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5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
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Ibrahim El-Moallem
 
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Ibrahim El-Moallem:

The world is not enough

Meet the man who will change the future of publishing

Profile by Amira Howeidy


Ibrahim El-Moallem's direct telephone line -- and supposedly secret number -- in his sleek Heliopolis office just doesn't stop ringing. In truth, the man did make an effort to keep the calls at bay. For example, he left his Nokia Communicator 9110 outside with Jenny, his vivacious secretary. He also gave instructions not be disturbed. But this social animal just can't isolate himself from the world outside. He was travelling to the United States the next day. "Do you want anything from the FBI?" he asked someone who called him, then cracked up.

Possibly the most prestigious publisher in the Arab world also happens to be an extremely popular person with such a sense of humour one just can't help laughing with him, wholeheartedly. And as he voices his views and future plans for his soon-to-be publishing empire, I realise that, although he's talking billions (and inevitably, the power that comes along with them), we, who are listening, never felt awkward.

These days, the name of 55-year-old El-Moallem happens to dominate the cultural scene, and very often, the headlines. The hype -- which he finds totally unjustified -- surrounding the first-of-its-kind agreement between Nobel Laureate writer Naguib Mahfouz and Dar Al-Shurouq Publishing, signed almost two months ago, doesn't seem about to settle. Although El-Moallem, who is chairman of Dar Al-Shurouq, is taking serious steps towards implementing his ambitious e-publishing projects it's only his association with the giant EFG-Hermes investment banking firm that's of interest to the press. EFG-Hermes, which has emerged as Egypt's biggest and most influential financial group, is in the process of buying up the copyrights to works by the country's cultural pillars. It's also investing huge amounts of money in IT projects. If anything, it's scaring many intellectuals, who believe this "monster" will come to monopolise our cultural heritage. So when El-Moallem announced another exclusive deal with Sawt Al-Fann record company, which sold El-Moallem the right to make the legendary Umm Kulthoum's songs available in MP3 format, it immediately triggered speculation that it was actually EFG-Hermes, not Dar Al-Shurouq, that had clinched the deal.

El-Moallem spent the first half of our interview defending his business with EFG-Hermes.


"...if we are to progress and improve, and if we want to achieve our goals, we must not isolate ourselves from the tools of the modern age or its advanced technologies.So in order to make our dreams come true, we must achieve financial and administrative growth. Our revenues must accumulate and so must our experience... That's why we went to EFG-Hermes."
Moving on to other topics, which he discussed extensively, it appeared that he had forgotten about the Hermes issue. But no. Reference to it was made in every argument.

"The thing is, if we are to progress and improve, and if we want to achieve our goals, we must not isolate ourselves from the tools of the modern age or its advanced technologies," he says. "We must use everything in the interest of our cultural message. Right or wrong?" he asked. Right. "So in order to make our dreams come true, we must achieve financial and administrative growth. Our revenues must accumulate and so must our experience. Right?" The solo debate continued as he went on to explain how the Arabs only discovered the printing press 300 years after it was invented, how we waste time discussing futile issues such as "authenticity or modernity" or paper books vs e-books, and how nothing is ever achieved in the end. "Why do we have to wait so long when everything around us is moving forward? Why can't we take the initiative?"

Obviously, he's not waiting for answers or wasting time. He is indeed taking the initiative.

Besides the Mahfouz and Umm Kulthoum deals, El-Moallem has been busy acquiring the copyright to the work of some of the most distinguished writers and intellectuals in this country. First on the list is none other than Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the most celebrated political commentator and writer in modern Egyptian history. "There was no money involved in the Heikal deal," El-Moallem explains. "He gave me the right to publish all his works electronically and in the future, when there's revenue, he'll have a share."

The electronic agreements also include eminent Islamic scholars such as the late Sheikh Mohamed El-Ghazali and Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi. "And there will be more," he added. Negotiations are underway with Al-Nahar, the Lebanese publishing and press organisation, on web-related projects.

So what exactly is he doing? Is it a web site? A portal? "The most powerful portal in the Arab world," is the reply. But how? "Look," he adds, "we're still preparing. We don't know if it will be totally free or not. We must ensure some income so as to be able to continue. Right?"

Finally, El-Moallem explains the Al-Shurouq/Hermes situation. First of all, he asserts, Hermes didn't buy Al-Shurouq, "as so many people -- who didn't even bother asking -- presumed."

