Wagdy Habashy -Samia Sidhom
17 Sep 2014 12:06 pm
Egypt has been devastated at the loss of two top media figures, the satirist Ahmed Ragab and the caricaturist Mustafa Hussein. The vibrant works of Ragab and Hussein, whether individually or jointly, graced the State-owned Cairo daily al-Akhbar for some four decades. That was before the age of the Internet. Many Egyptians would buy al-Akhbar just to read Ragab’s daily Nuss Kelma (Half a Word) and look at the cartoon on the last page, the brainchild of Ragab coming alive through Hussein’s illustration. And even when the online version was launched, the works of these two giants drew in huge numbers of visitors.
Even physically, Ragab and Hussein shared similarities. They were both larger than life figures; imposing men with thick shocks of hair, handsome features, and booming laughs that could be heard miles away. Together, they were seen as a national institution.
Lawyer turned journalist
Ragab was born in 1928 in Alexandria. As a pupil he loved music and hated mathematics but, as he relates in a biography written by Muhammad Tawfiq, he had to pass his math exam for him to study music, a condition placed by his father. Ragab could not reconcile both; he graduated to study law and earned a degree in 1951.
After graduation he decided to go into journalism, and became the Alexandria correspondent of the al-Geel (The Generation) magazine, published by Akhbar al-Youm. He wrote free of charge, without having seen any of the editors. He finally met the magazine’s chief editor, Moussa Sabry while on a trip to Alexandria, and Sabry invited Ragab to move to Cairo and become a full-time journalist. Ragab took the offer. The first piece he wrote was a profile of Sheikh Abdel-Basset Abdel-Samad, an Azhari sheikh who was famous for his mellow voice as he chanted Qur’anic verses. Ragab gave his story the title “Abdel-Basset Brando”, a reference to Marlon Brando and the Sheikh’s captivating charisma. The story became an instant hit, and catapulted Ragab to fame.
In Cairo, Ragab met the twins Ali Amin (1914 – 1976) and Mustafa Amin (1914 – 1997), the then owners of the Akhbar al-Youm publishing house which issued several publications including the Akhbar al-Youm Saturday paper and the al-Akhbar daily. The Amins quickly spotted Ragab’s gift for humorous satire and he joined their papers. Ragab stayed with Akhbar al-Youm till the end of his life; it is said that he always felt that if he left he would be “a fish out of water”.
The art he loved
At Akhbar al-Youm, Ragab met the cartoonist Mustafa Hussein in 1974 and they instantly became friends. By that time the publishing house had moved into the hands of the State; it was nationalised by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1960 together with most other Egyptian papers. The Amins stayed on as editors till 1965 when they were dismissed.
Hussein was born in 1935 in the Cairo Fatimid district of al-Hussein and attended the Gamaliya Primary School, where the art teacher discovered his gift and asked him to do a number of paintings of the historic neighbourhood of al-Hussein. The young Hussein drew several scenes which, to his absolute delight, ended up gracing the four walls of the classroom.
It was a turning point; Hussein decided he would pursue studies in art and joined the School of Fine Arts in Cairo. In 1952, when still in his first year, he was chosen to work at the venerable publishing house of Dar al-Hilal, where he drew the cover of the weekly magazine Al-Ethnein wal-Dunya (Monday and the World) and where his bold outlines and vivid colours brought alive global concerns.
In 1956 Hussein moved to Al-Missaa’ (The Evening) paper as a cartoonist, and remained there until 1963. He also contributed illustrations and cartoons to several prestigious Cairo magazines including the women’s weekly magazine Hawaa’, the children’s weekly Samir, the celebrity gossip magazine al-Kawaakib and the general interest weekly al-Mussawar.
In 1974 Hussein joined Akhbar al-Youm. He stayed with Akhbar al-Youm till he died, forming the legendary partnership with Ragab. Together Hussein and Ragab created a number of cartoon characters so vividly representative of various swathes of the Egyptian community that the public immediately identified with them and catapulted their two creators to the topmost tier of satire in Egypt.
Among these characters was Fallah Kafr al-Hanadwa, an illiterate peasant who nonetheless enjoys the gut wisdom of people who see the truth as it is without the embellishment of political correctness. Fallah was always depicted seated cross-legged in front of Egypt’s prime minister, informing him in superlatively simple language of how people felt about Egypt’s problems which—naturally—directly impacted them. Despite the simplicity of Fallah’s language, it was pregnant with subtle and not-so-subtle messages which relayed the true sentiments of the public.
