Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 April 2009
Issue No. 941
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Old school editors

During its long history Al-Ahram has had many colourful owners and editors. Samir Sobhi selects some of the best of them

Click to view caption
Dawoud Barakat, who was chief editor of Al-Ahram for 32 years, in his last days

The recent round of appointments of editors-in- chief of the public-sector press contrasts with the way business was done when the Egyptian press was mainly in private hands. A hundred years or so ago, the great names included figures like Dawoud Barakat, Bishara and Betsy Taqla, Gibrael Taqla and Naguib Kanaan, some of whom had what by today's standards would be considered very unconventional careers.

Dawoud Barakat was appointed editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram in June 1901 by Bishara Taqla, the then owner, and he was the first of the paper's editors-in-chief to come from outside the Taqla family. Barakat served as editor-in-chief of the paper from 1901 to 1933, retiring on a pension of LE90 a month, a king's ransom at the time. This was the heyday of Al-Ahram, and a time when even its foremost competitor, Al-Muayyad, described the paper as "a solid rock that has survived the test of tumultuous times".

During Bishara Taqla's time as editor-in chief of the paper, Al-Ahram had become well known for its writers and commentators, who included the poet Khalil Motran, himself chief editor for a time. In addition to Motran, other writers included Youssef Al-Bostani, Nicola Rizq, Khalil Khouri, Alfred Shadi, Naguib Salehani, Nicola Haddad, Naguib Hashim, Sabbagh Afandi, and several members of the Shamel family. Bishara's son Gibrael also wrote his first article in the paper when he was 20 years old, having attended a conference of orientalists in Athens.

When Bishara Taqla died in 1901, leaving the newspaper in the hands of his wife, Betsy, and their son, Gibrael, Barakat marked the change of ownership by writing that "we start our 33rd year with hope in our hearts, encouraged to see the owner of Al-Ahram, Gibrael Taqla, the successor of the founder of the newspaper, extending his hand to take hold of this wonderful legacy."

Barakat also noted the contribution made by Betsy Taqla, who managed the paper for 10 years or so until her son was old enough to take over. According to contemporaries, Betsy used to spend the whole day at the newspaper, running between management and editorial offices and chatting with the printers and workers. After her husband's death, she would arrive at Al-Ahram 's offices at eight in the morning, usually working until late in the afternoon. In the evenings she hosted parties for politicians and members of the country's elite. Gibrael Taqla, who learned much from watching his mother at work, early on established an easy relationship with the cream of Egyptian society, and this was to become a considerable asset in his later career.

Barakat approached his time at the paper with a chronicler's eye. Writing in 1928, he commented that "in the past, newspapers were limited in their circulation. Even Al-Muayyad in its heyday printed no more than 8,000 copies. But now even the smallest paper prints 150,000 copies, and on the day Saad Zaghloul died Al-Ahram sold 120,000 copies and Al-Liwa sold 40,000, figures which would have been unthinkable previously."

The paper itself was founded in 1875 by Salim and Bishara Taqla, and from its earliest days onwards it strove to provide its readership with an attractive design. At first, it had only two fonts at its disposal, one large and one small. Later, it produced other fonts, though this proved to be a slow process. In 1917, the paper hired an English company to provide it with a new, automated type system in a contract worth nearly LE4,000. The space between the lines was narrowed and the letters centred vertically to save space. These new printing machines, examples of which are still on display at the paper's 6 October printing works, gave the newspaper's layout staff a choice of 124 typefaces.

In the early period of Barakat's editorship, communal tensions were growing in Egypt because of British-sponsored government recruitment policies that many thought favoured Christians. Some newspapers, including Misr and Al-Watan, took the Christians' side, while others, including Al-Liwa and Al-Muayyad, favoured the Muslims. Barakat was livid. "Not only are we now blighted by occupation and negligence," he wrote in Al-Ahram in July 1907, "but we are also suffering under the policies of Lord Cromer, who is keen on driving a wedge between Muslims and Christians. The nation is being torn apart by envy thanks to writers who mistakenly think they are fighting for a good cause."

