A last farewell
Abdel-Moneim Said remembers Mohamed El-Sayed Said
"I came back to Egypt to say good-bye," said my dear friend Mohamed El-Sayed Said when Taha Abdel-Alim and I visited him on the evening of 6 October. We were at a loss for words. Not that there was much left to be said. Just before his words he had asked everyone else to leave the room, as if he had wanted to impart a secret or a final testament. What he wanted to talk about was the part we played in building Al-Ahram, and he did so with all the energy he could summon. I was not accustomed to holding conversations from behind a mask, with the whiff of antiseptics in my nose. As we attempted to give a report on how we were managing the administration of Al-Ahram I was struck by how surreal the situation was. The wings of death hovered overhead, watching, listening, counting the minutes as we spoke of Al-Ahram's electronic gateway project.
What flashed through my mind was one of countless stories involving my best friend. Freshly returned from the US, where he headed the Al-Ahram's Washington bureau, he had been awarded the lump sum of LE30,000. He appeared in my office, carrying the money wrapped in the page of an old newspaper, as though he could not have been bothered to find an envelope or bag to put it in. I was working as director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies at the time. He deposited the bundle on my desk and before I could express my surprise he told me to take the cash, claiming it was too much for him and I would know better how to spend it. The days when our code was what's mine is yours had long since passed. Money was won by hard work, if it was won at all. I was at a loss for words.
You have a lot of expenses, Mohamed told me, a television programme on which you need to look your best and two children in private universities, and these things cost money. He enumerated the reasons for his action in the rational way with which he would present his views on the most important events taking place in the world. I burst out laughing and embraced him. He had slipped into an ascetic frame of mind, looking on the money as though it were dirty, feeling embarrassed, as if he had more than was proper. You have three ties, I told him, all of them worn. I suggested he take the cash and upgrade his wardrobe. But with a blend of jest and earnestness he insisted his three ties were most elegant and continued to attract the compliments of persons of taste. Eventually I hit upon a solution he would accept. I advised him to put the money in a bank account in the name of his only son, Marwan.
Then I was drawn back to the reality of the room, the patient in bed, the black wings beating overhead as we spoke about Al-Ahram. Taha Abdel-Alim reassured him that everything was well at work while my mind turned in another direction, towards the hope for a cure pinned on an American doctor from the Cancer Research Institute at New York University. The doctor, who visited Mohamed in hospital in Paris after his French doctors advised him to return to Egypt because there was no more they could do, held out the promise of a new treatment that had shown positive results even in cases like Mohamed's, where the immune system was malfunctioning. Initially it seemed that Mohamed would set off immediately for the US. In the end, however, he decided to return to Egypt to bid farewell to his friends and family and to the country he loved beyond all description.
My friend's illness began over two years ago, at the height of his involvement in the publication of Al-Badeel (The Alternative). Producing this newspaper kept him so busy rarely could he find the time to meet me or solicit my advice. It was during one of our sporadic meetings that he told me the news, showing, as was his custom, more concern for me than he did for himself. He laid out the facts of his illness plainly and stressed that there was nothing to worry about. I did not believe him and tried to persuade him to leave Al-Badeel and come back to Al-Ahram. His condition gradually deteriorated until, after almost a year, he agreed to come back and began to receive treatment under the supervision of Al-Ahram's medical administration, which was optimistic that he could be successfully treated in Egypt. Along with some of his close friends and, I believe, members of his family, I felt that another opinion was required. I submitted a request to Ahmed Nazif to have Mohamed treated at the government's expense. The prime minister agreed and Mohamed was able to travel to Paris for a more thorough diagnosis and treatment. Mursi Atallah, then chairman of Al-Ahram's board of directors, approved a similar sum to facilitate matters. For Mohamed the following year opened with what they term a "protocol" for his treatment, conducted in Egyptian hospitals selected by Mohamed and his doctors in Paris, and paid for by the Al-Ahram medical administration.
Sadly, his condition deteriorated. As often occurs in such cases, differences arose over whether he should continue his treatment in Egypt or return to France. I thought the latter course the wisest. Much to Atallah's credit, and in the face of some opposition, he approved three payments to cover expenses for Mohamed's accommodation and treatment in Paris. Then we received a letter from Mohamed thanking Al-Ahram and the Egyptian government for all they had done but assuring us that, since the French government had now agreed to treat him at its expense, all he needed now were funds to cover his accommodation costs. I ensured the payment of these costs after becoming chairman of the board of directors. It should be noted here that several businessmen offered to help financially; their generosity was gratefully acknowledged but declined since Mohamed's family and Al-Ahram were able to cover all the necessary expenses.
Though I had assumed the facts were known to everyone concerned, still we found ourselves reproached from several quarters, including some relatives of Mohamed, who took their complaints to other newspapers. Distressing as that was, the outpouring of affection and respect for our friend gave us much consolation. At the funeral ceremonies in Omar Makram Mosque it sometimes seemed as if the whole of Egypt had turned out to mourn and honour a revered friend and colleague. The government and opposition were there. There were Marxists, Muslim Brothers, liberals, and Arab nationalists, indeed representatives of every shade of the political spectrum. Especially moving was the fact that several generations of Al-Ahram leaders were at hand. There was Mohamed Hassanein Heikal to assure all that Al-Ahram had done its duty, Ibrahim Nafei telling television audiences of the virtues of his late colleague, and Atallah among the mourners. But while it was to be expected that the 1960s and 1970s generations would be on hand, I was surprised and heartened to see so many people barely in their 20s. I asked Marwan whether they were colleagues from school or relatives of the family. He told me that they were readers of his father's newspaper columns and other works. To me this, more than anything, symbolised the overriding sense of humanity and patriotism that Mohamed El-Sayed Said inspired.
Many saw Mohamed as a progressive leftist. To others he was a humanist, an outstanding scholar, a human rights and pro-democracy activist. For his colleagues at Al-Ahram and in the Centre of Political and Strategic Studies, he was a cherished colleague and a leader. He was, of course, all of these things. To me he was a friend, as close as a brother. For more than 40 years we had enjoyed absolute trust. Many people remarked this special relationship between two people who had travelled different intellectual paths. Our answer was always that our differences confirmed the strength and purity of our friendship. Abdallah El-Sinnawi, editor-in-chief of Al-Arabi, put his finger on it. He called me: I know how very special your friendship with Mohamed was, he told me, and I know Mohamed would have wanted me to pay my condolences to you personally.
His words brought tears to my eyes. Suddenly it struck home that though part of a soul had left this world to meet its maker, a part remained, like a final, whispered testament, urging us to press ahead in performing our duty towards the institution to which we were dedicated, the country we both loved, and the cause of freedom and progress in which we both believed. If only for a few hours this message brought together people who normally do not meet and whose paths and ways of thought have led them in directions that rarely converge. They had joined in tribute to a lifelong friend.