Saturday, May 16, 2020

Hani Shukrallah - A Very Remarkable Creature

When I first heard news of Hani Shukrallah’s passing, it didn’t quite sink in. He was in and out of hospital, and in many ways I had been dreading it and trying to deal with it internally. Every time he got out of the hospital it was a sigh of relief. Maybe I had been long preparing myself for his passing so that the blow would not be so heavy. It worked. I was almost smiling in his funeral, and perhaps it’s merely because I could not help but think of Hani smiling and laughing looking down on his own funeral. With all the loved ones around and some of the hypocrites that may have come to pay tribute, I could not wipe his smile off my brain. But perhaps I was also smiling because I felt immense love emanating from some very beautiful people I saw in the ceremony of his departure. In a sense you had to be beautiful in some way to love Hani that much.

Photo by Miguel Ángel Sánchez 

Hani may not have been aware of how many people like me were silently going through their emotional rollercoaster as they heard about him, whether he had survived another visit to the hospital or finally with his departure. I was not close to Hani on a personal level and never present in his everyday life. I wish we had been closer, but we did have our deep personal moments which I capitalized on. I translated them into a special kind of closeness albeit one sided on my part. I had always felt an unshakeable closeness in spirit since we first met. It was probably just the usual for Hani, him being himself, and leaving a deep immutable imprint even with the briefest encounters with those he met.

To me his normal was special enough. I’ll take that. I feel blessed to have encountered his usual.

Hani Shukrallah was a beautiful man who mentored many and was able to live a full life. When I met Hani first in 2010, I was interviewing for a job at Ahram Online to write about film for a final sign off. I will forever be grateful to Ati Metwally for offering me the opportunity to be a part of that experience. He sat me down, looked at my blog, started reading a simple review I had written and then immediately hired me. He said I wrote well. Ever since, I've been learning more and more about what it means to think critically and what his journalism was about.

Hani stood out at a time and in a land of fallen heroes. I had gotten accustomed to those ‘big’ people letting us down. Yet there I saw a young revolutionary in an older man’s body but with the knowledge and wisdom of the years. I often wondered how he maintained that wonderful combination of seeing things as they are and yet being youthfully hopeful, resilient and persistent in pursuing his values.

I was at Ahram Online when mass protests started on January 25, 2011.  We returned to our editorial meeting after the government’s five day internet shutdown ended.  Hani Shukrallah was smiling, laughing, and quickly said, “I assume we’re all for what’s happening in Tahrir right now.” He said he understood why many decided to join the protests, but it was his opinion we had the opportunity, the role and the platform to do even more good as journalists by reporting and giving the events a much needed voice.

The words stuck with me and covering protests became part of what I did in the events that followed. It didn’t matter if I was going to protest, observe, report, blog or tweet. I witnessed protests and wrote about them. I was given space by Ahram Online to work on numerous critical pieces. Hani would later be sidelined under the Muslim Brotherhood and his newly established publication, Bel Ahmar,  censored by the regime among hundreds of censored websites.

I don’t want to make Hani out and as an infallible figure who made no mistakes. I’m sure he made many and I didn’t agree with every position he had, but he remained a passionate thinker, reader and listener, willing to change his mind or reconsider his positions and even admit mistakes. Hani wasn’t primarily a journalist, he was an activist who happened to be a journalist particularly brilliant at his job. He was a gifted writer but behind those words were vivid thoughts and moving ideas. He excelled at both the thinking and the writing.

I’m sure Hani doesn’t need my humble testimony to his brilliance, but the point is that I admired who he was and aspired to be like him. In the newsroom he was daring, he said things as they were. One day as I was stopping by the office I heard Hani shout from inside his room, “Why are you quoting this guy!! He’s nothing but a security informant!” or “Amnagy”. The combination of excellent journalism and the courage to spell things out as they are was something I had not witnessed much. Most journalists I knew were afraid to have an opinion even when things were that clear.

He made sure that professional journalism backed what was said, even if it ran against an acceptable narrative. He was a field builder and an author of narratives. I will admit that it is delusional of me to think that Hani Shukrallah reflected some of what I saw in myself, so let me just say that he reflected what I hoped I could be. Still, I was not delusional enough to think I can be as funny or as charming as he was. I still believe though, that in terms of thinking, writing and integrity, it is worth aspiring towards what he had become.

When Hani wrote, I read. When he spoke I listened. I was lucky enough to have shared some of my pieces with him before he passed away. There was one which he insisted should be translated and published in Bel-Ahmar. I’m grateful for that. A while later I persistently asked him to meet. I finally passed by his place and we had a deep long conversation over coffee. We spoke of our past and our future and his prophetic article J'Accuse which he wrote the first day of 2011 in poetic and prophetic anger that spoke about things that have passed and things to come.

I'm grateful to have spent time with him. I feel blessed to have been able to tell him how much I admire him and how much I've learned from him and how much I wanted to be like him, despite how awkward it sounded to be saying all this to him in his living room unprovoked.

Hani was revolutionary in every sense of the word. He revolutionized English journalism and he adopted daring stances. He was a revolutionary long before he found his revolution.

There are endless things to say about Hani Shukrallah, and these words hardly do him justice. I can talk about more things that happened in Ahram Online, or wonderful ideas that have helped shape mine, but it’s very difficult finding words. In fact the words I write now are ones I’ve wanted to write for over a year since I heard of his death but could not string them together. When I heard of his passing, I could not help but think of these lines from ‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Somerset Maugham which had deeply moved me:

“[He] is not famous… It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”

In my mind, these words represented Hani, and I say this despite knowing full well that he is a giant in the field of journalism in Egypt, known well and respected, but I think that Hani’s real power is how deeply and intimately he has affected and touched those who have encountered him personally or observed “the way of life that he has chosen for himself.”

This text is long overdue, perhaps subdued for so long by the intense feelings of love and loss I’ve harbored over the years.

Goodbye beautiful man. We shall miss you immensely. I love you lots.

A note about the video. The audio recording is from The Razor’s Edge, a film based on the movie. The words stuck with me, I wanted to be that man, but I really think something about it suits Hani. I collected the images from the internet without really knowing the sources, I apologize for that, but one of them used with very special lighting was taken by Miguel Ángel Sánchez in 2015 during a project that he and Nuria Tesón were making at the time. The interview with him is still not released, but the image captures a true hero at the time of darkness, a man holding on to his revolutionary spirit at a time where many others particularly from his generation had forfeited it. This video is how Hani feels like to me, my personal tribute to him.