INTERVIEW: On the centenary of ‘Master’ Mohamed Hassanein Heikal's birth: Mrs. Heikal speaks to Al-Ahram

Yousra El-Sharkawy for Al-Ahram, Saturday 23 Sep 2023

He was a journalist of a fine caliber; a firm believer in the importance of seeking, verifying, and presenting well-documented information - elucidating its dimensions, and supporting it with evidence and references.



This journalist, who made the impact of a historian on generations - in Egypt, the Arab World, and worldwide - was none other than Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (1923-2016).

Heikal was a prominent Egyptian journalist who embarked on his journey in the late 1940s, eventually becoming one of the most influential figures in Egypt during times of significant transitions.

He is the figure behind the “second founding” of Al-Ahram, the leading journalistic institution in Egypt and the Arab world since 1876.

Heikal assumed its leadership in 1957 to rejuvenate its vitality and thinking, reshaping it into an influential newspaper on multiple fronts.

After his tenure at Al-Ahram ended in 1974, following 17 years as its editor-in-chief and the architect of its new human and infrastructural foundations, Heikal started a new phase in his life as a thought-provoking historian.

Still, he never abandoned the spirit of journalism, always seeking information and delving into its meanings.

Heikal authored a collection of the most important and bestselling books at both the Arab and global levels, always supported by well-documented and rare sources.

However, Hedayat Taimour, whom he married two years before assuming the role of editor-in-chief at Al-Ahram, remained the launchpad for Heikal’s life and the main source of energy who propelled him to succeed and complete his long journey.

In her first-ever interview with the press, Mrs. Hedayat Heikal, in all humbleness, insisted that Mohamed Hassanein Heikal himself was the secret to his own success.

However, her own words attested to the fact that she was indeed a key contributor to the success of the "Master," as everyone around Heikal liked to call him.

She understood the secret of his love for journalism above all; she understood his love for books and knowledge; she understood his cherishing of the value of time; she understood his love for his family; and she understood his artistic nature and his appreciation for beauty.

She understood it all and, on that basis, managed an elegant and delicate human relationship with her partner.

Mrs. Heikal agreed to speak on the centenary of the Master’s birth out of her strong desire for everyone to know the other side of the disciplined and determined journalist, the face of the husband, father, and friend.

Yousra El-Sharkawy: "The World is Just Fine!” was the title of an article written by Heikal when he was the editor-in-chief of the magazine Akher Saa (The Last Hour), which was part of the Akhbar Al-Youm Foundation at the time. It was a harbinger of good times in both his professional and personal life. This article was penned a few months before your marriage and a while before he assumed the role of editor-in-chief at Al-Ahram. How was your first meeting? And what was the spark that led to a happy love story?

Mrs. Hedayat Heikal: (Smiling) Indeed, Mr. Heikel wrote an article "The World is Just Fine" after my visit to the Akher Saa Foundation in October 1954. I was there to seek support for the Light and Hope Association, which aimed to assist and integrate the visually impaired in society. There was a spark, of course, a spark that resulted in a coffee cup incident. I was having a coffee when Professor Heikal entered. And for a reason I did not quite understand at the time I became flustered and spilled the coffee on my skirt. I was unsettled, even though it was not the first time I had met him.

We had previously met at a social gathering that same year through mutual friends, but there was no indication then of what would transpire between us. I was struck by his charisma, being a star in his field, and his skill in engaging in conversation; you could not help but listen to him. That impression and impact paved the way for my unease in our second meeting. However, I could not have imagined at that stage how things would evolve.

YS: And did they evolve?

HH: They did indeed, Thank God! (She says with gratitude and affection). Our getting to know each other was brief but sufficient. At the time, I was not even 20 years old yet but he was 30. I felt anxious about our age difference and was afraid of the challenge of dealing with him. But those fears and concerns faded in the face of the charm and uniqueness of his personality.

I wanted things between us to be clear, and he was no less serious about it. During a gathering hosted by Mrs. Radi, the president of the Light and Hope Association at the time, to thank Mr. Heikal for his support of the association and its causes, he asked me to have a private conversation on the balcony. He started to introduce himself to me like his age, his position, and all the familiar preludes to proposing, but without explicitly saying it.

In the end, I am the one who asked; I am the one who proposed to Mr. Heikal.

(She laughs). That night, upon returning home, I found my mother waiting for me, and she began to question me about my visits to Akher Saa. She asked me directly about Mr. Heikal and whether he intended to ask for my hand in marriage. I confirmed to her that he hinted. She responded, “This is not right.”

