Every life has magic moments. Some are experienced on a very personal level, others are shared with family and community. As a child, I vividly remember the first time I saw a live TV reception. In 1960, Cairo TV beamed its very first signals to my aunt’s living room where a number of close relatives and friends had gathered for the much anticipated event. It was a festive day. The idea of having the ‘cinema’ available on demand with a push of the button was just fantastic for both old and young.
The man who made that moment possible was the Egyptian minister of information, Dr. Abdel Kader Hatem, who later went on to become the acting Prime Minister in the early seventies. Today, Four decades later, I managed to get an interview with the man behind that magic moment.
At eighty-four, the ex-Prime Minister is still a vital vibrant engaging man with cordial, almost Victorian manners. His Zamalek villa, a few blocks from the Nile, has the feel of a Professor’s house. I was ushered into his study for an informal interview without any specific agenda. It took a few days to land the interview and I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was a big champion of Internet journalism. In fact, he was very conversant on how to measure the metrics of success for an Internet site and very optimistic about the future of electronic journalism and its potential for allowing smaller alternative voices to challenge media monopolies.
Like most Egyptians I have interviewed in the last few days, he was very aware of the Arab bashing campaign in the American media. We discussed the subject in some detail and he seemed to know all the usual suspects by name, especially Sulzberger’s crew at the New York Times. In a nostalgic moment, he recalled the caliber of American and British journalists who used to cover Egypt in the fifties and sixties. While many of them were hostile to Egypt’s socialist government, they still respected their profession enough to avoid fudging with facts or ignoring basic realities on the ground. Today’s breed of mass media pundits never allows such details to get in the way of airing their prejudices.
On a more sensitive subject, we asked him what he personally thought of Cy Sulzberger. Cy was a cousin of Arthur who was stationed in Cairo in the forties and fifties. Dr. Hatem commented on Cy’s definite anti-Egyptian bias, but refused further comment when I inquired about Sulzberger’s alleged ties to the CIA. The subject came up because I had just finished reading a book by Susan E. Tifft, author of ‘The Trust’, a history of the New York Times. She wrote that : “Though there was no hard evidence, rumors had persisted for years among the overseas press corps that Cy had Agency ties” (The Trust, page 532).
Dr Hatem didn’t seem to think much of Thomas Friedman either and said it was an outrage that William Safire publicly boasted of being a spokesman for Ariel Sharon.
But the big story here has nothing to do with the current sorry affairs of American mass media tycoons. Rather, it is the story of the man who managed to change the face of Arab media with what amounted to a pocket full of spare change. With little more than a government allowance of two hundred thousand Egyptian pounds (about half a million dollars in 1959), Dr Hatem went about the task of setting up Cairo TV, making Egypt the eighth country in the world to broadcast the new medium.
Many of his contemporaries where unconvinced that the project was feasible of even desirable. Some feared it would confuse the public and cause the largely peasant population to abandon their fields for the city life portrayed on TV. Others were concerned that the introduction of television would cause a breakdown in family values. The cost-benefit issue for a poor third world country was also raised.
Dr. Hatem’s response was that television would air educational programs to spread information about modern agricultural methods and personal health issues. Egypt could put the new technology to work in fighting illiteracy. Even a peasant was entitled to have access to the full beauty and diversity of the planet and to experience a full course of culture and entertainment. He also noted that many of the same arguments had been made against the introduction of the radio in the thirties. Further, he pointed out that radio was instrumental in raising the political and social consciousness that had been a catalyst for the independence movements in Africa and the Middle East. Even in those early years, the Voice of Cairo was broadcast in thirty languages and was almost as potent as the BBC. The French government had threatened Egypt simply for broadcasting news of the Algerian revolt.
After winning his argument, Dr Hatem set about the task of delivering a capital intensive service with his meager budget. First he contacted TV manufacturers around the world and persuaded them to each donate thirty TV sets to test the new service. When the TV sets arrived, he had them set up in public squares around Cairo. He then set up a makeshift news operation and started to experiment with live TV. The crowds loved it. Within a few days, 80,000 had lined up to be the first to put in an order for a TV set. One man had a heart attack and died waiting in line. To compensate the family for their loss, Dr Hatem made sure they got one of the first sets and issued a pension for his family.
With the additional funds, ground was broken for the distinctive Maspiro Studio building next to the Nile. Television assembly lines were set up. User License fees were charged to raise more capital for the project. An old stage at Abdeen palace that had been used for the private entertainment of King Farouq, was turned into a TV studio for live performances. American, British and French broadcasters were asked to contribute some of their media products. Within a few years, Cairo was following the trials and tribulations of Peyton Place and The Fugitive. Today, the Egyptian soap opera is a growth industry and the local market has nine different channels. Many more channels can be seen if you have a dish.
It is a rare home in Cairo, no matter how poor, that does not have a TV set. And contrary to what is reported by the American media monopolies, the vast majority of what is aired is song, music videos, love stories, tragic sagas, plays and old movies. They have talk shows with university professors, government ministers and very staid anchors. The exchanges are cordial and polite. Loud mouths like Bill O’Reilly and Alan Keyes would not be allowed a job in the cafeteria. Hate TV is not something that would sell in the Egyptian market, where people of a certain class have very certain manners which include allowing the other guy to finish his sentence.
Dr Hatem, the father of infotainment in the Arab Middle East would have made a great Hollywood mogul. He went on to actively develop Egypt’s tourism industry by building dozens of first class hotels in various locations and setting up academies to train professional tourist guides and hotel service staff.
Life in Cairo has always been a struggle. It is difficult to live, work and play in this very resource poor country. One can make a huge effort in Egypt and still fail. But the people here never seem to stop trying to inch things a little forward for themselves and their children. And moments full of magic still happen in this ancient valley by the Nile. Over the last few years, in one of the most densely populated cities in the world, they even managed to construct a first class subway system. In Seattle, with all its abundant riches, they have been talking of a mass transit system for two decades and it is still on the drawing board.
Egypt’s future will depend on how many men and women will follow the inspirational example of Abdel Kader Hatem who just had a talent for getting huge projects off the ground and running. He still has an infectious optimism about the future of his country. As I was about to leave, an assistant came in with an envelope inviting him to attend a conference. ‘They have way too many conferences in Egypt’, he said with obvious delight. He excused himself because he had a full day of appointments ahead of him. He was off on another mission to bring more moments of magic to Egypt.
As I walked away from his villa, it suddenly struck me that I had just spent a couple of hours in the company of one of the founders of modern Egypt. He had answered my questions with patience and chatted with me like I was an old lost friend. Once again, I felt the power of his magic.