Practice review: a year of producing, surviving and learning

It’s been another year of fighting many woes at Mada. The obvious one aside – namely an unprecedented retreat in freedoms – it’s also been a fight with fatigue, boredom and absence (of information, of sense).

And it’s been another year of experimentation with voice and form, all the while constantly making guesses at what would bring us one step closer to the chaotic notion of the audience.

In upholding a tradition of being self-critical, the Mada Masr team was invited to reflect on some of their output and this year and describe ways in which they had been challenged.

This is some of what they came up with.

Information vs speculation – Passant Rabie

There is a certain level of ambiguity that is acceptable when reporting on the security apparatus in Egypt. However, this year proved to be perhaps the most challenging in trying to collect tangible information that could be used to make conclusive arguments.

With the appointment of a new minister of interior who came from a State Security background, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, in March of this year, I had set out to explore how State Security was back to governing the ministry and record this shift in power.

However, little was known about Abdel Ghaffar and his history, and as I write, the man has made few public appearances or statements. State Security is perhaps the most obscure of the police departments, and collecting information on it is very challenging. Even more challenging is trying to make sense of it all within the context of the current regime, whose relationship with the Ministry of Interior goes through various ups and downs, behind a wall of obscurity.

While it is difficult to surrender to speculation, it’s often your only option when writing about certain state bodies. The piece I wrote may not have made a conclusive statement, but it raised questions that still stand today, amid the mutating relationship between the police and the presidency.

Official accounts and fear of legitimization – Isabel Esterman

One of the issues I struggle with is dealing with data sets that I often believe are flawed but still feel are important to report on. In some cases, this is a question of how that data is measured. For example, the basket of goods and services monitored to determine inflation includes many things that I doubt are relevant to the vast majority of Egyptians: vehicle prices, cook and maid services, hotel costs, private school fees, etc.

In other cases, I often doubt the validity of the data. Figures on Egypt’s trade deficit, for example, are almost universally believed to be cooked, although that is not something anyone will admit to on the record. Likewise, official unemployment numbers are generally viewed by experts as being overly optimistic. Data sets published by different ministries also sometimes contradict each other.

I worry sometimes that reporting these numbers helps legitimize them. And yet, they are often among the few clues we have as to what is going on with the broader economy, so it seems important to cover them. If nothing else, I feel like a change in, say, unemployment figures does signal movement in one direction or another, even if the actual base numbers are inaccurate.

At times we confront this directly, such as in this piece on unemployement, or this article on inflation statistics that we were regrettably unable to translate into English. However, in day-to-day news coverage, it’s not always practical to spend so much time adding endless caveats to the numbers you are reporting on, rather than just writing a report and moving on to the next news story. I don’t really know what the answer is.

Being comfortably critical — Maha ElNabawi

I think writing the D-CAF review on the downtown arts festival was the first time I didn’t hold back on my criticality, and while I got bashed, I also got a lot of good feedback. I enjoyed it because I feel I’m really starting to understand the alternative music landscape, its power dynamics and its economy, and this article helped me to hone in on that, while also being critical. I’d like to be able to do more of this, to see this criticality and voice in a way that remains unbiased.

I also tried doing some listicles this year as a way of experimenting with content types. My initial idea/discussion was that they would be in English and Arabic because I don’t know if anyone does good listicles in Arabic. But I guess the editors didn’t seem to think it worked and didn’t translate it.

I will keep playing with content types like the Ramadan blog too. There is a podcast idea as I am interested in experimenting with involving radio/audio, and another idea I’ve been toying with for a series of music interview videos.

Being uncomfortably critical – Rowan El Shimy

A piece I struggled with was The Past Will Return, but is sincerity enough? I guess this year is when I found my voice more as a writer and was encouraged to be critical. I’m a big fan of Dina Hamza’s work in film (and a fan of her sister Doaa Hamza, who is a big part of the film as well). Her film, The Past Will Return, is a very personal and engrossing film about her late father, Mohamed Hamza, an iconic poet who has written some of Arabic music’s most memorable words for Abdelhalim Hafez, Shadia, Nagat el-Saghira, Warda and others.

The film isn’t just a homage to his life and art, but is about loss, grief and how she and her family dealt with their father’s death. However, I had many reservations about the film (which you can read in the review), so I found myself in the difficult position of knowing that this filmmaker produces very interesting work generally, and that this film had an almost therapeutic effect on her and is extremely personal, but having many issues with its focus and editing, and wanting to express them as part of a wider conversation on documentary filmmaking.

Debunking a moment of glee — Naira Antoun

I went back and forth on whether I would write on the Ramadan soap Taht al-Saytara. It did not feel quite right to write something critical about a show that was a landmark in some ways in humanizing addicts. While I have ethical issues with slamming something that is more progressive than what has come before, the show was also problematic, and there are ethical issues in setting the bar so low.

In the end I felt that not to write about the show because it was progressive – or tried to be – and its makers clearly cared about humanizing addicts, was more ethically problematic, because it sets the bar too low, as if all that addicts deserve is to be presented as human.