In the face of her warnings and objections, I called him on the phone and asked directly, "Mr. Heikal, do you intend to marry me?" He responded with just: "Of course."

Still, my mother tried to warn me about the age difference and the challenges of his profession.

But I was confident in my decision. I told her, "Mom, he is the one who will make me happy and I will be secure with him." And, indeed, I was a lucky woman!

YS: You founded a small, happy family with Mr. Heikal in 1955. But it must have been a significant challenge after he joined Al-Ahram as its editor-in-chief - not only for Mr. Heikal as a journalist but also for your family.

HH: It all started with Ali Pasha Shamsi, a member of the board of directors of Al-Ahram. His efforts were in response to the desire of the Taqla family, who owned Al-Ahram at the time, to revitalize the newspaper and put an end to the financial losses it was facing at the time. Shamsi proposed Heikal's name about a year before his actual transfer in 1957.

At that time, Mr. Heikal was experiencing some difficulties at Akher Saa. He revealed Shamsi's offer to the Amin brothers, Mostafa and Ali, who ran the Akhbar Al-Youm Foundation.

He said, "I have almost accepted." This brought tears to the eyes of Ali Amin, who was endeared by Heikal.

However, Mr. Heikal reconsidered the move to Al-Ahram. But after a year went by, with the unresolved issues that had caused his discomfort at Akher Saa persisting, Mr. Heikal took the initiative and went to Ali Pasha Shamsi and said, "I am ready."

Making that decision marked the beginning of a significant challenge. He was very enthusiastic but very anxious. In the end, he told me clearly, "I am facing a very tough year to fix the newspaper. Are you ready?" That meant a hectic schedule and staying late at the office. My response was, "Do what you need to do.  I trust you. Do what you need to do." And he did.

YS: What is the story of your first visit to Al-Ahram?

HH: (Smiling) Our first visit to Al-Ahram was on foot as we were still young.

A day after Mr. Heikal decided to take on the responsibility of "The Journal," as he always called it, he said to me, "Hedayat, do you not want to see Al-Ahram?" I replied, "Yes."

We left our home, which was on Shagarat Al-Durr Street in Zamalek, and walked together over the Qasr Al-Nile Bridge, then Tahrir Square, which was called Ismailia Square back then, and then passed Suleiman Pasha Street on to Al-Khikya before arriving at Al-Ahram building on Mazloum Street.

As we stood in front of the building, I said to him, "It is nothing special." In my mind, I was comparing it to the building of the Akhbar Al-Youm. He replied, "Just pray for me, and your prayers are always answered. God willing, it will be a great thing."

The next day, he began his duties as the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram.

It was indeed a challenging year as he had warned me. The phone never stopped ringing even after he returned home after a long day. But he did not have any doubt - not for a moment - in his ability to get the task done. I did not have any doubt – not for a moment - in his abilities and talent. I believe that my confidence in him was well-placed.

YS: He was armed with his confidence, talent, and of course, his experience as the former editor-in-chief of Akher Saa. But how did his upbringing and background contribute to shaping the personality of "The Journalist" who revitalized Al-Ahram?

HH: Indeed, upbringing is an important factor. Mr. Heikal grew up in the historic neighbourhood of Al-Hussein in Islamic Cairo which is rich in heritage and history. There was a bookstore near his house that was filled with books on heritage, history, and literature.

His uncle was a voracious reader and encouraged him to appreciate books and read. His grandfather also played a role in honing his talent. He guided him to memorize and study the Quran at a young age with other grandchildren in the house. He also listened to prominent Quran reciters. He had a special admiration for Sheikh Mohamed Refat, often describing his voice as "heavenly."

He also frequented Kuttab Sidi Muaz school in Al-Hussein.

After we got married, he took me to visit the area so I could learn about his life before our marriage and the sites that had an impact on him in his formative years.

Mr. Heikal grew up listening to his mother, who regularly read classic heritage books such as Zat Al-Himma to his father. His father was an experienced merchant but could not read or write. So, his wife, Heikal's mother, read books for him.

That is how Heikal learned the value of the written word, reading, and books as a young boy.

These factors collectively shaped his character, making him a lover of knowledge and a person with a distinctive style in both speaking and writing.

Reading books was his favourite activity. I recall sitting to watch television with him near me, but he would be engrossed in a book. He was not particularly fond of watching television.

In short, he was born a journalist, who loved knowledge, be it acquiring it or sharing it.

