Hello Honey, Sugar's home

He's an ex-cartoonist and he's been beaten up by punks in Finland. Hosam Sokkari, head of BBCarabic.com, is this month's e-entrepreneur

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By  Barnaby Chesterman Published  January 3, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Question: What do the Internet, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov and sugar have in common? No ideas…well, that’s not surprising, because it’s not particularly obvious. Given up? Well, if you didn’t get it, Hosam Sokkari, head of BBCarabic.com, is the missing link to this little riddle. Still intrigued? Well read on, and you’ll find out why.

The first point is fairly obvious. BBCarabic.com won the Best News Service Site award at October’s Visa/Arabian Business.com e-business award ceremony. And as head of that entity, Sokkari’s place amongst the Middle East’s leading e-business pioneers is without question. However the other two links may not seem quite so apparent.

Chekhov, the author of theatrical masterpieces such as The Cherry Orchard, was actually Sokkari’s boyhood idol. Growing up in Cairo throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Sokkari became an admirer of Chekhov’s imaginative short stories. The Russians works were never widely known outside literary circles, but his blend of naturalism and symbolism captured the imagination of a young Sokkari.

He wanted to follow in his idol’s footsteps as a short story writer, but advice from seniors and fate etched out a very different career path for the Egyptian. “I wanted to be a short story writer but I had the impression that critics wouldn’t have the time to read, evaluate or appreciate my short stories,” he said. “I thought it would be easier to sneak into the world of creative writing, disguised as a cartoonist.” His logic being that people will be able to absorb a cartoon much quicker than a short story.

So he started drawing cartoons for that purpose but as his interest developed, he ended up forgetting about short stories. When he had to choose his discipline at university, though, he was advised against studying art. “I realised that studying art wouldn’t ensure that people take me seriously as a cartoonist or a writer because these are talents,” he said. He wasn’t interested in science so he plumped for pharmacy, a course popular with high achieving students such as himself.

The cartoons didn’t dry up during his studies, though, and he soon got his work published in the Al-Shaab newspaper and the Sabahl El Khair magazine in Cairo. He was earning money as a cartoonist but that didn’t take off until a somewhat unfortunate twist of fate in a public square on a field trip to Finland.

||**||Painful Experience|~||~||~|On a raw materials analysis training-programme in Tampera, the second largest city in Finland, the young Sokkari was probably being at best inquisitive but at worst a pompous academic one day when his curiosity and pride convinced him to confront some skinheads about their disdain towards foreigners. “I was very curious about skinheads and punk-rockers,” he said. “I approached them and tried to intellectually discuss the idea of certain people hating foreigners. But they just started beating me.” It was a bold approach for a young student in a foreign environment. But fascist skinheads have never had much of a reputation for sophisticated, intellectual discussion about their illogical prejudices. And questioning their ability to settle the issue in a rational, adult, scholarly manner – Sokkari asked whether they had the ability to think when they rebuked his inquisition with a torrent of abuse - was maybe pushing the boat out a little too far.

It was a painful experience for Sokkari but he drew strength from it and dealt with his ordeal by turning it into a comic strip. He took it to the managing editor of the Aamulehti daily newspaper, who liked his idea and printed it. The strip was about a little character called ‘Sokeri’ and the first series was about the adventures of ‘Sokeri and the skinheads’. The more astute readers amongst you will have already noticed the similarities between Sokeri and his near-namesake Sokkari, but those of you fluent in Finnish will have also finally pieced together the opening riddle. Sokeri is the Finnish word for sugar.

Young Sokeri’s adventures came to an end as Sokkari moved back to Cairo to finish his studies. He decided to travel after leaving, so went back to Finland to work as a cartoonist again. He started writing for Aamulehti as well before also working on other newspapers, including the biggest evening paper, Ilta Sanomat. Sokkari’s work began to get recognised and back in Egypt the Goethe Institute (the German cultural centre) held an exhibition of his work. They invited him to work in Germany, so he took the opportunity and began freelancing for some newspapers as a cartoonist.

