The Egyptian Newspaper Calligrapher Still Writing History's First Draft

At Al-Ahram, Egypt's largest daily, moveable type doesn't cut it for major historical events such as Arab springs and presidential elections. That's when they call in the calligrapher.

The Egyptian Newspaper Calligrapher Still Writing History's First Draft
Jahd Khalil

CAIRO — On certain momentous days, only three men know the top headline of the country's flagship state newspaper Al-Ahram before it is sent to the printers. Even the layout designers remain in the dark — all they see is a black box that covers the calligraphy of Mohamed Al Maghraby, whose job is literally to write the first draft of history.

Every Egyptian newspaper reader is familiar with his work — a bold, crisp and simplified version of the Riqaa script (which most resembles handwriting), rendered in large, fire engine red.

Maghraby has only written 17 front-page titles in his 22-year career at Al-Ahram. One day last month he wrote two. For President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s June 8 inauguration, he wrote “A Red-Letter Day for a Great People’s History.” The headline was particularly difficult, especially the words “history” and “great.”

The subhead, which is not in Maghraby’s handwriting, read: “For the first time, the signing of a document transferring power in Egypt,” celebrating interim President Adly Mansour’s peaceful handover of power to Sisi. The background was colored the same as the transition of power document they signed.

On Wednesday, June 4, Maghraby also penned Al Ahram’s straightforward headline, “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is Egypt’s President.”

Maghraby composed the headline himself, wrote it at home at 6 a.m. and carried it to the Al-Ahram headquarters on Galaa Street. When he showed his work to editor-in-chief Mohamed Abdel Hady, the editor immediately exclaimed: “Great job — Allah yenawar "aleik!” Often Abdel Hady composes the headlines, which Maghraby renders into calligraphy. The editor took out a 50-pound note ($7) and scribbled on it to mark the occasion. The calligrapher keeps it in his wallet.

Maghraby has been working with Al-Ahram since 1982. He has mostly drawn section headings and the text for translated Western political cartoons. But the day of Mubarak’s ouster was the first time Maghraby composed a headline.

“I went down to watch the celebrations near the presidential palace in a galabeya, sandals, and without my glasses,” the calligrapher recalls. “The editor called me and asked, ‘Do you want to make history?’”

It was 9 p.m. Maghraby went home, took one of his reed pens, dipped it in ink, and wrote, “The People have Overthrown the Regime.” Then he posed for a commemorative snapshot in his galabeya next to his colleagues, holding up his pen next to the proof of the headline.

Calligraphy vs. moveable type

Until the 1970s, most newspaper headlines were written with a calligrapher’s reed rather than moveable type. Today most calligraphy, in the media and advertising, is rendered digitally. “Computers are about order, limits, and stiffness,” says Maghraby.

On the night of Feb. 11, 2011, layout designers had already sent the printer a version of the front page with Al-Ahram’s house type, but it was somehow unsatisfying. The cover using the computer type still remains in Al-Ahram’s digital archive and is as stiff as Maghraby claims.

“Calligraphy highlights the event,” says Maghraby. “It’s flexible and has life.”

His headlines are bringing Arabic calligraphy to a mass audience, beyond the traditional outlet of religious calligraphy. In fact, the Feb. 12, 2011 headline has become a reference in the public school curriculum for sixth graders.

Maghraby first became interested in calligraphy when he was young, growing up in a village in the Dakahlia Governorate. His mother, whom he describes as “a cultured rural woman,” got him interested in both poetry and the art of calligraphy.

His position as a newspaper calligrapher is highly unusual. Al-Akhbar is the only other Egyptian publication with an in-house calligrapher, and he is not very active due to his advanced age. Other major pan-Arab outlets don’t employ calligraphers.

Maghraby had to teach himself how to adapt the styles of traditional calligraphy for a headline’s width and height. A calligrapher in his position needs to be flexible and to keep up with the speed at which a newsroom operates.

“I can write these headlines in five minutes,” he says. “It’s journalism after all.”

At Al-Ahram, Maghraby often retreats to an office on another floor from the newsroom, to make sure the headline remains a secret. The calligrapher is reticent to comment on the reversals and twists he has helped announce in the last three years but is happy to discuss the details of his craft. He uses a reed pen, dips it in black ink that has been watered down slightly, and works on a piece of cardstock that is then scanned, turned red via a photo editor and delivered to the layout designers.

“An academic calligrapher will take a month to do this, and if you change it, the work’s strength is lost,” he says, pointing to proofs of his work. “I can use any pen, really. You have to be able to use the strength of your hand, not depend on the pen.”

The reed squeaks the same way a marker pen does, leaving strong lines between the pencil guides he’s drawn to make sure the headline fits in the space he’s been assigned.

Sometimes the headlines are edited. After writing “Mohamed Morsi is the First Civilian President of Egypt,” the editors had him replace “Egypt” with “the Republic,” for greater historical precision.

A year later, there was another occasion when Maghraby’s script was needed to highlight important events. From July 2-4, 2013, he wrote three headlines in a row: “The Final Warning,” “Today: Dismissal or Resignation,” and “The President Deposed by Revolutionary Legitimacy.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️


We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!