But his rise to fame was both swift and smooth. Two years into his radio career, he covered President Gamal Abdel-Nasser's pilgrimage to Mecca, and in 1955 a slot was set aside for his political talk show Al-Maaida Al-Mustadira (The Round Table). The programme made it to the small screen as soon as television was established and was not discontinued until 1977, only to be revived again in 1997.
As of 1961, he was assigned, aside from the weekly " Nour ala Nour ", a daily television programme called Dars Al-Asr (Lesson of the age). Among his many innovations on the administrative front was building a mosque on the Radio and Television Union premises, to enable live broadcasts of prayers. Secrets of success include meticulous research, Farrag will readily divulge, the ability to locate and persuade knowledgeable and articulate interviewees and the tackling of "hot issues" head on: "you should explore your society with the eyes of a surgeon, and seek to open files that have been closed." It is in this sense, perhaps, that the programme scene disappoints him. In stark contrast to someone who would spend up to six hours with a potential interviewee prior to the show, just to improve his knowledge of the topic, not to mention reading books and engaging in as many conversations as possible on the subject, "a hell of a lot of work", presenters now will frequently fail to do their homework: "It shows..."
" Nour ala Nour " is so successful because Farrag was given free reign in seeking out and structuring material from the get-go: "I was the first to outline the boundaries of a talk show in Egypt -- something I wasn't aware of as it happened." Shot on location rather than in a studio -- an unprecedented feat, this -- and aimed at "a clear understanding of religion and the elimination of misconceptions", something for which "Arab Muslims were in dire need at the time", it proved so popular its slot was expanded from 15 to 60 minutes (it was later reduced to 45), and made a name for itself throughout the Arab world. Scanning the 860 episodes aired over the last 17 years is like reviewing recent national history: from science and family to Islamic law, the sheer range of the topics is impressive. No wonder, indeed, that Farrag dislikes the term "religious show" as a designation for his programme. To him religion is a way of life; it only naturally touches on every aspect of it. One function of this orientation has led to Farrag being called "minister maker" -- a term he modestly dismisses as inappropriate -- since so many figures rose to this rank following appearances on his programme: he chose his guests carefully, and had the knack for unveiling their potential abilities, every time. The late President Nasser is known to have listened steadfastly to Farrag's " Al-Maaida Al-Mostadira ", on which as yet anonymous people gave voice to the deepest insights; in some cases they were appointed ministers the very next day. "You're in luck" became the euphemism for being hosted by Farrag: "I'm just an instrument for highlighting accomplishment and promoting awareness -- not an innovator per se. Rather simply a media man." It was in this context that Farrag's name came to be associated with the late preacher and awqaf (religious endowments) minister Sheikh Mohamed Metwalli El-Shaarawi, whom he first met in 1963, in the office of the then Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Hassan Maamoun. El-Shaarawi was as yet unknown, and it was partly through Farrag's intervention that his wit and talent, notably as an interpreter of the Holy Book are today almost proverbial throughout the Arab world. Farrag essentially launched his career. Today, much as reminiscence delights him, the thought of El-Shaarawi's loss brings tears to his eyes: "We started off together." El-Shaarawi's first and last TV appearance, in 1963 and 1997, respectively, were both on " Nour ala Nour ".
When the programme stopped, it was because Farrag had been appointed secretary-general of the Islamic States Broadcasting Organisation (ISBO), an international position he was the first person to assume: "It could only really take all my time." Since the re-launch of the programme he has hosted geologist Zaghloul Al-Naggar, the man whose exploration of scientific facts encoded in the Quran has been the talk of the town: "It is yet another way of understanding the Quran -- through science and technology." In the 21 intervening years, Farrag established radio centres throughout the Islamic world, he briefly ran the Islamic News Agency (INA) and managed to keep his post as ISBO head even after President Anwar El-Sadat's peace treaty with Israel, which promptly forced Egyptians out of the organisation: "ISBO members wanted to have me suspended too. I didn't give them a chance. I was articulate, to the point -- the only way you could head the ISBO for 12 years. I wasn't representing the government. I do my job well to honour my country and live up to the trust fellow Muslims have placed in me." Some 1,000 episodes of " Nour ala Nour " behind him, Farrag believes he has "introduced religion to society". His impact, he says, was intergenerational, in the sense that his influence on one generation resulted in another being brought up on the same principles -- also in the sense that he trained his successors, or set an example for them. And the proliferation of religion programmes notwithstanding, he feels he is beyond competition: "There are not that many of them, really, especially if you're only counting the good ones. I think Amr Khaled, for example, is a rare example of someone who has the ability to reach out to his target, instilling the urge to live a better life." It is always on such a forward-looking note -- eager, modest, profound and full of optimism -- that this man of another age will conclude.