During a vacation one rests, returning to one’s nature as a creature who plays, free to think without having to make decisions.
I studied journalism in an academy affiliated with the state-owned institution of Akhbar al-Youm, and then I worked at the newspaper issued by the same institution. I drowned in traditional journalism, all the while trying to be non traditional … I think.
I was into literature, and this was my main drive to work as a cultural journalist since 2005.
Perhaps I thought that, unlike writing, journalism was a safe practice. I resorted to a rather peculiar route, continuing the one thing I excelled at throughout my years of being conscious: warding off writing, and delightfully deleting most of what I wrote, telling myself I was learning. Journalism was the only way to produce writing that I wasn’t free to go back and erase.
But was my practice of journalism an attempt at destroying the usual pattern of traditional journalism?
I don’t think so. I was playing. I wasn’t really courageous enough.
I remember a story a friend told me once. He used to issue a free weekly magazine 10 years ago (the story took place in Germany, and my friend was German, but this isn’t what’s most important about it), and he used to distribute it himself among the inhabitants of his town. The services offered by the magazine varied, from sports schedules to light society stories.
With the magazine’s increasing popularity and wide circulation, he started procuring advertisements, and he gathered enough money for the magazine to keep going. My friend’s enthusiasm led him to a decision even bolder than issuing a free publication: he decided to make it a daily publication, risking all the money he had earned.
The advertisers backed out, of course, and the project was over. But my friend spoke of his experiment with joy. Back then, he knew what he was doing would drive traditional newspapers crazy, and his aim was to destroy everything he had studied about the media economy and industry. It all revolved around a public that paid money to read the news, but he broke the rules.
He knew it would all come to an end when the first advances he got from his advertisers ran out, yet he enjoyed the adventure, even though he knew how it would end. It was enough for him that he caused a wave of confusion within the media for a few weeks.
This story resembles that of a publisher I know.
The first time I met my late friend Mohamed Rabie, he was known as the publisher who publishes himself. He liked to narrate his stories his own way, and he used to write in colloquial Arabic. His books started like English novels — you would find your eyes moving from below to above sometimes. Each publishing process Rabie took on somehow negated his previous works. He would introduce himself to you, speak about his new book, and wait for your opinion, as though dropping a bomb on you and enjoying your reaction.
Rabie, the publisher who left us, and my German friend in his youth.
Each time I remember these two stories, an annoying question creeps into my head — the same question that often makes me unable to continue any project I embark on: What if this doesn’t happen? What if we take out this text?
The world won’t stop.
Is it possible for life to push us away from practicing something that we love? Of course it is. Is all this pressure on media outlets and threats against the personal safety of journalists a sign that we need to consider a plan B, just in case? Definitely. Am I doing that? No.
No, not because I am immune to pressure, or because I see myself as a super-journalist, but because the question of how to act despite restrictions is closer to my heart than the question of what I might do if I quit journalism. Every step I take demands an internal energy that drives me to work and learn and evolve and make mistakes, and to try again and again. Without affection for my work, this energy would be very difficult to summon. I don’t have this kind of affection for just any kind of journalism, only the journalism that helps me see my world more clearly, that helps me to understand it a little better.
The price may be high at times, but in all cases it’s a choice, and the one thing that enables me to stick to my choice is the fact that I still have no answer to this question: How can journalism help people see each other better? The biggest problem with journalism here in Egypt, however, which I don’t know how we can overcome, is the constant failure to engage with social developments, focusing on higher political matters instead, and often only within the capital.
The most essential and difficult task I encounter as a journalist in Egypt is in fact the one that makes it possible to continue working as one: that I must keep changing my skin. Traditional journalism has become surrounded with restrictions that make practicing it constantly a source of exhaustion and disappointment. My trick is to continuously seek out a nook, a tiny space the authorities have not thought of suppressing because they are not aware it can be used to produce effective journalism. This space can manifest in society features with heavy subtext, human interest stories, or in replacing interview-based field work with observation and constructing the picture on my own. I am tremendously happy each time such an experiment works, creating something fresh and impactful, and this thrill assures me that I still love journalism more than anything else. My biggest fear, though, is to run out of nooks.
In a recent program I joined, I was asked to articulate what I aspire to as a “film critic” in the community where I work. I am not comfortable with being described as a critic, nor as a journalist, for that matter (I see myself as a perpetual work-in-progress), but it was a film criticism program and so I had to embrace the label. This is part of what I wrote:
“I hope I can continue on the quest for a fresh critical language: in Arabic, because Egyptian critics owe their audience a real, vibrant conversation about the country’s film scene that they can be a part of, and in English, because we also owe it to the world to present an honest, comprehensive picture of an industry that is ailing, but that is also ripe with potential.”