It was an interesting if difficult piece to write. I was aiming for what is my favorite type of writing, and what I hope that Mada can host more of – a piece that discusses complex ideas in a simple way. Terms like “discursive representations” and “gender” and “subjectivity” were spinning in my head while I tried to translate that into a chatty, simple piece.

It felt odd to also publish this only in English – the language that I write in — but I was hesitant about publishing in Arabic, partly because of the initial reluctance I had about writing the piece, and with these concerns about the relationship between tone and content. But the Arabic translation did well, even better than the original English, which was an interesting finding about the relation between our content and our different audiences.

Unexpected readings — Heba Afify

This story started as a light piece that I felt like writing after an eventful train ride as an opportunity to do some colorful and personal writing. However, half way through I decided that I wanted to turn it into a more serious commentary on the state of railways in Egypt that has caused dozens of deadly catastrophes – and that’s when things got messy.

In my head, the little inconveniences I faced on the trip were symptomatic of the same severe issues that caused catastrophes, and hence it made sense to tie them together. To readers, our copy-editors noted, it may read like I was comparing my slight discomfort on the train to the traumatic experiences and grave losses many have experienced in recurrent train accidents here. Some of my comments were perceived as classist, as I had unknowingly positioned myself as a spoiled girl on a great adventure.

It was startling for me to see people having a strong negative reaction to something that I was happy with. It taught me to be more mindful of the possible ways that people could read my work and to think of considerations that may not be immediately present in my mind.

Trying to write about that which doesn’t get written about — Rowan El Shimy

When Raafat al-Mihi passed away, many outlets wrote obituaries highlighting his significant achievements in film. However, at Mada, we discovered that he wrote a novel titled Hurghada: Love’s Magic, which was banned in Egypt for some time for including sex scenes and Muslim-Christian love affairs. We thought tracking down this book and reviewing it would be a great way to commemorate this artist, giving readers a glimpse into his lesser-known works.

Here came the difficulties of trying to find a book in Cairo. I searched second-hand book markets, bookshops in downtown, the AUC Library, and publishers – but I didn’t manage to track it down. It was disappointing to remember, once again, how badly we archive our artists’ work, and how little readers and audiences have access to various works.

Going into uncharted territory – Lina Attalah

I always liked the fact that I have a connection to Sinai, a place I visited and tried to report about for the last 10 years. But most recently “knowing Sinai” bears more pretense than any real knowledge, with an ongoing war between the state and radical Islamists deeply defacing the peninsula. The place has become invisible to outsiders, with the state and their foes threatening anyone who tries to come close on a quest to understand the nature of this war.

I ventured there earlier this year, with my courageous colleague Heba Afify, because we grew frustrated with reading about the news of the war based on propagandist accounts of the state and the Province of Sinai, the main militant group fighting there.

We encountered various impossibilities in reporting while there, including not being able to leave the city and get closer to the actual sites of violent confrontations, and not being able to talk to the very authors of this violence, from either side. The resulting piece was a small attempt to tell a story of the war as recounted by some residents of Sinai, and through which we saw how both parties act under the banner of “the state” – but fail to perform properly as states.

Dancing between languages – Dina Hussein

“The awe-inspiring passage of the trilateral root, from Hebrew to Arabic and back,” is the subtitle of the third article in a five-part series originally written in Arabic by novelist and translator Nael El Toukhy, which I set out to translate into English.

In the article, Toukhy explores the common linguistic roots of Arabic (his native language) and Hebrew (the language he translates from). He promenades between the two languages to exhibit similarities, differences and common origins. He walks us through a game of words – drops a letter in Hebrew, adds another in Arabic – to show us the nuances and the commonalities. He writes in a thrilling Arabic prose to engage readers in his search for the Semitic mother tongue.

How can we translate such a piece on language? How can we Romanize the Arabic alphabet in a simple manner that engages English readers? Why would English readers care about how Hebrew teaches us (Arabs) something about ourselves? How can we make readers of English join this hunt for the linguistic origins of two foreign languages (and various dialects within), which are written in two different scripts, and are engrossed in a contemporary conflict?

The only way was to rely on Toukhy’s own starting point: phonetics (the sound of speech). Phonetics, as Toukhy shows us, have often been used to differentiate the speakers: Shalom vs. Salam. In this exercise of translation and transliteration, phonetics is the common language. We relied on the sound of human speech to help readers of all languages join Toukhy’s hunt for the common history of Arabic and Hebrew, and their speakers. We hope to have succeeded.

Working collaboratively Omar Said

One thing I relate to in Mada is how the sense of the collective is to be found in the way we produce together and work on improving our production through our collaborations. This was striking for me, as I come from journalistic context where fierce competition between journalists meant fighting over who would get the better content.

So reporters at Mada would help with sources, editors with the flow and direction of the piece, which is what I would expect from a newspaper, but unfortunately don’t find elsewhere. I believe this sense of a collective is not only productive, but also necessary to fight things such as self-censorship.

In this context, I was glad to write about certain things that I consider difficult for me, such as the Taht al-Saytara Ramadan soap about addiction. I wasn’t as successful in other attempts, such as one on telling about the state of psychiatry in Egypt, for which I gathered information and accounts from interviewees – but couldn’t write a word on it for three months. I was happy my editors stopped asking me about it.


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