The U.S. ambassador was speaking tonight at the American University, and I hear he’s a cool guy, his wife’s in one of my classes at the university, but instead of listening to an American talking about Egypt, I did something really Egyptian and went to an American movie The Others with my friend Sharif—not Omar. “Egyptians talk a lot during the movies,” he warned me. “Even on their cell phones.” And indeed by the time the movie was over he’d taken three calls. Sharif’s knowledge of movie trivia is a little scary. During the trailers I was trying to place that Irish actor from The Lord of the Rings. “He was the jerk in Ronin,” Sharif remembered. “Also 006 in GoldenEye.” Sharif’s favorite movie is The Godfather. “I have the trilogy,” he said, “and when my girlfriend couldn’t even get through Godfather 1, we almost had to break up.” Another trailer came up and I gestured to the screen. “Those guys right there owned the magazine I worked for.” “Bob and Harvey Weinstein owned a magazine?”
I left New York the day Talk closed, and I’ve followed the fallout a bit, baffled that some of the people badmouthing the magazine are still asking to be unnamed sources. Like the guy who said there wasn’t a memorable article in the magazine. Maybe that’s true, but as far as I’m concerned the most memorable story in magazine history is when the Atlantic Monthly did a cover on snow. I remember it for not altogether positive reasons, but the point is that memorable pieces don’t necessarily make you want to buy the same magazine each month. It reminds me that soon after Talk had started, one night after a few drinks one of the senior editors kept trying to rally us around a concept cover with Madonna hanging from a crucifix, “The Death of Celebrity!”—by Tina Brown. Now that would have been a memorable article, but see, what do you do the next month? Maybe all journalists want to work at a magazine you want readers to read, but if you’re at a glossy, you’re working at a magazine you want consumers to want to buy. Still, it got me sick to hear writers and editors complaining that Tina never made any money editing a magazine. That never seemed to bug Si Newhouse, whose money she spent on writers and editors. Of course, having edited the book section, I’m the last one to complain. Maybe it was a little incongruous to run six pages on books in a glossy, as we did in the early days, but if the eggheads are talking about “business plans” then Tina Brown’s not what’s wrong with magazines. People always associated her with “buzz” fairly enough, but her critical vocabulary is larger than “hot” and “very hot.” I remember one time she took a piece I was editing home, maybe because she thought I wasn’t up to it, but she explained she just wanted to get her hands into something and edit. In my experience, what she most responded to in writing was the writer’s own enthusiasm for a subject. It made you want to find that note always. No doubt she could be trying to work for, but she made a lot of things possible for a lot of talented people, which constitutes a pretty elegant career. She was always talking about access, but everyone who worked for her got a kind of potentially Balzacian access to New York at a really extraordinary time when otherwise most of us would’ve been in the dark. Maybe there’s a great book or two that’ll come out of it, insh’allah.
No one in Cairo’s heard of Talk magazine, but one of Sharif’s friends, a lawyer whose brother lives in Chicago, is a big admirer of The New Yorker. “It’s got to be one of the best magazines in the world,” he said. “Even if they’re a little too pro-Israel.” I wondered if he’d seen the Jeff Goldberg piece that left readers with the idea that Egypt was a hornet’s nest of dangerous zealots. I don’t think I’ve met any yet, but then again I keep insisting I’m not a spy. If I were CIA director, I’d make all of my operatives follow soccer. It’s amazing how much we’ve insulated ourselves because we know nothing about the game the rest of the world is crazy about. For instance, a French businessman was discoursing on America’s misconception of Arab unity. “During the France-Saudi Arabia game in the last World Cup, I was on the street and heard a bunch of Egyptian guys watching the game and celebrating loudly so I figured that the Saudis must’ve scored a goal. I walked over and found that France was winning 2-0, and I asked why they were so happy. They told me, ‘We hate the Saudis. All Egyptians hate the Saudis.’ “