Salama Ahmed Salama A gallant helmsman

Between courage and caution he navigates, a ship alone on the very edge

salama ahmad salama

Profile by Aziza Sami
source: Ahram Weekly

The masks on the living room wall look on: Maori, Native American and Japanese, seeing all while saying little. He is much the same. At the cutting edge, with an eye on the future: where will we be tomorrow, now that the twenty-first century is at hand?

He was relaxed that Sunday, at home away from the newspaper, a habit acquired twenty years ago, when Sunday was his sons' day off from school. He was relaxed, as relaxed, at least, as it is possible for such a private man to be. Outspoken, while raising a subtle barrier against familiarity.

His sense of self-control never left him: his critical sense, a razor sharpness are concealed by a courtesy which nevertheless gives way to incisive commentary.

Juliane, his wife, filled the place with her vibrant presence, appreciative of her husband and slightly protective, taking a keen interest in what he does.

A senior editor at the newspaper which he himself describes as "the façade of the system", he has retained the status of a non-partisan writer, often critical of the government and its policies, yet not a member of the opposition.

He is involved in implementing the newspaper's editorial policy, is well-versed in its intricacies and the balancing of its political priorities, yet he will not let these interfere with what he believes to be the professional standards of the press. He is of the establishment, but will not be bound by the framework within which he must operate.

He is a strong opponent of restrictions upon the press, and believes the media should be freed from state ownership -- a remarkable position for someone who is managing editor of the major national newspaper, Al-Ahram. When the independent daily newspaper Al-Dustour was closed down in what became known as "the yellow press incident", he did not go along with the currents of condemnation which swept through the press, refusing to ostracise either it or the weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef as examples of tabloid lampooning.

"These are publications which made use of the freedom they had. They also expressed the ideas of a younger generation and the changes happening in society."

He is aware, he says, of hierarchical structures in the national press, which afford young journalists few opportunities. "If you look at the international press, every ten years at most, there is a revolution from within, a change in vision, style and leadership."

He sees an impasse in the wake of the incident that resulted in the transfer of Rose-El-Youssef's managing editor, Adel Hammouda, to Al-Ahram. He is against what he calls the "arbitrary transfer of journalists, which has not happened since Sadat. What happened reflects a contradiction in the heart of the political system".

The state is liberalising the economy, Salama remarks; "it is ready to give up its control of banks and telecommunications, but will not relinquish its control of the press, because a free and independent press will bring up issues which the state wants to keep under the carpet. It is obviously uneasy that the margin of freedom could reach areas which are still frail. It was afraid that the press, which dealt with the issue of Copts at times coarsely, might move on to issues which are even more sensitive. and which could be a source of trouble. So it set down the lines which should not be crossed. But I don't think we can deal with problems by pretending they are not there."

On the shelf are books by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. Salama worked with him at Al-Ahram in the late '70s; before that, he was with the Amin brothers at Akhbar Al-Yom. Two schools of journalism which have been posited as political and professional antitheses. Al-Ahram in the socialist '60s afforded its journalists "protection and inclusion, but little freedom". Akhbar Al-Yom, was free, competitive and often sensationalist. He can speak of the merits and drawbacks of both, but will take no sides. Now, he emphasises the importance of totally reviewing the conditions of the press, freeing it from what he calls, "the malaise, the sickness which has resulted from state dominance, and the government's insistence, despite the changing circumstances, on running it with the mentality of the socialist '60s."

If the press is privatised, as other sectors have been, it will not fall under the influence of either the government or a single businessman. "In the case of Al-Dustour, one businessman who funded its computer system was the reason for its closure. If you look at the experience of Morocco and Jordan, where the ruling elite allowed the opposition to share power after forty years, you will find it is a commendable experience. The government here should realise that people can make the right choices. But we learn when it is too late, and when anything is done, it is always too little."

When he began writing his daily column Close Up in Al-Ahram nine years ago, he moved from the outskirts of foreign policy analysis to the rocky terrain of commentary on everyday life.

He has written of the crisis that will face ruling elites in the Arab world because of their tenacious hold on power.

More than any other journalist, he has written on urban planning, the environment, and the poor human rights record of Arab governments. He speaks of the importance of non-governmental organisations being freed from the political and administrative obstacles which frustrate them.

His concern has been for the individual and the elements beyond politics which affect the life and progress of independent human beings. He is merciless when discussing archaic forms of thought that alienate young people.

His writings for nine years have sent a consistent message, quiet, unequivocal and clear: there must be respect for the individual and a change in the political, social and educational patterns that have stifled people for so long. A revolution of minds, not of material things. "What good is it to launch a satellite relaying 120 channels when the message and content we are giving out are the same as in the state-owned media? Who will want to watch?"

He is against self-defensive attitudes, the feeling that "the outside world is either with or against us".

Award President Mubarak presenting Salama with an award on Media Day, 1994
His conviction that freedom of though is an inalienable right triggered his biting criticism of the Minister of Higher Education's recent decision to retract a book by Maxime Rodinson from the American University in Cairo's curriculum on the pretext that it is against religion.

"This is a contradiction in the minds of those in positions of responsibility. It shows that our educational philosophy is on the wrong track, and will produce a generation of intellectual cripples, unable to respond to rational thought. [The retraction] has reinforced extremism and undermined all that the government is doing to fight it. He will not ride "the waves of demagoguery" -- emotions in rational analysis are anathema to him.

He has been likened in status to independent writers like Mustafa Amin and Ahmed Bahaaeddin -- especially the latter, for the traits they share: rationality and a bird's-eye view of society, an almost philosophic distance, and the consistent discovery of aspects others have overlooked.

Some critics say his courage is belated, a recent phenomenon, discovered when he had little to lose, having approached retirement age. He never pushes things to the limit -- fights his battles in suit and tie.

