11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Books Features Interview Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Mursi Saad El-Din:
Words are the most enduring monuments
Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
Dr Mursi Saad El-Din, Commander of the British Empire and former head of the State Information Service, is editor-in-chief of at least two dozen publications. He wears a permanent rich, dark and very earthy tan, in sharp contrast with his silver hair which even in his four score years still has enough body to lend a mark of distinction on its bearer -- the unruly curls of yesteryear have mellowed somewhat. He has a ready smile -- more chuckle than grin -- and he looks you directly in the eye. It is as if he is scanning your soul in search of your naughtiest blunders.
PAGES FROM HISTORY:
A serious child...
And he does this with a glow of elfin youthfulness. It is a technique he puts to full effect when he hosts distinguished personalities on his television show. Dr Mursi's most fascinating talent is to make people see the lighter side of things. His smiling face sets people at ease -- even when discussing weighty topics on air.
A friend of kings, presidents, prime ministers and a host of lesser mortals, he possesses a winning combination of simplicity and sophistication. He had met my father on numerous occasions and had last interviewed him in 1964 in Accra, Ghana, soon after an assassination attempt on Kwame Nkrumah's life. He also taught my sister Arabic at Legon University, Ghana, in the early 1980s. But I personally only met him nine years ago. Today, I can proudly say that I make a regular appearance on his chat show, Open Forum, which tackles political and cultural questions and which he launched a decade ago. As it is, I often start my day at work with a little chat with the courteous, bright-eyed and affable gentleman behind the desk of his rather modest Al-Ahram Weekly office, the same gentleman whose name graces practically every English-language publication in the country.
"I'm pleased about it... but I really play no part at all, except that I vaguely like to know what's going on, and my colleagues are very kind to tell me, more or less," he says, his head quizzically cocked, with genuine humility but still a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He is not one to insist on doing things absolutely on his own terms. He is flexible. His live-and-let-live credo and lack of political ambition served him well in those years when he was very close to the centre of power.
His eyes are large and very expressive. They are of an indeterminate colour -- soft brown, perhaps a little hazel and a dash of green. They are playful, with more than a hint of boyish naughtiness. His blithe personality is, indeed, disarming -- but perhaps the most endearing of all his many charms is his down-to-earth humility.
Ironically, Dr Mursi is like a fish out of water in the media ruckus of today. His is a voice from another age, yet one that is especially relevant to our times, and engagingly so. After all, he draws on a career that spans half a century. He knows his way around that maze of a building in Maspero which houses the country's main radio and television studios. When the two of us navigate our way through the endless and intimidatingly crowded corridors, people often stop to bow, fondly kiss or warmly greet him. Everyone adores him.
..with family in London;
..with family after becoming CBE;
..with Amr Moussa;
..with President and Mrs Ford and Mrs El-Sadat;
Dr Mursi has a wealth of fascinating, amusing and sometimes mind-boggling anecdotes pertaining to the many historic events he has witnessed, reported on and analysed from the 1950s to this day. He has had several careers, and he was a pioneer in virtually all of them. He began in the print media, at a time when the revolutionary Egypt of the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser was reaching out in solidarity with other parts of the developing nations of the South, especially Africa and Asia. He later moved into radio, when Egyptian broadcasting in English was a novelty. He also inaugurated several Egyptian cultural centres abroad. Dr Mursi was a jet-setter long before the term was invented, representing Egypt, Africa, Afro-Asian writers, and a host of other Third World concerns at countless international forums. He well deserves the accolades that have been appearing with ever-increasing regularity in many highly esteemed Arab and Egyptian publications, especially in the past two years. As if that wasn't enough for one lifetime, he is currently working on his memoirs.
For Dr Mursi, the Sadat years were exciting and exceptionally rewarding. He quickly moved high up the political ladder and became the official government and presidential spokesman. Early on, however, he had realised that politics was not a welcoming arena for an intellectual. During the critical years between 1973 and 1979, he was the head of the State Information Service. He had all the information at his fingertips, and was master of all curious and strange lore. Because he had no wish to play political games, however, he was naturally trusted and widely consulted.
I wonder if he regrets not working at the more literary end of things. He takes things in his stride, however, and has no truck with such unpleasant notions as regrets or bitterness. Today, Dr Mursi is a regular columnist for both Al-Ahram Weekly and the daily Arabic Al-Ahram. He sets about his work with energy and enthusiasm. "My role is that of mediator between scholarly writing and an intelligent general reading public," he explains. And the realm of words, after all, is his world. He wrote the foreword to the Everyman's edition of William Lane's Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians. "Now there's something we Egyptians are good at -- monuments," he laughs. He knows full well that, the Pyramids and Sphinx aside, the Egyptians' finest monuments are hewn in words.
Saad El-Din is one of those fortunate individuals who has not only worked in fields he thoroughly enjoyed, but has managed to switch careers every few years, and always ending up doing something -- or several things at a time, which was more often than not the case -- that broadened his horizons. Dr Mursi's interests and his career often coincided and overlapped. His debut on television was Focus, where he interviewed Cairo-based foreign correspondents in the mid-1970s. His programme The Diwan of Poets for Radio Cairo's European Service, which he started upon his return to Egypt from London, was another trendsetter.
