Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Black ties and hunger strikes

A good scoop is one thing, but those working in the profession were what gave journalism its flavour in the 1950s and 1960s

In the 19th century, it wasn’t unusual for the elite in Egypt and other countries to look down on journalists. Families would refuse to give their daughters in marriage to journalists, since the profession was often viewed with suspicion.

Take, for example, the story of sheikh Ali Youssef. In 1904, Youssef, who was editor of the newspaper Al-Muayyad, had to marry his sweetheart Safiya Al-Sadat in secret out of fears of her family’s opposition. A lawsuit followed, in which disapproving in-laws argued that Youssef’s career was too “lowly” and that the match had sullied the family’s good name.

That censorious view was, thankfully, not shared by the general public. In fact, many of the country’s best minds, including the reformer Mohamed Abdu, the politician Saad Zaghloul and the writer Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad all wrote in the press.

When former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser visited the Al-Ahram building in Cairo in 1969, he reportedly told editor-in-chief Mohamed Hassanein Heikal that he wished he had been in his boots, running a newspaper instead of a country.

Salah Al-Shahed, who served as head of protocol in Egypt from 1950 to 1973, straddling both the monarchical and republican eras, recalls some of the journalists he met during that time. “We were a group of people who were nearly inseparable: Chief of the ministerial guard Mohamed Wasfi, assistant chief Rashad Mehanna, Al-Ahram reporter Abdel-Halim Al-Ghamrawi and Al-Masri reporter Awad Qandil,” wrote Al-Shahed in his memoirs.

Al-Ghamrawi and Qandil used to compete for scoops, but the latter often won because of his wider network of contacts and his close ties with Mahmoud Ghazali Pasha, then close to the British Embassy.

At that time, the Journalists Syndicate had just moved to its new location on Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street between the Judges Club and the Lawyers Syndicate in downtown Cairo. Kamel Al-Zoheiri, a former president of the syndicate, used to quip that “we have the judges on one side to try us, and the lawyers on the other to defend us.”

To go back a little, the first time the profession had a syndicate the latter was for the owners of the newspapers only. Their syndicate was located in the Immobilia Building on Sherif Street in the downtown district. A decision was later issued to turn the syndicate into an association for all press workers and not the owners alone.

The decision didn’t pass without resistance, however. Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, owner of the magazine Rose Al-Youssef at the time, contested it, saying that the owners were entitled to their own independent syndicate. His objection went unheeded, and in May 1960 the Egyptian press was nationalised.

One of the men who set the bar high for integrity in the newspaper business wasn’t a newspaper man at all, but a paper merchant. Sayed Moussa is not known to many now, but he featured prominently in a 1977 book by Abdel-Moneim Shemeis entitled “Shakhsiyat Masriya” (Egyptian Characters). On more than one occasion, Moussa single-handedly saved the magazine Rose Al-Youssef from bankruptcy.

“Don’t worry, Madam,” Moussa would say to Fatema Al-Youssef, the owner of the magazine, when the government was trying to confiscate it and leave her penniless. He would keep supplying her with paper to stay afloat, although there was no way of guaranteeing that he’d ever get his money back. “Honour is precious, and no one can pay the price of honour,” Moussa used to say.

When the Al-Balagh newspaper was on the verge of bankruptcy after the 1952 Revolution, editor Mohamed Abdel-Qader Hamza used to write a column almost every day announcing the imminent demise of his publication. However, for the following week, a donkey cart would come to the doors of the paper and leave a consignment of paper on the pavement not far from the Saad Zaghloul Mausoleum in Mounira off Al-Qasr Al-Aini Street in the downtown district.

The deliveries kept the newspaper going, but not for long.


BLACK TIE ONLY: Journalist Abdel-Halim Al-Ghamrawi, who was long Al-Ahram’s reporter on cabinet affairs, was one of the most influential journalists of his time.

Before joining Al-Ahram, he used to work for Al-Liwa, a newspaper founded by orator and patriot Mostafa Kamel. Al-Ghamrawi used to wear a black suit and a tie every day, swearing that he would not wear any other colour until the British occupation of Egypt had ended.

