Global Politics

A Dish Called Koshary

Here's a special dish that'll make your mouth water. It's called Koshary (also spelled Kushari) and is made with rice, lentils or fava beans, chickpeas, pasta and tomato sauce. Add a garnish of fried onions, and you're ready.

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Some say this vegetarian meal was created by Coptic Christians who could eat it during Lent. True or not, it's known as the national dish of an Arab country that we'd like you to name. There's even an online satirical newspaper named after this dish.

Another clue: this northern African country has experienced some big changes in the past six months.

And we are in fact in Egypt which is now dealing with what happens after a revolution. It is still an uncertain time with elections slated to take place sometime in the fall but it's also a time of greater freedom to speak out. One group that was speaking out even before the revolution were the founders of an Egyptian online satirical newspaper. It's called El Koshary Today named after that famous Egyptian dish.

The newspaper used to take aim at the government of Hosni Mubarak. Reporter Julia Simon met for a meal of koshary last year with the writers. They all go by pseudonyms. She recently checked in with them again to see how they're faring in a post-Mubarak Egypt:

At 11 p.m. on a recent weeknight during Ramadan, downtown Cairo feels like a street party. I'm here with Subar Lox, one of the three writers of "El Koshary Today," Egypt's first online satirical newspaper. The newspaper is named after koshary, a dish with lentils, fava beans, pasta, tomato sauce, and fried onions. It's quintessentially Egyptian, and it's a favorite of Subar Lox and his co-writers, who all use pseudonyms.

On this night, Subar Lox, and another Koshary writer, Makarona, are taking me back to Cairo's most famous koshary restaurant, Abu Tarek, where I met them last year. But when we arrive, we find that it's closed for renovation. So we head to another restaurant, Koshary Tahrir, not far away.

It's also closed. "Koshary is elusive during Ramadan," Subar Lox said.

We try one more restaurant, Shabrawy. This one is open and Subar Lox asks for koshary but there isn't any.

"Even though Shabrawy advertises in neon lights 'koshary good price' they don't actually have any koshary," Makarona said.

"But the cashier said they were planning on having koshary," said Subar Lox.

"When?"

"Initially."

"When they made the neon light," Makarona joked.

With Egypt's go-to koshary restaurants not serving koshary and an interim military council running the country for now, not much seems reliable in Egypt these days. Even El Koshary Today has become a lot less "today." Makarona said one reason the writing group has slowed down is they've lost their third member, Ward Zeyada. He's become an activist.

"I think he likes to think he's busy being a revolutionary right now," Ward Zeyada said, laughing. "No, he's just really busy." He's so busy that he couldn't meet with me. In May, Ward Zeyada got arrested for demonstrating and spent four days in jail.

That actually got the other members of El Koshary Today writing again. The result was an article called "How to become a political activist in Egypt." Suggestions included getting a Twitter account with the word "rebel" in the name, and getting beaten up — but not too much because attractive activists get more media attention.

"We thought, okay, if this is proper satire than we should target both sides," Makarona said. "We shouldn't just go for the bad guys."

In the months since the revolution, the writers of El Koshary Today no longer worry much about directly criticizing the government, even the military. That's partly because they're longer alone.

"There's been this explosion of satire in the country and our little niche has been hijacked by tons and tons of other great voices out there," Makarona said.

But Hisham Kassem, a prominent Egyptian publisher and commentator, said all this satire isn't necessarily such a good thing.

"I find a lot of it in very poor taste. You find a lot of it in comedy talk shows and Ramadan programs," Kassem said. "Frankly I'm not amused."

Kassem pointed out that El Koshary Today distinguishes itself by its quality. He even posted the "How to become an activist" article on his Facebook page.

"I found it very genuine and innovative."

The Koshary Today team has been working with a producer to create a TV version, but they wrote the pilot back when Mubarak was still president. Now they are struggling with the re-write. With the country in such a confusing state until the elections, now set for November, Subar Lox said El Koshary — like Egypt itself – is in limbo.

"It is so unclear and so confusing to the extent that I think a lot people don't even know what's happening right now. It's very up in the air."

One thing is clear, though. The guys at El Koshary Today promise me that after Ramadan, we are going to find that koshary.