I listen to a couple of songs, type up a few more lines, and then I hear it. The Voice. I am mesmerized by its deep, melodic, dreamy tone. The Voice is set to the backdrop of quiet romantic music, and is so soothing, so reassuring, that I almost forget to listen to what he is saying.
Best known for his program Ana Welnegoom Wehawak (Me, the Stars, and Your Desire), 40-something-year-old Osama Mounir has been on the air for over 15 years.
“You may never have heard of me,” he says, “but you’ve heard me every day in your house, [in] the adverts”
In his youth, Mounir worked for a shipping company, for KLM Royal Dutch airlines and at one point even set up his own nutritional supplements distribution company. He moved to Australia in 1991 after graduating with a degree in sociology, and came back to work as an assistant director at the American Research Center before finally deciding to return to his passion: music.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that he’s just a pretty voice. In addition to the promos and adverts he produces, the radio show he presents twice a week, and the TV show he hosts once a week, Mounir also owns two advertising and marketing agencies — Express Media, and Express Media Osama Mounir. The former specializes in print, outdoor and billboard adverts, while the latter produces anything relating to the media: radio and TV ads, documentaries, websites and promos for radio stations all over the world.
Mounir was the first presenter on the air when Nogoum FM (100.6), Egypt’s first private Arabic station, went live. Ana Welnegoom Wehawak is both one of the most loved and most hated programs on air. Split up into approximately eight segments over its two-hour run, each episode tackles a topic relating to love, and listeners can then email their topic-related problems or thoughts on it, or call the studio to discuss them on air and get Mounir’s advice. His topics are not based on research, which he thinks is one of the greatest things, since they come “from the heart to the heart.” The program began airing four years ago and was first met with a hailstorm of criticism, with newspapers writing half-page editorials attacking him and his callers.
“[When I was asked to host] a love show at night, during the love zone [which starts] from midnight, I said yes because of the time, because I had work [during the day],” says Mounir. “The subject [suited] me, because I am [a musical] person. I [thought] that the program would be on the margins of Nogoum FM something small, a bonbon, not a booming success.”
So convinced was Mounir that the show would be a small addition to the station that he didn’t even have any topics planned for the first episode. His first caller started talking about love, and then moved on to telling him her problem.
“I hadn’t even put it in the plan [for the show] that I would be solving problems,” exclaims Mounir. “I thought that I would talk about [and address] topics, and suddenly people started telling me their problems. I looked at Hatem [the producer] and he motioned for me to continue.”
The first night, Mounir’s brand-new email inbox overflowed and the phone rang off the hook. “We finished at 2am, and Hatem and I sat until 4am in a state of bewilderment,” remembers Mounir.
His second episode earned him calls ordering him to stop the show and a meeting with the then-president of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, where he was told that one mistake would result in the entire channel being taken off-air.
So what was it that made his show so controversial?
To begin with, Mounir discussed topics that were previously not often addressed in Egyptian society, and if they were, they definitely weren’t approached the way he chose to deal with them. The concept of airing out dirty laundry is still new and frowned upon by many. The show falls into the fadfada category —somewhere between a confessional and just wanting to have someone to talk to. Mounir adds that his program only speaks about love, and therefore is not a confession platform for people with problems based on social, sexual, or political issues.
Although Mounir addresses topics of relevance to society — such as loyalty and betrayal, or how to choose a partner — his credibility is, in the eyes of many, tarnished by his callers themselves. Almost all of them are women, and their voices are all very soft-spoken, simpering and apologetic. They instantly project the image of a demure young girl in a pastel-shade dress sitting on a chair and looking blushingly down at her shoes. It’s the kind of voice that you never hear in real life.
Mounir defends his callers: “When you’re out in society or with people, you modify your voice, [whereas] at home you’re freer. So what if it’s not four or five [people you will talk to], but 15 million? [Understandably], [the callers’] voices are calm and quiet.” Mounir insists that none of the calls are faked and that he was offered the chance to air his show live on TV at the same time it was being broadcast on the radio to prove to people that the calls were authentic. The only screening, he says, makes sure that the caller is over 18, not drunk, and will discuss an issue that is not overtly risqué.
