New Internationalist

The pen is messier than the sword

Issue 414

Visiting a newspaper office, Maria Golia assesses the worth of the written word in today’s Egypt.

Research took me to the headquarters of Al-Ahram (‘The Pyramids’), an Arabic daily founded in 1875. When I reached the ninth floor, it was deserted; everyone was in a hallway praying. Not so Faris, the editor I’d come to see, a rotund elder who sat nibbling a bean sandwich in a corner cubicle. ‘Welcome to mon petit coin (my little corner)’, he said.

The place was indeed tiny, strewn with yellowed clippings and cheaply bound books. On the wall were photocopied pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser with his arms upraised, and diva Um Kalthoum singing in her sunglasses. I wedged myself into the assigned chair, careful not to overturn the precariously piled files, or the jars of jam, salt and other sundries loading the makeshift shelves behind me.

Faris is one of the last journalists on earth who still has active ink pots on his desk, and the blue-black fingers that go with them. He is at least 75 years old and has been with the Al-Ahram since his youth, living proof that Egyptian civil servants enjoy job security, even though they’re barely paid. Faris has authored 15 books on journalism, ‘and this is the 16th’, he said, patting a fat envelope.

I wanted to start taking notes, but while situating myself in the chair that itself barely fitted in the cubicle, I’d dropped my pen. It was a good one, the kind I don’t usually take to work, and while I very much wanted to locate it, it would have taken a contortionist to search for it in that cramped space. I looked helplessly at Faris, who was quite short and therefore closer to the ground, but his eyes confirmed that he was too old to be crawling around down there. So he handed me a beat-up Bic, and I let it go.

Faris didn’t know a lot about my topic (the use of photography for ID cards in early 20th century Egypt) but excitedly showed me a brown cardboard badge with a portrait of his grandfather, used to board trains a century ago. After that, he told me more about himself.

He was sitting at his desk in 1960, when the Egyptian press was nationalized, and the newspapers’ content subjected to state control. Since its birth in the 1820s, the local press had had its ups and downs, at times serving a distinctively cosmopolitan readership, at others, the demands of Egypt’s autocratic leaders. When I asked what had happened to newspapers since nationalization, Faris said: ‘We used to be paid to find things out, now the less we know the better.’

Faris’s generation of journalists nonetheless soldiers on, their cynicism sweetened with age and the knowledge that they’ve thrown as many wrenches into the works as possible, while repaying the state’s meagre salaries with diminished efforts, their circumspection resulting from the threat of arrest and imprisonment.

At one point Faris asked me to find a box on the shelf behind me. ‘A Shaffer,’ he said repeatedly, and I realized he meant a Sheaffer pen box. I found it; it was quite old. ‘Can you put this in?’ he asked, producing what appeared to be a Soviet-era pen made of time-dulled plastic and chrome. ‘It’s a present for one of my protégées.’ The box was fitted with elastic bands, now slack with age. I inserted the pen, snapped the box shut, and handed it back. Just then, the awaited colleague arrived. ‘My darling,’ Faris greeted him.

When the younger man received this apparently long-promised gift from his venerated boss, I saw him notice the condition of the box. As he opened it, his expression changed from restrained anticipation to – not disappointment – but something resembling irony. The almost imperceptible shake of his head bespoke regret that not only his, but his superior’s professional life might amount to just this: a rusty pen.

‘Do you like it?’ asked Faris.

‘I needed this,’ said the protégée.

I left Faris with a fine ‘Shaffer’ somewhere on the floor of his office, my contribution to the forward march of the Egyptian press. Walking home, I saw books dumped in heaps on the sidewalk, and men selling them at 15 cents apiece. ‘Why are they so cheap?’ I asked the vendor. ‘We buy them by the kilo,’ he said.

Maria Golia also writes for The Middle East, reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004).

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