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Revolutionary Road Trip
Mon June 18, 2012
And Now For The Lighter Side Of Egypt's Revolution
Originally published on Mon June 18, 2012 7:48 am
NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is wrapping up his Revolutionary Road Trip, a journey of more than 2,700 miles across North Africa to see how the countries that staged revolutions last year are remaking themselves. Steve and his team have traveled from Tunisia's ancient city of Carthage, across the deserts of Libya, and filed this report from the third and final country, Egypt.
When Egyptians completed the first round of their presidential election last month, an online news website featured the following headline: "Election results disrupt bodily functions among millions of Egyptians."
El Koshary Today may be Egypt's closest counterpart to The Onion, the satirical American news website.
Two founders of El Koshary Today invited us to their table at a central Cairo bar named Hurriya, which means freedom. It is the plainest of places, with concrete floor and wooden chairs.
The bartender doesn't ask if you want a beer; he just delivers green bottles of an Egyptian brand, Stella.
One of the founders is Hazem Zohny, 27, who writes the satirical paper part time while finishing a masters degree.
Zohny says he mocks the news because he finds it depressing. A recent El Koshary headline quoted the government saying, "Complaining to strangers may lead to annihilation."
It may sound absurd, but it's really just tweaking an actual message by the government, which ran ads warning Egyptians not to talk with foreigners.
No Shortage Of Material
Zohny's co-writer and childhood friend, Taha Belal, has also thought of his own ads as religious conservatives press for more power in Egyptian society.
"I wanted to make an ad — we have this little section for ads — so I wanted to make a Head and Shoulders ad for beards," says Belal. Maybe the dandruff shampoo can help people who show their faith by growing long beards.
"I feel like it's going to be more marketable these days," Belal says.
The growing presence of religious conservatives has prompted the owners of this bar to nail boards over the windows so that devout passers-by won't have to see the beer.
It's a good thing, because eight empty bottles somehow accumulated on our table. We also had some lemon chili-flavored chips.
It's fitting that we talked over some food, because El Koshary Today is named after a common Egyptian dish: basically a bowl of spaghetti with a lot of things added.
"Koshary is sort of a very reflective meal of the country in the sense that it's a very chaotic kind of meal," Zohny says.
The plate can offer a mix of lentils, pasta, rice, chickpeas and more.
Competition In Writing Parody
El Koshary Today does not publish daily — only when inspiration strikes.
The 2011 revolution gave the paper plenty of fodder, as did this year's elections, which led to Zohny's headline about disrupting Egyptian bodily functions.
"I think this was not so much satirical as a real kind of news report," he says. "The level of shock was really quite overwhelming."
A Muslim Brotherhood politician, Mohammed Morsi, was in the presidential runoff held Saturday and Sunday, facing a military-backed candidate, Ahmed Shafiq.
Zohny recalls a journalist who recently wrote, "The political situation in Egypt has rendered parody news obsolete."
Zohny sees the truth in this. "It is getting really hard to come up with parody news because the news has become a parody," he says.
And there are other challenges as well, Zohny and Belal say.
Egyptian parody has exploded, appearing so swiftly on the Internet after every news event that El Koshary Today knows it will have to write something good to compete.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, the two Egyptian presidential candidates made this past weekend's runoff by surviving a first round of voting. And when the first- round results were known, an online news site featured the following headline: Election Results Disrupt Bodily Functions Among Millions of Egyptians. That news site is El Koshary Today. It may be Egypt's closest counterpart to The Onion, the satirical American news source.
During our Revolutionary Road Trip through North Africa, we asked to meet the founders of El Koshary Today, and two of them invited us to their table at a central Cairo bar.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
(SOUNDBITE OF CLINKING BOTTLES)
INSKEEP: The bar is called Hurriya, which means freedom. It is the plainest of places - concrete floor, wooden chairs. The bartender doesn't ask if you want a beer. He just delivers green bottles of an Egyptian brand, Stella. One of the El Koshary founders is Hazem Zahny, who's 27 years old, and writes the satirical paper part time.
HAZEM ZAHNY: I'm sort of a full-time bad back sufferer, part-time science journalist. I'm also finishing up my master's.
INSKEEP: What happened to your back?
ZAHNY: A good old disc problem.
INSKEEP: Is this Stella beer kind of an anesthetic for that?
ZAHNY: Stella beer is more of an anesthetic for life more generally, I think.
INSKEEP: He says he mocks the news because he finds it depressing. A recent El Koshary headline quoted the government, saying: Complaining To Strangers May Lead To Annihilation. Sounds absurd, but the government actually said almost that - running ads warning Egyptians not to talk with foreigners. Hazem's co-writer and childhood friend, Taha Belal, who's an artist, has been thinking of ads of his own as religious conservatives press for more power in Egyptian society.
TAHA BELAL: I wanted to make an ad - we have this little section for ads - so I wanted to make a Head and Shoulders ad for beards, for example.
INSKEEP: Maybe the dandruff shampoo can help people who show their faith by growing long beards.
BELAL: It's going to be, you know, more marketable.
INSKEEP: Religious conservatives has recently affected this bar, prompting the owners to nail boards over the windows so that devout passers-by won't have to see the beer. It's a good thing, because eight empty bottles somehow accumulated on our table.
ZAHNY: Have some chips. You guys want - these are lemon-chili.
INSKEEP: Lemon-chili chips. I'd better try one.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)
INSKEEP: It's fitting that we talked over some food, since El Koshary Today is named after a common Egyptian dish - basically, a bowl of spaghetti with a lot of things added.
ZAHNY: Koshary is sort of a very reflective meal of the country, in the sense that it's already quite a - chaotic kind of meal.
INSKEEP: A mix of lentils, pasta, rice, chick peas and more. El Koshary Today does not publish daily; only when inspiration strikes. The 2011 revolution gave plenty of inspiration, as did this year's elections - which led to that headline about disrupting Egyptian bodily functions.
OK, whose headline was that?
Hazem raises his hand.
ZAHNY: Yeah. I mean, I think this - to a large extent, was not so much satirical as a real kind of news report, to an extent. I mean, the level of shock was really, quite overwhelming.
INSKEEP: Centrist candidates were eliminated in favor of the two polarizing choices that Egyptians faced this past weekend. Hazem recalls a journalist who recently wrote: The political situation in Egypt has rendered parody news obsolete.
ZAHNY: This is so true, to an extent. I mean, it is getting really hard to come up with parody news because news has become parody.
INSKEEP: The Associated Press correspondent doing this straightforward story has the parody far quicker than...
ZAHNY: Absolutely. I'll give you an example. Yesterday, this big news item said this new party, called Democratic Jihad, supports Shafik, right? Shafik, who wants to destroy...
INSKEEP: Supports the military guy...
ZAHNY: Yeah. And if you read that, you think on the one level, it's just hilarious - the term democratic jihad, and all the connotations associated with that. And then you add another level - that they support the anti-Islamist candidate - and you think, what the hell is going on here? It's brilliant.
INSKEEP: Though they find such news items dismaying, Hazem and Taha say there's an upside. The amount of Egyptian parody has exploded, appearing so swiftly on the Internet after every news event that El Koshary Today now struggles to write something good enough to compete.
You'll find all of our reporting from the road through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt at NPR.org. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.