In a country where a large part of the population struggles to make ends meet, a working class woman has skyrocketed to fame in post-revolutionary Egypt with a new kind of cooking show.
While the onions and garlic start to cook in the oil, Ghalia Mahmoud buzzes around the set of her cooking show, called "El Set Ghalia" or — "Mrs. Ghalia." She wears a bright pink hijab and a string of fake pearls, which highlight her round smiling face.
Her show is for people without much money and it’s a breath of fresh air for lower class Egyptians who are used to being sidelined and ignored.
She’s been called ‘The Oprah of Egypt’, and like Oprah Winfrey Ghalia rose to fame from poverty. She’s from one of the poorest suburbs in Cairo, and used to work long hours as a maid. One day, a relative of her wealthy employer tasted her food and decided to make her the star of his newest TV program, a cooking show for the masses — something that had never been tried before in Egypt.
“Some people criticized us when we began, because they weren’t used to seeing people like us on TV,” Ghalia said. “They are used to seeing big chefs and celebrities cooking meat and turkey and the fancy food but they weren’t used to seeing people cook simple food that Egyptians usually eat, like we do.”
The idea of the program is simple — good cheap dishes, using ingredients Egyptians actually use. The set is made to look like her kitchen, cramped, strewn with homey knick-knacks and practical, inexpensive cookware. She cooks on a small stovetop.
Each show is taped live, and Ghalia makes four to five meals. Each dish is meant to serve at least eight people, for less than 30 cents per portion. This is crucial in a country where over 15 million people live on less than a dollar a day, and food prices are continuing to rise.
With her bubbly energy and contagious smile, Ghalia isn’t just a chef, she’s a counselor too. Viewers phone in and Ghalia chats with them about the problems they are facing in their own lives. She says this is especially important for poor women, who might feel like they otherwise wouldn’t have a voice.
On one episode, Ghalia cooks pasta while talking with a viewer, Umm Ahmed. Umm Ahmed tells Ghalia how much the show means to her and says she feels Ghalia is like a sister.
Amira Fouzy, Ghalia’s producer, explains that the show fills a vital role in post-revolutionary Egypt. It started as a cooking show for the poor, but has also evolved into a program where everyone has a voice, no matter what their economic status.
She says Ghalia also addresses human rights: social issues, marital issues and women’s rights.
"She expresses it in a simple way," Fouzy said. "She solves problems on air and gives popular sayings that would make people understand her better. We are trying to reach this audience in a simple straightforward way.”
The Facebook page for ‘El Set Ghalia’ has more than 100,000 followers and growing.
Ghalia says none of this would have been possible without the Egyptian revolution.
“Everything has changed after the revolution," she said. "Before the revolution, the media used to attack poor, simple people on TV. They didn’t want us on.”
But now she believes people like her and her children will have more opportunities — the Egyptian people brought down the old regime, and there is a sense that anything is possible, especially if everyone pitches in.
“I am hoping that they will grow up and have a chance to work and benefit their country as well. That’s the main thing — it’s their responsibility to help their country, because if they make their country better they make themselves better,” Ghalia said.
But despite her success the ‘Oprah of Egypt’ still has a long way to go before she surpasses the real thing.
Ghalia can’t give away cars yet, but she’s giving away something just as valuable right now — a message of hope served up one meal at a time.