When we were kings
To celebrate the publication of the 1,000th issue of Al-Ahram Weekly, part of a journey that began 20 years ago in February 1991, Weekly staff members remember their experiences of working for Egypt's first English-language weekly newspaper
A TIME TO REMEMBER: Hosny Guindy, Al-Ahram Weekly 's founding editor, gathered a team that was astounding in skill and enthusiasm, and he was helped in this task enabled by the advice of experienced colleagues like Samir Sobhi, Mahmoud Murad and Mohamed Salmawy, who also scouted talent for the new publication.
As a governorates desk trainee under Murad, I was introduced to Guindy and then Sobhi, and it became apparent that I would find my niche in the layout department. Along with Ahmad Abdel-Maqsoud and Galal Nassar, I soon joined this new line of work -- initially a steep learning curve.
What made things easier was Sobhi's generosity with his knowledge, his patience and willingness to explain. What I learned from him drove me to enroll in a journalism programme at Cairo University; I earned my diploma in 1995. But even so, both Guindy and Sobhi encouraged me to pursue my interest in the environment, and I earned an MA in that subject before beginning to work on a PhD while covering it for the newspaper in addition to my layout duties.
I have photographs of my team during the early days of the Weekly, in which Galal, Hani, Ayman, Khaled and I appear at work and at rest in the office. Even when we needed to work hard, we felt part not just of a news team, but of a family. This feeling of belonging never left me. I remember with fondness the days we needed to produce the newspaper at Al-Ahram 's bromide printer. I remember the hours of cutting and pasting and the trouble we had to go through to correct errors in the layout. It would take half an hour on average to correct a single letter.
Our first office was a makeshift corner in the institution's main newsroom on the fourth floor of Al-Ahram 's old building, the same floor where the newspaper's top writers resided. In our makeshift office, we had only one desk, and we all needed to work practically shoulder to shoulder. This all changed when we moved to the new building. Suddenly we had a room for every section, a desk for every journalist. We no longer needed to huddle together in a small space.
To this day, nonetheless, I yearn for the old days, when we were just starting up, when space was limited and the future tantalising.
UNIQUE UNITY: I first came to the Weekly offices in the spring of 1998, when I was scheduled to take an editing test to be hired in the position of copy editor, or sub-editor, as we were known at the Weekly. I was led into what was then the Central Desk, which was, true to its name, a room in the middle of the floor with a sizeable round table at its centre where everything seemed to happen; where all copy poured in to be edited, where most meetings took place and where people dropped by at some point during their working day to take a break, eat, drink tea or just mingle.
I was to meet with Mr Maurice Guindi, then Central Desk chief, heading a five-person strong team of foreign and Egyptian sub-editors; an exceptional meshing of backgrounds, cultures and talents. Freshly written articles would be deposited in his in-tray, to be assigned by him for editing to one of the subs, before arriving back on his desk for a second review. Articles flowed in and out like clockwork, journalists and sub-editors alike coming under Guindi's exacting eye and rigorous standards.
They say first impressions are lasting, and I remember, on that first day, how I thought everyone had an easy, laid back demeanour; a pleasant camaraderie and a shared satisfaction that was palpable, despite the classic notion of the often tense waters of journalism. A few weeks into the job, I began to understand where this spirit came from. The pride arose from working together to produce a truly unique publication; the only English-language newspaper from the Arab world that provides as fair, honest and comprehensive a view of the diverse ideological, political and cultural currents that characterise what many view as an enigmatic region.
The relaxed and harmonious atmosphere, without a doubt, was the mark of the leadership, vision and example set by the Weekly 's founder and editor-in- chief since its inception in 1990, the late Mr Hosni Guindi, a true humanitarian and an extraordinary man in every sense. All kinds of leadership are ultimately about results. It never ceased to amaze me how Ustaz Hosni was able to focus the energy, commitment and intellect of his staff on the task at hand and how he was able to describe and transfer to us all such an appealing vision of the desired future.
As we celebrate this happy milestone of the 1,000th issue, we look back to these years on the job with a fondness and nostalgia that keeps everyone soldiering on, anchored to realising the grand ambitions set forth by this no-frills, quality paper's much-loved founder.
WATCHING A CHILD GROW UP: My experience of the Weekly is probably different from that of my colleagues because my late father, may God rest his soul, not only worked but was also deputy editor-in-chief there. When the Weekly was in the making, he used to tell the family a lot about it. However, when I said that I would like to work for the fledgling newspaper, he tried to convince me to choose a less demanding job.
However, I do not usually give up on the things I want easily, and he gave in on the condition that he would merely introduce me to the place and that everything else would depend on my ability to prove myself. I started working for the Weekly a couple of months after it started, and although my father did not help me after that in any direct way, he always encouraged and praised me when I wrote a good story.
I can still remember the unique experiences I had with the newspaper, such as covering the impact of the earthquake that hit Egypt in October 1992. Another memorable experience was when we were asked to conduct a survey on the important issues of the hour. A group of us went to the Cairo railway station in Ramses Square in order to find suitable subjects for the questionnaire among members of the general public.
