Abdou Mubashir: Stories from the war front
Abdou Mubashir is a trim old man with flawless demeanour and an engaging if somewhat one-sided chattiness. At the Al-Ahram central desk, where he tends to spend most of his working hours these days, he is instantly distinguishable from other -- senior -- journalists by his slick grey hair and the elegant suit he wears; he is significantly calmer, too, going over the proofs with an effortless grace while he reminisces about his work and life. A war reporter of some stature, Mubashir retains an energy for workaday journalism; and though wholly separated from his beloved Al-Akhbar since 1968, he sustains excellent relations with those around him. What does he do now? "Desk work," he says. "And book writing, maybe" -- a reference to his memoir Qatarat min Nahr Al-Hayah (Drops of the River of Life, published this August by the General Egyptian Book Organisation), the occasion for this interview -- "though as you can see I'm no good at writing." Was this, the last thing he said to me, a sudden bout of false modesty? Perhaps it was simply a humble avowal of where his professional loyalties ultimately lie, reporting from the war front having been his forte and the one thing he loved enough to write about. Even now it dominates his thoughts...
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Mubashir with General Saad Maamoun, then commander of Egypt's second army, on the fourth day of the 1973 War
Born in Sharqiya in the 1930s, Abdou Mubashir grew up in an atmosphere of provincial affluence, as he describes it: his family, though by no means feudal landowners, were among the better off in their class; and though he suffered inconveniences like lack of running water and electricity at home, none of it was distressing or indeed even noticeable. Everyone lived that way at the time, he remembers, and life in his little village was by and large an idyllic continuum.
"Because these people were relatively well off, they had interests. And who can best protect these interests in a provincial context? The police and the judiciary. So this is where they wanted their children to go, career-wise. They wanted them to grow up to be policemen, prosecutors or judges. These were virtually the only two options open to people like myself. By the time I obtained the old secondary-school certificate, the tawgihiya, there had been exceptions in the family: my cousin left for Europe and obtained some seven PhDs; another cousin was to become an educational official. So it wasn't entirely wilful to start thinking that I, too, wanted to take an alternative route." Mubashir had been precocious; notably, in his mid-teens, the Zagazig Primary School gave a party in his name, because he had read every single book in both the school library and the city council library -- a feat he continues to cite as a determining factor, essential to his worldview. "At those early stages, when you are kindred, impulsive and intelligent, you feel that the entire world is yours. And you begin to ask yourself the very difficult question, 'what do I want from my life?' Do you want money, fame? Perhaps you want to ameliorate other people's pains by becoming a doctor, or to build great monuments like the ones your ancestors left behind." The question was not easily resolved. "It was as if everything in the world was a delicacy on a platter -- you only had to choose, but once you did, and this is something you also realise, you would remain bound by that choice for life..."
On the 1936 Alliance being annulled in 1951, a grassroots movement that openly fought the British occupation, and Mubashir -- kindred, impulsive, intelligent -- went and joined a fidayeen "commandos unit" affiliated with the Wafd Party, though as he later explains he was no Wafdist. "The issue was clear," he remembers, with bitter irony: "there were foreign occupiers and victory consisted in getting rid of them." He fought along the Suez Canal, mingling with peers of every conceivable background and listening in on the inner squeakings of the country's political machinery, as it were; yet again his uncompromising idealism was stung to the quick. Never mind that he was only 14 at the time; Mubashir was precocious; and his patriotic sense of right dictated that "there should be no grey areas" -- everything had to be black and white. "The people in charge had spotted me leading a demonstration in Zagazig, so they took me in despite my age, and despite the fact that I had no connection with the Wafd Party. Then again the way things were structured politically hardly made for a perfect arrangement. There was heroism, it is true, but there was corruption as well. In those days it was through gossip that people found out about things, and joining the commandos unit put me in the line of gossip, which was all the more reason to have differences with the Wafd." By the time the monarchy was overthrown, in July 1952, he had developed boundless ambition for himself and his country; he wanted to do "great things, very great things".
He would not rest content with having one profession only: he wanted to be a lawyer, an army officer or a journalist; increasingly, as the time to enrol in university drew near, he wanted to be all three. Each of these career paths complemented the other in his mind, and he gave little thought to the practical implications of combining them. A lawyer would defend the rights of the poor, fight against injustice, promote a fair society. An army officer would help his country attain victory -- a theme Mubashir will return to again and again. And a journalist would participate in the media war that had to be fought alongside to battles on the ground. "My leanings had always been theoretical: history, geography, philosophy -- so whichever way you looked at it I was going to take the arts, not the science tawgihiya. There remained only the issue of how to combine my three interests. I sought to consult my elders and betters about it, and had many conversations with them." Mubashir was told he could be a lawyer-officer, leaving journalism out of the equation; he could also be a lawyer-journalist. "In the end I studied law, worked as a journalist and specialised in the military." He pauses momentarily. "You see how the issue was eventually resolved, how the choice was made?" But there was more to it, too: the military interest was paramount for reasons that had to do with Mubashir's deepest sense of motivation, and if he chose to be on the fringes of the army, it was only in the conviction that he would manage somehow to stay very close to it.
