A non-Egyptian perspective
Hosny Guindy, first editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly passed away seven years ago. He is remembered by his friends and colleagues
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Guindy (centre) with layout editor Samir Sobhi, current Weekly Editor El-Kersh (left), veteran journalist Salama and former Weekly executive editor Hani Shukrallah (right)
I can't remember the first time I met Hosny Guindy, but it must have been sometime in the summer of 1990, 20 years ago, when I was in Cairo learning Arabic and wondering what to do next. Someone mentioned to me, probably somebody I had met while working at the AUC, that Al-Ahram was setting up an English-language weekly and was looking for "native speaking" staff to help with copy-editing and other tasks. Would I be interested in applying?
Al-Ahram in those days was rather different to what it is today. There was just the old 1960s building for one thing, state-of-the-art at the time that it was built but then beginning to look its age, and all Al-Ahram's publications were crammed into offices between the main editorial floor and the rooftop restaurant. Production took place on the floors below, using the linotype machines and manual page composition common at the time.
Hosny seemed to suffer from this lack of space. Somehow I had imagined that the foreign editor of Al-Ahram, as he then was, would have the kind of enormous office seen as a perk of the job by many senior staff. However, Hosny's office was tiny. He shared it with the Al-Ahram arts editor Nagwa El-Ashri, and it had no windows.
Later, once I had started working at Al-Ahram, space pressures became something one learned to live with, the paper's initial staff being housed in a single office between the sports magazine Al-Ahram Al-Riyadi and bits of other publications, among them the youth magazine Al-Shabab. But I can remember wondering at the time at Hosny's discreet and modest personality, very far from that of the kind of person who fights for a corner office with wrap-around windows. This was quite a boon for those working in a new environment and concerned at how they would be evaluated by a new boss.
I had only recently left university and my only previous experience in journalism had consisted of being features editor of Isis, an Oxford University magazine. I used to phone up famous people and ask them to share their memories. Hosny, however, seemed quite unfazed. He had arranged for a team of consultants, many of them having distinguished media careers behind them, to work together on planning the new paper. These would be working regularly at Al-Ahram during the planning stages, and native speaker copy-editors would arrive later in the day to be briefed on what had been decided and put together mock-up pages.
Things accelerated later in the year as it became clearer that Iraqi forces would not be withdrawing from Kuwait and that the international coalition put together to force them to do so would indeed be moving into what was at the time a still-occupied city state. From our point of view then in Cairo, the task was to make sure that the first numbers of Al-Ahram's new publication were ready and on the newsstands in order to provide an Egyptian perspective on this and other news.
There was a lot of discussion about what those words, Egyptian perspective, might be taken to mean, since this could be clearer in some contexts than in others. While some people made a habit of denying that the paper should have any particular perspective, claiming instead that it should aim to tell the truth as this might appear from any point of view, this kind of anti-perspectivism, though blunt, was perhaps also rather too easy.
What was discussed then, under Hosny's guidance, was the identity and character of the new paper, and he was always emphatic that whatever the form of words might be, this should be an Egyptian paper aiming to supply a different way of looking at the news. Some years later, when the impact of the television channel Al-Jazeera was being debated in the western media, I used to think of our debates back then in Cairo. Al-Jazeera was always clear that it was not intended as a clone of CNN or the BBC and that it wanted to offer a different perspective on the news.
Working in Cairo in 1990 we arrived at similar conclusions. While Al-Ahram's new English-language publication would not be able to influence the international news agenda, set by news rooms in Europe and North America, it would be able to provide a different way of looking at things for those who were interested, engaging different sympathies and enlarging the scope of what counted as the news.
Hosny played his cards close to his chest, and I can't imagine him being at home in a world of mission statements and other artifacts of contemporary management culture. On the other hand, he had a clear sense of what he wanted the new paper to be, evident from his choice of staff, his personal commitment, and, invisible to many of us at the time, his persistent work behind the scenes. There was always a firm hand on the tiller.
Many people since then have written about their memories of Hosny Guindy, not least in the Weekly itself. I remember most of all his genius for friendship and the tremendous loyalty he was able to produce in his staff. Having left Cairo some time after the paper started, but long before its presence on the Web massively enlarged its readership, and spending the rest of the decade in New York, it was always a pleasure to return to Cairo and visit Al-Ahram.
As a result of the opening of Al-Ahram's new building the Weekly had vastly gained in office space, and Hosny now had the kind of office I had imagined that he might have when I had first met him some years before. However, while he now greeted you across acres of shiny desk space and presided over a newspaper that was put together on computers and, thanks to the Internet, reached a larger audience than it had ever done before, he himself remained unchanged.
He would reach for the phone and order coffee in the same way that he had picked it up to order files from Al-Ahram's archives years before. It was always a pleasure to see him, and, as ever, he always managed to give the impression that though he must have been extraordinarily busy, having a newspaper to run and a large staff to oversee, he had nothing more rewarding to do at that moment than to reminisce or to share his vision for the next steps in the history of the Weekly.
Would anyone else have been able to make of the Ahram Weekly the success that it has become? Maybe, but one doubts it. Could anyone other than Hosny have succeeded in producing such striking feelings of loyalty and affection in his staff? Unquestionably not.
By David Tresilian