The station manager, unhappy that we were carrying out a survey without getting permission, ordered us into his office. He called the editor-in-chief of the Weekly, and it took a phone call from Ibrahim Nafei, the chairman and editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram at the time, before the station manager would allow us to finish the survey.
Working for the Weekly was like watching a child grow up. Now that the newspaper's 1,000th issue has appeared, the Weekly is no longer a child. I am proud to have been part of this unique experience, and I am sure I am not the only one.
Gamal Essam El-Din
THE GOOD OLD DAYS: I joined Al-Ahram Weekly very early on, at the time the first issue came out in 1991. I had been working as an Arabic-English translator at the Ministry of Agriculture, while also contributing articles to the English-language weekly The Middle East Times. One of my bosses, a friend of Mohamed Salmawy, the Weekly 's first managing editor, advised me to go to Al-Ahram to meet him, and after he had looked at my stories and translations Salmawy asked me to join the Weekly.
It was agreed that I should write reports for the Economy Page on privatisation, and my first story, entitled "Privatisation in agriculture goes ahead," was published in issue number three. As far as I remember, Al-Ahram had allocated just one room to the Weekly until the new building was finished, and this room was a cacophony of noise, with more than 20 people sitting or standing. Most of the time you couldn't find a seat, and if you stood up someone would take the seat you had been sitting on.The most striking feature of the Weekly at that stage was the fact that most reporters were women, though this changed over the years and a balance was struck between the sexes.
Salmawy told me that in addition to contributing stories to the paper I would also need to work as a typesetter, causing me to resign from the Ministry of Agriculture in order to give all my time to the Weekly. I was one of the first Weekly staffers to be appointed to Al-Ahram in December 1992, and it was agreed that I should work as the Weekly 's correspondent at the People's Assembly. After 1,000 issues of the paper, the Weekly has changed a lot since those early years. The paper today has few reporters, each of whom does a lot of work. For many years we enjoyed great freedom in covering the Egyptian domestic scene, though this has been reduced in recent years, and it is a cause for regret that some good journalists have also left the paper.
OF CULTURE AND UNKNOWN SPECIES: I showed up at Ustaz Hosny's office in 1994 as a fresh graduate with two things up my sleeve: a fight with my dad in which I insisted on not relying on any of his contacts for work, and a neat folder with all my published stories in the Caravan, AUC's Journalism and Mass Communication Department's student newspaper. Beaming proudly, I extended my the folder for his perusal, and was met with his even broader smile. "I am sure they are very interesting," he politely dismissed, "what I want you to do is go through all our published issues and give me a list of stories you want to start covering by next week. Welcome aboard."
I left his office feeling that this vessel I was about to embark was being steered by the wisest, kindest and most humane captain I could have ever hoped for. What I did not know, however, was that the "vessel" was populated by such a wildly diverse crew -- from shipwrecked sailors, to lords, from pirates to mermaids -- that, as the quote hanging in the Central Desk read at the time, "You do not have to be crazy to work here, but it certainly helps." Oh, I would fit just fine!
During my first two years, I was mentored by the hilariously witty, slicingly sharp, incredibly talented and suicidally bold Fayza Hassan, then editor of the Living Page, to whom I owe much of my writing style. Our conversations teetered on madness, our laughter was muscle-wrenching and our secretely exchanged glances wickedly critical. Fayza taught me to notice the historical aspect of everyday details; she also helped me unlock a number of treasure troves: that unsurpassable humor, and wisdom, results in looking at the world through a clown's eyes; that shafts heavy with grain gracefully bend while it is the empty ones that stand arrogantly erect; that the lives she and I had had, always balancing on two chairs, afforded us a bird's eye view that extended to the horizon. Fayza and her world prepared me well for the professional turn that lurked around the corner, of which I was completely oblivious.
"We at the Culture Page think you should come and work with us," told me then Culture Page editor Nigel Ryan, one day, just like that. He had consciously and delicately placed a hand over my shoulder, while suavely articulating the words with the deliberately focused look he often wore when he meant to appear serious for a change (that is, when he was not, for example, adopting a Southern American "honey child" or a Frrrrrrrrrench Edith Piaf accent, just for the hell of it). The Culture Page! The very den of creativity, the epicenter of insanity and the Weekly 's eclectic nest of undefinable creatures who mostly kept their office door closed and constantly displayed largely unusual behaviour discernible behind the glass wall. I felt extremely, extremely, priviledged.
That's when a whole new world opened up to me: the world of 80-year-old Mr Blake, whose first job ever was joining the Weekly as a music critic five years earlier; the world of flying Hala Halim, whose unmatched meticulousness was fuelled by the deepest reverence to everything she wrote about; the world of Nur Elmissiri, whose spiritual glow reflected on her no nonsense demeanour and the resonant ring in her laughter; the world of Youssef Rakha, the Energizer bunny of catastrophic excess compared to whom even Goofy seems like a dull academician; the world of Mona Anis, whose general knowldege, impressive contacts and intellectual adventures could produce an Encyclopeadia Monatica; and the world of Nigel Ryan, who, not to put too fine a point upon it, once offered his Christmas guest individually-bottled love potions that he had concocted in his own kitchen -- tap water reverently blessed with nonsensical incantations.