He was also a very resourceful journalist. He once hid under the table during a cabinet meeting, taking down notes without the ministers being aware of his presence. This incident happened in 1946 during a cabinet meeting in which prime minister Ismail Sidqi discussed details of an agreement to end the British occupation of Egypt.

The agreement, known as Sidqi-Bevin Agreement (Ernest Bevin was British foreign secretary at the time) was never signed. But Al-Ghamrawi had the inside story before the official briefing given to journalists after the end of the cabinet meeting.

Years later, in October 1954 Egypt and Britain finally signed the Evacuation Agreement on the withdrawal of British troops from Egypt. Al-Ghamrawi was in his seventies at the time. His friends bought him a suit and tie in a colour other than black, and they all celebrated his change of attire. A party in his honour was held at the cabinet’s headquarters.

One of the anecdotes that Al-Shahed recounts in his book is about Nasser’s trip to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, in the 1960s. During the visit, toasts were exchanged, and Nasser – perhaps exhausted by the trip – asked the writer Fikri Abaza to deliver the toast in his name. Abaza was totally unprepared, but being a man of immense wit, he decided to improvise.

The toast he gave, as recalled by Al-Shahed, went thus: “Gentlemen, we thank you for your great hospitality. I recall that when I was in London and drank whisky, the whisky tasted like the blood of the colonised countries. When I went to Paris and had the pleasure of drinking the wines of France and sampling its cognac, both tasted like the blood of the martyrs in North Africa. But when I came to your country and threw back a few vodkas, the taste of vodka in my mouth was a pure pleasure because it is the taste of the friendship and amity between our two nations.”


LAST WISHES: In 1955, actor Suleiman Naguib, then director of the Cairo Opera House, requested a meeting with president Nasser on an urgent matter.

“On the second day, Suleiman Naguib came to my office and reproached me for not giving him the chance to meet the president,” wrote Al-Shahed in his memoirs.

“It’s easier to meet God than to meet Nasser,” Naguib said.

“I ask for God’s forgiveness, why is that?”

“Because I can meet God at a moment’s notice. If I shoot myself in the head, I will be with God in a few seconds,” Naguib said.

Al-Shahed, laughing, conveyed the message to Nasser, who was meeting with justice minister Ahmed Hosni at the time. When Naguib finally entered the room, he pointed at the minister and said that he had been with him at school and had been class president when Hosni was just a regular student.

“Now he’s a minister, and I am just an actor,” Naguib quipped, before asking Nasser to come to his last show before he retired from the stage. Nasser went to the show, and Naguib gave a brilliant performance. The next day, on 19 January 1955, Naguib died.

Another story is told about Awad Qandil, the political correspondent of Mosamarat Al-Geib (Pocket Tales), a magazine backed by the Wafd Party. However, this didn’t stop Qandil from attacking Fouad Serageddin, a prominent member of the Wafd Party at the time.

One day, Serageddin ran into Qandil at the San Stefano Hotel in Alexandria and chastised him for the attacks. “How can a pro-Wafd magazine turn against the Wafd,” Serageddin asked. Later on, Qandil worked as a correspondent for Al-Balagh, another pro-Wafd newspaper, run by Abdel-Qader Hamza and supervised by none other than Serageddin.

Qandil had no problem criticising any government, whether monarchical or republican. During the 1954 power struggle between Mohamed Naguib and Nasser, public transit workers took to the streets, shouting against “ignorant lawyers” and “treasonous journalists.” Qandil, incensed by what he saw as the protesters’ denouncing democracy, decided to go on hunger strike.

He got together with a group of journalist colleagues and decided to go on hunger strike at the premises of the Journalists Syndicate until further notice. But when it was time to start the strike, he was the only one who did so.

A brief item in Al-Ahram reported that Qandil was on strike until his concerns “over the future of democracy in Egypt” were addressed. The authorities, ignoring Qandil, then placed the press under censorship. Qandil eventually abandoned his hunger strike, and it wasn’t long before he was placed under surveillance by the secret services as well.

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