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Friday, 24 May 2019

Revolutions of the heart

Hani Shukrallah, writes Pascale Ghazaleh, had a superpower: the ability to see people for who they needed to become

Pascale Ghazaleh, Wednesday 8 May 2019
Hani Shukrallah
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What happened? a friend asked. I didn’t know what to say. Hani died. Hani Shukrallah. But who was Hani to me, and who was I to him? One answer is: former colleagues. Former friends. But saying that is the same as saying nothing. 

I began working at Al-Ahram Weekly in 1990 or 91. I had just started university and my mother had found a job proofreading at the newspaper, which was still being born. We did most things together, she and I, and money was tight, so we were both glad to find work, and doubly glad we could work together. It was Hani who overruled the sceptics tutting at twenty-year-old me and let me start proofreading; then, when he realised I had a schoolteacher’s love of grammar and a teenager’s contempt for authority, he gradually gave me more important work. I started editing and then writing. Soon, Hani and I became friends. 

He was the person whose presence brought my voice out, the person who triggered floods of ideas. We would chain-smoke and laugh hysterically and get totally carried away talking about primitive accumulation in nineteenth-century Egypt. Five or six of us would work late and go out afterwards several times a week, talking and joking for hours, putting off the moment when we had to part ways. It was like discovering a whole new family, fun and irreverent and fiercely loyal. Working with Hani, being part of the Weekly family, for me, was synonymous with discovering Cairo, discovering politics, stepping into a new kind of independence and awareness of what could be. I could embrace being a nerd and a misfit and a potential crazy cat lady, because my work family embraced all those things about me too. 

Hani regarded my academic trajectory with wry affection, showing me his thesis and expressing regret at not having continued — regret that was really a way of saying he was proud of me and approved of what I was trying to do. 

One of the things I discovered later was that this was his superpower: the ability to see people for who they needed to become, the ability to nurture and hear tentative voices. That was what made him such a stellar mentor: his patience, the quality of the attention with which he lavished his protégés, the utterly authentic excitement that shone in his eyes when he discovered someone talented and sincere. He recognised people's ability to do something new. He could see what was worthwhile in a turn of phrase or a new way of writing, encourage it with irresistible conviction, coax it out and beam proudly as its author gained confidence and bloomed in the light of his approval. 

In some ways, too, I recognised Hani’s voice, as an intellectual and a writer. He was an astute and principled analyst, with a gift for twisting the knife into the very heart of a story. For a long time, he insisted on my editing his work and we would argue about turns of phrase or ideas. Perhaps he trusted me because he knew how much I believed in his powers of analysis and saw myself only as a polisher, there to make his brilliant ideas shine more brightly. 

He didn’t really need me or any other editor, though; he was enough of a perfectionist to need only reassurance. 

Hani and I were friends, best friends even, for a time. And then things fell apart, as they do — messily and painfully. I ended up leaving the Weekly and refused to speak to him for years. When I did, it was to utter the most hurtful words I have ever told anyone. They brought no relief, but in my anger I felt they needed to be said, felt a kind of glad rage that I could smash whatever affection and respect remained.

And then less than two years ago I heard that Hani had had a heart attack, and I wrote to him to say I was sorry and wished him well. I’ve just been rereading those last messages and crying – not just because an important and long-lost part of my life is gone so decisively, but because we were once, as he said, “almost family.” I needed to remind myself that we were ok at the end, that we forgave each other even though we could never be friends again; that we must always, always forgive people we’ve loved. 

He told me he had been writing an article on the October Revolution. I don’t know if it was ever published. I’m sorry; I’m sad; I’m bereft. I’ll miss thinking that we might see each other again some day, that we might have another good-natured argument after all. Bon voyage, fellow traveler ... he’s the one, come to think of it, who taught me what that expression meant. Bye, Hani; bye, old friend. 

He died on Marx’s birthday; did he realise it? Maybe he had time to smile at the end. 

*Pascale Ghazaleh is associate professor of history and chair of the History Department at the American University in Cairo and a former journalist and editor in Al-Ahram Weekly  

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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