By Alexandra Kinias
Egyptian Ghalia Mahmoud’s life was transformed overnight when her fairy godmother sprinkled her with sparkly dust of luck. Ghalia’ s daily cooking show is viewed by millions. A month earlier, the television superstar celebrity was just a housemaid.
Ramadan, the holy month of fasting is also considered the peak of television viewing season in Egypt. Commercials generate the highest revenues. Ghalia’s show was launched on the first day of Ramadan, which coincided with the beginning of August and immediately became a hit. It’s not unusual for Egyptian channels to broadcast daily cooking shows during Ramadan, but hers is unlike anything presented before. Her meals were simple, affordable and cost under $4.00 per day. She is not your typical host either.
I grew up believing that hard work is the vehicle to success. Indeed luck often knocked on some doors, but that was the exception not the rule. Observing Ghalia’s transformation from rags to riches confirmed the theory that magic wands are selective to who they choose to strike.
Ghalia, wife of a mini-van driver and mother of two, lives in the poor neighborhood of Warraq, Cairo. The combined monthly income of the couple was $200.00, which also took care of other members of their extended family. Cooking low budget meals accentuated her survival skills. Her luck was transformed when Mohamed Gohar, the brother of the lady who hired her as a cook offered her a job presenting a cooking program on his television channel. Gohar whose new born channel is named 25, after the first day of the Egyptian revolution, found in Ghalia the potential to restore the social justice that had long been lost.
Unlike any other television host, Ghalia is a commoner with limited education. In the eyes of the ousted regime that catered to the rich and affluent, she was just another invisible person among the underprivileged millions who struggled for their daily basic needs. In pre-revolution Egypt, her story was not uncommon. She was one among the masses living in a society of contradictions where Islamic religious voices are calling for the return of women to the confinement of their homes. Yet the government statistics show that more than 50% of the low class women are the sole bread winners for their families. And similar to millions like her, she had dropped out of school at a young age to support her family.
From inside the studio, reconstructed like her own kitchen, small and simple, Ghalia communicates daily with her viewers in her down to earth language, with no frills or fancy words. The simple modest woman wears no makeup. Her hair is covered with a scarf and she reminds most viewers of a dear friend. Indeed they are dear to her. She greets them like lifetime friends when they call the program to ask for culinary advice.
Living a lifetime with limited resources, she reminds her viewers that the secret of preparing a delicious meal lies in the method of cooking it and not necessarily in the ingredients used. Unlike most chefs, she had never been to a culinary school and prepares simple recipes with affordable ingredients bought from her neighborhood vendors, yet she can show you ten different ways to cook eggplants or potatoes or beans. On the show like in real life, she only cooks meat, poultry, or fish on Fridays, her payday, and uses frugal quantities – as much as the budget allows. She spared no effort to show her viewers how she prepared one chicken to feed a family of eight.
Her simple background hit a chord with the viewers. She is one of them. She doesn’t own measuring cups, cooks in tin pots with no handles on propane burners lit with a match, in a kitchen without electrical machines other than an old blender.
On the show, Ghalia also interjects messages to people. She asks men to help their wives in house chores, advises women on how to raise their children, fight the price increase by cooking cheap food and how to care for their neighbors. However, she doesn’t equate the quality of food with dignity.
“Social justice is to live with pride regardless of what food people eat. A pot of beans eaten with dignity will bring social justice more than a turkey consumed in humiliation.”
On her Facebook page, which the producer has created for her since she had never owned nor used a computer before, her viewers voted for the show to continue after Ramadan.
Elated with her new responsibilities, Ghalia is grateful for the revolution that gave her a voice. Her success represents a slice of hope for millions with similar stories like hers. She has broken the mold. The new Egypt has revived her hopes for a better future for her two daughters.