He dismisses the argument coolly. "This is nonsense. Lots of people have approached retirement without showing any courage. As managing editor of Al-Ahram, I have always walked a tightrope, kept the balance between steering the newspaper along its traditional lines, which fall within the government's policies, and my weekly articles and columns, which have often criticised the government. This, by the way, has not been easy." Prices paid: he has always kept his distance from "formal positions, which I felt would make me compromise my views".

Still, he claims no heroics, and admits that he is "making use of the margin of freedom, which has increased, in spite of everything, because freedom of the press has become an important part of the system's legitimacy".

And there is a always a point at which he will stop, he confesses: "If what I say will be misinterpreted as my being against the system, or if I feel it is to no avail." Perhaps because of this self-restraint, the ability to evaluate his own work from the outside, his columns have never been censored.

He criticises "policies, but never persons. I never write of state secrets which I cannot verify as a journalist, and never argue anything unless I can substantiate it."

And so he has turned the conservative guidelines of the national press, which some perceive as restrictions, into advantages protecting him as a writer. He charges and retreats, a prudent warrior who does not lose sight of his aim, out there on the horizon.

Does he feel alone at times? "Yes, as if in a desert."

The plants waved from their boxes in the bay window of the apartment in Mohandessin, shielding the living room replete with paintings, tapestries and books from the changing street outside. He sat in the cozy armchair under the lamp, near the shelf full of books -- his favorite spot at home. Here are novels by John Le Carré, the 1961 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Kant and Kierkegaarde as well as Bertrand Russel and Gamal Hamdan.

He studied philosophy with Zaki Naguib Mahmoud. The mentor could be the reason for the distance he likes to keep -- close up, yet uninvolved.

In the den are works of Arabic literature, especially poetry, which he loves. He masters the language, bringing to full force its potential brevity. In his columns, his evocative descriptions of Siwa Oasis and the Red Sea have acted on readers' imagination, powerful calls for the protection of the environment. He heads the Arab Association of Environmental Writers, yet remains sceptical of associations which turn into vehicles of self-promotion.

He believes that protection of the environment, of human rights and democracy, are the cornerstones of societies which will survive tomorrow, and that, "on all three counts, we are still at the very beginning."

The cacophony from the narrow streets around the Shooting Club in Mohandessin floated up. He pointed to the left, where the small square at the beginning of the street was once a beautiful spot of green. No more.

Every day he must fight to ward off the encroachments from the street outside. He makes it his business to tell the building's caretaker to watch out for transgressors on the pavement and on the little green that there is, a battle he takes as seriously as his writings on the desperate need for environmental preservation.

On the wall hung an aquarelle of the town hall of Cologne, where Juliane was born, and a portrait of Salama in pastels by Sabry Ragheb "most unrepresentative", she laughed.

His years spent in Germany in the late '50s and '60s were the best part of his career. He met his wife there, and, there too, formed a vision of what it is to be a journalist. He knew what it meant to have a press that is "strong and independent and respected".

He was born in Cairo in 1932. His father, an Arabic language teacher, was from Sharqiya in the Delta. Salama obtained his BA in philosophy in 1953, and obtained a scholarship to pursue his higher studies in Germany, while becoming a foreign correspondent for Akhbar Al-Yom. He stayed for four years, returning to Akhbar Al-Yom in 1964 as diplomatic affairs editor.

He obtained his MA in journalism from the University of Minnesota and came back again when the 1967 June War broke out. He began working at Al-Ahram the following year, then returned to Europe once more, remaining until 1972, as Al-Ahram's correspondent there.

When he came back, he began his weekly foreign policy article, The Meaning of Events.

On the bookshelf in the living room is a small photo of the family, the Salamas with their sons Tarek and Karim, both of whom are married and living in Germany. The snap was taken in a garden near Frankfurt, where the family is united every summer. His philosophy in bringing up the boys? "Their mother was in charge" he is quick to answer.

They were "brought up as well as can be between two worlds," she says. "They acquired their mother's German discipline," he adds. "He is the disciplined one, I am more chaotic," she is quick to answer. Just after sunset is his favourite time of day, provided he has finished reading and writing, and listened to the BBC news at seven.

He and Juliane share the things that people do after almost forty years of marriage: walks at the Shooting Club twice a week, which she insists upon because he does not get enough exercise and because it is the only time they get a chance to talk. They share social life, and views on health, and on life in general. It does not matter to her that he does not have much financial acumen or political ambition.

After a short spell on the board of the Journalists' Syndicate, he did not run again, because of what some may consider an elitist or idealistic rejection of the practicalities of syndicate work.

"In most cases elections revolve around bonuses, pensions and housing for journalists, not issues important to the profession. I could not lobby the government for rewards which are really a disguised form of bribery, in return for journalists compromising their right to an independent and free press."

And yet he won in a landslide when he ran for the Syndicate's board elections: no election campaign, not a single pamphlet or slogan. He won on the sheer force of his reputation.

At work, he is regarded as "a refuge and a criterion", says one journalist: "the person to tell you if where you are going is the right way".

He can be as devastating in his criticism as he is generous with his encouragement. Asked his opinion on an article, he will not skim through cursorily, but will take pains to read it through, marking and writing his comments. Beneath his aloofness is an outgoing personality and, despite his strictness at work, quick rapport with others. Yet some of his colleagues feel his criticism is too harsh at times, just as others say he is too impartial and uninvolved.

He wants to write what he sees, not play a particular role or fit what others think he should be. He is unequivocal in his sense of right and wrong, sees black as black and white as white. But he knows the grey areas are there, and the shadows from which the truths gradually emerge. No final vision is imposed upon his readers. He knocks on doors, making sure they stay ajar.