The fact that the majority of the callers are women, even if they speak normally, still casts the program in a dark light. Many people accuse these women of being enamored of The Voice mentioned earlier; this coupled with their tones and the fact that they call a stranger in the middle of the night to talk about love problems, leads critics to believe them to be loose and disreputable women.
As to why no men call, Mounir responds: “Men  have no readiness to humiliate themselves on the air. [A man] doesn’t want to say, ‘I was hurt I was betrayed.’ The Eastern man’s big problem is his pride. In our culture, a woman may talk about her love problems, but not a man.”
The second accusation dumped at his door is that the women who call are captivated by him and see his show as a way to reach love in some way. “Scandals and love?” exclaims Mounir. “Where? I tell a girl to go pray and [tell her] that God will stand by [her]. I tell a guy to think of God [in his treatment] of his wife and kids. What’s it to meif women have a soft voice? I am straightforward. I never flirt with a woman, I’ve never said, ‘What a beautiful voice you have there.’”
Mounir often gets calls from women with serious problems, those who need more help and advice than he can give them in two or three minutes. He has been criticized for not having the credentials to advise these callers, who take his advice to heart.
He is reassuring, and his recommendations, for the most part, are spot on. But what, many wonder, gives him the right to spout platitudes at lovelorn and forsaken young women, who pour their hearts out to him and the world? How does he — to illustrate a point — have the right to tell a woman estranged from her family because she married a man she has loved for nine years, to leave that husband and go back groveling to her parents?
“We got a psychiatrist and the people refused [to listen to] him,” says Mounir. “They said they didn’t want him.” It seems that listeners don’t want a doctor’s advice; they want the advice of someone they feel understands them and what they are going through. “[As for credentials],” continues Mounir, “there is no such thing as an expert in love. Get me a university with studies in love and I’ll apply for a PhD.”
No matter how inexplicable, people trust Mounir and his opinion. Why else would a woman call a stranger in the middle of the night to tell him that she’s sick of her husband, that she feels trapped by her marriage? These women give their first name, age, where they graduated from, and details such as how long they’ve been in a relationship and how many children they have — details that would make them instantly recognizable if someone they knew listened in.
Mounir believes that many of them change their first names, and could even be purposely changing their voice so as not to be recognized, since they are calling for the opinion of someone removed from the scenario, “away from the world.” Other women give their details because they want their partner or someone who knows them to hear what they say and pass along the message.
Love him or hate him, you only need to listen to his show for two minutes to realize that he is completely absorbed in the callers’ woes.
“During the show, I’m in a strange state,” reflects Mounir, “I don’t act, but you know how an actor gets absorbed? [Well], when I’m on the airsomeone may pass by me and I just stare at a paper hanging on the wall, a flyer, or the door; all my concentration is on the phone call.”
In fact, he got so absorbed and emotionally involved with his callers during his first year that he actually developed stomach and heart problems; he eventually had to learn to distance himself from the callers while still empathizing with them. “The worst problem I ever heard was a woman called Haneen,” he recalls, whom he hasn’t forgotten though it was years ago. Haneen was a woman who donated her kidney to her fiancé, only to have him dump her. She died soon after of complications from the operation.
“And now, because of El-Beit Beitak,” continues Mounir, “people tell me all their problems [believing I will help them]. Sometimes, I don’t leave the house because I don’t want to hear [the problems]. Celebrities leave the house so people [can] point to them and take photos [with them]. When I go out people stop, not to take pictures with me, but to tell me their problems.”
Criticism from the public and the press aside, Mounir has been voted best radio presenter in Egypt for four years in a row, based on public opinion polls. He has been recognized by Dream TV, Ain Shams University and the Rotary Club, to name a few institutions. His weekly slot on El-Beit Beitak has reached a high of 15 adverts, which in terms of television slots, is a phenomenal success, especially considering the fact that his slot is scheduled on Monday, a midweek day, and not on the weekend.
Mounir is currently being courted by a soon-to-be-launched TV channel, for a sum that will put him in the category of the most highly priced TV hosts in Egypt. He’s not sure whether or not he’ll take them up on their offer, but in the meantime he is planning to set up a number of private radio stations, specific to geographic location. et
Catch Osama Mounir Sundays and Tuesdays from 1am-3am in Ana Welnegoom Wehawak on Nogoum FM, and on Mondays at 9pm on Channel 2’s El-Beit Beitak.