The news on Wednesday of the death of our dear colleague and former assistant editor in chief Youssef Khazem came as a shock, but it was no surprise. Youssef had suffered from cancer for nearly three years and, sadly, the former war correspondent lost his final battle.
We journalists are so used to receiving and reporting bad news that we become almost numb to tragedy and loss, but a hot tear found its way down my cheek and I lost my voice for a moment. Nevertheless, I needed to gather my thoughts to write this obituary.
I thought writing these lines would be an easy task, for when we mourn someone in our culture we say: “Mention the good attributes of your lost ones.” But I soon realized that Youssef had far too many good attributes to be listed in one column, and there was no way I could do him justice.
In every newsroom, there is always one senior colleague who becomes a father figure to everyone. Gentle, experienced, and extremely patient, he is typically the person to turn to for advice, whether professional or personal. He is the designated problem solver and the person who talks sense to that young, hot-blooded new arrival who always seems to get into trouble.
In 2004, that new arrival in the London headquarters of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat was me, and the father figure was Youssef. He was 47 at the time, I was only 23 and had been in the UK for less than six months. Youssef had just left competitor Al-Hayat, where he made his name covering conflicts in Africa; I was a fresh graduate with less than four years’ experience under my belt.
Little did I know at the time that the person sitting opposite me would become a mentor, a friend, a consultant, and ultimately my assistant editor in chief; nearly 18 years have passed, and they have passed too quickly.
Youssef taught me so much. Professionally, he had hawk eyes for editorial misjudgments and mistakes. Journalism ran through his veins, which is why he inevitably became a consultant and trainer, and worked with the BBC. Apart from his long years at Al-Hayat, he made precious contributions to other Saudi media, helping relaunch Al-Watan newspaper between 2008 and 2011. When I took on my first role as an editor at Al Arabiya English, he quickly came to the rescue, helping train a team of 15 people and relaunch the site into the huge success it has become today, with over 900,000 followers on Twitter from 70,000 when we started in 2012. Almost everyone he trained now holds a senior editorial or communication role.
When I joined Arab News nearly five years ago, he was the first person I called. Our conversations over the months that followed had a predictable pattern: I panic, he smiles and says everything is going to be OK. He was always right.
As a new editor in chief, I faced much skepticism and doubt about my intentions. It was thanks to Youssef that everyone felt at ease — it was the first time in their careers that someone senior, experienced and professional came in and talked about job descriptions, targets, KPIs and workflow. He also took it upon himself to mentor a whole team of new young recruits, all of whom he molded into fantastic writers.
We relaunched Arab News on April 3, 2018, at a massive event during the Arab Media Forum in Dubai. Although Youssef was the first person I thanked, he was one of the few team members who was not there. Why? Because that is exactly the kind of man Youssef was — always happy to work in the shadows and allow others to take center stage, as long as he enjoyed what he did, did it well, and felt appreciated. Indeed, it is thanks to Youssef’s impeccable management of our relaunch project that Arab News won silver at the WAN-IFRA awards later that year in Berlin for the best newspaper redesign in the world.
Youssef was a tall man, full of grace. Everyone in the newsroom and beyond would look up to him — both literally and figuratively. He had an amazing sense of humor, was great with banter, and most importantly had impeccable taste in food thanks to his many travels and experiences around the world.
Youssef Khazem was always happy to work in the shadows and allow others to take center stage, as long as he enjoyed what he did.
Faisal J. Abbas
On a personal note, it would be no exaggeration to say that Youssef had a heart of gold. I know he would not have liked me to talk about all the things he did to help me and others, so I will refrain from mentioning the details, but what I will say is this: He was living proof that a friend in need is a friend indeed.
Nearly three years ago, I was saddened to hear of his cancer diagnosis. As an illustration of what kind of proud, decent man he was, he immediately resigned his role at Arab News. I insisted that he stay on until he recovered, but he was adamant. After nearly a month of back and forth, he finally won the battle and I accepted his resignation. Cancer would never be able to beat you, I told him — and added that I was placing bets on how quickly he would recover and return to work.
Sadly, I was wrong. The pandemic happened, and while Youssef was lucky enough not to catch COVID-19, his treatment was interrupted and his health took a turn for the worse. Nearly three weeks ago, he sent me a voice message in the middle of the night. His tone was different from the Youssef of old, who used to smile and calm me down. I felt he was sending a farewell message, so I took a plane to London to see him. I was lucky enough to sit with him during his last few days of consciousness, albeit for only half an hour. Even in those last moments, there was much to learn from Youssef.
Despite being bedridden, medicated and in severe pain, he insisted on retaining a dignified smile which I knew was costing him so much effort. With death staring him in the face, he kept diverting the conversation away from himself and asking how I was coping with running the newspaper — and if he could help me in any way!
Youssef is survived by his wife Dima, son Karim, and daughter Noor. He will also be remembered by the dozens of young, aspiring journalists who all have careers thanks to his training, patience and professionalism.
To honor Youssef’s memory, we at Arab News are proud to rename the journalism training and development unit we created last year after him, and to honor and forever enshrine his memory we will partner with the best institutions worldwide to ensure that every journalist who graduates from this unit has the best training and attention possible.
Rest in peace and may God bless your soul, my friend.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News