Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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Salah Hilal
 
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Decades of scoops and discipline to set your watch to: he is an education unto himself

Profile by Samir Sobhi


The newspaperman is a dying phenomenon. Not that there is any lack of journalists, columnists or reporters, but where among these people could a true newspaperman be found? Most are effectively civil servants, or effectively writers -- or both. And indeed there is nothing wrong with this, in principle, given the astonishing, light-speed developments that occurred in the technology of information, communication and news throughout the second half of the winding century.

Yet the true, the hardy and resilient breed, it seems, is dying out. Let it be known that a newspaperman is the kind of person who, without considering it a feat, supervises two entire departments of a daily newspaper like Al-Ahram (the Accidents and Crime page as well as the back page) while editing three -- variable -- broadsheets and producing a steady flow of original reportage and commentary for 10 years: day in, day out. He is the kind who accepts an assignment to Al-Arish (one of many "areas of confrontation with Israel") in June 1967; and after disappearing with veteran Al-Ahram photographer Antoune Albert following the town's annexation, returns to Cairo unobtrusively, disguised as a fisherman.

So what does it take to become a newspaperman? Judging by the present case, at least, a combination of unaffected humility, literary facility and dogged, gregarious interest in the outside world would go a long way towards satisfying the necessary criteria. A dedication to the profession, too, would certainly help. Unflinching, undaunted, unabashed: Salah Hilal possesses just that combination; and his dedication to the print press is as serious as it is intrinsically, inimitably exact.

Salah Hilal
"I called Salah Salem in the Sudan and he insisted that the picture should run. He told me to contact Abdel-Hakim Amer and tell him that if the photo was not published he would actually resign"
In the cultural annals of the 1950s and 1960s -- Hilal's most obvious temporal modality -- the 75-year-old is easily locatable. The late actress Zouzou Madi, speaking to the celebrated political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, put it in a nutshell: "You're his godfather, I'm his godmother." While not necessarily pointing to similarities in character between Hilal and these two personalities ("competent", "influential" and "at ease with the powers that be" are the only adjectives Heikal and Madi had in common), the statement reflects Hilal's two principal interests. His short-lived career as an assistant film director, in fact, began at the same time as his journalistic history; and despite specialising in what he refers to as "investigative reporting," covering topics like the 1956 War and the fall of the Wafd government headed by Mustafa El-Nahhas, he has sustained a film lover's aaffection for the silver screen, combining the precision of an editor with that of a filmmaker in all that he has written.

(His achievements as filmmaker include Ahmed Badrakhan and Kamel Madkour's early release, Cairo-Baghdad: Glory and Tears, starring actor-singers Mohamed Fawzi and Nour El-Hoda. Umm Kulthoum and actor-director Anwar Wagdi were among his colleagues in the cinema.)

Heikal and Madi each bring up an anecdote, of course; the anecdote, in turn, reveals a facet of life. The Madi anecdote involves Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, the phenomenally popular romantic novelist and affable editor of the widely circulated weekly magazine founded by his actress mother and bearing her name, Rose El-Youssef. This was Hilal's first sizeable stint in the field. Abdel-Quddous exerted his widely remembered intellectual leverage, challenging Hilal, along with Rose El-Youssef's numerous young writers and artists, to come up with innovative solutions to the problems posed by everyday tasks and to assume responsibility for everything they did -- from start to finish. By now the magazine's arts editor, Hilal had written on cinema and society and tackled topics like love affairs between teenagers and "the girl next door." Now -- courtesy of Abdel-Quddous, naturally -- he was asked to come up with an article about actresses entitled "When did you blush?"; he was at a complete loss where to start. "So I called Zouzou Madi and informed her of the predicament brought upon me by Ihsan. She sympathised," and over coffee at her house, Hilal was delighted to see the knots disentangle as "she arranged appointments for me with a number of artists." The article, as successful as anything, was completed.

The Heikal anecdote, on the other hand, comes later in time, and involves, as is often the case with Hilal, a complex network of people. It so happened that, while they were both working in Akher Sa'a, Heikal declared that his favourite editor was "Salah." Hilal aside, there were two editors to whom the honour might have applied: Salah Galal and Salah Montasser. Each, Hilal remembers, reacted on the assumption that "Heikal meant me." Only Hilal, who was already the magazine's deputy editor, did not take it to heart. But when Heikal moved to Al-Ahram in 1957 (ostensibly retaining the position of editor-in-chief in Akher Sa'a), he placed his trust in Hilal who replaced him, as competently as can be, for two solid years. The self-knowledge with which his eyes beam as he recalls this betrays a certain degree of pride, but no vanity; Hilal's modesty remains intact.

Memories abound, but everything is so closely bound up with the work that everything fits seamlessly with everything else. Salah Galal had been a schoolmate (the late veteran journalist and former head of the Press Syndicate recalled Hilal being a "big boy" and, occasionally, a bully), but they parted paths following the conclusion of their secondary education. While Galal studied science at Cairo University, Hilal joined the ranks of the American University in Cairo; and of his fellow AUC students, Akhbar Al-Yom employed a total of 14 interns. "We translated parts of Time magazine for Heikal. And when we were done we were sent off to ministers' and businessmen's offices, artists' studios and hotels -- where we collected information and photographs -- which is how Heikal [then working in Akhbar Al-Yom] managed to build a comprehensive archive while at the same time training us to contact sources and collect data." When the time came Mustafa Amin, one of the celebrated pair of journalist brothers (the other being Ali) who had founded the institution, and its then editor-in-chief, called everyone to his office except for Hilal, Abdel-Salam Dawoud and Ahmed Zein. "We thought he'd chosen them to stay on and by the time they came out we were fully expecting to be dismissed. In fact it was the other way round." Twelve interns in all had been sent back to their studies, while Hilal's career had effectively begun.