"From my reading of history I had developed a significant insight: that Egypt was different from other countries in one remarkable way. Whereas former Axis powers like Japan or, notably, Germany could resign themselves to military defeat, starting over with renewed vigour, becoming an economic power in a matter of years, for Egypt, throughout history, victory has been a prerequisite for effective progress. Think of Mohamed Ali's golden age, as but a single example among numerous others: When the army is strong, the whole country is strong; and vice versa. This holds true no matter which historical epoch you are examining. It is something that no one who is serious about the well being of the country can afford ignore. We were defeated in 1948, and again in 1956 and 1967, and we are still in that dismal cocoon to this day. It's true that we were victorious in 1973, but the effects of previous defeats were such that, so many decades on, we continue to suffer a general regress because of them. Which is why I was determined to help strengthen the army whatever it took. Only, being a lawyer-officer would have deprived me of something I hold dear: the capacity to express myself in words, to keep up with events and to report on them. Thus the oblique arrangement of studying law in order to work with the army, but only by way of the press. This seemed to answer to my pressing need to combine all three interests."
But there seems to be another, less significant reason behind Mubashir's attachment to military action: at school he had been not only a book worm but a committed athlete and a boy scout. He loved exploring, exerting himself physically, and taking risks. This extreme- sports bent, together with the romantic associations of belonging to the army, must have played a part as well. Though perfectly comfortable at the Central Desk, indeed, Mubashir seems beset by a kind of repressed energy, a need to break free of the office and to risk his life elsewhere.
In the first few years of his work at Al-Akhbar Mubashir's priority was "career building", however -- a goal to which he wholly devoted himself, working up to 20 hours a day, doing everything he had to do as well as everything he wanted to do in the context of the press, and then some. As a journalist he had neither influential connections nor an independent income on which to depend if things went wrong, he says. Besides, he liked his work enough to hand his life over to it. He was kindred and impulsive -- perhaps no longer so impulsive now that the grey substance of the world was increasingly impinging on his black-and-white vision, prompting caution -- as well as intelligent, and he was absolutely determined "to succeed". Al-Akhbar, what is more, provided a most sympathetic attitude. "I sent my book to a former colleague whom I hadn't spoken to in over 30 years. Promptly, as if we were in daily contact, he set aside space for it. This would never happen in Al-Ahram. You need only be away for a week to be totally forgotten. The system itself is based on brutal competitiveness and conspiracy. You are important only insofar as you are of interest..."
His years at Al-Akhbar were the best of Mubashir's life -- a time when he had all the means to make his dream come true, marching along with the army twice in the early 1960s. "When you march you do not take off your boots," he recalls, "you keep them on even while you're asleep, because once you take them off you won't be able to put them back on again. Once, while my brother wrenched the boot away from my foot, it came off with a layer of skin and two toenails. Imagine that." While he marched, Mubashir made intimate connections with army personnel, so much so that he was subsequently allowed to train as a commando and in the parachute corps -- "those were the days". This was all the more reason for Egypt's crushing defeat in 1967 to become as a harrowing shock. Since the 1950s, indeed, Mubashir had supported the July Revolution, even though he had realised early on that there was corruption and confusion -- the kind that brought back sad memories of how the army had been betrayed by the powers that be on the eve of the Nakba in Palestine. As he reported the defeat, now, he realised quite how mistaken he had been.
Mubashir had been on a scholarship studying journalism in the German Democratic Republic when it happened -- the hard-won outcome of his thirst for further knowledge, contracted through Al-Ahram : "I cut the scholarship short and came straight back." In a matter of weeks he had managed to raise some LE2 million, with which, in coordination with his military contacts, he purchase military equipment including a plane that took him to Cyprus, where government representatives met and brought him back. By 1968 he was back on the streets, an ardent activist of the student movement: it was as if he had come full circle, having joined the ranks of the army as a volunteer -- "the best possible way you can report" -- and then, increasingly disillusioned, opted for journalism. Then, when it all came down, he was back there -- demonstrating as he had done as a secondary school student. Later, as a close friend of General Mohamed Sadeq, he played a crucial role in Anwar El-Sadat's battle with the so- called centres of power -- mostly military figures who were constituting a threat to the president's authority, and whose efforts Sadeq was determined to counter for the sake of a unified army. Mubashir was unknown to the military intelligence and had direct access to Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, through whom Sadeq conveyed messages to Sadat. The favour was repaid with spite, however, when Sadat, unsure of Mubashir's loyalty had him dismissed from his job; Mubashir was unemployed for almost a year in the early 1970s, during which time he completed his Masters. Back here at the Al-Ahram Central Desk, watching him joke with colleagues as he passed on work, going over the proofs with complete calmness, you wouldn't think any of it happened.