A portrait of Ahmed Ragab

13 May

This is Gamal al-Ghaytani’s introduction to Ahmed Ragab’s collection of essays called ‘Ay Kalam’. I translate it as ‘Any Old Stuff’. It literally means ‘Any Words’ and is used to someone who is basically talking rubbish. A more colloquial but perhaps closer translation would be ‘Chatting Breeze’ or perhaps ‘Hot Air’ but you get the picture. Each of the essays in the book is a couple of pages long and basically contains Ahmed Ragab’s thoughts and reminiscences about a life in literary journalism. The introduction is a short portrait of the man himself by the editor of the collection.



Any Old Stuff … A Close-Up


You can set your watch by his car’s arrival outside the old ‘Daily News’ (Akhbar al-Yawm) building.


Exactly … On the dot of 10 he gets out of the front seat, the one next to the driver, then he goes straight to the entrance, to the lift, to room 53, where he says he has spent half of his life. He doesn’t turn left of right but just keeps going. If he meets someone he says a few words… short questions and answers let them know he wants to be alone.


He goes into his room on the third floor where the offices of the Magazine ‘Akhir sa3a’  are. And the copy department. And the library. And the archive. That floor is always buzzing with activity. Despite that he hides behind the door of his room, which cannot be directly accessed. You can only get to it through a short corridor with a private water fountain at the end… On the right is a door that leads directly to the room, with high walls, locked door, dim lights. Just an office: a desk and two chairs right as you go in. A radio and tape recorder which pumps out his favourite classical music all day long.


As soon as he goes in he locks the outer door with a key.


Thus starts Ahmed Ragab’s daily isolation. He does not answer the phone, he rarely receives anyone in his office and then only by prior appointment.


I don’t know how Ahmed Ragab spends the time between his entrance at 10 and his exit at 2:30. I don’t know how he thinks and writes in the office with the outer door locked. I don’t know from which hidden, unlocatable springs this rare, comedic power bursts forth. A talent which produces 4 articles per day and keeps on doing so despite difficult situations or any of the emergencies which stand out on the pages of the ‘News’. It can send a smile into the recesses of people’s hearts. It arouses the Egyptian people’s comic spirit so they are need of this extraordinary talent. Truly, the Egyptians by their nature are greatly affected by comedy and the ability to make good jokes. In my opinion their deep rooted and long history, as well as there long suffering has given them this sense of humour.


Everyday on the pages of the ‘News’, Ahmed Ragab presents four comic snapshots – if we can use that word. The first one on page one. The ‘News’’ resident songwriter: This strange and interesting character for which Ahmed Ragab took inspiration straight from the modern world.


These characters come to us via the daily drawings of the artist Mustafa Hussein: Kamboura, Gingah, Azizbiyah the elite, al-Kombanda and more. These are the characters that Ahmed Ragab added to our daily life and it is like they walk among us in the flesh.


Thirdly, there is a central point that Ahmed Ragab’s writings continue to revolve around: the relationship between man and woman. This appears in two ways. The first is the daily small cartoon which appears on the last page published under the recurring title “Love is…” The second way is the weekly article that he writes in the ‘Daily News’.


The fourth is an article about a central word of the day, it is published under the title “Description of a Word”[Here the Arabic could also mean ‘half a word’. I imagine this is intentional]. The piece includes biting social or political criticism. All I know about what goes on inside room 53, while he is alone, is that he suffers terribly coming up with and writing those four or five lines a day. He must rip apart what he writes several times. When I was in contact with him about editing this book I discovered the amount of caution which can turn into a deep fear of the reader. Or to put it another way, A desire to respect the reader.


Ahmed Ragab presents his work with great humbleness and rewrites it more than once.


Every day he meets the artist Mustafa Hussein, when Ahmed Ragab gives him the ideas for the three daily cartoons. This is the kind of relationship that is rare in the history of artistic and journalistic production. I think it was the late Ali Amin who allowed it to flourish. He managed to combine the genius of Ahmed Ragab and the talent of Mustafa Hussein.


Ahmed Ragab, as I knew him, was a very cultured man, a serious reader of literature, and a careful follower of the events that happened in literary and cultural world. He was a great respecter of true talent and worked to support it. He favoured what was most beautiful and most true. A total believer in freedom of expression and thought, he was loyal to his friends and teachers almost to a fault.


In his comedy there is a hope, depth, as well as sadness. These are the components of the comedic spirit. There was also a rare talent, wide cultural influences, reliance on a long tradition, long for the Egyptian people, a tradition that makes the Egyptian sad at the peak of his happiness. So if he laughs long, from the heart he will stop immediately and say “Oh God! May you make well”


Ahmed Ragab chose for this book the strange title “Any Old Stuff”. In this title there is a degree of humour, and a degree of self-deprecation. In fact this book is not “Any Old Stuff” but it stuff about serious things, about our daily life, about journalism, about culture, about the relationship between men and women. This is what the next pages include. They look like small fragments but they, in fact, make up a complete story, a hilarious story.


Apologies to the serious of mind for these lines, with which we introduce the writings of the great humourist, Ahmed Ragab.


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