Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Lebanese and Syrian immigrants took the Arab journalistic world by storm, leaving numerous literary and cultural achievements in their wake. These immigrants established newspapers and professional literary publications of renown. Overseas, some two dozen Arabic-language newspapers sprung in the United States alone, headed by writers like Ilya Abu Maadi, Mikhail Naimy, and Amin Rihani. In the Arab world, two Lebanese Christian brothers landed on the shores of Egypt and established one of the most prominent household publications in Egypt — Al Ahram Newspaper.
Just last August, Al Ahram celebrated the 145th anniversary of its founding and the 129th anniversary of the passing of its founder, Selim Takla (1849-1892), who with his brother Beshara (1852-1901) built the newspaper from the ground up into one of the largest circulated Arab newspapers today. As ‘shwam’ — Lebanese and Syrian immigrants who settled in Egypt during the 19th and 20th centuries — the brothers arrived in Alexandria and blended into Egyptian society, fighting national and political battles as if native-born Egyptians. Though Egypt was still nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire, the brothers saw it as fertile ground for their newspaper. The press was more loosely controlled there than in other parts of the empire. In the late 19th century, Egypt was a center of commercial opportunities and a breeding ground of nationalist ideas. Its newspapers were forums for intense political and cultural debate, according to Sawsan al-Abtah in Asharq al-Awsat.
Selim Takla was born in the village of Kafer Shima in Lebanon in 1849. He studied under the legendary Lebanese writer and scholar Boutros al-Bustani and became a teacher at the Patriarchal College in Beirut. In 1874, he moved to Alexandria and urged his brother Beshara to join him. They founded Al Ahram on August 5, 1875, and began publishing as a weekly newspaper distributed on Saturdays.
The newspaper soon blossomed into something significant. Al Ahram was undoubtedly not the first newspaper in Egypt but was the first independent publication, unaffiliated with any political party, according to Amira Noshokaty in the English Al Ahram. Initially, the Takla brothers wanted to create a publication centered on economic news and the stock market, being merchants themselves, according to Shoukry El-Qadi in a 1985 column published in Al Ahram daily, as cited by Noshokaty. They worked with ambition and diligence; it is said that Selim worked the jobs of 10 people, according to Sawsan al-Abtah. But despite the brothers’ tenacity, the newspaper’s launch did not sail smoothly and suffered under colonial fetters. In 1876, still early in their launch, the colonial authorities arrested the brothers for siding with “people against foreign interventions and imperialism,” in the words of Noshokaty.
In 1881, Al Ahram became a two-page daily paper amid a climate of rising nationalist sentiment. Colonel Ahmed Urabi led the Urabi Revolution, which had broken out the year before, and sought to end British and French influence over the country and depose Khedive Tewfik Pasha. In the conflict, the British bombing burned Al Ahram’s press down, a setback that cost Selim books, archives, and money, but not his perseverance. The newspaper resumed publishing in September 1882.
Under Selim’s keen understanding of Western media trends, Al Ahram developed into a distinguished newspaper that encompassed more ground than its competitors. “He chose the language of the newspapers in correct and clear terms, devoid of rhyme, unlike its counterparts in this era,” according to Ursula Lindsey in Bidoun. Selim traveled to Europe and other countries to conduct interviews, becoming one of the first Arab correspondents to report and conduct interviews outside of Egypt, as cited by Abtah. He met with many international dignitaries, including Sultan Abdul Hamid at Yildiz Palace in Istanbul in 1889.
The brothers often borrowed ideas from Western journalism, implementing international, scientific, literary, commercial, social, and linguistic sections. Beshara welcomed poets and literary figures to contribute, including poets like Khalil Mutran, Amin and Selim Haddad, Ahmad Shawqi, and intellectuals like Gamal El-Din al-Afghani, leaders of the enlightenment like Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, and many others, according to Noshokaty. They also began publishing special supplements: the weekly Sada al-Ahram (Echo of the Pyramids, 1877), Al-Waqt (The Time, 1879), and Al-Ahwal (The Conditions, 1882). However, Sada al-Ahram, which focused on trade affairs, was suspended after offending Khedive Ismail Pasha, who at the time was a significant patron of Alexandria’s newspapers, according to the historian Juan Cole in “Colonialism and Revolution In the Middle East: Social and Cultural Origins of Egypt's 'Urabi Movement.”
In 1886, Selim traveled to Damascus to get married before returning to Alexandria to continue working. He and his wife did not have any children. In the following years, he suffered from heart ailments and traveled to Syria to recover at the suggestion of doctors, where he unexpectedly died on August 8, 1892, leaving Beshara to manage the newspaper. On August 13, Al Ahram published a special six-page issue announcing his death. The poet Khalil Mutran eulogized Selim at the funeral and recounted, “There was no Muslim, Christian, or Israeli in Alexandria who did not attend.”
Beshara took over the press until he died in 1902, after which his wife Betsy Naoum Kababa took over. Born in Beirut and fluent in English, German, and Turkish, Betsy moved Al Ahram’s presses from Alexandria to Cairo. Their son Gabriel (age nine at the time of Beshara’s death) would succeed her, modernizing the publication with his law and economics degrees.
Though Al Ahram’s direction has since passed through several generations of owners outside of the Takla family, the newspaper — which now operates both in print and online — fondly recalls its roots. One can still find an old calculator the size of a typewriter resting on a 19th-century desk in the newspaper’s headquarters in Cairo, a recreation of the brothers’ office greeting visitors as a reminder of the Lebanese “heart” of Al Ahram.
Copyright © 2021 by Al Jadid
Copyright © 2021 by Al Jadid