This was my world; and every surreal, ridiculous eccentricity I experienced within it remains etched in my memory with a multi-coloured, three-dimensional, otherworldy picture of what once was. As I look back on my Weekly years on this 1000th issue - during which I was in turn reporter, Living Page editor, Culture Page deputy editor and head proofreader - I realise that I learned something from every single one of my colleagues, and that Fayza Hassan and Hosny Guindy have every reason to rest in peace, if only for the good they imparted to my life.
WEEKLY-PEDIA: I arrived at the Weekly in March 2007, having come to Cairo to study Arabic and, as a journalist, to experience life in a Muslim society first hand, to understand what motivates Muslims, to try to understand where the Arab world is headed. As an experienced editor from my days at Moscow News and various publications in the ex-Soviet Union, I was fortunate to be hired to work as copy editor and journalist at the Weekly.
The Weekly plays a vital role as a portal for foreigners into thinking and events in the Middle East, refreshingly free of the Western, inevitably pro-Israeli bias. It has been an honour to write for a publication with such past illustrious contributors as Mohamed Hassenein Heikal and Edward Said. The whole tenor of journalism here is subtly different than practised in the West, disdaining sensationalism and embarrassing exposes, relying on self-censorship and, unlike Western contemporary journalism, unafraid to take a stand in search of a just understanding of world problems.
The Arab and Muslim world has been the target of Western pressure to conform to the imperial and now neo-imperial agenda, to discard its very different perspective of the role of religion and tradition in the pursuit of a meaningful life. As one of the steady stream of Westerners who find greater fulfillment in this Eastern perspective, working at the Weekly has allowed me to live alongside traditional Muslims and to better understand the valuable alternative Islamic civilisation provides in the face of the relentless march of Western-style globalisation.
A WRITER BY DESIGN: I have been working for Al-Ahram Weekly for 10 years now, but I clearly remember my first day on the job. I was about to design a page on an Apple computer using the desktop that was available at the time. Five of my new colleagues were standing behind me, watching my every move. Beside me stood the chief of the newspaper's art section, Samir Sobhi. I took hold of the mouse, pointed it, and froze. From behind me came an avalanche of conflicting advice. All my colleagues wanted to help and I was not sure if I should listen or try to block them out. Then Sobhi started to give me instructions loudly, unnerving me further. The whole thing seemed disastrous.
However, looking back, perhaps it was not. What Samir Sobhi wanted me to do was something I have since learned, over the years: to stay in control and not be distracted. Of course, designers need to cooperate, since everyone has different talents and experiences; and there is a need to work as a member of a team. In the design field, as in other areas of journalism, practice makes perfect. The Weekly is a special publication, distinct in many ways from other publications put out by Al-Ahram.
For one thing, Hosny Guindy made a point of telling members of the art section that they could submit articles to the newspaper. Coming from a family of journalists, the passion for writing had been hard to suppress; and when the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was being inaugurated, I went to see Fatemah Farag, then in charge of the Living and Features pages, to arrange for a contribution to the newspaper's extensive coverage of the event: a story about my grandfather, Habib Salama, who was one of the Arab world's pioneer librarians and bibliographers, as well as the editor of Alam Al-Maktabat (Library World). I had exceptional access to his work, which was kept safe in my father's study.
I was afraid of being turned down, since Fatemah had a reputation for commissioning only the best writers, but she liked the idea and immediately agreed to it. A writer with a commission, I felt like a man possessed. With more ease than I had thought possible, my childhood dream was coming true.
THE USTAZ: When, on my graduation in 1994, I applied for a job at Al-Ahram, I received a phone call from Hosny Guindy's secretary Nora, setting an appointment. It was November 1994, when I saw Ustaz Hosny for the first time. And what a gentleman, I thought. The thought still occurs to me seven years after he passed away.
After a second meeting I was offered the opportunity to join the team as a trainee. According to Ustaz Hosny the layout department was the place where one could learn how newspapers actually happen: the department of the details. There I met Usatz Samir whom I was to call the Godfather, the designer of the paper and a writer too. He knew all the details of the job, and our details too. I have also called him the Oracle, since he has an uncanny knack for predicting events.
At first he would stare at me severely, and I asked other members of the department whether this meant I was unwelcome. But I was soon to realise this was his way of knowing people -- and it works. Every word he utters reflects experience, and in the absence of Ustaz Hosny he gives the place a special spirit. After a few months of training Ustaz Hosny said I could choose which department of the newspaper I wanted to join, but it did not take any effort to settle on the room where I felt I had joined the cheerful family that made the Weekly look so good. While watching them work, I wrote my first story -- about people who make their living exclusively during elections: sign painters and cloth merchants etc.