But then his career took a significant twist when he joined the German equivalent of the world service, Deutsche Welt, as a freelance radio journalist. “I just did some voice tests and then started working for them. They liked what I did and it just went on like that,” he said. Sokkari then also started working more as a journalist, writing for an Egyptian weekly called Rose El Youssef. So gradually he spent less and less time working as a cartoonist.

||**||A Door Opens|~||~||~|By the end of 1990, he was offered a job on a Kuwaiti newspaper in London: Sawt El Kuwait, which was established after the invasion of Kuwait. He was finding life tough working as a freelance cartoonist and felt it would be easier to join a newspaper. “I hadn’t yet had the chance to go to London, so I decided to go and see what it looked like. The main attraction was London rather than the newspaper,” he quipped.

The newspaper closed down after two years, but Sokkari quickly joined a Saudi publication as a medicine editor. It was the first time in his career that he used his professional training and he took the opportunity to ‘educate’ the common people. “I was very keen on working in that field because I felt it needed a little more invention. I was trying to make medical writing more accessible to ordinary people who often get confused by scientific language,” he explained. Never one to stand still for too long, Sokkari also began writing for a weekly magazine called Ashraq Al Awsat.

This became a turning point for him as he discovered an interest that was to shape the rest of his career. “I started a weekly section called the Electronic Café, which to my knowledge was the first section in a Middle East magazine about the Internet and information technology,” he said. “I was writing about it and getting more and more interested in the Internet and information technology. I thought it was interesting and that was enough for me to assume that everybody else should be interested too. It’s like when you read a good book or watch a good film, you start telling everybody about it.”
In 1994 the BBC Arabic television operation started and he joined as a producer and then also took on a presenting role. He fronted a weekly programme that took a “critical, satirical view of all media.” Sokkari enjoyed that but in the middle of 1996 the operation was closed down after a contractual dispute between the BBC and Orbit, the company distributing the channel.

As one door closed, so another opened and after a couple of months Sokkari joined the BBC Arabic arm of the BBC World Service. He started presenting a radio programme called Electronic Café Tales, which took a light-hearted approach to delivering understanding about the Internet and information technology. Given his increasing involvement in New Economy technology, Sokkari decided he needed some training, so he took a masters degree in Analysis, Design and Management of Information Systems at the London School of Economics. “I felt that I needed the academic discipline,” he said. “I needed a more organised approach to understand the whole phenomenon, not just bits and pieces about software.”

||**||De-hyping The Internet|~||~||~|In 1997, during his studies, the BBC took steps to create a Web presence for BBC Arabic and Sokkari gave his input. Then, in the middle of 1999, the BBC decided to relaunch the Arabic site and Sokkari was offered the post as head of Arabic online. “I’d been involved in writing about the Internet for some time and I had certain views about how, when and when not to use it,” he said. “I was very interested in de-hyping the medium while trying to best exploit its potential. I had my own ideas about it so this was a chance to start applying these in real life and see if it worked.”

BBCarabic.com really took off. In a little under a year, its average daily page impressions soared from 8-10,000 to nearly 250,000. Sokkari put this overwhelming increase in interest down to a new approach to content management. “We wanted to give users the news and information they need,” he said. “We moved away from baffling people with technology. We went for stronger and richer editorial content, rather than features that would impress our readers but might not sustain their interest for much time. It wasn’t just a one-night-stand; we built a long-term relationship with the user.”

Despite the success of the site, Sokkari still feels he has a lot more to learn from his users and a lot to add to the site. “I’m still very much intrigued by the whole phenomenon,” he said. “I still find it interesting to see how all the tools we are using are merging together and how they are changing our attitude towards them.” Yet the 38-year-old has begun to turn full circle, despite his recent IT accolades. In fact he even says that one day he fancies a return to cartooning.

“Most of my life I got interested in things and they became my hobbies,” he said. “Then I usually do the wrong thing by turning these into some kind of profession and then looking for new hobbies. It’s been something like eight years since I did any cartoons. My last exhibition was in 1994 in London. One day I would like to go back to cartooning, but maybe just as a hobby.” Well his maths may not be as good as his drawing, but that’s still a very sweet sentiment.
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