YS: He also had a discerning eye. How else would he have succeeded in selecting the right individuals when restructuring the journalistic team at Al-Ahram in the late 1950s? Is that not one of the qualities needed for a successful journalist?

HH: Indeed, he excelled at selection and had a keen sense when it came to people. He had in mind several journalists he had worked with at Akher Saa and other places, such as Salah Montasser, Kamal El-Mallakh, Tawfiq Bahri, and others. He wanted them to be part of the experiment of rejuvenating Al-Ahram, and he had a specific role in mind for each of them.

However, despite his clear vision and confidence in its realization, he told me from the first day of taking on the task that he was careful not to bring about immediate change.

He told me, "Hedayat, I do not want to lose Al-Ahram's readers." He wanted change to happen gradually and, at the same time, to be well-planned in order to succeed.

YS: Did his success not encourage him to aspire to more than just being a journalist, especially since he was capable of achieving more and did, in fact, come close to a political position at a later stage?

HH:  Never! He was a journalist through and through and never saw himself as anything else at any stage of his life. He believed that being a journalist was his calling. After his success at Al-Ahram and his role in boosting the foundations of the government of the revolution and achieving unity with Syria in 1959, all eyes were turned to Egypt, and Heikal.

At the end of the 1950s, the Ministry of Guidance, which later became the Ministry of Information, was offered to him. I heard him tell President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in a surprised and dismissive tone on a phone call, "Minister... Me minister!" After he finished the call, he turned to me and explained simply, "It's not a job for me, Hedayat, to welcome officials and bid them farewell." He was very clear with himself in this regard.

Years later, he reluctantly accepted a ministerial position for very short periods of time, as everyone knows (in reference to accepting a minister of information position for a short period and also accepting a position of charge d’affaires of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a few months in 1970).

YS: You mentioned that he considered professions other than journalism a waste of time. The Master valued time and time management.

HH: Absolutely! Time was of utmost importance to him. He could not tolerate wasting time and was skilled at utilizing it. That does not mean he didn't allocate time for outings or family gatherings, but he was extremely organized and gave everyone their due. Whether for his work, me as his wife, or his extended family. "Work time" was "work time," and "leisure time" was "leisure time." He excelled in allocating and utilizing his time precisely. He only needed six hours of sleep per day, then he would wake up alert and ready to start his day's tasks.

YS: How did Mr. Heikal fulfill his responsibilities towards his family after he took on the role of editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram especially since your first son Ali was just an infant at that time? What kind of father was Mohamed Hassanein Heikal?

HH: In the first year, during the challenging and transformative period at Al-Ahram, our son Ali was still very young. But in the following year, Mr. Heikal started a semi-daily routine where he would take young Ali with him in the car on their way to Al-Ahram every morning. They would engage in conversation, and he would ask Ali about his nursery and other news. After dropping Mr. Heikal off at Al-Ahram, the driver would bring Ali back home.

This balcony (pointing to a balcony at one end of the living room in the house) witnessed another routine. After Hekal returned home from Al-Ahram, he would sit with Ali in the evening, discussing everything and anything. He spoke to Ali as if he were a grown man but also pampered him as a child.

His dedication to communication and making the most of every minute to talk with his eldest child left a significant impact on Ali, who later became a prominent doctor and has always been well-informed and multi-interested.

YS: Skill in management can sometimes be influenced by the events around a person, especially since he was a journalist with a deep awareness and had lived through highly sensitive periods in Egypt's history. To what extent was he affected by the events around him?

HH: Mr. Heikal was a sincere lover of his country. He rejoiced in any positive developments and was deeply affected by any negative events Egypt faced. To the extent that, from my perspective as his wife, I used to say, "I hope we stay happy all the time," because I could see how deeply he was affected if things did not go well in the country. He maintained relationships with political circles, as they were sources for his work at the end of the day.

Overall, he was a man with a conservative temperament who did not express his emotions much or overreact excessively. However, his emotions were sometimes fragile, but that only happened on rare occasions. The 1967 setback was one of those few times when he was upset, but he quickly regained his composure and got to work as he should. I remember that day when I tried to calm his emotions.

YS: Did he listen to you if you attempted to give him an opinion or advice?

HH: In general, I avoided discussing politics with him. I felt he was deeply immersed in politics and the journal all day long. I wanted to change that when he returned home. So, I would talk to him about our children, our home, family matters, and other concerns far from politics.

I must admit that I didn't help him in his work at all. He was a capable man who handled everything himself.  All I did was work on making his life comfortable and play my role as a wife and mother.