The truth is, however, I am in this line of work for largely selfish reasons. Most of the time, it is difficult to believe writing about art and cultural production is of use to anyone in a place like this, at a time like this. Most of the time, I am not thinking about “the Egyptian audience” or “the world” — I am thinking about myself.
I have worked in journalism ever since I graduated, but my focus on arts and culture began in the summer of 2013, a season heavy with the stench of death and irrevocable loss. A season of defeat. And if it weren’t for the artists, the writers, the filmmakers, the dancers, the musicians, the broadcasters, the programmers, the curators, the organizers, and the fellow cultural journalists, whose work I was exposed to that year — I now realize — it would have been impossible to continue functioning in the city Cairo had become. In the conversations I had with them, in the screenings I attended, the exhibitions I visited, the performances I watched — even the ones I hated — I found my anchor, and the energy I needed to stay intact. I am not serving anything or anyone by working as a cultural journalist, I am preserving my sanity.
My continued entanglement with journalism is my continued entanglement with myself, with all the creators in my life — my friends and fellow maneuverers, and all those strangers yet kindred spirits of mine working in the arts — in their struggle to make things happen amid rampant hostility. The day they stop working is the day I do too. But, as long as they keep pushing, I must in turn push. Their work, if not duly appreciated at the moment, deserves to at least be documented, in all its flawed, chaotic confusion; in all its stubborn persistence in the face of censors, bureaucrats, landlords, whitewashers and funders who demand too much. It deserves to be questioned, challenged, deconstructed — fiercely, but also generously — for this is the only way it can evolve.
This work is the mark of its makers, and journalism is the mark of the work, and the existence of both assures us that life lingers in this dark, convoluted place. It scrambles and stretches and screams in peripheral pockets, threatening to leak out into the center once more.
I always like to envision the origins of journalism as a very trivial story. A group of people in a small village, a bunch of whom decide to print some papers with news of the village residents: Who died? Who gave birth? Who got divorced? Who cheated on his wife (and, most importantly, with whom?). In other words, I always envision journalism as very closely tied to gossip, but a kind of gossip that is slightly more significant than that which takes place behind closed doors.
The virtue of journalism, is that it drags gossip beyond its limitations, because gossip usually happens in secret, while the public is journalism’s domain. In this sense, all the current attempts at blocking websites are essentially attempts at dragging journalism back to being mere gossip — whispers among people that nobody dare utter out loud.
I have nothing against gossip except for this: that it is surreptitious and cowardly. Think how many people you have gossiped about in your life, and ask yourself why you couldn’t say the things you said about them publicly. Simply, because you, and I, fear facing the person in question. This in turn means that journalism is a brave profession, as opposed to the cowardly act of gossip (I do not deny that I practice it sometimes, because, sometimes, I am a coward).
When journalism pisses off the authorities, their first instinct is to rob it of its significance and turn it into gossip. It’s even better if people don’t gossip — don’t talk — at all.
For instance, if a businessman marries a minister in secret, and two days later, we wake up to find the government supporting a company owned by the businessman, is this still gossip? Or can it be elevated to a piece of news capable of determining the future of an entire country? In this case, both the husband and the wife wouldn’t want anyone to know about their union, because if people do know, talk of corruption will start circulating, causing them a headache they’d much rather do without.
The line between gossip and journalism is candidness. Of course friends of the businessman and the minister will discuss the marriage in their private gatherings. But the journalist realizes that this is not just an entertaining development, but one that matters to many, many people, and he or she decides to let these many people in on it.
This is why I think of journalism as a brave profession. It is the profession that allows you — upon hearing kids whisper that “the king is naked,” only to be hushed and shamed and brought to tears — to grab the mic and say: “These kids are right. The king is in fact naked.” And to glance at those kids and thank them, genuinely.
Perhaps the terms “bravery” and “cowardice” aren’t the most accurate? Perhaps it’s all about “faith.” The notion that you, as a child, as an individual among an oppressed people in an oppressed country, can stand head-to-head against the king?
The king believes that tomatoes are black, and he tortures you to make you admit that they are black, but in your eyes they are red, and the people who watch you suffer begin to say: “Now, let’s be objective, everyone. Why can’t tomatoes be black?” In fact — and this is the worst part — even you, in the cloudiness of pain, can begin to believe that they are black, and to even sign a statement proclaiming their blackness.