I feel this is still the Weekly that I came to many years ago, although it has changed since the launch just the way so many things in Egypt have changed. But I still love the place where every December, a Christmas tree was decorated and every Ramadan, on the same spot, a huge lantern is lit to celebrate the Holy Month. Marking the 1,000th issue, I could confidently say that I was there for the making of most of these issues. I can still feel Ustaz Hosny's spirit when I come in. Through his presence I maintain my enthusiasm not only for the newspaper but for a whole world that I saw the Weekly bring into the ninth floor of Al-Ahram's new building.
FRIENDS AT THE WEEKLY: For me, the Weekly is not just the place where I work; it is also the place where I have found friends. While friends from school can become distant after you discover you don't have much in common with them, friendship at the workplace is something you can take with you to the grave. In fact, one of the faults of the Weekly may be its tendency to prioritise friendship over work, which may not be in favour of efficiency. However, it does spare us the kind of office feuds that I have heard about from colleagues working on other publications.
Many have passed through the Weekly at some point in their careers, and I feel sure that none of them has forgotten the group lunch every Tuesday, or the group breakfast on Wednesday as the paper is laid out. Koshari and fuul parties are the specialty of the Economy Page, besides the stock market and budget of course, as well as the Eid cookies staffers still gather over.
Friendships made at the Weekly have taken years to build, though at the beginning none of us knew each other very well. One of my first friendships at the paper came about by accident. I had decided to do a story for the Features page on the Sixth of October Panorama in Cairo, and I thought I would like to visit the Panorama first before interviewing the curators. On a bright sunny morning I took the bus to the Salah Salem Road where the Panorama is located, stepped off in front of the monumental building and knocked on the door.
To my surprise I was received with open arms and was quickly admitted into the presence of one of the top army men running the museum. In a few moments there came another knock at the door, and another journalist appeared. It was another staffer at the Weekly. Apparently it was she they had been waiting for, and my timing had just been lucky.
CENTRALITY: The Central Desk really has a central desk. In the middle of a smallish room stood a polygonal table made of heavy wood, the kind they no longer make, with tailor-fitted glass on top and drawers with locks to store personal whatnot. The table was rarely used to work on, but to eat on, sit on, sip tea and coffee and gossip on. Work was done, rather, on five surrounding oversized Apple desktops which belonged to the age of T-rex but got the job done anyway. The table was located in what was called the Central Desk where all the editing of Al-Ahram Weekly 's stories was done.
We the sub-editors did not choose the stories the reporters wrote. That was the work of the editor-in- chief, his deputies and the reporters themselves. But once reporters filed their stories, their job ended and ours began. Just about all who wrote for the Weekly were non-English speakers whose mother tongue was Arabic, and so needed help in writing their stories. As such, not a single word could be published without first being checked by a sub-editor in the Central Desk. Without question, the importance of the Central Desk to the Weekly was infinitely greater than that of an English newspaper published in an English-speaking land.
The Central Desk's head was Maurice Guindi, a tall, lean, silver-haired gentleman, the prototype of a seasoned journalist who had been chief of the AP and UPI bureaus in Cairo. I was one of only two Egyptian editors in the Central Desk which was otherwise full of mainly Americans and Britons, mostly fresh college graduates with little or no journalistic experience. Lured by chaotic and exotic Egypt and attempting to learn some Arabic, these free spirits would stay in the Weekly and in Cairo only a few months, during which time their salaries paid the bills. The Central Desk was thus a revolving door; from the time I joined the Weekly in 1998, roughly 50 subs came in and went out.
Maurice would parcel out the stories, either to a free sub, possibly picking his nose, or to one who was knowledgeable of the story's subject. Our job was to clean up the English, ensure the newspaper was mistake-free. We had to be extra careful, for there were booboos like this: "The teams were divided into four groups -- A, B, C, D, E, F and G."
We would then hand over what we did to Maurice who with his hawk eye would inevitably catch oodles of mistakes we failed to spot.
The work required excellent command of English, better than that of the reporters', for we, along with the proofreaders, were the last line of defence that separated the newspaper from calamity.The hours were anti-social. We would begin work when many of the staff were going home. Tuesday, which was close to Thursday's publication date, was horror night as we burnt the midnight oil.
Today the Central Desk still exists but not for sub- editors. With the advent of e-mails sub-editors began sending in their stories from their homes in Cairo or even outside Egypt. The places where the subs used to sit in the Central Desk have been taken over by young staffers who will one day be the Weekly 's spine. Like their predecessors, they sit around the same table, sometimes on top of it, eating on it, sipping tea and coffee and -- surprise, surprise -- gossiping.
A TASTE OF CENTRAL DESK: I came to work at Al-Ahram Weekly because of a dust storm. It was 1997, and the dark cloud that descended on Cairo one summer day blocked the sunlight so entirely that some thought it was the end of the world. It wasn't the end of my world, but it was a new beginning. In the span that it took the dark cloud to clear, my host, a Lebanese photo-editor, told me about a job vacancy at Al-Ahram Weekly, a newspaper I had only seen once or twice before. Only a few months earlier I had come back to Cairo from London, after living for 15 years abroad.
