Obituary | Prominent Egyptian journalist Salah Eissa: Maker of historical murals

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 31 Dec 2017

Since his appearance on the scene in the 1960s, Salah Eissa was among Egypt's most controversial and prolific writers, tackling historical events and current affairs right up to his death

 Salah Eissa
Salah Eissa (Photo: Ahram)

Writer and journalist Salah Eissa died on Monday, 25 December at the age of 78 following a battle with illness.

Among the most notable facts surrounding Eissa's passing is that his last article – published on 15 December – was published just a few days before his death. This shows that he was following current affairs until the very last moment, as evidenced by the headline: "Where did the draft laws on regulating journalism and media disappear to?"

This was one of the most prominent characteristics of the writer, journalist, historian and public-affairs figure, and his continued efforts over several decades enabled him to construct grand historical murals.

Born on 14 October 1939, Eissa graduated from the Higher Institute of Social Work, Cairo, in 1961. He was among the students of the great sociologist Sayed Owais, along with Dr. Sabry Hafez, the famous literary critic.

In 1965, Eissa took the initiative and wrote a number of articles under the title "The July Revolution's progress and destiny" in the Lebanese magazine Al-Hurria, which was published by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Egyptian security bodies considered these articles to be expressing viewpoints of an underground communist organisation. Several writers, poets and critics were arrested and accused of founding this underground organisation, including Abdel-Rahaman Al-Abnoudi, Sayed Hegab, Sabry Hafez and, of course, Salah Eissa.

From that point on, Eissa would be detained many times, sometimes escaping. However, he never stopped opposing and criticising the regime.

What is astonishing is that degree of diversity and energy he put into his work. For instance, he worked for many newspapers and magazines, including his appointment to Al-Gomhuria newspaper in the early seventies, where he became famous for his daily column Al-Maqrizi Marginalia.

Later on, together with the late writer Sayed Khamis, he founded the Arab Journalism Agency, which would buy articles from Egyptian journalists, edit them and sell them to Arab newspapers and magazines.

Eissa worked as managing director of the leftist Al-Ahali newspaper when it was at its peak – before the 1977 bread uprising. The newspaper's circulation soared to levels that were unprecedented and have never been achieved since.

During the late seventies and early eighties, he worked at a Palestinian publishing house called Dar Al-Fata Al-Arabi, where he issued a considerable number of historical books dealing with the Palestinian cause, both as an editor and a supervisor. In the late nineties, he worked as the editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira magazine, then as chairman of the board of directors.

While he focused a huge amount of energy on journalistic work, this didn’t prevent him from constructing grand historical murals. Under the title of “Stories from the Homeland’s Notebook”, he wrote four tomes, including The Men of Marj Dabiq, The Men of Raya and Sakina, and The Princess and the Effendi.

Each of his murals covered an entire historical era. For instance, his account of the serial killers Raya and Sakina, as well as The Princess and the Effendi (a real-life royal murder-suicide case), were 700 folio-size pages in length, complete with pictures, documents and appendices.

In writing these books, he relied on diverse sources, both official and oral, along with the minutes of meetings, in a way that evoked a whole period.

Eissa also participated in the public sphere through his membership in the Committee for the Defence of National Culture, which sought to resist normalisation with Israel.

He was also elected several times to the Journalists’ Syndicate Board.

The last post he held was as General Secretary of the Higher Council for Journalism.

Since 1972, he published a number of historical and political books: The Orabi Revolution, Stories from Egypt, The Egyptian Bourgeoisie and the Style of Negotiation, The Trial of Fouad Serag-Eddin, A Constitution in the Dustbin, The Disturbing the Peace Poet – Court Files of the Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, Wondrous Personalities, and The Intellectuals and the Military, among others.

There are other books that Eissa never found the time to edit and that never appeared in book form, but which were serialised in newspapers and magazines. These include: The Communist Movement Documents, Mouths and Rifles, The Assassination of Mostafa Khamis, and The Myth of Farajallah El-Helou.

This legacy should be edited and published by a committee of young historians.

Finally, the initiative taken by the Cabinet to issue a statement officially mourning the late writer is truly meaningful, for it is unusual for the Cabinet to make such a good gesture towards writers and intellectuals – especially those who spent decades in the ranks of the opposition.

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