19 - 25 August 1999
Issue No. 443
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Profile Travel Living Sports Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
A powerful presenceI will always remember Nawal El-Mahallawi sitting quietly on an uncomfortable chair at Cairo Airport, waiting for her daughter Amina to arrive from Paris. My daughter was on the same flight, which had been delayed indefinitely. I was fretting awfully, trying to find out what was happening, when I heard Nawal's assertive voice. "Come here, and sit down," she said. She then held my hand firmly and kept her eyes riveted to mine, preventing me from looking at the arrivals board while she launched into an analysis of the conference which our daughters had been attending.
She talked and joked and seemed as relaxed as she had been a few weeks previously when we had sat together at an American University in Cairo alumni reunion. Her calm authority was so contagious that it was only when I noticed her glance surreptitiously at the board that I remembered my worries. "Incidentally," she said, stifling her own deep sigh of relief, "the plane has just landed." I wondered how she knew, since the word "delayed" was still blinking ominously on the board, but it never occurred to me to doubt her. Nawal was someone I trusted implicitly from the first day we met.
A relative newcomer to Al-Ahram, I had not witnessed first-hand the various phases of Nawal's prestigious career, but she was one of the establishment's best-known members -- almost a legend. I soon learned from friends and colleagues about the many aspects of her professional life. More than her skills, however, whoever met Nawal, no matter how briefly, was immediately struck by her strong personality, her capacity to capture at once the gist of a matter, and her ability to take into account the most minute details. She was a powerful organiser and a first-class troubleshooter. Her efficiency was phenomenal. Everyone knew that she left her personal imprint on any task she undertook. "Her mere presence enriched Al-Ahram Organisation for over 40 years," her colleagues remember.
A 1956 graduate of the School of Journalism at AUC, Nawal started her journalistic career soon after graduation, as an editor at the Middle East News Agency (MENA). She spent a year there before coming to work at Al-Ahram in July 1957, as the executive secretary to then editor-in-chief Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. With her deep understanding of her professional surroundings, Nawal soon became an essential component of the well-oiled Al-Ahram machinery. Demanding and energetic, she managed to bring out the best in her colleagues, even hiding her natural compassion for human failings at times for the sake of performance.
During the summer of 1967, she also organised and supervised the various official celebrations marking Al-Ahram's centenary.
In 1975, she took on the post of director-general of the Al-Ahram Centre for Translation and Publishing, which under her able guidance soon became a beehive of activity, presenting the public with prompt and excellent translations of the best in foreign literature, history and social sciences as well as publications of important works by Egyptian authors.
Nawal remained at the helm of the centre until she died, on Tuesday. I met her less than a month ago on the steps of the Al-Ahram building. Back from the States, where she had undergone surgery and therapy, she had lost weight and looked immensely tired, but her voice had not changed and she was cheerful as usual. We exchanged a few niceties, and she climbed into her waiting car. That was the last time I saw her. The way I like to think of her now is not as an invalid finally defeated by her long illness, but rather as the powerful, dynamic woman whose eyes shone with tenderness and pride whenever they lingered on her only daughter.