Sixty-five-year-old Abdul Jabbar Hussain Dawood is the longest-serving member of Arab News staff. He joined the newspaper just two years after its launch in 1975.
“I joined Arab News on July 5, 1977,” he said. “The newspaper was located in those days in Jeddah’s Al-Sharafiya district.”
He was working for Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper Dawn when he was tapped for a job at Arab News.
“Mohammed Ali was the general manager of the newspaper in those early days. He was a Pakistani national and came from Karachi. He was a confidant of the Hafiz brothers (Hisham and Muhammad Ali Hafiz) — the founders of Arab News — and did most of the hiring,” Abdul Jabbar said.
Abdul Jabbar was working at Dawn as an Intertype and Linotype machine operator. Back then, the world of printing revolved around these two automated typesetting machines.
“I learned how to operate the machines from my father and brother. It was my father, along with an Englishman, who were instrumental in setting the printing press for Dawn newspaper after Pakistan’s independence in 1947.”
One evening, while he was working in the Dawn office in Karachi in 1977, he got a call from Mohammed Ali, the general manager.
“He had heard of my operating skills from a common friend — Abdul Mateen Munshi, who later became a librarian at Arab News — so he straight away made me a job offer as a Linotype operator at Arab News in Jeddah,” Abdul Jabbar said.
When he landed in Jeddah, he joined a team of two senior operators, both fellow Pakistanis: Barkatullah and Mohammed Riyaz Sher.
“The newspaper was in a tabloid format and initially had eight pages. Within months it became 12 pages, then 16 and then 20,” Abdul Jabbar said.
“There was far too much work. The economy was booming. Oil was flowing and the country was flush with money. Advertisements were pouring in. Just as the economy was growing, the newspaper grew as well.”
“When I turned up at the office on the first day, Jihad Al-Khazen was the managing editor. A few days later, he left for London to prepare for the launch of our sister publication Asharq Al-Awsat.”
Abdul Jabbar said the newspaper was located in what was in fact a garage. “There was this two-story building, and next to it was a long hall-type structure in which the printing press was. There were two tiny rooms on top of the building in which some of us lived in those early days.”
Later, they were moved to a nearby flat that the company owned. “That flat and the building had no running water, no real electricity and no fan. We were very uncomfortable there,” he said with a wry smile.
He recalls the words of Abdul Hadi Bafaqeer, the printing press manager at the time, after he returned from a visit to Pakistan where he had hired more people.
“In Karachi, Abdul Hadi had been put up in Hotel Mehran on Shah Faisal Street. When he came back and looked at the accommodation we were living in, he felt sorry for us: ‘You came from Karachi? It is such a beautiful and well-developed city. I can imagine how you feel in this decrepit building’.”
Abdul Jabbar said Muhammad Ali Hafiz, the younger of the Hafiz brothers, was always with them as they typed the stories.
“He always encouraged us. He always told us to maintain the deadline. But the work was literally insurmountable. We knew when we went into the office, but we never knew when we would be able to leave.”
Abdul Jabbar said most of the reporters and editors came from Lebanon. “The only exception was a Pakistani national, Roohul Amin, whose son Mashhood Amin is now an employee of Arab News,” he said.
Among the first women to work for Arab News was Faiza Saleh Ambah in the late 1980s, said Abdul Jabbar.
“There were other women too, but she was the most prominent one,” he said. “Much later, Abeer Mishkhas and Dahlia Rahaimy joined us.”
Ambah went on to report for the Associated Press, the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor. She has recently become a filmmaker.
From the garage in Al-Sharafiya, the newspaper relocated to a fine building in Al-Faisaliya. “That was in 1982 and the publishers were very happy. The company had grown beyond belief. Next to the building was the Madinah Printing Press. Members of staff began relocating to flats in nearby areas. Linotype machines became computerized,” he said.
“The new machines were complex. They did not have a normal screen like we have today. We didn’t know what we were typing. Everything came out in the form of ribbon with different dots punched in. We had to decipher the words from the dots.”
In his 40-year career at Arab News, Abdul Jabbar recalls two particular incidents. “In 1981, (then-US President) Ronald Reagan was shot at by a young man, and we got the news at 2:30 in the morning. I was the only one in the office, and I was working on copy for the next day.
“Suddenly the managing editor, Ilyas Haddad, barged into the newsroom and said, ‘We have an urgent story. Don’t you worry, I will write it and you compose. Don’t panic; we will do it together.’ We did, and the attempted assassination story was in the newspaper the next morning.”
Abdul Jabbar also remembers how he was woken up at 4 in the morning in 1991 when the first Gulf War began.
“I was staying close to the office and a messenger came running, saying I had been summoned for a breaking story. We came out with a special edition that day.”
In 1977, Abdul Jabbar worked for a monthly salary of SR1,300 ($346). “It was a handsome amount. SR1 was equal to a little less than 3 Pakistani rupees,” he said (today SR1 is 28 Pakistani rupees). “Four months later, I got a raise of SR400.”
Abdul Jabbar got married in 1984, and brought his young wife Ghazala to Saudi Arabia. “I have three sons — all were born in Jeddah,” he said proudly.
“They all grew up in this city. There were very few recreational activities for families in those days. We would take our children to the International Market. We did not have a car so we walked there from home. That was among the newest malls in the mid-1980s. There was also the Mahmoud Saeed open market near the famous Bicycle Roundabout. We often shopped there.”
As the newspaper has evolved, so has the city. “It has been a roller-coaster ride at Arab News. Change often happened at breakneck speed. Computers and programs constantly changed. We had to keep pace with the times,” he said. “Jeddah evolved into a modern city. The facilities we enjoy today did not exist 20 years ago.”
Abdul Jabbar remembers going to watch films in Al-Balad in 1977. “In those days, the newspaper was closed for one day; it was not published on Fridays. We often went to Al-Balad, where there were open-air theaters. They mostly showed Indian films. The ticket was SR10, but if there was the latest Hollywood release, we paid SR15 or even SR20. During Eid, the prices were jacked up.”
He said the party was short-lived. “By 1980, all entertainment activity came to a grinding halt. Then came the videocassette player (VCR), which changed everything. Instead of going to the cinema, the cinema came into our living rooms.”
“In 1977, Arab News was a tabloid. A couple of years later, it became a broadsheet and was white, not its now-familiar green.”
The newspaper is currently located in Jeddah’s Al-Rawdah district. “We moved here in 2009 when Khaled Almaeena was the editor in chief,” Abdul Jabbar said.
“The fact that Arab News retained me for so many years is a matter of pride for me. This newspaper has given me everything I have today,” he said as he drew a page on the latest wide-bodied 27-inch iMac — a far cry from the rickety Linotype machines that he operated in the 1970s.