Five scenes in search of an observer: Reviewing the Pirandello-like drama of daily life at the Weekly, Youssef Rakha steps back to see just how insane
It is early evening on Tuesday – the busiest time of the week – and a stranger has walked into the Weekly offices. Let us say he is in the headquarters of Al Ahram to visit a friend and has been misled to this den of newsroom inequity. The atmosphere will strike him, first, as uncannily quiet. There is no one in the corridors; while he looks for someone to talk to, no sound emanates from the empty-looking rooms on either side of him for a long time. Stranger still, there is a faint smell of seafood wafting uncertainly. Then, suddenly: a laugh; shrill but somewhat muffled, it ricochets out of and back into an as yet hidden doorway, setting off a ripple effect of hearty, all-Egyptian chuckling unbelievable in context. The stranger follows the sound. He proceeds with caution, as if caught in a time warp; as he does so, the fish smell intensifies. Finally he is open-mouthed before the least assuming of the doors. The medium-sized room is dominated by a single polygonal table, and around it sits every member of staff, inluding chief and managing editor, engrossed in a jolly feast. “Come join us,” Ahmad K says.
Saturday morning. And aside from the fuul and ta’miya buffet set out in the page layout room while we wait for the editorial meeting – all vice comes from layout – there is something unduly relaxed about the pulse of a seemingly normal workplace at the start of the working week. If they are not eating, exchanging day-to-day news or doing both things at the same time, people are reclining, smoking over mugs of green tea, skulking. They come in all shapes and sizes. Among them is a hefty specimen of remarkably pious appearance, the kind of “Sunni” whose long beard and shaved head – not to mention the prayer “raisin” of dead skin on his forehead – bespeaks sternness and lack of appetite. This is the selfsame Ahmad Kamal Mustafa, better known as Ahmad Kamal, and his appetite is actually phenomenal. Paradoxical though it is for his lifestyle choice, you happen to know that a good half of what comes out of his mouth is intentional hilarity; and you cannot help anticipating his next joke. Yet even so, knowing what he is like, the sight of the office’s resident Wahhabi with a ta’miya sandwich in one hand and a car-cleaning cloth in the other doing a folk dance, unprovoked, is still a disorienting gift.
The week begins on Saturday; Thursday and Friday make up the weekend. Work peaks on Monday. Some would contend that work starts on Monday, but let us say Monday is when it peaks. Depending on how various individual duties overlap, Weekly staffers work together in small groups. Each Sunday members of the same group will keep telling each other to arrive early on Monday (official hours start at 11, but since work often goes on till the early hours, official hours seldom apply). The next morning, whoever does turn up at 11 is not surprised to discover that, until 1 or 2 pm, he will remain alone. Later than that, mobile phones start ringing. But no matter which way the convergence happens, by 3 pm the group in question will be gathered around a single desk, with music blaring out of the computer and hot and cold drinks flitting into and out of hands. Everyone has work to do, everyone knows it. But it takes at least another hour before the great Nesmahar S, the petite guardian angel-cum-motherly nag of my group – also the office’s most active chatterbox – stands up to make her no-nonsense announcement: “Time to work now!” Fortunately, before we have even had time to sigh and boo, Ahmad K has entered the room with a little trough of water which he proceeds – reenacting a well-known scene from a classic televised comic play with the song that accompanies it rendered in tandem – to splash water around the office, wetting all surfaces, and clothes.
After the madness of Tuesday comes Wednesday. Traditionally the quietest time of the week, with no work pending except finalising the front page of the newspaper and adding what last-minute news might have come up unexpectedly, it is now a long, hectic day with frequent quarrels between staff members, notably the editor in chief and the head of the page layout department, who seem to everyone but themselves to be more interested in quibbling than finishing off. Thanks to this, and to the fact that the moon of efficiency is inexplicably and exponentially on the wane among us, Wednesday is now the closest we generally come to what people think of when they think of a day at the office. At least it would be – if not for the spontaneous drumming and tabla session that starts, sans instruments, between the room with the polygonal table and layout. Ahmad K looks disapprovingly at the drummers. He has been sitting making faces at the computer, completely absorbed in his work, and as well as being religiously suspect the noise has distracted him. He begins to deliver a lecture on the need for employees to show respect at their place of work; he sounds convincing. But before he has completed two sentences – no one stops drumming in response to his admonitions – Ahmad K has stood up and joined in the drumming himself.
If anyone actually came in on Sunday, it would be a pleasant enough day with plenty of time for gatherings, drumming and culinary indulgence in addition to work. Could it be precisely for that reason that no one really comes in? The reporters are still finishing off their stories, the editors have nothing to work on. The designers could spend time uselessly pursuing the editors but they would rather loiter. It is actually the designers who come in regularly on Sundays, both because they have additional responsibilities to do with archiving and the web edition and because, well, they can never claim to be working from home. And this is why they end up spending more time with whoever happens to be there from outside their department on Sunday than on any other day. They pitch stories (Weekly designers are all amateur writers); they gossip; they turn into film critics and political analysts and advice columnists. They eat. The office is quiet but not uncannily so. And it is in the middle of such a conversation that you can expect to encounter Ahmad K, all nearly 100 kg of him, standing on top of the desk of one editor or another – for no particular reason – balancing said editor on his shoulder and back.