She’s interviewed celebrities and wannabes, made headlines and history. Some call her the Oprah Winfrey of the Middle East; others attack her for trying to be so. She is the incomparable Hala Sarhan. eniGma’s Omnia Zaied caught up with her in this exclusive interview to find out what she’s up to now.
Ever since I joined eniGma, I have come to learn that we have a yearly ritual of contacting Hala Sarhan’s office for an interview. She’s either too busy, out of town or the timing is not right. That is why when Fashion Director Maissa Azab told me she is currently working with Sarhan on her upcoming show this Ramadan, Hala Show, I was determined to not let go of the opportunity. And there I was few days later, sitting face to face with the woman who started it all.
I expected Sarhan to be intimidating and arrogant, after all she is Hala Sarhan. But to my surprise, I found Sarhan to be grounded, confident, and far from arrogant. She has the sort of peace of mind that comes from knowing that you’re two steps ahead of everyone in your field. “A lot of years of experience,” she tells me is the reason. Forty-one years, to be exact, spent working in media.
Sarhan is a leader. This is what she was born to be, this is what her family prepared her to be, and this is what she couldn’t help but become. “My family gave me total freedom, this is what made me who I am today,” she tells me. “I remember when I was 20 my father got a cigarette out of his pack and offered it to me. I didn’t take it because I don’t like the smell of it anyway. It wasn’t until later that I understood he was testing me and until now I haven’t smoked a cigarette in my life.”
The freedom Sarhan found at home encouraged her to test her limits in a not-so-free world. After graduating from the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, Sarhan quickly started her journey. One that got her all the way to the top of the world, down, then back up again, a rollercoaster which she chose to ride.
Sarhan has been there, done that, and excelled in everything in between. From reading news on Egyptian Radio in the 1970s to teaching in the University of Louisville, Kentucky, to hosting the first talk shows in the Middle East on the screens of the biggest networks in the region. She has this special talent of spreading success wherever she goes. During her seven years with the ART network and then with Dream TV, where she became Vice President, Sarhan hosted a slew of unforgettable shows like Ya Hala Maa Hala (Welcome with Hala), Al Laila Maa Hala (Tonight with Hala), Hala Show and Al Hakika (The Truth). At the time, Sarhan made each network what it was; her programmes were the main source of advertising for each one of those channels. The networks also gave her the chance to talk about a lot of taboo topics, paving the way for today’s popular, agressive talk shows. “Now I watch TV shows discussing topics which I first brought up 25 years ago, and I was attacked and frowned upon because of that,” she says. Her shows made her very popular with audiences, but a nuisance to the authorities and eventually she had to leave Dream and join Rotana. She worked her magic again at Rotana where she became Head of Production and Distribution and established Rotana Cinema, Rotana Zaman and Rotana Masriya, making them what they are today.
Despite her outstanding on-screen success, Sarhan held another passion close to her heart, writing. “When you write something it’s as if you are talking directly to the reader. There are no screens, cameras, editors. It’s a very special relationship between you, the paper and the reader,” she says. She wrote books like Al Haramlek and Al Madam Marfoaa Moakatan Men Al Khedma (The Wife Is Temporarily Out of Service). She also worked as the Editor-in-Chief of Saidaty Sadaty (Ladies and Gentlemen) magazine and as the Deputy Editor of Kol El Nas (Everybody) and Saidaty (My Lady) magazines.
After over 40 years in the industry, Sarhan is now going back to basics. With her new show Hala Show, she returns to Dream TV, she returns to entertainment, and she returns to her audience who love her.
Tell us a bit about your new show…
I haven’t done such a programme in a while. I am back on Dream TV and I am very happy to be back. The show has a new concept. It is staged in a virtual world, the country of Morostan. We have guests coming from other virtual countries and they tell us all about the problems they face back home. It is divided into various segments that are different from what you usually watch on TV. This is something we really need since we just tend to imitate everything. You always have a table, two chairs and a guest sitting opposing the host. We really need something new.
How do you think the revolution changed the media landscape?
Look, we have problems in almost every field. The economy is going down, you have political issues, you have problems with the judiciary, but the media is actually the only thing that changed for the better. Now we have new channels, we have more voices and they are all doing a very good job. I watch Amr Adeeb, Reem Maged and Yousry Fouda and I am very proud of them.
What about state TV, do you think it is still redeemable?
At this point and with this Minister of Information, there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to save state TV. First of all I don’t know what the minister’s decisions are leading to; for example he decided to redraft the Journalists Code of Ethics which has been around for ages. And the committee he chose to do so includes the likes of Hazem Salah Abou Ismail and Sheikh Assem Abdel Maged. Hazem Abou Ismail who surrounded Media Production City a few times to prevent people from doing their jobs. Also we have problems in Maspero that have been growing drastically over the years which are nepotism and favouritism. The result is a huge number of employees that are draining the building physically and financially. You don’t need over 50,000 employees there, most channels can run with about 100 employees only. I personally know someone who has been on the payroll without even setting foot in the building for years. They get their salaries delivered to their doorsteps.
It comes down to work ethic, or lack thereof. In Egypt everyone is thinking about what they are getting. Every time I want to hire someone the first thing they ask about is how much they are getting, not what they are going to do to get it. That is why I am very strict with my team; everyone has to always be there and to contribute with something.
Would you say that this sort of discipline is what made you who you are today?
I come from the old professional school where you have to spend hours and hours preparing. I have to know everything about my guest. No one really does that anymore. They just get two chairs and start asking questions. But it’s not about that, it’s about understanding your guests, their facial expressions, their body language, everything to get the best out of them. In fact, just a few days ago someone who used to work with me called me saying that I deceived him by making him work very hard and run after every detail while in other places no one does that.
As a pioneer of celebrity TV hosts in the region, how do you see it now?
I wouldn’t call myself a pioneer, I will leave that for history to judge. I have just been doing my job. Some people misunderstand the concept of a TV host, you are not the star, your guest is. If you ask questions based on what people will think of you or to try to get praise for cornering a guest, you will never get anywhere. It is all about your guest, he is the one you need to focus on, it’s not about you, it’s about them. When I wanted to interview Sheikh Assem Abdel Maged and he asked to have a curtain between us so he couldn’t look at me, for what he believed were religious reasons, I did what he wanted. At the end of the day you want to show your guests the way they are and it is up to the viewers to judge them.
So what does it take to be such a strong woman in a country like Egypt?
It is tough to be a woman in the Middle East in particular and in the world in general. You will be judged, you will be stereotyped, and you will face a lot of difficulties. But you always have to try and stand your ground.
When you look back, do you have any regrets?
No, not a single one. Everything I did got me to where I am today and for that I am very grateful. I wouldn’t have been here if I didn’t make all the mistakes I’ve made in my life. I would do it all the same way if I had to start over.
ART DIRECTION & STYLING
Hair: Belal @ Mohamed Al Sagheer
Fashion Assistant: Mona Waly
Shot on location at Baraka Production