Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1390, (19 - 25 April 2018)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1390, (19 - 25 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Not just another day

Mohamed Salmawy, Yawman aw Baada Yawm: Mudhakirrat 1945-1981 (A Day or Part of a Day: Memoirs 1945-1981), Cairo: Al-Karma, 2017. pp427 - Reviewed by Dina Ezzat

Not just another day

“I was asleep when I woke up to the noise of the metal keys and the external latch of the cell being opened by someone. I jumped off the damp bedding I was lying on and moved fast to a door that was by then open; but I could see nothing before me. A very strong light was coming from the outside of the pitch-black darkness of the cell to which my eyes had grown accustomed; it was almost blinding. 

“Joy; it is daylight; but then again I quickly realised that this was not a day for me to observe; it was daylight for those outside, not for the dead in their graves.

“I heard a voice saying, ‘Here; take this.’

“I extended my hand to the ghost of a man I almost saw standing by the door. He left something rough in my hand; before I’d had time to figure out whatever he had left me with, the man by the door of the cell was gone and it was again full darkness all around me.

“I just stood there trying to understand what was actually going on; I thought the night was over and the day had come; this was somehow comforting — I’m not sure why considering I knew that for me it was still darkness all through my cell, which knew no day and no night because even in the night there is the light of the stars in the sky; my cell was only about utter and perpetual darkness.

“I looked at the thing the man at the door had left me with; I realised from the smell it was two balls of falafel.

“I just threw them away onto the floor and ran to the door and started knocking on it as hard as I could with both hands; the man who had just opened the door could not have gone too far and he must hear me knocking inside my cell. He did not hear me, or so I thought; so I started kicking the door with my feet; this he must hear. There was nothing, however; just absolute silence.

“I went back to my bedding stripped of this sense of comfort I had just experienced knowing it was time for daylight; I was again overwhelmed by the depression of the dark.”

***

This troubling recollection of being held in the deep darkness of a solitary cell in the midst of the horrific Citadel Prison, where in the 19th century Mohamed Ali killed all his opponents in one night, appear in the second half of prominent writer and journalist Mohamed Salmawy’s memoirs, a truly informative text and pleasant read in which he recalls the days of his life and the days making up Egyptian history through the second half of the 20th century. It is part of a more elaborate and insightful recollection of Salmawy’s arrest and imprisonment, along with other prominent writers and political figures, by the late president Anwar Al-Sadat in the immediate wake of the bread riots of January 1977.

The episode Salmawy shares on his imprisonment, which started in the early hours of the second day of the riots and lasted for over six weeks pending a court acquittal, is only a part of his larger take on the politics of Egypt from the heyday of 1952 to the tumultuous assassination of Sadat in October 1981, when the author chooses to end what seems to be a first volume of an ongoing autobiography. Already in its third edition having appeared in December 2017, in a candid and inspiring fashion the gripping tome reflects on the fascinating life path of a man who was born to a well-off family of clear Arabian origin at the end of World War II — on 26 May, the day Al-Ahram newspaper failed to go to print — and who has lived through the changing fortunes of his family and the country as of the 1952 Revolution, whose principles of socialism and pan-Arabism influenced him deeply despite its impact on his family wealth, through the defeat of 1967, the War of 1973, Sadat’s visit to Israel and the peace treaty he negotiated and signed. 


Not just another day

On the face of it, Salmawy may appear to be sharing his recollections of events in which, more than a mere observer, he was deeply embroiled having joined Al-Ahram in its glory days under Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. However, a close reading of what the author is sharing indicates that Salmawy, intentionally or unintentionally, is actually judging the political changes of the country during these years from the perspective of a man whose political consciousness and intellectual sensibility were formed under the mixed influences of a Western education and a liberal background and a close association with a nation yearning for social justice and economic development. It would be very hard for anyone who reads this book to miss the sharp, if skillfully softened, cynicism with which Salmawy depicts Sadat’s political management of relations with Israel after the October War, or for that matter of Sadat’s state of governance in general.

In a particularly vivid segment, Salmawy recalls an evening shift at Al-Ahram when he and the managing editor were sending the paper to press and had to stop it repeatedly to change the headline, prompted first by the then foreign minister Ismail Fahmi, who asked them to remove any reference to Sadat’s statement on a willingness to visit Israel in search for peace, which the president had made earlier in a shocking and controversial speech before parliament, and later by the then prime minister Mamdouh Salem who insisted on the selfsame reference being made, with both officials saying they were conveying Sadat’s instructions.

It is equally unlikely for the reader of Salmawy’s memoires to miss his admiration for its most celebrated editor, Heikal, of whom most Al-Ahram journalists were similarly fond. From the memory of his first meeting with Heikal for a job interview to that of Heikal’s astute management of the newspaper and its connections with executive power, and from Heikal’s matchless professional discipline, his sharp sense of humour and attentiveness to detail to his proud exit following disagreement with Sadat over relations with Israel after the October War, Salmawy communicates a sense of Salmawy’s kindness towards him. 

Salmawy’s memoirs offer a witty picture of Al-Ahram throughout his years there, first as a journalist, then as a researcher at the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (to which he was moved after his acquittal of the charge of inciting the January food riots) and again as a journalist. The most colourful part of this picture is his recollection of Floor Number 6, which was allocated to the country’s greatest writers, whom Heikal’s Al-Ahram endeavoured to gather under its roof: among many others, Tawfik Al-Hakim, Youssef Edriss, Ihssan Abdel-Qoddous and Naguib Mahfouz. This is perhaps the most anecdotal part of Salmawy’s memoirs, full of detailed and well-told stories, a significant portion of which concerns Al-Hakim’s self-spread reputation as a miser or and Mahfouz’s extreme modesty.

Beyond politics and journalism, Salmawy bows to the requirements of a good memoir: albeit in a measured way, he reveals much of his personal life. He talks about his love life, but keeps so many names untold much is left for the reader to guess. He talks about his marriage, recounting the family of his bride’s hesitation over him being an adequate suitor for a beautiful, talented and rich young woman Nazli Madkour. He talks about his parents, hinting at his mother’s agony over his father’s excessive bon vivant. And he even talks about the claustrophobia with which his time in jail, especially in the dark cell of the Citadel Palace, afflicted him. Salmawy also allows his memoirs to carry images of the norms of the times during which he lived: the way people made their fortunes towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries; the slaves they owned, who were later released to become very loyal and loving help; the way people chose their spouses; the eating and drinking habits associated with different social-economic milieus and the programmes of the radio and TV. The selection of photos included in the book adds a great deal to Salmawy’s description of the lives of upper middle class and upper class Egyptians of the second half of the 20th century.

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