When the foreign press rallied against the Muslims, accusing them of bigotry, Barakat came to the rescue. "The Franks [Europeans] just cannot get it into their heads that others are entitled to their own feelings. They think that it is only for Islam's sake that Morocco resisted the French, that Egypt and the Afghans resisted England, and that the Caucasus and Iran resisted the Russians." In fact, resistance had as much to do with national feelings, and on the day that Mustafa Kamel, the nationalist leader, died, Barakat offered consolations to the nation. "A nation for which Kamel spoke, thought and lived is now devastated, desolate and drowned in sorrow," he wrote.

Barakat himself was born in Yashut near Kasrawan in Lebanon and came to Egypt in 1892 to work for the land surveillance department in Tanta. In 1893, he got a teaching job and started to write for the newspapers, becoming editor of Al-Mahrousa in 1895 and also helping to edit Al-Nil before becoming editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira. In 1896, Barakat and Youssef Al-Khazen founded the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar, before leaving in 1899 to work for Al-Ahram, which had just moved its offices from Alexandria to Cairo.

Throughout his life Barakat was an ardent supporter of the Egyptian nationalist movement, and he was always critical of the way this movement was represented in the English newspapers, particularly The Times. A collection of his articles on this theme, Momashat Morasel Al-Times Ila Al-Haqaeq (Guiding The Times' Correspondent to the Facts) appeared in book form, later being translated into French. Barakat also argued for Egyptian control of the Sudan, his articles on this subject being published as Al-Sudan Al-Masri Wa Matamea Al-Siyasa Al-Britaniya (The Egyptian Sudan and the Ambitions of British Policy).

Barakat was a pioneer of the union movement in the press, helping to form the Writers' Syndicate in 1901, of which he was chairman. He was then instrumental in the foundation of the Press Syndicate, twice serving as its chairman, and he helped to found several scientific and political societies, including the Syrian Union Literary and Scientific Society, of which he was elected vice-chairman in 1907. He also helped form the Lebanese Union Society, a group calling for the independence of Lebanon, and was elected its chairman in 1919. As president of the Maronite Charity Society, Barakat managed to collect donations of LE20,000 in Cairo alone when Lebanon and Syria were hit by famine during World War I. He was decorated with the Magidi Medal in 1913.

Barakat's routine was always hectic. The day he would spend talking with politicians and running the newspaper, before, at 10pm, sitting down to write his columns. These he would write fast, as if taking dictation his contemporaries said, and often with several people standing around talking near his desk.

Another editor who helped transform Al-Ahram was Naguib Kanaan, who first joined the paper as a translator. Kanaan was in the second year of medical school when he asked Barakat, who knew his father well, to hire him, and on his first day in the job he was sent to a press conference at Saad Zaghloul's house before going to the British High Commission to get reaction. When his summer holidays from medical school ended in 1926, Kanaan started to attend classes in the morning and work for Al-Ahram at night. Gibrael Taqla could not see the point.

"How much do you expect to earn once you graduate and become a doctor?" he asked him. "Twelve pounds," was Kanaan's reply. Gibrael offered him LE15 on the spot, plus his own car and driver.

The front page of Al-Ahram at this time used to carry Barakat's editorial across three to four columns, together with a literary article, but Kanaan wanted something different. During the late 1920s, French, British and American pilots were competing to cross the Atlantic, the American Charles Lindbergh finally flying his "Spirit of St Louis" from Long Island to Paris in 1927. Kanaan translated the reports and talked Barakat into splashing the Lindbergh news on the front page, along with pictures of the pilots and their planes. Gibrael Taqla was vacationing with his family in Europe at the time and only discovered what had happened when he returned to Egypt. Thrilled with the new look, he called Kanaan, still only 21, into his office and asked him to overhaul the paper's entire lay-out.

