Tucked away in a small room in his spacious Mounira apartment, one of the Middle East’s leading TV personalities met up with the eniGma team wearing a galabeya and a smile. Surrounded by his books, his TV crew and the family dog Dahab, Mahmoud Saad told eniGma’s Daliah Galal about his long
journey to the top and why he thinks his generation has destroyed Egypt…
Before you landed on our TV screens with such aplomb, you spent most of your life working in print, right?
Actually I’m still first and foremost a journalist. I worked in Sabah El Kheir magazine for 22 years! From 1978 until 2000. And I was eventually appointed Editor in Chief of Al Kawakeb magazine. At the same time I was heading up the arts section of Sabah El Kheir magazine. My work with Sabah El Kheir started in the ‘80s when leading journalist Raouf Tawfik decided to launch an art section. He admired my enthusiasm, so he took me under his wing. However throughout my career as a journalist, my main focus has always been politics and economics. I’ve headed up the Cairo offices of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan as well as Sayedaty magazine and I was on the board of directors at Rosa Al-Youssef magazine. In fact I’m still the head of the Cairo office of Laha, a pan-Arab women’s magazine.
What about your huge TV break, how did that come about?
A number of friends persuaded me to host a TV show on satellite broadcaster Dream TV. My very first show was called Ala Waraq (On Paper) and aired in Ramadan of 2001. Though I had my doubts, the show turned out to be a success, and a series of entertainment shows followed. It wasn’t until 2004 that I did a show called Mobasher (Direct) and another called Al Youm Al Sabee (Day Seven) that tackled political, economical, social and religious issues. That’s what led me to co-host Egypt’s top talk show El Beit Beitak. I started on El Beit Beitak in January 2005 and am still on it today! Of course the show is now called Masr El Naharda (Egypt Today).
And how is your relationship with your co-hosts on Masr El Naharda? Is there any sensitivity following the incredible feedback journalist Khairy Ramadan has received since joining the team? There must be a little bit of competitive jealousy at work?
Not at all; we have a very good relationship though we don’t get to work together much. And I’m very happy with Khairy’s success especially as I was the one who introduced him to the show!
You’re able to easily switch from the seriousness of weighty socio-political issues to the fun and fluff of celebrity interviews. Which do you prefer?
Actually, I feel most at home when showcasing religious issues. It’s when I’m most happy and at ease. I’ve hosted a religious show with Sheikh Khaled Al Guindy and of course I head up the religious channel ‘Azhary’. It’s very challenging, but also extremely fulfilling. I think I handle the sensitive issues well and maintain a sensible balance. I read a lot on the subject and my personal library is over-flowing with books about religion. For the past 15 years religion has been my main literary obsession.
So do you consider yourself a very religious person?
No, I just like to read about my religion. God asked us to know and think about our religion and the Holy Quran, and I just try to learn more about it. I believe that we will be asked to justify how we spent our time on this earth, and we need to make sure it didn’t all go to waste.
With your crazy work schedule, how do you even find time to read?
I just do! Reading is one of the most beautiful things in life! Unless there’s some bestselling book on the market that everyone’s talking about, most of my readings are about religion, philosophy and history.
So other than reading about religion, how else do you spend your rare moments of freedom?
Actually I don’t do much else. I just go to the studio for work or relax at my house in Sheikh Zayed. I don’t go out at all!
Ok, let’s get a bit personal. You’ve never had any qualms discussing your difficult relationship with your father. Tell us a little bit about that…
I have a policy of truth telling. If someone asks me a question, I’m going to do my utmost to tell it like it is, even if it means delving into personal issues. Naturally, the subject of my family often comes up in interviews and I’m an open book. The truth is I didn’t really know my father. My relationship with him was a very bad one; he got married too many times and none of us even knows how many wives he’s had. He was a rich man, yet he didn’t support or even care about us. My mother was left to shoulder the burden of four children. She had to work day and night to support us, and everything I am, I owe to her.
Given those circumstances, were fame and riches something you’d always aspired to?
I never even thought about it. I have a very simple work principle. Work hard and whatever God throws your way is, well, up to God. Everything I’ve achieved has been God’s will and has little to do with how talented I might be. I know there are others out there more talented than I am, who just didn’t get the breaks I got. And I personally think fame and success comes with a big price tag – it’s a test from God and not an easy one.
