x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

35 years of Majid magic: reading becomes knowledge

The first issue of Majid appeared on Wednesday, February 28, 1979. It was part of a local and pan-Arab comprehensive media project ordered by the late father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

The first editor in chief of Majid Magazine, Ahmed Omar, signing replica copies of the magazine’s first edition dating from 1979. Courtesy Majid
The first editor in chief of Majid Magazine, Ahmed Omar, signing replica copies of the magazine’s first edition dating from 1979. Courtesy Majid

This is the story of a man with no children, yet with a family that numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

It is 35 years since Ahmed Omar became the first editor of Majid, the children’s magazine that has entertained and informed generations of Arabic-speaking youngsters.

Now 75, Mr Omar made the journey from his home in Egypt to Abu Dhabi to recall how his creation came to life.

“I don’t have children. I appeared as the main character Majid and the rest of characters are my children,” he says with a smile.

Even before the first issue was published, Mr Omar immersed himself in the values of the new publication, asking how he could give Arab children an Islamic-Arabic education that would deepen their identity, culture, national belonging and self-esteem. The outcome of his questioning was the birth of Majid.

“I left Majid five years ago and I spent the best moment of my youth writing stories for Majid,” he reminisces. “I loved writing Kaslan Jiddan. The character is a perfect example of a very lazy boy.”

The first issue appeared on February 28, 1979. It was part of a local and pan-Arab comprehensive media project ordered by the late father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, and is published by Abu Dhabi Media, who are also publishers of The National.

The magazine’s title, and the name of its main character, was taken from the famous Arab navigator, Ahmed Ibn Majid.

Its pages followed the Arab navigator on his travels, exploring the world to provide Emirati and Arab children with news, information and tales that would improve their knowledge in a pleasant and memorable way.

With the magazine came a song:

Hey Moza, on the go we should be

Hissa, Abed and me

Majid Magazine is our weekly glee

Nada, Rashid and Hadi

Jomaa, Khalid and Fadi

Wednesday is here, come with me

Let’s run, let’s enjoy a reading spree

Every Arab child born in the 1980s remembers these words fondly. In a time when it was often difficult to find places to play outdoors, Majid was somewhere to escape, like an indoor garden.

Maryam Alsabri still recalls the song and remembers the days when her siblings would fight over the magazine.

“We would compete as to who would finish it first,” says the Emirati. “In those days, one magazine was read by more than one person.”

She has been reading Majid since Grade 3.

“Wednesday was our favourite day. We would wait patiently for the motorbike man to deliver the new issue to our door,”she says.

“Shamsa and Dana were my favourite characters. My sister and I used to imitate these two girls. It was so much fun.”

Now in her mid 20s, Ms Alsabri teaches Arabic at Ibn Sina boys school. If for some Majid is merely a magazine, for her it is a book of knowledge.

Children’s lives today are so filled with modern technology, she says, it is hard for them to learn morals and values.

In her classes, Majid is the equivalent of a school subject. “I introduced him to my students as many were not acquainted,” she says.

The magazine covers all aspects of life, with sections dedicated to science, history, stories of the Prophet and important figures in Islam that are often not taught in schools.

“He teaches children manners [and] Islamic values. I want my students to learn from him and put [it] into practice,” says Ms Alsabri.

Mohammed Abdullah, one of her pupils, says he wants to be like Majid. “I want to be like him so that I become popular and people love me,” says the 11-year-old boy, and laughs.

Majid is more than just a children’s magazine, it is a national, cultural achievement for the UAE. It gained widespread popularity far beyond other local media outlets during this time. Although it was aimed at children, the magazine was read by the entire family.

Since its launch, the distribution of Majid has expanded to cover not only the Arab world, but also some countries in Europe, Asia and North America.

It now has a weekly circulation of more than 150,000 copies and sells more than any other Arabic-language children’s magazine.

In those 35 years since the first issue, the magazine has been through many changes. Launched with 48 pages, today’s issue has 84 pages.

“It is still amazing that such a magazine existed in the UAE in the 1980s,” says Fatima Saif, the magazine’s editor-in-chief.

Her office is filled with paintings and letters from fans, and awards. “You see this painting is of Majid’s family. Look how many members there are. Do you remember this character?” she asks.

Majid has a special place in my heart. I grew up reading his stories,” she says, sipping her coffee from a Majid cup.

The objective of Majid, she says, remains the provision of general knowledge and scientific and historical information in an easily understood and attractive format.

“Many parents do not make reading appealing to their children. The first verse revealed to Prophet Mohammed by Allah was Iqra (read). We are the Ummah of read, so we ought to read and educate ourselves,” she says.

Mrs Saif does not deny the challenge Majid faces today, when there is so much competition from TV channels and gadgets such as the iPad.

Majid still has a strong readership and numbers prove that,” she says. “Unfortunately many Arab countries are busy solving their social and political problems so some people have less opportunity to read.”

Majid still receives many emails and letters from his fans. One of these emails, sent from a young boy in Libya, made a big emotional impact on Mrs Saif.

It reads: “O Majid! If we are cut off from food and basic needs, that is fine. As long as we’re not cut off from Majid. I want the copies of the past seven months.”

“I was reading this letter to the team and we were all crying. We sent him all copies he missed,” Mrs Saif says.

To encourage reading as something that is educational and fun, Majid asks his audience every year about each of the sections and characters. And every year, he introduces new characters. If the readers like them, they get to stay. He considers readers’ opinions and suggestions. There are also competitions and awards for loyal readers.

The cover of Majid has changed over the years, but Majid himself remains very much the same. In fact, he never gets old. Still loved by both the young and the not-so-young, he was the first UAE ambassador to the Arab world and remains so today.

“Majid, as his name suggests, is the source of our glory and pride,” says Mrs Saif.

aalhameli@thenational.ae