The people who make the paper

26-12-2011 11:34 AM

Samia Sidhom

As far as celebration goes, it may seem that Watani International hasn’t been too lucky.
The first issue of Watani International was prepared in a hospital room in a maternity ward.

Watani marks 10 years of Watani International
As far as celebration goes, it may seem that Watani International hasn’t been too lucky. 
The first issue of Watani International was prepared in a hospital room in a maternity ward. Even though I’d prayed so hard it wouldn’t happen, my first granddaughter Maria was born the same week the first issue of the new Watani English pages was due. I worked on the material for the first issue on my laptop computer as I shared with my daughter the breathtaking experience of a first baby. Celebrating the launch of the newcomer paper was thus, for me, practically not possible; and was overshadowed with the overwhelming joy of the arrival of the recent newcomer to the family. 
One year on, what should have marked the first anniversary of Watani International coincided with one of the most horrendous attacks against the Copts, which occurred in the village of Beni Wallims in Maghagha, Minya, and which left 11 Copts wounded. The attack reeked of so much hatred and left such bitter pain, that we felt we were in absolutely no mood for celebration at Watani International.
And this year, our 10th anniversary on 18 February came at a time when Egypt was in the grips of destiny-changing events; it appeared a 10th anniversary was an almost trivial event.
As 2011 draws to a close, however, we at Watani decided we ought to mark 10 years on what we see as a real achievement: Watani International. Especially that this year has seen one of Cairo’s topmost independent dailies, al-Masry al-Youm, issue a weekly English edition in partnership with The Economist; and other papers launch English language online editions. The Al-Ahram Weekly has been there for ages, of course, but then this is Al-Ahram and it has all the means available at its fingertips. Watani has been issuing its English pages single-handedly for 10 years, on very limited resources, when no other Arabic-language Egyptian papers apart form Al-Ahram had English language editions.
Our editor-in-chief Youssef Sidhom has written, in the column next to this story, of the rationale behind Watani International and the effort that went into issuing its English pages. I thus feel free to write about the work itself and the people behind the work.
From New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris, Francois and Suad Bassily, Saad Mikhail Saad, Laila Shafiq, and Adel Guindy contributed pages and stories. It was with a great sense of loss that, beginning March 2011, we had to take the hard decision of discontinuing these pages in light of the difficult economic situation in Egypt following the 25 January Revolution, which obliged many Egyptian papers to reduce the number of pages. Moreover, the destiny-changing events in Egypt that were taking place at a breathtaking pace required us to allocate more space for reporting on them, especially since we sensed we needed to offer the world a first-hand view by Egyptians from inside Egypt. 
The young ladies
In Cairo, the Watani International team began with a few translators who picked the most interesting and relevant material printed in the Arabic Watani for translation into English. The task was not a simple, direct one; it was not about translating one language to another but about rendering the Egyptian Arabic culture into an English western form. This is a job which required a lot of exchange of experience, brainstorming, and input from our British copy editor Jenny Jobbins. Jenny’s input and understanding helped the English paper grow to what it is today.
Marina Ihab, Donia Wagdy, and Rania Farid were among the first to work on the team. They were all recent university graduates, eager to learn, work and produce their best. Marina and Donia were the typical young, timid women in their first jobs—they were even the same tiny size, and they looked so much alike. But Rania was more self-confident; she was plump, talkative, vivacious, and the first question she’d ask once she put her foot in the office was: “What do we eat today? I’m hungry.” We’d usually order sandwiches and, if I decided to order a small sandwich she’d directly warn me that it wouldn’t be enough; I’d still feel hungry. This invariably had the magical effect of making me feel instantly hungry, and I’d quickly order another one!
The Sidhom granddaughters
Over the years, the young ladies bloomed into sturdy, compassionate, competent journalist/translators. It was with happiness that I watched them get married and have children of their own and, in case of Marina and Rania, with heartache that I saw them leave Egypt to Sydney to build new families and new lives.