I showed up at the newspaper a few days later and within hours became a "sub-editor" at the Central Desk: one of five or so people, mostly native English speakers, who make sure that the final copy that goes to print is readable and somewhat to the point. Central Desk was by far the most fun place I have ever worked.
We were all young, all except me that is. Everyone was in their 20s and 30s and I was in my mid-40s, but no one seemed to notice. Every so often, we would sneak out of the office for lunch at Tawfiqiya Market. And when we didn't have time to go out, sandwiches were brought in from nearby.
A member of the office staff, the indelible Said, would come at midday and shout, "Lunch?", one of the four or five English words he knew. Much of my copy would get smeared with tahina sauce dripping from delicious shrimp sandwiches from a nearby shop. This was the evening copy. The morning one was always sticky with sugar from the Danish pies of Al-Abd, brought to the office by a friend who now works for the Oxford University Press.
I stayed at Central Desk for only six months. It wasn't only me who left Central Desk for better things, in my case mostly making pizza and watching television. To be a sub-editor is to be on the move. It is a job taken by people who have just arrived in the country, like me back then, or students out of college looking forward to getting a bite into the hard crust of the Middle East's over-baked reality.
Some Central Desk staff members have gone on to become top journalists in Europe and America, while others have written successful books, and a few have been sucked into the vortex of EU bureaucracy. But there is no doubt in my mind that somewhere in Luxembourg, Athens, London, or Chicago, there are people who can easily remember the taste of those tahina - dripping shrimp sandwiches in steaming baladi bread... the unforgettable taste of Central Desk.
A WORLD OF OPPORTUNITY: As a 19-year-old junior studying journalism at the American University in Cairo, I had no idea that a phone call would launch my career at one of the region's most prestigious newspapers. However, Al-Ahram, the venerable press establishment, was recruiting young journalists to staff its - soon-to-be - launched English-language newspaper. The publication's motto was "an English- language newspaper with an Egyptian perspective". It was truly a time of opportunity for young journalists, many of them women. If you wanted to do a job or assignment, you volunteered for it and you did it. With so much freedom and support from veteran journalists and professionals, all you needed to do was demonstrate dedication and quality.
This allowed me to do a variety of jobs around the newspaper in addition to reporting, including typesetting, page design, tape recording and transcribing high-profile roundtables. In time, I also started to mentor younger journalists. All this was possible while also reporting on various topics up and down the country, including terrorism, natural disasters, the environment, and finally ending up as the newspaper's presidential correspondent for a decade. These things were unique opportunities for any 23-year-old. It didn't matter how much you were paid or how demanding the assignment was: when you saw your name in black and white in the newspaper on Thursday morning, the world was your oyster.
I started my reporting career by attending functions to write up in the Madame Sosostris social column, while also running around experimenting with feature stories. The stories were naturally thoroughly vetted and sections were rewritten by the copy editor, but that only pushed me harder to continue pounding away on the antiquated typewriters that we used at the time, with their heavy keys and loud obnoxious clatter, all housed on the seventh floor of the old Al-Ahram building. To help with a shortage in that department, I also began typesetting (retyping stories) into bromide form, which would then be painstakingly and carefully set on large sheets by technicians before going to press. This took place on computers with black screens and a blinking green cursor in printing labs that were kept ice-cold. The job kept you at the newspaper on Wednesdays until 1 or 2 am or later, but I always enjoyed the camaraderie and the experience that cannot be duplicated today.
With advances in technology, typesetting became obsolete and designing pages on computers the new craze. Again, there were many late nights and a constant supply of fuul and taamiya sandwiches at midnight in the office. In retrospect, it must have been quite a gamble for senior staff and management to put so much faith in the young and inexperienced. Nonetheless, the newspaper was a success, and it quickly gained a strong reputation among its target audience. Of course, it was always amusing to interview laymen on the street, especially when they thought you were writing for a paper named Al-Ahram Quickly or Al-Ahram Mickey. To this day, I pride myself on being one of the first to join Al-Ahram Weekly 's team and even to have had stories printed in the trial "zero" issues well before the paper officially hit the newsstands.
FROM TRANSLATING TO JOINING THE WEEKLY:
It was like a dream come true when I joined the team of Al-Ahram Weekly, the Middle East's most prestigious English-language newspaper. As an English language and literature student at the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, I used to translate excerpts from the Weekly as part of the university's translation course, and I could never have imagined that one day I would be a member of the staff producing the paper and would share in its appearance every Thursday.
Celebrating the 1,000th issue of the Weekly, I recall my first meeting with its founder and first editor-in- chief, the late Hosny Guindy, and how he warmly welcomed me as a new trainee. I still remember the advice he used to give me: Pay more attention to producing a properly written article than to the fact that your name will appear on it. I still recall the words he used when talking to one of the paper's foreign sub-editors. "For me being the Weekly 's editor-in-chief is a duty, not just a job."
I was lucky to publish my first story shortly after joining the Weekly at the end of 1998, when I was still a new graduate. The story was entitled "A Philatelic Journey", and it was about the official reopening of the Postal Museum in Ataba Square in Cairo, appearing in the Weekly 's edition of 21-27 October 1999.
