The recent departure of Safwat Abdel-Halim (1932 – 2018), the late Managing Editor of Watani, set off a torrent of emotions among members of the Watani family who all felt pained at the loss of that great man. Those who had directly worked with Mr Abdel-Halim expressed profound emotion and appreciation for the fellowship they had enjoyed with him; younger journalists cherished his mentorship; and the youngest Watani reporters who had barely had a chance to work with him expressed pride of and admiration for Mr Safwat as he was commonly called in the paper.
Beyond doubt, Mr Safwat left an exceptional imprint on the minds and hearts of every person in Watani. Reminiscence about him focused on his singular caring warmth as well as his professional prowess. He was forever the brother, father and teacher who exercised tough love, compassion coupled with humour, firmness, and the occasional hot temper. It thus came as no surprise that his departure brought on a deluge of spontaneous tribute that filled pages of the paper’s last issue and overflowed into this one’s. I had printed my eulogy of Mr Safwat last Sunday, but the reminiscence of our Watani reporters brought on a trove of dear memories of my own, and I decided to write them down.
Mr Safwat applied a fair, firm system that reporters had to follow. News sources, forever a bone of contention among the journalists, were justly assigned in Watani but, according to Mr Safwat, there was no absolute exclusivity regarding sources, in the sense that if a reporter failed to produce news from his or her source and the news was handed to the paper by another reporter, it would go into print. “The reporter who failed the source and paper would be taken to account,” the Managing Editor insisted.
Where feature stories are concerned, Mr Safwat used to say, they should stick to the facts and to faithfully investigating all aspects of the topic. “Yet we all have our own convictions and beliefs, the fruit of social, religious and cultural backdrops. A reporter, however, must be able to work a detachment between these convictions and the journalistic task at hand; he or she must not allow, voluntarily or involuntarily, for the truth to be tainted or disfigured in any way by personal inclinations or whims.”
In his capacity as head of Watani’s editorial desk, Mr Safwat had a view to selecting his team members: “I do not necessarily pick the best, most specialised reporters in certain fields, or those who possess a distinctive writing style. I look for well-read, encyclopaedic mentalities; those able to detect ‘suspicious’ information that needs verification. They should, however, be sufficiently experienced and versatile to be able to ameliorate the writing of other reporters without altering the original style.”
When the post of Watani’s managing editor became vacant, I offered the post to Mr Safwat who was already a member of the editorial desk. He looked me in the eye and asked if I had given the matter enough thought. I replied that he had behind him a long experience in the editing field, in addition to the respect and appreciation of all who worked at Watani. “But I am Muslim,” he retorted, “and I fear that your choice might negatively impact your readers or advertisers.” Stunned, I said: “No Mr Safwat, you know Watani well by now, and must be aware that it is an institution where Copts and Muslims work hand in hand on all levels. It does Watani honour to establish that its mission is carried out by Egyptians, Copts or Muslims indiscriminately, the only requirements being efficiency, loyalty and discipline.” Mr Safwat directly accepted the new post, and his name remained on Watani’s header as Managing Editor for many years which witnessed the paper’s development, evolution and maturity.
Perhaps one of my most cherished memories with Mr Safwat concern the day I had a disagreement with him on a professional matter. I was in his office; the argument got so heated that I withdrew to my office lest the matter gets out of control. He followed me to my office and stormed in anger: “I don’t want to work with you any more, I’m leaving.” I kept my silence hoping for the storm to subside and for a little time to mend the rift. A day or two had barely passed when he came back to my office and gave me a brotherly embrace saying: “Watani is my second home. I won’t leave.”
I hold the memory of Safwat Abdel-Halim very close to my heart; his love and wisdom have impacted every one of us at Watani.
5 August 2018