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A conscience for our times

Hani Shukrallah (1950-2019)

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 8 May 2019
Hani Shukrallah
Hani Shukrallah, former Al-Ahram Weekly managing editor, acting editor, and founder of Ahram Online
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Former Al-Ahram Weekly managing editor, acting editor, and founder of Ahram Online was an editor who never conformed and a beacon to light the way

It is impossible for any of the senior staff of Al-Ahram Weekly today to remember the day before Hani Shukrallah joined the paper.

Hani was first seen in the corridors of the fourth floor of the Al-Ahram building in Cairo one fine summer’s day with his life-long friend and at the time Weekly opinion editor Mona Anis a little over a year after the first edition of the newspaper appeared in February 1991.

Dressed informally and smiling whole-heartedly, he took his seat at the head of the paper’s central desk in the small office where it had started at the far end of the Al-Ahram newsroom.

From the beginning he felt uncomfortable about sitting with his back turned on Bahgat Badie and Fouad Al-Gohary, then home and features editors, who had joined from the world of foreign news agencies in Cairo.

Hani resented turning his back on people not because he thought it was unbecoming but because he felt it was unkind. He would often move his chair around to talk to people, always with an unfailing smile.

He also smiled when he spoke to the copy-editors of the time, Olfat ElTohamy, Alan Nicol and Roland Trafford-Roberts. He might dislike the copy, especially if it came across as carrying shades of even unintentional or remote “orientalism”, which he saw as an insult to the paper and its readers.

However, even if he disliked the copy, he would simply explain and ask for “corrections”, or, more likely, just fix what had to be fixed himself.

It is not easy today to remember Hani working on a copy when all the staff around him were using typewriters, maybe because Hani was always so advanced or even revolutionary in his mind and soul that it is difficult over a quarter century later to remember him in association with things that are now so bygone.

But it is impossible to forget the image of Hani sitting before one of many generations of Apple computers, in an endless state of chain smoking, staring at the screen with passion and seemingly hoping that it would join him in bringing about the better phrasing of a paragraph that contained good information but lacked something in style.

He did not look at his watch. It is difficult to think of Hani wearing a watch because for him time, like so many other things, was not necessarily what it was to others.

Time for Hani was more like a space within which people would act, either promptly or leisurely. Getting things done was not just about getting them done either, for they had to be done with style.

Throughout his years at the Weekly, whether as head of its central desk, managing editor, after first managing editor Mohamed Salmawy left to launch the Weekly’s sister paper Al-Ahram Hebdo, or acting editor after the paper lost its founding editor Hosny Guindy, Hani never worried much about time, health or energy.

But he did worry about putting out a decent copy that was both informative and accurate, what he would call “basic, decent reporting”. This should be decently written, he would say, adding that he wasn’t asking “for poetry just cohesion and clarity”.

He would firmly, but never harshly — it is difficult to remember Hani being harsh even when he got into a rare stubborn mood — reject copy that was just “ink on paper”, offering no regret or apologies.

He would reject a copy, but never people — it would be wrong to say “reporters” since he thought of the staff of the Weekly as people first. Instead, he would leave his office, walk the reporter in question into Al-Ahram’s fourth-floor cafeteria, order coffee, and then explain.

In the 1990s, when the Weekly moved to the ninth floor of Al-Ahram’s new building, Hani would pass by a reporter’s office and take him or her, very often her, to the lounge and talk with one objective in mind — to encourage the reporter to produce a better copy and insist that it would be better for the paper to miss a story than run a clumsy or under-reported piece.

When Hani disagreed with an editor or a copy editor it was the same. Only rarely would he ever act otherwise.

But Hani was not just a mentor, although this is what he was. He was also a very good editor who would know how to turn a story round from being tedious into an interesting read.

Hani’s magic most came into play when he wrote the headlines and leads of stories. Throughout his years at the Weekly, ending abruptly over certain political positions in 2005, Hani wrote almost every single headline and re-wrote many leads.The banner headlines on the paper’s front pages were also always Hani’s.

One dedicated reader of the Weekly once said that the paper had lost its flair and the punchiness of its headlines once Hani left. This was also not something that went unnoticed by the staff.

When Hani left the Weekly, everyone felt shocked. Many of us would not have believed it to be possible, even though we knew that he was a member of the opposition and would never miss a demonstration against the Israeli aggression against the Palestinians or the US wars on Iraq.

Even those who disagreed with Hani did not think it fair for him or the newspaper.

Hani knew he worked for the “establishment”, but he also knew that there were some compromises he would not make just because he could not make them.

In the same way, he had difficulty with conforming to all the establishment’s regulations and with traditional reporting styles or the wish of some to stick to the old ways of doing things. But at least he would be able to hold his head up high, no matter how his health or wealth might decline.

Hani never claimed to be infallible as an editor. He always laughed when reminded of a typo that he had made under pressure in one of the banner headlines.

He would admit misplacing assignments among some reporters or editors. But for the older staff of the Weekly, as for the younger who had the chance to work with and learn from him, these mistakes were overshadowed by Hani’s presence.

He was a friend who cared genuinely, who agreed and disagreed, and who was able to forgive and wished to be forgiven for any unintentional errors.

There has not been a sadder day at the Weekly since the devastating loss of Hosny Guindy than Hani’s death on 5 May.

The paper will always be associated with the name of Hani Shukrallah, and those who worked with him will always remember his legendary presence in the newsroom.

Hani will always be there. He will always be loved and always be cherished.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A conscience for our times

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