And besides, "did anyone really ask what exactly EFG-Hermes is? Isn't it an Egyptian company in the stock market? Aren't we supposed to encourage investment?"

Until 1996, Al-Shurouq, which comprises two "independent" companies (Dar Al-Shurouq Publishers and Al-Shurouq Printing Company), was "a family business." But ambitious plans for growth made it necessary to call in EFG-Hermes, which did some market research and suggested "that the printing company become a joint stock company. We did that, and we put 16 per cent of our shares in the stock market." The move seems to have been successful; in fact, Al-Shurouq Printing Company is now the biggest in the country. "But that's not enough. Competition will come from outside and we have to be capable of competing with international printing companies."

The experience with Hermes has given El-Moallem an appetite for similar plans involving the publishing house. "We have great ambitions. We want to publish encyclopaedias, children's books... We want to get into e-publishing and build state-of-the-art book shops across the nation. It's our right to want to do all this. Right?" El-Moallem went to Hermes with the idea of establishing a giant private company "that would invest in all the aspects of culture."

His dreams for the future of national culture aside, El-Moallem also wants Dar Al-Shurouq to be "a distinguished international publishing house that can continue after my death and after my children's death for generations to come. I don't want Al-Shurouq to die when we die. It's this way of thinking all over the world that allowed the realisation of huge publishing projects." In specific terms, he wants Dar Al-Shurouq to become a joint stock company, but he would keep the larger share and right to run it.

He has other pet projects of a more literary nature, too. "I want -- and this was my late father's dream -- to publish the first scientific Arab-Islamic encyclopaedia. I also want to construct a series of huge book shops, starting with a large one in Cairo. It will be a four-storey building, with a surface of 1,000 metres, that will display and sell all the Egyptian, Arab, English, French and German titles. It will have a coffee shop, comfortable seats, Internet connections, CDs, DVDs, a conference hall..." Like Barnes and Noble? "Yes. Do I have the right to dream of achieving this, or not?"

Until his father Mohamed El-Moallem, the founder of Dar Al-Shurouq, died in 1995, Ibrahim's role in the publishing company was not visible to outsiders. He and his younger brother Adel were simply the sons of the respected Mohamed El-Moallem.

El-Moallem Sr established Al-Shurouq in 1942, but its activity ground to a halt because of the paper shortage created by World War II. It was reborn in 1958 as Dar Al-Qalam but was nationalised in 1966 and its owner briefly detained (for no specific reason, except maybe "because this is always the case with honourable noble men," he laughs.) In 1968, the house made a comeback as Dar Al-Shurouq and a year later the Beirut branch opened. In 1972, the Beirut Shurouq Printing Company was established, followed four years later by the Cairo branch. The success of both branches helped establish Al-Shurouq's reputation as a serious professional publishing house that catered for all sectors of society and all levels of culture. It was also busy introducing modern methods of publishing, such as offset printing, which was Ibrahim's idea. "My father's friends would warn him, 'your son will ruin everything, what does he know?' but I knew I was doing the right thing. Afterwards, offset printing became the standard for printing everywhere," he remembers. Al-Shurouq was also the first to introduce glossy covers at a time when dull paper-like covers prevailed. But its greatest mark of distinction was the creative covers designed by professional artists. If anything, a Dar Al-Shurouq book was known by its cover. Nor was the quality of its content disputed.

Mohamed El-Moallem's death in '95 sent shock waves through publishing circles, and dealt a severe blow to many writers and intellectuals. His solid reputation and sophistication had earned him a wide array of contacts in Egypt and across the Arab world. Even on his death bed, his son recalls, "we were hatching ambitious plans." At this point, Ibrahim El-Moallem decides to tell me "a secret." "We were in the US, where he was in hospital. And one day we both decided we'd organise a revolution in Dar Al-Shurouq."

The revolution came about, and Ibrahim became Al-Shurouq's chairman following his father's death. In five short years, he has succeeded in placing it at the forefront of the region's publishing activities. The money has been rolling in since the printing company became a joint stock venture, and impressive books are appearing more frequently in the market. Two obvious examples stand out: Heikal's controversial three-part series, The secret negotiations between the Arabs and Israel, and Tharwat Okasha's Fann Al-Wasti, which won a prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair as one of the ten most beautiful books in the world.