His father insisted on the best education possible and took a keen interest in his children's performance at school. Born in 1921 in Sayeda Zeinab, young Mursi was enrolled in Shubra Primary School and went on to Al-Tawfiqiya Secondary School. But it was at university, first in Cairo and then in London, that he truly found himself. Dr Mursi has always made a distinction between formal education and learning, which he says is a life-long endeavour.
His mentor at university was his tutor, Louis Awad. "I learnt a great deal from him, and he instilled in me a passion for literature." Dr Mursi is an incurable romantic, yet another endearing quality. "I was brought up on Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory and the Celtic Twilight," he muses. "We of the late '30s and early '40s were a fortunate generation. There were 20 students in the English language department at Fouad I University. Every five students had a tutor, who not only patiently explained the lesson in a relaxed atmosphere, but also took a keen interest in our personal problems and concerns and worked with us on resolving these problems. We were a very privileged generation," he says.
He met Enayat, his wife, in 1940. It was the university that turned out to be the unlikely Pandarus. And they had the wonderful old-fashioned, six-month courtship. They were married in 1945.
He spent the war years at university, graduating in 1943. "Those were critical years. History was in the making and we knew it." Egypt was a magnet for European exiles who fled the continent to escape the war. Writers like Lawrence Durrell, the celebrated author of the Alexandria Quartet, came to write and teach at universities and institutions of higher learning.
Immediately after the end of World War II, Dr Mursi flew to England to inaugurate the Egyptian Institute in Mayfair. He clearly cherishes the memory of the 12 years he spent in London. He reminisces about the Promenade Concerts at London's Albert Hall. He regularly attended the Edinburgh Festival, and enjoyed the Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. Moreover, he enrolled at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and read comparative philology, specialising -- characteristically -- in the linguistics of humour. His doctoral thesis focused on a comparison of the expressions denoting humour in English and Arabic.
..with Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin;
..acting as official spokesman;
..with King Hussein in Manilla;
..with Mrs Banderanayka of Sri Lanka
"In London I learned that Egypt, my motherland, was both a curiosity and a celebrity. The English have written extensively about Egypt: Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic, Islamic, modern and contemporary Egypt." London was not the only venue where he combined culture and diplomacy. He did a stint in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe. He was appointed cultural attaché for Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. He didn't much care for Communism, but he thoroughly enjoyed the rich cultural heritage of central and eastern Europe.
His name shall always be associated with the Afro-Asian Writers' Association and with that of his friend and onetime boss, Youssef El-Siba'i. He distinctly remembers the first Afro-Asian writers' conference of 1958 which took place in Tashkent, today the capital of the Central Asian former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Saad El-Din shares with me many happy memories of the good times with El-Siba'i. The two of them often travelled together and apparently had a lot of fun. There is hardly a continent or corner of the world that Dr Mursi has not visited.
Apart from Louis Awad and El-Siba'i, another intellectual greatly influenced Dr Mursi: his friend, Tharwat Okasha, a former minister of culture, and a man Dr Mursi highly esteems, appointed Saad El-Din as special advisor for children's culture. "I have been interested in children's welfare and affairs ever since." A colleague at the Weekly mentioned once, four years ago, that her children love the Funday Times. Ever since, Dr Mursi presents her with a copy of the children's supplement of the Sunday Times every week.
Speaking of people he has known, Dr Mursi's marvellously expressive face lights up. Two women stand out: first, Jihan El-Sadat, and then, half a world away, Imelda Marcos. Dr Mursi had worked with women in the media, of course, but it was different working for them. He found no Jezebels, just very intelligent and very powerful women with sharp political acumen doing their best to get by in difficult situations dominated by even more powerful men.
Dr Mursi still sings the praises of the two strong women with whom he worked in his capacity as adviser. He arranged a historic meeting between Marcos and militant Muslim secessionist leaders seeking independence for the southernmost Philippine island of Mindanao. These and other memorable experiences make him smile fondly today. But here, too, there is no room for nostalgia.
Speaking to Dr Mursi today, a stranger would be quite taken in by his affable manner, courtesy and ready laugh. No one would guess that tragedy has struck him twice, but he lost two close family members in quick succession and is indelibly marked by their deaths. First, his favourite younger brother, the legendary composer Baligh Hamdi, passed away. Then, just over a year ago, another tragedy struck. His only son, Hamdi, was suddenly taken ill, and died shortly afterwards. Mursi misses his son dreadfully. Losing a child is unimaginable, "something no father can ever get over. They say time is the great healer, but I don't think so," he says, shaking his head.
Still, he is quite a stranger to self-pity. He is determined to get on with the task of living. It is not easy. It is the most ferocious battle he has fought; but he is resilient, and this stubborn good humour, in a sense, is Dr Mursi's way of honouring his son. "Now Hamdi had a biting sense of humour," he says. "I have never befriended anyone who didn't have a sense of humour."
photo: Randa Shaath