Sunday,09 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1214, (18-24 September 2014)
Sunday,09 December, 2018
Issue 1214, (18-24 September 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Whole words

Famous for writing Nos Kelma (“Half a Word”), his 100-word, satirical column in Al-Akhbar newspaper, Ahmed Ragab, one of Egypt’s best-known humourists, died last Friday at the age of 86

Obituary: Ahmed Ragab (1928-2014)
Obituary: Ahmed Ragab (1928-2014)

Obituary: Ahmed Ragab (1928-2014)

His name  had long been associated with the famous, late cartoonist Mustafa Hussein, who died last month. They collaborated from 1974 to produce a daily caricature in Al-Akhbar, which was very popular among Egyptians, with Ahmed Ragab providing ideas and captions for Hussein’s drawings. In addition to “Half a Word”, Ragab was famous for writing “Love Is”, a daily caricature with a funny comment on relationships. Ragab and Hussein were an invaluable asset for Al-Akhbar, much like the late cartoonist and vernacular poet Salah Jahin, who was Al-Ahram’s treasure for so many years.

Born in November 1928, Ragab was a graduate of Alexandria University’s Faculty of Law. After his graduation, he joined the Alexandria office of the Akhbar Al-Youm newspaper in 1952. A few years later, he moved to Cairo and worked under the supervision of the organisation’s founders, Ali and Mostafa Amin, pioneers of journalism in Egypt. He was an active and talented journalist; as early as 1954, he held the position of deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Geel magazine, published by Akhbar Al-Youm, becoming deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Hilal in 1962. He went through a series of other positions before ending up back in Al- Akhbar in 1968. His articles and features were also published in Al-Kawakeb and Al-Musawer magazines.

Ragab spent much of his career inside Room No. 53 in Al-Ahbar’s old building, set aside for such great writers as Tawfik Al-Hakeem, Galal Al-Hamamsy, Kamel Al-Shenawy, Moussa Sabri and Anis Mansour. Writing “Half a Word” was the author’s daily routine for some 50 years. In one of his most recent columns, published on 13 July, Ragab wrote: “In 2050, the number of inhabitants of earth will reach 95 billion people. We have to consider from now on how to regulate immigration from the provinces to Cairo, which will not be able to receive more immigrants by then. Immigration, a non-stop process, will deprive the governorates of all the development features and factors. So, what have we done about this? Absolutely nothing.”

In his book Ahmed Ragab, Egypt’s Laughter, published in 2011, Mohamed Tawfik, a young journalist, describes Ragab as a “man who enjoys the philosopher’s wisdom, the comedian’s humor, the scientist’s modesty, the thinker’s vision and the magnanimity of the patriot.” He rejects the received view of Ragab as a sullen, conservative character. “He knows how to control his facial muscles, only laughing in the company of his dear friends. He does not welcome anyone to his office, only honest people. He once received a pickpocket who wanted to repent.” Media and press interviews with Ragab are scarce. Although he was a prolific and notable author, he always turned down television interviews.

Devastated by the loss of his intimate friend, Mustafa Hussein, who died of cancer, Ragab stopped writing his daily column. The daily, one-hour brainstorming routine had started in January 1974. It was a productive discussion of current issues and the complaints of Egyptians, and it always resulted in hilarious criticism, as well as unforgettable characters reflecting particular social types, and invested with an undying and sincere understanding of Egyptian society and suffering. “Kambura Bey”, for example, was the opportunistic MP who traded in people’s dreams. “The Al-Akhbar Singer” was a reflection of the author’s own failure to learn music. As a child, Ragab had dreamt of becoming a famous violinist, but he dramatically failed and was advised by his music teacher to find himself another career. “The Fellah of Kar Al-Hanadwa”, on the other hand, was the simple, provincial citizen with complaints for the president. Ragab and Hussein had a falling out in 2002, and remained out of touch until Hussein was diagnosed with cancer in 2009.

Although a satirist and social critic, Ragab was a supporter of former president Hosni Mubarak to the end. He even declared his continuing support for Mubarak after the 25 January Revolution, when Mubarak was ousted, describing him as “Egypt’s beloved son”. He also supported Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, celebrating his electoral victory in one column: “Dear President, we do not congratulate you on being the president of Egypt, we congratulate ourselves on having you as our president. We know that we will give you a hard time. You are going to experience hectic times because we tend to pose unanswerable questions. We may stop screaming for help, however, our consolation is that we finally have a smile. You are our smile.”


In one of his rare on-air telephone interviews, with the talk show host Rola Kharsa, Ragab said that he lost almost 20kg in the year when the Muslim Brotherhood ruled the country. “The 30 June Revolution has cured me of depression,” he said. Asked if he is optimistic now that Al-Sisi is in charge, he was quick to say, “I am very optimistic. And I want all the people to be equally optimistic about the advent of a new Egypt.”

Ragab remained a very private person, with only a few close friends. Hussein once said that no one could claim that he truly knew Ragab. A prolific writer, he published many books of humour on almost every subject, which were popular among young and old alike. His 1990 Ayy Kalam (or Drivel) sold over 90,000 copies. Ragab also frequently wrote about women, love and marriage. In Yekhreb Bayt Al-Hobb (or To Hell with Love), he reveals the ironies and pains of man-woman relations for the absurdities they have become, using sarcasm to treat social illnesses. A few months after the 25 January Revolution, Ragab received the Nile Prize for Literature.

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