Other international prizes followed, most recently the Bologna Children's Book Fair New Horizons prize for Hayat Mohamed (The Life of [the Prophet] Mohamed).

But it was Wughat Nazar (Points of View), the cultural monthly magazine, that established El-Moallem's fame throughout the Arab world. The 82-page publication made waves starting with its very first issue in February 1999. The opening article was by Heikal, who, for the first time since he fell out with the late President Sadat, had a regular platform for his articles. At first, people bought the relatively expensive (LE10) magazine to read Heikal's articles after the deaths of King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan of Morocco. Heikal's statements on the roles of both monarchs meant Wughat Nazar sold like hot cakes. The magazine filled a gap with its rich content, and immediately won the respect of Egyptian and Arab readers by offering them the opportunity to read independent and daring views. In a society that must digest such large quantities of propaganda, those hungry for the "respectable word" found their answer in Wughat Nazar. To many, this is why as it approaches its second year, the magazine remains extremely popular although Heikal doesn't write in every issue.

"We noticed that the Arab world lacks a cultural magazine that tackles the thoughts and events of our modern times. Moreover, books and theories were being debated across the globe while we were completely isolated from that. These discussions would always surprise us, so we wanted a magazine that would make these debates and views available to our readers." The idea was born one day when El-Moallem and his friend, painter Helmi El-Touni, were talking. They went to Heikal, who "conceptualised it for us. And the magazine came out despite warnings from many people that it would fail and cause a financial loss. Not only did it succeed tremendously, but it covered its costs in only three months."

In the only editorial he published in Wughat Nazar, marking its first anniversary, El-Moallem referred to "the publishers who impose themselves on their publications," making it clear that he would not do the same, and would attempt to set professional standards in the publishing business. He also mentioned some of the company's future plans in putting out more publications, specifically targeting young people. "We believe that there are many, many talented young people whose experience and views need to be expressed."

El-Moallem, the "bashmohandes" (engineer in colloquial Egyptian), as people address him, graduated from Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering. "I didn't like it and I still don't," he laughs, "but I enrolled there because my grades in school were high." A swimming champion, he set new records in swimming at the age of 14 and was the first 13-year-old to represent Egypt in an international men's swimming contest. He quit sports aged 18, however, because of a wrong diagnosis. He finds it funny: "I was told that I had an ulcer, but later discovered that I didn't."

Born in 1945 ("but people think I was born in '55" he chuckles) in Cairo, El-Moallem remembers the trauma of nationalisation well. His formative years were marked by the collapse of his father's business. "My mother, who was a headmistress, went on early retirement to get her bonus and gave it to my father to help him. There was no other solution but for us to work with him. At that time we were penniless." The family moved to Beirut in 1970 and stayed there until 1983, running the Lebanese branch.

Before that, El-Moallem had worked in Al-Ahram's sports section for three years. Despite the brevity of his stint in that field, his love for sports did not dwindle, and he became increasingly active at Al-Ahli Sporting Club.

Today, he is its treasurer, but he doesn't like it anymore. "I'm completely put off by the environment. I want to quit," he snaps, then starts laughing. In fact, chuckles punctuate his sentences, which are almost invariably followed by "right, or wrong?"

I try to get him to reveal a little more. He starts, then stops. I insist, he says a few more words, then stops again and grins. "I don't really like to talk about myself," he says, ending that discussion.

El-Moallem is president of both the Egyptian and Arab Publishers' Unions, adviser to UNESCO's board of publishers, and "more importantly," he asserts, "the chairman of Dar Al-Shurouq." He flashes a proud smile.

His fame, success and contacts make it inevitable that his picture appears in the society pages quite frequently. He objects: "What do you mean, I'm a public figure?" But he does seem to have acquired the trappings of tycoonship: the appearances in magazines, the elegant receptions he holds, his chic olive-green leather office furniture (which, coincidentally, matches his Mercedes)... El-Moallem actually smiles as he answers: "I'm not a businessman, I'm a publisher. Besides, I'm a sociable person, I like to communicate with people, there's nothing I can do about that." And if his office looks good, he adds, "it's because my job has to do with everything beautiful. I work with the best writers, illustrators, artists and creative people."

Tycoon or not, El-Moallem is marching toward his dreams. If anything, the future of publishing, the concept of book shops, and the variety of books we will read in the years to come will be shaped by no other man.

photos: Sherif Sonbol


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