Ghada Tantawi was already a professional translator when she joined our team in 2001 as a freelancer. She quickly fit in and became an indispensable member of the group. Ghada took it in turns with me to translate the editorial, the most delicate and tricky of the translation tasks. She was a brick in times of emergency!
The youngest member to join Watani International was Lydia Farid who came in for training while yet in her final year in school. Even though I never train students that young, I found it too hard to thwart Lydia’s eagerness to learn, and reluctantly agreed. Lydia was very receptive and grew to be an important member of the team. Even though she was offered a job she couldn’t say no to after she graduated from university, she stayed on as a freelancer with Watani, and I find her right before me offering to do whatever work needs to be done in times of emergency. 
Along the way, we gained new members to the Watani International team. At one point three granddaughters of Watani’s founding father Antoun Sidhom joined: Nivert Rizkallah who is my daughter, Christine Alphonse, and Dalia Victor. All three contributed wonderfully to the job, Nivert and Christine left some two years later, however, to pursue other careers, but never had the heart to leave Watani International altogether. Nivert is still with us as the final and most efficient proof-reader, and Christine is contributing to our work online.
Dalia, together with Donia, grew to be pivotal members in our team. They gained tremendous experience in translating and researching stories, and even on the more important decision-making aspects of producing the English paper, whether in the print version or online.
…and the gentlemen
I wouldn’t be giving a complete picture of Watani International without introducing Mr Ghali Kozman, who was already in his 70s when he joined. Mr Kozman was lively, active, a seasoned translator, and oh didn’t he just love an argument! He worked from home, but would come to the office once a week. And what a visit that would be! Any topic in the world we’d tackle—political, economic, linguistic, artistic, drama, even family—he was sure to be the odd one out in the discussion. Voices would rise and the discussion inevitably turn into heated argument, and it wasn’t seldom that someone would get really angry. Later we found out that Mr Kozman used to enjoy every bit of it, so much so that he more than once asked me to write down all about these discussions under the title “In the newsroom”. I must admit I found the idea an attractive one, but never got down to doing it.
Mr Kozman later suffered a stroke and was no longer able to write, but this never defeated him. He learned to do the work on the computer using only one finger, and his input to Watani International continued till a few months before he passed away in 2009.
Another gentleman who richly contributed to Watani International was Erian Labib Hanna who, from July 2003 to February 2007 wrote the Egyptology series “Tracing the people’s history”. It didn’t take much for Mr Hanna to talk me into printing that series. His view was that history is more often than not reported from the perspective of the rulers of the land—their conquests, their building, their policies, and suchlike. But the people get very little attention, he said. “Do you know,” he said, “that the first revolution in the history of Egypt—and possibly of the world—was in part because the people of Egypt claimed their right to eternal life which was up to that time a privilege of the kings alone?” 
Mr Erian died in April 2009.
Those outstanding pages
The content offered by Watani International developed over the years. The stories were no longer limited to translations of what is printed in the Arabic Watani, but we began assigning a group of Watani reporters with writing special stories for the international edition. Today, stories written exclusively for Watani International make up some 90 per cent of our content; the Arabic paper sometimes uses stories originally written for us. The change came about mainly because of the difference in readership; our reader is largely outside Egypt and accesses our output mainly online. Among the Watani reporters who have most contributed, and continue to contribute to Watani International are Nader Shukry, Robeir al-Faris, Maged Samir, Magdy Malak, Georgette Sadeq, and Mervat Ayoub.
As for our beautifully designed pages, they are the brainchildren of Mahmoud Bakr and Heba Adel. Mahmoud already was a seasoned pager designer when he joined us back in 2001, but Heba came in as a beginner to help Mahmoud. She has today grown into a lovely, self-confident page designer in her own right, with an artist’s temperament, and passionate about her work—and passionate about Watani International as well.
I never imagined when I began writing that I’d have so much to write about our group but then, it is not so much a group as a family.   
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