"I NEVER THOUGHT OF MYSELF AS A JOURNALIST": I had never thought of myself as a journalist, but the new Al-Ahram Weekly English-language newspaper promised to be one of a kind. Newspapers in English were not a familiar item on the Egyptian market at the time, and there was only one English newspaper, which consisted more or less of a collection of wire service articles. We could claim to be pioneers in the field. With this in mind, and with the concept and objective of the paper still hazy, I went to meet the Weekly 's then editor-in-chief, Hosny Guindy. It was a week before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. He explained to me the objective behind issuing an English-language publication. I still recall his words: "We are not a translation of the daily. Our readership is different, since we are addressing not only Egyptians, but also foreigners in this country and throughout the world who want to know our part of the story."
Even the division of the paper into sections, Guindy explained to me then, had not yet been decided. Some hours later, I left Al-Ahram's offices thinking that this was the job I was looking for. However, I would still have to wait to see whether I would be appointed. The invasion of Iraq took place and suddenly war was the word on everyone's lips. That was when I received a call from Guindy himself, asking me to come and start work immediately . The paper had not yet appeared, but we had to work as if it had and schedule our work accordingly. I had to be at the office early to cut the wire stories, read the newspapers and be ready with a list of news stories by 11 am. I learned how to respect deadlines no matter what, how to choose stories and sources, and how to select first-hand information.
After a few months, we started to produce trial issues. Then came the war to liberate Kuwait, beginning on 15 January 1991, the day that Guindy announced the countdown for the paper's publication; we should be ready to produce the first issue. He was keen that everyone working on the paper should have an article in the first issue. Mine was on the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab world after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. I remember that on the evening of 28 February 1991, with the first edition of the Weekly hitting the news stalls, none of us was willing to leave the office without first taking a print-out of his or her "own page", the one on which our article appeared. After 1,000 issues, the Weekly is still made up of our pages; it is still our newspaper.
TO THE CAMEL MARKET: How difficult, yet how strange, to go back some 18 years in time! When I joined the Weekly in 1991, a year after leaving university, I was very enthusiastic, as were all my new colleagues, young and old. I joined the Features section, and my boss was Mahmoud Murad, now assistant to the editor-in-chief of the Al-Ahram daily. My first assignment was very remarkable, which is why I remember it despite my bad memory: a feature on the Camel Market, located at the time in an area near Imbaba in Cairo.
When I submitted my first draft to Mahmoud Murad, he read it carefully and then told me I needed to go back to get more details. So I did. It was interesting to talk to the camel merchants and to be among those huge creatures, though their smell was unbearable. On my second visit, I was almost hit by a stray camel while talking to a boy herder. However, I got back safely to the office and rewrote my article, bearing in mind the necessary details. Then I re-submitted the article to Murad, full of confidence that now he would like it.
"Good job," he said. "But you need to go back with a photographer."
He gave me the article back (at the time we used to write on paper rather than on the computer). I was shocked. This would be the third time for me to go to that crowded place. The dealers would misunderstand my visits and think of me as some kind of a spy. But I rewrote the article for a third time, though I felt a little desperate when I submitted it again the following day. Entering Murad's office in Al-Ahram's old building, I was trembling with fear. I did not want to go in again.
However, I was greeted with a broad smile, and Murad explained to the Weekly 's then editor-in-chief, Hosny Guindy, who happened to be in the office at that moment, that "Rania has done a good job, and this is only the start."
Guindy smiled and said something encouraging and supportive. I can still see his cheerfulness, the modesty of his demeanour. I was embarrassed and impressed. For a moment, I thought they were both mocking me. After all, I was just a fresh graduate. However, the following week, when my article was published on a whole page, I took a deep breath. Thank goodness I was on the right track and thank goodness I didn't have to go back to the Camel Market again.
DESTINY PHONING: I had no idea that a phone call would change my life. One day, a friend of my father's called to say that he knew of a job opportunity at one of the region's most prestigious English-language newspapers. Al-Ahram Weekly, the Al-Ahram Organisation's English-language publication, was recruiting young journalists, having been launched in February 1991.
A former English Language and Literature student at the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, I was happy to join the Weekly as a translator, an idea that later changed when I first stepped into the Weekly 's offices in November 1993, nearly five months after my graduation.
Joining the Weekly was an exciting prospect for me. I started to dream of being a famous journalist who could play a role in changing society, easing people's problems, and bringing the truth to light. However, before any of that could come to pass, in order to join the Weekly, I was told, I would have to take a small exam.
I was assigned to write a story, this being a test in order for me to be hired as a reporter. I was led to the desk of the late Fayza Hassan, then head of the newspaper's Living section. On first stepping into the Weekly 's offices I noticed that many members of the paper's staff were women, which helped to ease the tension I felt.
I wrote my article, handed it to Fayza Hassan, who then sent it to the Weekly 's founding editor-in-chief, the late Hosny Guindy. A few days later, Hosny's secretary phoned to ask me to come for an interview with Hosny himself. I arrived at the interview, and in the end Hosny congratulated me on getting the job.