Exactly 45 days before the July 1952 Revolution, Al-Akhbar, the daily version of Akhbar Al-Yom (to become one of Egypt's most prestigious papers) appeared for the first time. Hilal naturally capitalised on the historical moment, covering the Egyptian police's conflict with the British in Ismailia and the burning of large parts of Cairo on 25 January (the only article of its kind that -- almost miraculously -- escaped the censors, complete with gory pictures chosen by Hilal). Through Amin, he met and befriended the Free Officer Salah Salem and for months followed him, in Hilal's mot juste, "like a shadow." Neither got any sleep as declaration followed on activity and meeting tripped over newly instated policy. Was it worth it? To Hilal, the question can only really be rhetorical.

Salah Salem, for one thing, took Hilal along to the Sudan on a famous trip marking the country's independence. Dancing half-naked among the Dinka tribes of the south -- a gesture that was to become popular among public figures of the 1950s and 1960s -- it was Hilal who took Salem's picture, because, he says simply, "the photographer was not feeling well." It was Hilal, too, who subsequently defended its publication, on Salem's initiative, against Minister of National Guidance Fouad Galal's claim that it was unbefitting for a high-ranking military official to be portrayed half-naked in the national press. "I called Salah Salem in the Sudan and he insisted that the picture should run. He told me to contact Abdel-Hakim Amer [another high-ranking Free Officer] and tell him that if the photo was not published he would actually resign." Another memory: during the trip Salem, sitting next to Hilal, fell asleep and involuntarily rested his head against Hilal's shoulder. When he woke up he was embarrassed, Hilal remembers, but to Hilal it was endearing to witness human vulnerability in one of post-Revolution Egypt's most powerful men.

Yet the hearty man to whom such details were meaningful was also, actually, the scion of snappy news pieces and instantly arresting headlines. His style, combining a firm grasp of his material with tremendous expressive finesse, remains unmistakable. His innovations included dragging artist Makram Henein along to the court-house and making him draw sketches of the accused in the trial following the 1967 defeat. His understanding of photography and graphic art is so deep he is capable of laying out an entire newspaper unassisted. As social critic, in 1961 he developed a column entitled Photo in which he followed parliamentary developments under the then head of parliament, Anwar El-Sadat (whose eventual accession to power as president in 1970 coincided with Heikal's departure from Al-Ahram), but the scheme drew to an abrupt close after a few episodes. And yes, Hilal does remember his scoops, even the earliest of them: "I was the first person in the entire world to find out when and where the British evacuation agreement [October 1954] would be signed. Mustafa Amin did not believe me at first, but after verifying the information, he relayed it to the news agencies himself."

In October 1959, Hilal joined Al-Ahram, arriving there every morning in his ancient, cherished Chevrolet -- yellow until he painted it grey. Room 418 in the main building was to become his home, sometimes literally, for years and years to come. It was here that he made his mark, travelling from Japan to India via Europe and beyond, always busy, always on assignment; he was old enough to influence younger and less accomplished journalists, generations of them, and his modest appearance, his unassuming wit, the iron discipline with which he balanced a fun-loving flair for life, and the ability to clear troubles instantly soon made him one of the institution's most popular figures. He was never a prima donna himself -- preferring to work backstage, paving the way for others whose ambition grew in proportion to the magnitude and quality of their work, and forever sticking to his guns -- but the "students" whom he mentored with selfless generosity (stellar journalistic figures like Makram Mohamed Ahmed, Mohamed Zayed and Abdel-Wahab Mutawi', among others) are former heads of the Press Syndicate, chief, managing and deputy editors, whether in Al-Ahram or elsewhere. "His image is of course present before all those who knew him personally," Heikal explains, "but I believe that there are millions of readers out there who are deprived of the right to see Salah Hilal, to read his work and listen to him speak."

Renowned Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama agrees: "He contributed to a school of journalism whose basic tenets include the establishment of a dialogue between generations of journalists, and the ability of a practitioner to give of himself without expecting a reward in return. Journalism is a profession that necessitates creativity and efficiency; it is to him a life-long love affair. And for the past 30 years, every Ramadan, there is a group of journalists who are, due to him, gathered around an Iftar table in [the district of] Al-Hussein." Ibrahim Nafie, head of the Press Syndicate and chairman of the board of Al-Ahram, too, remembers walking into the editorial room to find Hilal alone in the company of a piece of paper, a ruler and a pen, "organising the next day's reportage, for which he had already given clear instructions. Everything he touched," Nafie testifies, "turned to art."

Shortly after his 70th birthday, Hilal was appointed consultant in the economic newspaper Al-Alam Al-Yom. At 4.00am every day, he would commute from his house in Heliopolis to the newspaper's offices in Mohandessin. Come dawn, astonished members of staff would walk into the office to find him perched over a drawing table, pen and ruler in hand. Here too he has inspired reverence without directly exercising his authority, and his experience has seeped into the careers of young men of the 1990s. He was born on Christmas eve, honoured by the state and Al-Ahram and completed the cycle of festivities by occupying these later years, which one might think are slower, to the full. In fact, with Hilal there are no holds barred, and the chances are he will go on till the end.

photos: Mohamed Moss'ad

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