There was also Kamboora, the nouveau riche trader whose heart’s desire was to complete his social image by landing a seat in parliament. To that end he was willing to go to the utmost lengths, which exposed just how much his new wealth was nothing but a hollow shell that thinly veiled the opportunism that made him rich. Qassem al-Semmawi was another of the Ragab/Hussein characters who the public absolutely loved since it depicted a true to life character frequently encountered on the ground. He represented the poor, lazy man who wouldn’t bother to do any effort to better his and his family’s lives, yet whose only business in life was to envy bitterly anyone who achieved even the slightest success.
Forever a liberal
The prolific work of Ragab and Hussein testified to their times and documented the changes that occurred throughout. Cartoons were a vehicle to social, political, and cultural criticism. They excelled at highlighting people’s problems and concerns, combining artistic creativity with an elegant sense of humour that thrilled admirers and won over critics.
Ragab enjoyed a natural sarcastic streak which made for excellent satirical works. His daily one-paragraph Nuss Kelma was short, to the point, and touched a raw nerve with Egyptians. It went on uninterrupted for over 50 years, and reflected a liberal broad-minded mentality that had no patience for revisionist thought.
Ragab was vocally against Islamic extremism and terrorism. He was unapologetic in his love for former President Hosni Mubarak whom he called “Egypt’s beloved son”. He labelled Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s current president who played a pivotal role in overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013 “The smile of Egypt”.
In 2011, Ragab won the Nile Award, the highest state award for lifetime contribution in literature. Ragab had been nominated for the prize by the University of Alexandria, the University of Sohag, the University of Mansoura and the University of Banha. Last May, he was awarded the Dubai Arab Journalism Award for best newspaper column. Owing to his illness he could not receive the award himself; the journalist Muhammad Tawfiq, Ragab’s biographer, received the trophy on his behalf.
Ragab published a number of books, the most well-known of which include Yawmiyaat Humaar (An Ass’s Journals), Fallah Kafr El-Hanadwa, and al-Fahhama (The Explanitorium).
Never let anyone down
Hussein was elected head of the Syndicate of Egyptian Artists for two successive rounds from 2002 to 2010. He represented Egypt in many local and international exhibitions, including the 100 Years of Caricature exhibition at the Ramataan Centre in the Taha Hussein Museum in January 2011; and Funny Concerns, organised by the Egyptian Association for Caricature in May 2012. Among the international collective exhibitions he showed in was Egyptian Smiles, which was held in Bulgaria in 2007.
Hussein received a good many honours and awards, among them the Ali and Mustafa Amin Award for best illustrative journalist in 1985; the State Incentive Award for children’s illustrations in 1976; the State Appreciation Award in 2003; the Mubarak Prize for arts in 2010; and the Medal of the Future University in May 2011. He won the Suzanne Mubarak National Award for best children’s cartoon book in 1990 and the national children’s drawing inspiration award in 1994. He was also head of the jury in the international children’s cinema festival in 2001.
Hussein was keen to answer every invitation to open any exhibition or artistic event he was requested to attend, whether inside or outside Cairo. Always the perfect gentleman, he would never let anyone down. He was married twice; his second wife, Dalia Gaber, is the one who appears with him in the family portrait he painted.
During his lengthy struggle with cancer since 2007, Hussein outsmarted his pain by immersing himself in his art, faithfully believing he would get well in the end. But that was not to be. On 16 August, the ever-vivid soul reached out to the everlasting, and the tired body was finally laid to rest.
Where there is no pain
Less than a month later, on 12 September, Ragab passed away. He had been a widower for many years—he married Esmat Fakhry in 1961; she died in 1992—yet refused to remarry and lived faithful to the memory of the woman he greatly loved. He leaves no children.
Ragab was a chain smoker and had been ill for a long time, but defied the pain and fatigue and never missed a day on Nuss Kelma. His doctors say he was gripped with depression once he knew Hussein had passed away. Whether or not this hastened his end will never be known for sure, but what is certain is that he has now joined his soul mate in some other world where pain has no place and laughter reigns supreme.