x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Among the TV gourmets, a taste of Egypt's humble cuisine

Elsit Elghalya (Precious Woman) features a former maid with a philosophical approach and a knack for cooking affordable meals and is winning dedicated fans.

Ghalia Mahmoud has gone from maid to celebrity chef in a few short weeks, thanks to her Ramadan cooking show broadcast on the Egyptian satellite station Channel 25.
Ghalia Mahmoud has gone from maid to celebrity chef in a few short weeks, thanks to her Ramadan cooking show broadcast on the Egyptian satellite station Channel 25.

Working from a small kitchen with plastic plates, tin pots and a propane gas stove, Ghalia Mahmoud has become an unlikely
television star.

The 33-year-old former maid is causing a stir in Egypt with her new cooking show Elsit Elghalya (Precious Woman), where Mahmoud has become a voice for the working classes as she teaches viewers to make simple, affordable meals.

The show was launched on August 1 by the satellite station Channel 25 – named after January 25, the first day of the revolution – a station that opened recently to uphold the spirit of the revolution. However, on Sunday night, according to 25TV’s Facebook page, military police stormed the channel’s studios, forcing management to halt operations and transmission indefinitely. With the instability of the situation in Egypt at the moment, it is unsure when 25TV will air once again, but once it does, Mahmoud will continue to be a regular feature after becoming an immediate hit in August, drawing away viewers from the widely popular Ramadan soap operas.

“She’s a new character who represents most of the poor Egyptians and has the spirit and that dream of getting out of poverty,” said TV executive Mohammed Gohar. “Just seeing her on TV means a lot for people.”

Previously, television programmes mostly excluded social groups that fell outside of the government’s accepted image of Egypt. Coptic Christians and Bedouins were dismissed as agitators and despite the prevalence of the niqab in Egypt, veiled women were rarely seen on shows, said Gohar. “The characters on Egyptian TV were very distorted,” he added.

Under Hosni Mubarak, television satellite channels were subjected to a censorship system that excluded almost everyone but the
regime’s supporters.

In recent months there’s been an influx of new satellite channels with those who say they feel able to broadcast with fewer repercussions. According to Gohar, Channel 25 would never have seen the light of day under Mubarak.

“We used to get hassled for telling the truth, and trust me, no truth has ever been spoken more so than Ghalia,” he said.

While planning a Ramadan cooking show, Gohar was inspired by Mahmoud during a visit to his sister’s home, where she worked as a maid.

“Ghalia said that during Ramadan she had a budget of 20-30 Egyptian pounds (Dh12-18) to feed 20 people a day,” said Gohar. “I didn’t believe it was possible.”

Gohar presented her with a challenge – feed a family of eight for 20 Egyptian pounds (Dh12). Mahmoud, who prepares daily meals with a similar budget for her own large family, presented him with a complete menu.

“It was dishes my mother prepared for me when I was young and had forgotten about,” Gohar said.

Though on daily during Ramadan, the show is now broadcast three times a week and Mahmoud follows simple, authentic recipes, such as courgettes stuffed with spiced rice or macaroni in a béchamel sauce.

In a country where many households live on a budget of 1,300 Egyptian pounds (Dh810) a month, Mahmoud’s success is seen as the promise of a new Egypt, where those who had been marginalised and ignored by the government are able to build a better life.

Mahmoud, with her broad smile and hearty laugh, is skyrocketing in the ratings. Different from other cooking shows, watching Mahmoud is like spending an hour in your favourite aunt’s kitchen. On camera, she is warm and inviting. She eyeballs the measurements for spices and serves the food on plastic plates. Her only electrical device is a well-used blender. She wears her hair in a tight scarf and dresses in a floral blue blouse paired with a bright red apron. She takes calls from viewers and teases the cameramen live on air. Laid out on her table are vegetables she buys in the morning from street vendors in her working class neighbourhood of El Warak – cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, peppers and lemons.

On a recent episode of her show, Mahmoud prepared spiced rice, a salad, fresh pomegranate and sardines cooked in onion and peppers. She bought the sardines at 15 Egyptian pounds a kilo. The cheapest they will be all year, she says.

She set aside an additional kilo of sardines to pickle and eat later in the year, when higher prices make the fish unaffordable.

“It’s not about cooking, really,” Mahmoud tells viewers. “You know how to cook for your families. It’s about love.” It is also, however, about saving money. At the end of the show Mahmoud lists the costs of each ingredient and tallies the total cost of the meal: 30 Egyptian pounds.

Mahmoud, who still takes a microbus to the studio from El Warak, seems to be dealing well with her new-found fame.

“My success made me find the bus. This afternoon the microbus drivers broke their protest for me,” she said, laughing. “When I went to the station and a driver recognised me and offered to break the strike to get me to work.”

Her Facebook page, set up by the producer because Mahmoud does not own a computer, has 14,500 “likes”. Fans comment in scores on each episode, discussing the recipe and offering her their thanks and
encouragement.

“I’ve learnt to talk to upper class people the same way I talk to my peers, and as I’ve learnt about these different people,” says Mahmoud. “I realised how responsible we need to be for each other.”

She has received calls from small villages in southern Egypt and as far away as Iran.

As she’s cooking she teases a grandmother who phoned in about sounding like a teenager, and urges viewers to educate their daughters.

“I’m giving you recipes so you can spend less on food and more on education,” she said last Thursday.

Her shows often carry a social message. Mahmoud speaks about the need for people to put aside religious differences. Raised by a Coptic Christian stepmother, Mahmoud dismisses claims that there are heightened sectarian tensions in poorer mixed neighbourhoods. On camera, she offers to prepare recipes for Coptic Christian foods during Lent. Off camera she insists that when she cooks cookies and cakes during Eid or other festivals, the first person she brings them to is her stepmother.

“I don’t want to hear it – we’re all Egyptians struggling to get out of poverty, nothing more,” she said.

In the months since Mubarak’s fall, protests continue across the classes, from school teachers demanding education reforms to bus drivers seeking better pay. The revolution gave many in Egypt a voice for the first time in a country struggling with low wages and corruption. For some, Mahmoud’s transformation is a parable for new possibility.

“Everyone has a hope inside that should come out, and there is now that hope for change,” she said.

 

Revolutionary programming

How can a TV station hoping to forward the ideals of a revolution succeed in a media environment long-saddled with exclusion, misinformation and censorship? Bring the protesters inside.

“Almost everyone working here was in Tahrir, and none of them have a media background,” said Mostafa Hussein, the station manager of Channel 25.

Launched in April, Channel 25 has been trying to carve a role for itself in Egypt’s cluttered satellite channel scene. The average age of the 42 staff members is a mere 23, and the programming has a decidedly youthful bent.

“We started with live transmissions of hot events happening all over Egypt, focusing on real news, not what you saw on state TV,” Hussein said.

Now the station offers talk shows, investigative journalism and culture programmes.

While Elsit Elghalya is the station’s most popular show, Hashtag has been winning fans. The show tracks and discusses topics that are causing a buzz on the internet, Twitter and Facebook. In The Guide, three presidential hopefuls are interviewed about likely platform subjects. After the programme, viewers vote on which candidate they feel represented himself best.

“People are interested because all these people have announced they will run for president, but no one has said what they will do, what their plans are,” said Hussein.

Shows are livestreamed on its website, 25online.tv, where many of the programmes are available with English subtitles.