"This is the happiest moment of my life," I thought then. "I am now a working woman and will soon be financially independent." However, on first joining the Weekly, I still needed to be trained in journalistic writing by my new colleagues, as I was not a Mass Communications graduate and had little idea of journalism.
Today, as the Weekly celebrates its 1,000th issue, I can still recall the first article that appeared in the paper above my by-line. It was in January1994, and the article was about women judges. I can still remember the story's headline, "Women on the Bench". I have not stopped writing about women since.
MAGICAL BEGINNINGS: "Hello, is that Al-Ahram Weekly ?" I asked over the telephone back in 1991.
"Yes. Can I help you?" a female voice answered.
"I was wondering if there were any vacancies for a reporter."
"Just a minute." She'll probably keep me on the phone and then say no, I thought to myself. It seemed like a long time before a male voice came to the phone. "I am Hosny Guindy. Can I help you?"
Who's Hosny Guindy, I wondered before I replied.
"I would like to work as a reporter at the Weekly and I was wondering if...."
The answer came swiftly.
"When would be convenient for an interview?"
"Anytime," I said eagerly.
"Tomorrow at noon, then," the voice said politely. "Please come to my office."
"Alright, thank you," I said, while trying very hard to remember his name.
I wrote it down -- Hosny Guindy -- wondering how I would find his office since I didn't know who he was. I should get the newspaper just in case I am asked questions about it, I told myself. So I got a copy of the paper, then on something like its sixth edition and better than the other English-language publications available at the time. I had wanted to work as a reporter since I had graduated, but as I did not have good Arabic and did not want to join other English-language publications, I had had to put my dream to one side.
Looking through the Weekly, now I found Hosny Guindy's name. HE WAS THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF. I must be very lucky, I thought, because editors-in- chief don't usually come to the phone and talk to people looking for a job. I didn't realise then the kind of editor-in-chief Hosny was.
I put on a navy blue outfit and wore the high-heels that I kept for special occasions. Entering the reception area at Al-Ahram, I asked where Hosny Guindy's office was. The firm-faced man sitting behind the reception desk dialed a number and told me, "Fourth floor." Fourth floor it was, but where was the office? I asked a man who had just walked past me and he pointed to Hosny's office. Then, I slipped on the floor. I giggled like a fool out of embarrassment, praying that nobody had seen me. No luck: a stranger pulled me up while his colleagues looked on with smiles on their faces. My hand hurt. It was ten minutes past ten, and I was late.
"Please sit down," said the Weekly 's editor-in-chief, a slim-figured man smoking a pipe and wearing informal clothes. He started telling me about the newspaper as I arranged myself on a chair. Then came some questions, all of them asked in the same informal manner. Someone else came into the office, a man I later discovered was a reporter on the Ahram daily. "Did you find someone to cover the Maadi fire," Hosny asked. I was all ears, since fires were uncommon and I wanted to know all the details. Hosny turned to me. "Would you like to cover it?" he asked. "You won't have to write anything if you don't want to, but it would be good experience."
Was this person for real? Could he really be that nice? I thought perhaps he was giving me some difficult recruitment test.
Leaving his office, questions began to race through my mind. Where do I start? I had studied Mass Communication at AUC, but being a reporter in real life was another thing altogether. I panicked. I should go home and forget the whole thing. How would I ever cover such a big event? I had never written for a newspaper.
However, I did go to Maadi, where I found myself asking residents questions. The words, "I am a reporter from Al-Ahram Weekly. Could you tell me what happened," sounded strange to my ears. I expected someone to ask me for my press card, but no one did and I began to feel more self-confident.
A shop owner had video footage of the blaze. Could I have a copy? He said I could and that I could collect it the next morning. I began to feel a stabbing pain in my wrist and later discovered that I had fractured my arm in the embarrassing incident that morning. I went back to Maadi the next day, but the shop owner who had promised to give me the video told me to come back in two hours. He kept telling me "in two hours" until the sun had set, and I went home wondering if the man had intentionally lied to me. The next day I found that he had given the tape to the Al-Ahram daily when I saw still photographs on its front page.
I decided to go back and ask more questions about the fire. I felt motivated, excited and willing to do whatever it took to get a good story. Fortunately, the Weekly was a weekly newspaper, giving me more time to do the story.
I wrote up the story using a small typewriter and one hand and headed to Hosny's office, where I told him about my experiences as if he had been an old friend. He smiled and read the story. He doesn't like it, I thought to myself.
"Think about your next assignment," he said, as if he understood what was going through my mind.
That Thursday I woke up early to buy Al-Ahram Weekly, and, flipping through the pages, I found the headline "Black Friday". I saw my name in the lead, and I felt as if it was the first time I had ever read it. It felt amazing.
Then came other assignments -- other accidents and stories about the political parties, terrorism, elections, press freedom, trials, and so on. I felt at home at the Weekly and wanted to put in more effort. Not only did I look up to Hosny, I also did not want to disappoint him. I did whatever there was to do: typesetting, as there were no computers at that time, laying out pages, or just hanging around in case I was needed.
