A veteran Correspondents collaborator recounts her path into the trade.
Today it is ten years since I began working as a journalist. But ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by the profession. I used to listen attentively to my father’s stories about my journalist grandparents. The decision was crucial when I watched the character of Athar El-Hakim, the reckless adventurous journalist who faces risks with scriptwriter Rami Qashoo. I could empathize with their struggles.
Magnets to streetlife
I have always been aware of the fact that reality is bitter. My grandparents, Ismail Mahdawi and Zinat Sabbagh, were imprisoned several times for their connections to public affairs. Journalism, to me, has always been associated with public affairs as it is a profession that defends freedom of expression, knowledge and the right to exchange information. Journalism defends the voiceless while monitoring the government. Journalists in Egypt have continued to counter-check authority - despite the intervention of the regime and the suppression and imprisonment of dozens of journalists, especially in the last three years.
Journalism is also a full-time job in the literal sense of the word. My mother used to tell me sarcastically: “You became a journalist because you enjoy being in the streets.” This profession does not generate enough income, but still I love it and I have never considered any another career, other than perhaps opening a studio to teach belly dancing as a last-resort to make a living!
Hunger strike for press card
I worked as both a full-time and part-time journalist until 2013 from the time I graduated in 2006. I used to spend entire days at work, six days a week. Although I was a registered journalist, I had to hold a four-day hunger strike to get accepted as a member of the journalists union. This was because I was affiliated with an opposition newspaper.
With the outbreak of the revolution in 2011, I found myself unemployed. My one-year contract with a research project expired in 2010 and I applied for work at an independent newspaper. I was recruited in February 2011 as a reviewer in the Opinion pages, only a few days before Mubarak stepped down. I was forced to decrease my sleeping hours in order to balance my job and my participation in the sit-ins in Tahrir Square.
Despite what I have learned from this job in relation to editing and language, I felt the need to write creatively. So I started to write in the Culture and Society pages for the same newspaper. I wrote about the story of the revolution rather than its news - I preferred to cover the Tahrir Square events as a citizen, not a journalist. The stories of the revolution and its heroes - the triumphs and defeats - were, and still are, my favorite writings.
My colleagues and I had high hopes for new prospects of an independent free press and aspirations for a new generation of young people who participated in the revolution and believed they could document it in writing and photography. Our hopes soon began to collapse however in the next year. Corruption and political interests took control of newspapers; newspapers, in turn, became unprofessional, shifting their opinions from headline to headline. They cheered the revolution when it was ‘victorious,’ but sided with the various aspects of the counter-revolution when they were in power.
By 2013, I started to gradually lose my private life and, just like everyone else, was generally frustrated. I felt that I needed to continue my MA in Political Science – which I had suspended for four years. So I resigned from the newspaper to work as a freelance journalist and started a completely new phase in my life. Opportunities to work as an independent freelance journalist were diminishing in light of hysterical conflict-ridden atmospheres. Options were very limited.
I started corresponding with other Arab-language as well as foreign websites and newspapers. I worked on documentary films and television programs as a researcher, screenwriter and producer. But I was not able to finish my Master’s degree due to the deadlines in my new jobs. Publication and income were always overdue.
I used to work on several projects in parallel, which made my life seem dispersed. I thank God every day for the blessing of ‘freelancing.' Another thing I was always grateful for was not having to wake up early in the morning every day. After all, I have witnessed my colleagues suffer from political intervention and unpaid wages due to the withdrawal of independent press funds. Even national newspapers are experiencing financial crises.
I miss all of this now because it is over. I am returning to a full-time job for stability. The $100-200 I made every two months for a story was never enough. As the Egyptian pound rose to the dollar, I found I had more Egyptian pounds, but prices have now caught up and it is time to go back to the full-time rhythm.