On July 16, 1989, issue number 3,883 of the then 12-year-old Asharq Al-Awsat was published. For anyone else, this would be unremarkable, but as for myself, that is a different story.
I should avoid being embarrassed of talking about personal issues. I will do my best.
That Saturday night, I could not sleep a wink and I was captivated by fear of some impending doom to come at dawn. I was deeply worried that by noon readers would pass their judgments on the newspaper and Othman Al-Omeir, then editor-in-chief, would ring to inform me that the issue was a failure.
However, that Sunday morning I was awakened from my sleep—or perhaps I had fainted—by the telephone. It was Al-Omair telling me that success was beyond our wildest expectations and that most people agreed that the weekend edition of Asharq al-Awsat was different in both context and design.
It was not bizarre for Othman Al-Omeir to entertain the idea of publishing a weekend edition. I was not surprised when he ordered me to start preparing for this, appointing me as editor-in-chief of the publication.
His decision did not surprise me because both of us, along with a few Arab journalists who came to London in 1970s, were under the spell of the British newspapers published on Sunday both in terms of content and production.
We spent almost every Sunday evening scrutinizing newspapers. For example, we used to draw comparisons between The Observer and The Sunday Times and whether the former surpassed its political comrade yet journalistic rival, The Sunday Telegraph.
We wanted to know, for example, what way the Labour-aligned left-wing Sunday Mirror was different from its Conservative-aligned right-wing rival Mail on Sunday. This is not to mention examining the News of the World which became defunct last year. This one specifically not only enjoyed a reputation for breaking news, but because the news stories it published sometimes, whether serious or scandalous, deserved reading and observation, especially when the story touches upon an Arab or a Middle Eastern issue.
Here, in front of me, is the front-page of Asharq al-Awsat issue of that Sunday. Al-Omair concluded the issue’s editorial by saying “In any case, what is significant here is to indicate to what extent readers accepted this particular issue, regardless of the date of its issuance. This is what we are eager to know very soon. There isn’t anything harder than anticipating the readers’ judgment. It is our guide which we are keen not to lose.”
Under the title “weekly issue eight will be published tomorrow,” and after an introduction about professional criteria of the success and failure of a publication, Hisham and Mohamed Ali Hafiz wrote the following in the column White and Black: “Asharq al-Awsat‘s weekly issue eight will be published tomorrow. With its writers, subjects, reports and distribution rate, the weekly is convincingly successful in a manner that prompts all of us in the Saudi Research and Marketing Co. to consider the idea of shifting the it into an independent newspaper to be published on Sunday.”
Having indicated the “rise in the weekly’s distribution rate by 20 percent compared to that of the daily issue, the editorial concludes by wishing that “we would soon be able to present the weekly newspaper in more than one part.”
However, this was a mere hope that remained unfulfilled in the Sunday issue, which was then issued on Friday instead. However, issuance was ceased in summer 1990 under the pretext that Asharq al-Awsat must be issued every day in an appropriate professional standard without preferring a specific day to another.
Yet, according to objective and professional standards, this remains a different press experience. The editing board was on the second floor of the newspaper’s building. The editor-in-chief decided to “lodge” me on the fourth floor, and appointed me to start preparing the pages’ design and think up preliminary ideas of proper reports. Fortunately, I neighbored the creative cartoonist Mahmoud Kaheel and we were even closer when we were moved to the second floor. Due to his heightened sense as a cartoonist, he undertook supervising the company’s new publications. I went on showing him the page designs and I was fulfilling whatever amendments he recommended. A prominent artist as Mahmoud Kaheel, apart from being a creative cartoonist, he was also creative in the designing of newspapers and magazines where he published his cartoons. Indeed, he contributed greatly to the development of newspaper designing.
Certainly, it was not only the distinguished design of the weekly that was eye-catching, it was also the special nature of the content, something we worked hard to ensure. It is not easy for me now to recall headlines of opinion polls, field investigation, news reviews or distinguished dialogues published in Asharq Al-Awsat‘s weekend edition. Yet, I can remember a carefully planned opinion poll that took a long time to be prepared by men and women colleagues in the newspaper’s bureaus in more than one Arab city in 1990. The purpose of the poll was to know how the then-rising generation would rise and shoulder responsibility by the year 2000. Specific questions were put to people aged 15–18, and question touched upon topics of secondary school education, aiming at sensing their actual trends towards science, literature and then general knowledge as well as the desired job. I still remember our sense of astonishment when reading answers of the poll.
This was an example and there is also another one which I quoted from the above indicated editorial by Hisham and Mohamed Ali Hafiz. The editorial reads: “The Sunday issue is a distinguished weekly publication. When we say distinguished, we mean it literally. For example, in its weekly issue of 20/8/1989, Asharq Al-Awsat published an opinion poll about the Gulf region one year after the Iranian-Iraqi war. This poll drew the attention of many officials, economists, businessmen and readers, and we received very encouraging responses.”
That Sunday of summer 1989 was not an ordinary one like other days of my exile in London or throughout the course of my entire career. Apart from my personal experience, it was the day when a new Arab press experience was born and was all different. For me, this experience still exists in my memory and it will never fade.