You started life with very little and you’ve become one of the most recognizable names in Arab media. Unlike many in the industry, you’ve spoken proudly of your heritage and your journey to the top. Tell us a little bit about that…
I was born in Bab El Khalq, a shaa’by area and lived there until age four. We then moved to another w district – Mounira, Sayeda Zeinab and I’ve lived there all my life to this day. I’m just a regular citizen. I also have an apartment in the upscale Garden City district but I never go there. I love my neighborhood, I love greeting the normal, simple and real people I live among here. I feel more at peace here and won’t give it up for anything.
You’re married to award-winning journalist Naglaa Bedeir. Two powerful and successful journalists in one household – and an Egyptian one at that! That must be an interesting dynamic?
I believe a woman has the power to push her man either forward or backwards. She can push him to compromise or hang on to his principles in life. Most women’s demands can be very burdensome but I was blessed with a wife who never puts extra pressure on me. She is not demanding at all and doesn’t even involve herself in details such as my income or bank balance. She is very a supportive wife and a very talented one. I may be a hard worker, but I don’t possess half her talents.
We can’t talk to you without talking about your ‘Eshrab El A’aseer’ ‘Drink Your Juice’ catch phrase. How did that come about?
I was doing a show on the MBC TV network and they repeatedly asked me to cut my interviewees off mid-sentence for numerous commercial breaks. I’d never had to do that before and my refusal to abide by their ad schedules caused endless arguments. Of course that was the network policy and I had to figure out a way round it. So one time I was interviewing comedian Hany Ramzy when I had to stop abruptly for a commercial break. The only think I could think of then was, “Drink your juice”, and it just sort of became my signature phrase ever since.
And have you ever been cornered in an interview and asked to “drink your juice”?
It’s happened on a lot of interviews for fun but I always tell the truth so I can never get cornered!
Do you remember the first time a fan recognised you?
Of course I do. It was at the beginning of my TV career when I was doing my Ala Waraq show. I was driving down town with the producer, and suddenly someone started driving too close to my car and I got really angry. At first I didn’t know what it was, but then my producer pointed out that he just wanted to greet me. I smiled at him and just couldn’t believe myself! I still remember the incident until today.
And now that you’re really famous, does the lack of privacy bother you?
Never, whoever tells you that is lying! It’s an amazing feeling, but I try not to expose myself too much to it because I need to be brought back to reality. It can make me feel important, and I am not important at all!
So you constantly need a reality check?
I always remind myself that I am just an ordinary person and always try to keep things real. I don’t have a house in Marina, and I don’t go to Paris in summer, that’s just not me!
And what about the criticism someone in your position inevitably faces?
I get a lot of good and bad reviews, but as long as they don’t hurt my reputation, nothing ever gets to me. What matters to me most is what the people in the street say and feel about me. There is a difference between being famous and being loved. When you’re famous, people wave at you, but when you’re loved, people stop you in the street and judge what you do. The one thing that is annoying, however, is when I read or hear somewhere that I don’t pay taxes!
So tell me, if you got a very attractive offer provided you stop working on Egyptian television, would you do it?
It’s happened before but I declined. It really isn’t about how much money I could get. For me it all comes down to feeling comfortable and I feel Egyptian television is my home. I may argue with a minister or a government official but at the end of the day I don’t have a station manager or owner who tells me what to do.
Many say you kicked off the current trend for aggressive TV interviews where high profile personalities are cornered and harassed into spilling the beans. Would you consider that a fair statement?
I totally disagree, I am not for aggression in any way. I just converse with my guests, but I don’t attack them. Of course sometimes my guests provoke me a little, and I might get a little angry but I never let it get out of control.
So what shows do you watch?
I don’t like talk shows so I don’t watch any, not even mine! I just watch old concerts featuring Ovum Kalthoum or news programs. I’m not really into TV.
How would you advise someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
I don’t have what it takes to give advice. The fact that I have more experience does not mean I know any better. We are all failures, everyone in my generation is. During our time, we turned a great country into a hub of corruption and destruction. We are not in a place to give advice, we are merely entertainers. You can consider us all just clowns.
What do you think of the political state in Egypt now?
I think change is definitely needed. We see change happening all over the world except for the Middle East where everything is just standing still! We have a minister in the Middle East who has been in office for over 40 years and a Minister of Culture who has been in office for 23 years; that’s just not right.