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Around the world in 1,000 issues
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 05 - 2010


By Samir Sobhi
Newspapers have a tendency to come into being because of a domestic or international event. In Egypt, this has been more or less the case since the beginning of the last century, when Ahmad Lotfi El-Sayyed published Al-Garidah. In 1907, Al-Liwaa of Mostafa Kamel came on the scene. Several nation-wide Coptic newspapers appeared just before WWI. After the 1923 Constitution was drafted, Al-Mosawwar came into being. After the 1936 Treaty, Al-Masri was born. Akhbar Al-Yawm was conceived during WWII. Right after the 1952 Revolution, a spate of publications appeared, including Al-Tahrir, Al-Gomhouriya, and Anbaa Al-Watan.
Political and economic changes in the early 1990s gave rise to a new wave of newspapers, including the Arabic-language Al-Ahram Al-Masaei and Al-Ahram Weekly. The latter was an attempt to reach out to English-language readers at home and abroad, offering a liberal face of Egyptian journalism. Since its creation, the Weekly was dedicated to publishing opinions from across the country's political spectrum.
My colleague Farouq Hashem, who worked the main newsroom of Al-Ahram, was one of those who worked on the five pilot issues preceding the publication of the Weekly 's first issue. The first editorial meetings of the Weekly took place at a small room not far from the main newsroom. Hosny Guindy, the future chief editor, was there, debating for hours with the future managing editor Mohammad Salmawi and others who were helping him conceptualise the new publication. Those who took part in the early consultations were Wadei Kirollos, Bahgat Badei, Fouad El-Gohari, Nigel Ryan, Jill Kamel, Mona Anis, Ghada Ragab, Fayza Hassan, Murad Wahba, Mamdouh ööEl-Dakhakhni, Olfat Eltohami, Gillian Potter, and Rajia Nashaat. Ibrahim Nafie, then CEO of Al-Ahram, wanted the new publication to offer the English-speaking public a purely "Egyptian vision."
The first meeting, as I recall, was attended by Ahmad Nafie, Salama Ahmad Salama, Hosni Guindi, Hasan Fouad, Mohammad Salmawi, Mohammad Issa al-Sharqawi, Ahmad Adel, Atef El-Ghamri, Sameh Abdallah, Moshira Mousa, Hesham Mamdouh, Luis Grace, Bahgat Badei and myself.
Soon, this group would produce a newspaper different in appearance, content, and style than anything we've had before. But this was still a few months in the future. At the early meetings of the Weekly's conceptualising team, I could already feel that this wasn't your average group of journalists. First of all, almost everyone used computers, a new thing at the time. Also, some of those present spoke Arabic with a foreign accent, others looked foreign, and many were educated abroad.
The maestro of the new publication was Hosni Guindi, a soft spoken man with a cool temper who happened to be a consummate perfectionist. He wasn't the type who bossed people around or looked important, but he worked long and hard and that forced everyone to do the same. He led his team by love and example, relying on their loyalty and participation, and it paid off.
Everyone was loyal to Guindi, a man who focused on the results, maintained quality, and insisted on everyone around him doing their best. In the end, he came up with a publication that looked so different from anything we've had before, even in the foreign language press. The Weekly proved to be a publication of the highest quality, much respected among the foreign community and accessible to the average reader and the occasional traveller as well.
The Weekly was also a high-tech product from the start. The layout rapidly moved to computerised methods, and that affected the way people worked and interacted, giving the entire operation a more modern feel.
The Weekly was lucky in that it came out of the womb of the venerable Al-Ahram. The men and women who made the Weekly came mostly from the mother newspaper, and this made its mark on the exceptional layout of the newspaper. The Weekly would return the favour in later years, for its methods, hi-tech orientation and independence of mind served as a model for later publications released by Al-Ahram, including Al-Ahram Hebdo.
The Weekly has been Egypt's top English-language publication for two decades now, and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. This is because of its willingness to incorporate a wide variety of opinions and attitudes, and due to the high quality of its editorial content and artistic design.
How does the Weekly do that? One reason is that it doesn't rely on English-language contributors alone. Writers of worth who work solely in Arabic have their articles translated by capable translators who know how to give the reader a faithful English-language translation without sacrificing the colour and flavour of the original copy. The Weekly does its own extensive reporting, but also borrows articles of worth from the mother newspaper, so as to give the English- reading community a feel of what the local press is saying.
The Weekly 's first issue, which appeared on 28 February 1991, promised the reader a publication that is liberal, neither pro-government nor pro-opposition. The publication kept its promise, and its high quality, due to the expert journalists it recruited from within Al-Ahram as well as from news agencies. Among the senior journalists the Weekly managed to recruit were the veteran writers and editors Morsi Saadeddin and Luis Grace. Several of Al-Ahram 's senior editors also helped out with the new publication. These include Mahmoud Murad, Ezzat al-Saadani, Ismail al-Baqari, Mohamad Basha, Abdel Rahman Aql, Hedayat Abdel Nabi, Mostafa al-Naggar, Osama Saraya, and others.
The well-known journalist Mohammad Hasanein Heikal, upon hearing of the new publication, invited the entire staff at his house to congratulate them and discuss the future of the newspaper and its editorial content.
I recall that, a year after the publication of the Weekly 's first issue, veteran journalist Kamel Zoheiri told me how impressed he was with the new publication and its ability to diversify its reporting and the opinions it publishes. The Weekly published opinion articles not only by its staff writers, but by contributors from across the domestic, regional and international scene -- thus giving the readers a chance to sample views from the widest possible circle of commentators.
The journey of 20 years saw several hands changing at the helm. Hosni Guindi, the man who gave the paper its original outlook and direction, was succeeded by Hani Shukrallah as executive chief editor for a while. Shukrallah, serving in a time of turmoil in the domestic press scene, led with a firm hand, putting in place new organisational and administrative regulations, and selecting new talents for top posts, including Mona Anis and the current managing editor, Galal Nassar. He was followed by the current Chief Editor Assem El-Kersh who has reshaped the newspaper, adding vigour to its content and broadening its coverage.
The Weekly will never cease to change. Like any living organism, it is likely to grow into new forms. Perhaps it will become a tabloid, easier for a weekend read. Or it may turn into a daily, offering its readers immediate access to local developments. Or, maybe it will just keep adding supplements on politics, culture and heritage. Anything is possible. One thing is certain: this newspaper is going to keep its readers well-informed and entertained.


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