London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Najdiyah Al-Hejailan is better known as Salwa Ibrahim, but it is her voice that is perhaps best known of all. She is a pioneer: hers was the first female voice to be broadcast on Saudi airwaves.
Although Najdiyah only worked in the media for a scant four years in the 1960s, her impact can still be felt today, with female media figures following in her footsteps to join a profession that is traditionally dominated by men. During her brief time on the airwaves, Najdiyah presented a number of well-known radio programs, including Sabah Al-Khair (Good Morning), as well as news reports.
Najdiyah Al-Hejailan visited Asharq Al-Awsat’s headquarters in London, where she met with Editor-in-Chief Dr. Adel Al-Toraifi and a number of journalists working at the paper to discuss her pioneering role in Saudi media.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How did you begin your career in the media?
Najdiyah Al-Hejailan: I’d loved television and broadcasting since I was a child in Cairo, and I would try to imitate the Egyptian female broadcasters in the hope that I could be like them. When I was 20 I married Abbas Ghazzawi, who was studying law in Cairo, and we moved to live in the Kingdom. With encouragement from my brother, former Information Minister Jameel Al-Hejailan, and my husband, who was working as general manager of radio and television at the time, I started my experiment in broadcasting. He needed a women’s radio program to be presented by a woman. After this, it was agreed that I would present the Al-Bint Al-Saeed [The Happy Girl] program. Many female colleagues later followed me into work as presenters, and months later I began to participate in radio broadcasts and news broadcasts in both English and French.
Q: Who trained you in elocution and radio presenting?
I never studied media or journalism, although I love this profession, which was and remains my favorite hobby. But I submitted to training in presenting and pronunciation at the hands of my husband, who was one of the biggest supporters of my professional career.
Q: How did you move from radio to television?
I worked in [radio] broadcasting for four years, [before] television broadcasting came to Saudi Arabia. I did not participate in television media but I did participate, along with my husband, in helping to select female presenters . . . I was responsible for the task of editing foreign programs that we would source from the BBC and a number of other channels, so I would delete the scenes that were not allowed to be shown [in Saudi Arabia] because television was new to society, which meant there was a duty to monitor some scenes.
Q: What was the main age group in your audience?
In the early days there was no specific age group of listeners or viewers because there were not a lot of options; radio was the one media outlet for everybody.
Q: What most annoyed you in your early days?
The only thing that annoyed me was intolerance and tension, and lack of respect.
Q: How would you compare TV and radio?
Working in television requires clarity. There cannot be mistakes in live television, which gives a lot of responsibility to the presenter, but radio has its allure as well, particularly as that is where I began my career.
Q: How important is it for a presenter to be cultured?
Both TV and radio presenters need to be cultured— this is the key to media success. In the past, presenting was harder than it is today. For example, we did not have the tools that facilitate the task of reading, such as the teleprompter. Even our scripts were written by hand, so things were much harder than they are today.
Q: How would you describe the media today?
There is an unnatural and annoying media proliferation, while radio and television stations are also very politicized these days. You only need to listen to two news reports to know their political background.
Q: What do you think of Saudi broadcasters today?
It is hard to judge female Saudi broadcasters now, because they began late amid fierce competition between satellite stations. But we must acknowledge that they are exerting a lot of effort. I cannot comment on female Saudi broadcasters because I was one of them, and my daughter has chosen to work as a presenter to complete the role that I began.
Q: What are the qualifications a broadcaster should have?
Self-belief and not being over-reliant on one’s looks, even if this is important, as well as one’s voice, clear elocution and lack of vanity.
Q: What are the characteristics of a successful media figure?
They must love the media, relaying the truth to the audience, whether listeners, readers or viewers, and be diplomatic and calm in discussions.
Q: How do you follow the news?
I begin my day by following the news broadcast on BBC because I am living in London. After this I watch the news on Al-Arabiya, and other satellite television stations. I like Lebanon’s MTV and various other satellite television channels as well.
Q: What do you think of social media?
It is the main artery of the media these days. Living without communication [through social media] is akin to solitary confinement. We wake up and go to sleep to the latest news from a variety of sources.
Q: What is missing in Arab media?
A unity of vocabulary—I would describe the verbal battles on Arab television channels as a “Media World War III.” I would hope that the credibility of the news was the most important thing, particularly during this stage.
Q: What do you think is the biggest flaw in Arab media?
Jealousy between broadcasters and unfair competition; this was not present in my day. We all worked together as a team, and success was for all, not only the individual.