It wasn't always easy, and sometimes there were quarrels about who should do a particular story or cover a certain beat. We used to race to the office to get the spiciest stories. One can laugh about it now, but at the time it was a matter of life and death.
After the death of Wadie Kirolos, the Weekly 's first home news editor, I became page editor and have since become engrossed in the profession. Things have become more challenging as the domestic scene in Egypt intensifies. However, even as we mark the 1,000th edition of the newspaper, I still miss the magic of those early beginnings; above all I miss Hosny Guindy.
A SNAP OF THE WEEKLY: With his usual smile, Assem El-Kersh, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, entered a meeting of the newspaper's central desk and reminded those sitting around the table that the 1,000th edition of the Weekly would be appearing shortly. I immediately remembered my first experiences at the newspaper.
Hosny Guindy, the newspaper's founder, had asked me for a photograph that could be used on the front page of one of the paper's zero issues. After much discussion I gave him two photographs, one of the Nile at Aswan and the other of the Abu Simbel Museum at night. When the zero issue was printed I got a copy, but Hosny asked me not to let anyone else at Al-Ahram see it, as he wanted it to be a surprise.
However, I couldn't wait until I got home to read the paper, so I went downtown and sat in a café to have a look. A hand patted me on the shoulder, and, looking up, I saw someone who looked like a foreigner asking me what I was reading.
I told him that it was a zero issue of the Al-Ahram Weekly, a new English-language newspaper. He asked to have a look at it, and I said I wasn't allowed to show it to anyone as it was only a zero issue. Yet it was too late: he had already caught a glimpse of the picture. The man seemed to understand my point of view.
I was a bit worried that someone had seen me reading the as yet unpublished paper, so I quickly went back to the office to return it to Hosny Guindy. On entering his office, I was astonished to find the foreign man I had met at the café there as well. Hosny seemed very happy that the man had seen the zero issue and happy that he was able to give him his point of view.
COLD COMFORT: A fresh graduate of the American University in Cairo, I started my career at Al-Ahram Weekly, a newspaper that immediately felt like home thanks to the warmth of its founding editor, the late Hosny Guindy. Throughout his life and even after his death Hosny remains our mentor, and I personally owe him a great deal for what I have achieved today.
My first wish was to join the paper's Features or Living section, but Hosny recommended that I start on the news section. I was assigned to write a follow-up piece on the victims of the October 1992 earthquake that had left many people homeless, and, grabbing my camera, I drove some 100 kms south of Cairo until I reached the site of the earthquake. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that there were such downtrodden people in Egypt, apparently forgotten by society and by the government. Unequipped camps, best described as inhumane, were scattered across a sandy site, with two or even three families having to share a tent.
I remember how desperate the camp dwellers appeared, rushing up to me in the hope that I might be able to convey their trauma to the officials who might eventually help them. I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility towards these people and thought that the least I could do was to try to make their voices heard and their agony felt. I spent all day at the site, and by the time I got back to the office it was a few hours after dusk; I hurried to Hosny's office to tell him I was back.
Wadie Kirolos, then editor of the home page, listened carefully to what I had to say, and he urged me to use my emotion in writing my piece. Under the headline "Cold Comfort for Camp Dwellers," my first article appeared in Egypt's leading English-language newspaper, marking the start of my professional career.
As the paper was only in its first year of publication, not everyone knew what Al-Ahram Weekly was. Sometimes people would only understand the Al-Ahram part of the title, and would not understand the word "weekly".
However, young and energetic as we were, we were determined to spare no effort in making sure that our newspaper achieved the international reputation that it enjoys today. Sometimes, we would spend the night at the office preparing for a special issue or working on articles, and I believe that it was this dedication and hard work that helped us to achieve what we have today.
We remain committed to our readers and to keeping alive the values upon which the Weekly was established.
PROUD TO BE HERE: An ultimate dream for any graduate seeking an early life career would certainly be a job in a well-known organisation pertaining to his studies. But getting in touch with the top professional entity in the business, in my opinion, in an early stage then eventually working for it -- that was definitely beyond the possible.
I remember the first time I started reporting for the Weekly, it was just before the end of my last academic year as a journalism student. For me it was a breathtaking test of my capabilities, I wanted to put all I had learned in my studies and trained to do as a senior student into my work. Every step of the way, I was thinking of the veterans back there in the Weekly office, those who inspire the respect not only of students but of other professional journalists with years of experience.
As one of them, I was thinking of the readers who await top-notch journalists every week to enjoy their style of writing, pictures and scoops. I had to put those expectations ahead of me, thinking not to let those mentors down.
It was finally out, it was really like a dream come true. My first report is published in the Weekly. After all the tension and anxiety, I was officially a member of the crew, and what a great crew. They taught me how to feel the responsibility, and how to always strive to produce exceptional work despite any difficulties.
I am so proud to be here in the celebration of the 1000th Weekly issue, and I hope that I will always be there, wherever on the planet just to get the news and keep us all aware of what is going on.