Now head of the paper's photography department, Kanaan had a photography lab imported from abroad and told King Fouad's official photographer to send him pictures of all the court events. In the early 1930s, Kanaan told Gibrael that he wanted to run a whole page of photographs showing current events. Somewhat reluctantly, Taqla agreed, leaving for Alexandria the next morning and not wanting to face the "blotches" he was afraid would appear on the next day's paper.

However, the photography page was an immediate success, and Kanaan was given carte blanche to make over the rest of the paper.

First to go was the editorial on the first page. Barakat, who had been having differences of opinion with Gibrael, was dismissed as editor-in-chief in 1933 and replaced by Anton Al-Jumayyel. The latter was not keen on politics and had a limited experience of the press. As a result, Kanaan was appointed senior editor to assist him, and in his new capacity was given a free hand to redesign the paper.

The masthead was narrowed to its current size. The front page no longer carried full articles, but only shorter domestic and foreign news reports supplemented by photographs. The foreign news page abandoned a two-column book-like format for a more fluid design. And the editorial was placed inside the paper, flushed left next to domestic news.

Helping in the redesign was Mahmoud Khater, a calligrapher and director of printing at Banque Misr. Adli Bulus, also a calligrapher, was asked to create a variety of additional fonts, which were then offered free of charge to a type company on the condition that Al-Ahram would hold the exclusive rights to them.

Among Kanaan's journalistic coups from this time was an episode in 1935 when he was told about a spectacular archaeological dig near Tel Basta. Kanaan went to look for a friend of his who was the director of the Archaeology Department at the time. Failing to find him at his house, Kanaan followed him to the Opera to inquire about the news, learning that the finds from the dig were of major importance. Kanaan then went back to the newspaper, borrowed Gibrael's car, and went to Lake Manzala to awaken the archaeologist at four in the morning. The next day, Al-Ahram appeared with a full report backed by photographs.

Similarly, in the early morning of 5 May 1945, Kanaan was celebrating the Egyptian holiday of Sham Al-Nessim with friends. At noon, news came through that the war with Germany was over. It was a holiday, and Al-Jumayyel was vacationing with his family in Alexandria: the war may have been over, but Al-Ahram and the other Egyptian papers were on vacation for Sham Al-Nessim. Instead of disturbing Al-Jumayyel, Kanaan called up the paper's editorial staff and produced an issue about the German surrender. Al-Jumayyel was shocked to see vendors selling it when he returned the next day.

When Al-Jumayyel died in 1947, Al-Ahram 's directors appointed Kanaan as managing editor, and he ran the paper from 1947 to 1957 in this capacity, making changes all the while. A rumour then spread to the effect that Al-Ahram was to be sold and that Kanaan himself would resign. Mohamed Hassanein Heikal called Kanaan and relayed a message to him from Gamal Abdel-Nasser: the president wanted Kanaan to stay in his post. "All we want is for the top newspaper in the country to be in safe hands when we face parliamentary elections," he was told.

"Would it be reassuring enough for you to take over as editor-in-chief?" Kanaan asked, telling Heikal that he had been authorised by the Al-Ahram board to make the offer. "The editorship of Al-Ahram is the greatest dream of any journalist in Egypt," Heikal replied. "How could I refuse?" On 1 August 1957, Heikal took over as editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, keeping Kanaan on as managing editor.

Finally, Kanaan used to tell a curious story about Gibrael Taqla, Al-Ahram 's last private owner. A superstitious man, Gibrael could not stand looking at people with limps. He refused to give Al-Mazni, who wrote the paper's lead article for five years, a permanent job, for example, because Al-Mazni had a limp.

One day, a colleague, Asaad Dagher, broke his leg. Gibrael called him everyday, asking if the injury would leave him with a limp. Finally, Dagher left hospital and went back to work, with a limp. Gibrael saw him, and a few days later he died.

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