This does happen, sometimes. But we can find some consolation in two things: One, that despite all the torture, the beatings, and the blocks, tomatoes will always be red. Two, that, one day, for sure, someone somewhere will gratefully say: “May God bless this guy! He was the first to say that tomatoes are red.”
Or something like that.
“Journalism is fleeting, anyway.”
This is what a friend of mine said after he saw me all riled up about something that happened at work. To him, it was all in vain, and his comment reminded me of my long-lasting ambivalence toward the field, even though I was a journalism graduate. I actually picked broadcasting at first, but a week later I went back in and changed to journalism.
After I graduated, though, something turned me off the profession. I thought it lacked a certain authenticity, that it merely recycled reality, exploiting all the concepts I was so eager to escape. Back then there was no real journalism in the country, but there was the internet, and the world I saw on it was never reflected in journalism, as far as I was concerned.
The image of the hotshot journalist, uncovering threats and snatching information from between the lion’s teeth, as shown in the movies, like Hanan Turk’s character in Youssef Chahine’s Al-Akhar (The Other, 1999), for instance, made me burst into laughter. To me, this grand illusion of importance, the idea of the brilliant journalist who turns the country upside down with one article, was all part of the regime, and its attempt at keeping the status quo intact. For the play to be exciting, after all, the naughty boys must have a place onstage.
The journalism that shows me what the world is like … what is it like?
Yesterday I watched something trashy on TV, as part of a masochistic routine I can’t help. Basma Wahbi was interviewing Khaled Salah, chief editor of Youm7. He was saying he created a new brand of journalism in Egypt, a journalism unlike that of Rose al-Youssef, which dominated the field. He was claiming he created a professional journalism, not one based on “opinion.” For one whole hour, Salah spoke of what makes a journalist, asserting that a journalist must relay reality as it is, in addition to more definitive factors that constitute the very basics of professional journalism. He had the audacity to keep at it, as though he were the chief editor of the New York Times.
Salah’s words helped me see part of my relationship with journalism more clearly. Part of why I turned away from it after graduation had to do with a form of trickery it upheld. It claimed that what it represented was reality, and the scary thing was that it had the power to cement this so-called reality. To me, this was terrifying, because those who operated the machinery of reality were the same ones who operated the machinery of journalism, insisting that this was the world and that I should recognize it as such.
The authorities are able to use journalism to promote a reality that doesn’t exist; their journalism is one that relies on a lasting heritage of illusion and lies and maneuvering to present readers with a distorted version of that reality.
The reader’s prowess, therefore, lies in their ability not to let what they read in journalistic outlets inform their perception of reality.
The day journalism can break free from the machines, is the day I can work as a journalist, willingly, without the urge to escape.
Editing is a political act — My task is to somehow make an argument more convincing, but for whom? To remove that which I consider redundant, to hone the language and tone of a text. Sometimes I wonder though if what I’m doing is making it more palatable — removing the violence from its language in a way that renders it less alive.
Editing is a learning process — one of trying to inhabit a text that often finds its registers and meanings in places that can appear awkward, or “foreign,” or strange to me. Perhaps I should let it be in all its awkwardness a little more.
Editing is collaborative — It has to be a conversation, especially as I think and write and dream in just one language. Sometimes I feel like what I do at Mada makes sense, and sometimes it doesn’t, but the discussions we have together about what stories we want to tell, and how we want to tell them across and between languages, make more sense to me than any other alternative right now.
It is a strange kind of labor when you must try to build sustainability for the institution that you are creating, when you try to establish editorial strategy, when you try to nurture writers, in the knowledge that you could be closed down any day. The way that power is exercised in Egypt leaves you with no ability to predict or make educated guesses about how close this scenario might be.
So practicing journalism in Egypt at this time for an institution that is pushing the limited boundaries of what can be said is an endeavor that has multiple facets, and one of those might be said to be spiritual.
It entails extraordinary commitment alongside detachment. Detachment not in the sense of not caring, but rather in the acknowledgment that everything is ephemeral and nothing is in our control. I don’t keep myself motivated by telling myself that what we are doing is important, or that bearing witness might make a difference. Because the simple truth is that I have no idea.
– Why are we still working?
Sharing ideas and information is a basic right worth some resilience. A good dose of denial of hopelessness.
– What is the thing that motivates/inspires us the most?
– What is the thing that bores us the most?
The feeling of hopelessness.
– What would make us stop?
An incarnation of hopelessness.
– If we leave the job, or the job leaves us (god forbid), what is the thing we want to do before the end?
Build a community of readers.
– If we want to disfigure and deface (disillusion) conventional journalism, what is the one thing that we would do? What is the thing that we would preserve?
Make fun of it.