YS: You closed the door of your home to politics, but it seemed to jump in through the window, so to speak, as happened in 1981 during Mr. Heikal’s absence after the famous arrest incident. Again during the fire attack on your second home Borgaash, Giza in 2013. Could you share your thoughts and experiences during those times?

HH: (Responds emotionally) In 1981, it was incredibly difficult for me and my children, but we endured. The children were aware of what was happening and understood its implications. Ali was 26. Ahmed was in his youth. Hassan was the youngest, but he also comprehended what was happening. They absorbed the mechanism of compartmentalizing issues and the need to be resilient in specific situations.

Truth be told, my children are my strength now and were my strength in 81.

YS: And on the day of the attack on your home in Borgaash, did you support Mr. Heikal?

HH: We were both silent that day.

YS: The Master had a refined taste in the arts. Al-Ahram bears witness to that, especially through his collection of artworks that he personally curated.

HH: He was an artist in the truest sense of the word, with a refined taste and a deep appreciation for artists. He firmly believed that everyone, individuals or institutions, could play the role of a patron of the arts, and he instilled this interest in his children.

He would take them to visit museums, discuss art with them, and keep them updated on the latest works by artists, both in Egypt and abroad. Whenever he traveled abroad and circumstances allowed, he always sought to create time for visiting museums or attending musical and artistic performances - always with a genuine interest.

In fact, my personal interest in the arts and my studies in Islamic Antiquities (Hedayat Heikal holds a Master's degree in Islamic Antiquities) were influenced by him. After our children grew up, Mr. Heikal encouraged me to continue my studies, which I had put on hold after marriage. I completed my high school education and then he encouraged me to pursue studies in Islamic Antiquities due to my fascination with the antiquities I saw during my travels to Spain, Tunisia, and Syria. He excelled in choosing the field that suited me best.

Personally, I wish that subjects related to antiquities were taught in a more engaging manner than the manner they are taught today.

YS: A successful journalist must be flexible. After leaving Al-Ahram in 1974, Master Heikal left it as a headquarters, but did he ever really leave it as a legacy? He also never left his role as a journalist, did he?

HH: That's correct. To answer this point, I want to clarify something first. Al-Ahram for Master Heikal was a matter of a spirit and a purpose. He always wanted its members to reflect this spirit and purpose. He cared about the infrastructure of Al-Ahram and improved it. During his tenure, Al-Ahram made the move from Mazloum Street to El-Galaa Street. I want to emphasize a crucial point which is that the funds used to build the new headquarters of Al-Ahram came from the organization’s own funds and were raised in their entirety by its employees during his time. The government did not contribute anything to finance the new building. I want to emphasize this piece of information, especially since he was very proud of this achievement.

He was also delighted that the new building reflected the spirit of Al-Ahram he desired, a spirit of belonging and unity. Before the move to El-Galaa Street, he often told me, "We as journalists and workers need to open the new building together." And this indeed happened. This was the spirit that he wanted for Al-Ahram and the spirit he was keen to project throughout his 17-year tenure.

For instance, he championed the idea of distributing "stock bonds" to Al-Ahram employees as compensation for some employee benefits that were redirected toward the development of the organization

Even after leaving Al-Ahram in 1974, he continued to work and write with the spirit of a journalist. And this was how he was perceived by those around him. It was why Mrs. Katharine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post at the time, hosted a dinner to honour him during our visit to the United States, which was attended by a group of America's most prominent journalists, such as James Reston.

His value as a journalist went beyond the position or title or the idea of alliances. He detested cliquishness and that is what allowed him to succeed over the years. He broke free from any constraints imposed by the position of editor-in-chief or his proximity to decision-making circles in Egypt.

He created a new world for himself through his new office, which he established in one of the rooms of our home. He was meticulous about separating life inside the office from life in the home outside the office. I would communicate with him when he was in the office only when necessary. I took care to place a rose on his desk regularly, heeding his love for flowers.

As for Al-Ahram, it was always with him. Mr. Heikal was keen to follow it and talk about it. It was as if he was talking about some lover - to the point where I sometimes felt jealous of it. (Laughter)

YS: Throughout our interview, you kept referring to the man who was your own husband as “Mr. Heikal.” Why?

HH: Throughout our engagement, due to shyness and the age difference, I used to address him as "Mr. Heikal”." Then, I started calling him "Heikal."

One day, he interrupted me with a smile and said, “Hedayat, my name is Mohamed!

I cannot help it, but I still find myself referring to him as Mr. Heikal.

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