Ethar El-Katatney

The News Bites

Posted in Egypt Today by Ethar El-Katatney on December 2, 2009

The News Bites
Egypt Today
December 2009

Photo Credit: Ethar El-Katatney
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El-Koshary Today, the nation’s first news satire website serves up heavy topics with a light-hearted approach

By: Ethar El-Katatney

Start with chickpeas, rice, lentils and pasta. Add some garlic and vinegar, and douse generously with tomato sauce. Top it all off with a garnish of caramelized onions. What do you get? The culinary hodgepodge known as koshary.

Inspired by the meal, three men have launched the nation’s first satirical news site, El Koshary Today (EKT), spoofing the country’s current events with fictitious news stories and advertisements. Writing in English under the pen names Makarona (pasta), Ward Zeyada (extra fried onions) and Subar Lox (referring to the standard size container for koshary), the trio of 25 year olds hopes that a humorous approach to serious topics will engage more people and perhaps spur change in the country.

“Koshary is an incredible invention. It’s such a random mix of uniquely Egyptian ingredients,” says Zeyada, who, like his colleagues, would only be identified by his pen name. “We wanted a name that was very Egyptian, quite humorous and described what we do. So, like the dish, EKT is a random mix of uniquely Egyptian ‘infogrediants’.”

The idea for EKT had been brewing for over five years. The three childhood friends were all born and raised in Egypt and went to university abroad. By day, Makarona is a journalist, Zeyada a computer graphics designer, and Lox an artist. They had always wanted to start a progressive magazine, but difficulties raising capital and logistical obstacles forced them online.

Written with tongue-in-cheek humor and biting wit, EKT’s news stories are recognizably fake (stories such as “Swine Flu Mutates into Flying Pig Flu” or commentary from Paris Hilton on Egyptian presidential politics), but they touch on real topics in the region, including sexual harassment, political corruption, pollution, economic woes and religious conservatism.

Making Problems Palatable

Satire, the art of mocking with the intent of change, is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, the founders of EKT see it as an effective way to make an impact.

“If you laugh at something, you’ll tell it to someone else,” says Zeyada. “So more people will talk. But if you depress people — say talk about bread lines or Palestine on TV — they just don’t want to think about it. Satire allows us to constructively criticize Egypt’s problems and culture in a way people engage with.”

“Satire allows people to look at something from a different angle,” says Makarona. “And when they see it from a different angle they’re more likely to come up with a solution [Plus] they get informed. Look at something like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.”

An April 2007 study by the Pew Research Center stated that regular viewers of The Daily Show, the self-proclaimed fake news show airing on Comedy Central in the US, were usually more knowledgeable about news than audiences of other news sources.

Shaheen Pasha, a former CNN reporter and currently a visiting professor at the American University in Cairo teaching digital journalism says, “A satire show like The Daily Show does the job which normal media does, but gets the news out in a way that entertains people so they don’t get turned off. [However] it’s very subtle and you either love it or hate it. EKT will offend people but that’s how dialogue starts. It’s how you move to the next sphere of journalism.”

EKT’s tagline is “Egypt’s most reliable news source,” a clear reference to the famous news satire website The Onion, whose tagline is “America’s most reliable news source.”

“The Onion is a huge inspiration,” says Zeyada. “They’re the perfect example of how satire works. But they’ve only got the onions — we got the whole koshary.”

EKT divvies its infogredients into several categories — features, international, opinion, arts, science & technology, sports, mind & soul and el-kemala (in koshary-speak, the smaller portion to top off the meal). The ‘Abetaizar’ offers headlines such as “Man sues West for lack of shattafat (toilet hoses, similar to a bidet).” There are also reader polls and a fake classifieds section that at press time mocked football passions with ads such as, “Bloodied rock! Had to sort through the rubbish outside the Algerian team’s hotel to get this one! 100 percent guaranteed Algerian blood on rock. [] Hurry for this piece of history!”

“Our aim is to make the country better, by spreading real information through a humorous medium,” says Makarona. “We’re all familiar with traffic and torture, but through EKT you’ll think about them in a [different way]. We mock shamelessly but for good reason. But we’ll try and distinguish between making fun of an idea and the reasons behind it versus belittling.”

With this mentality, EKT mock-headlines such as “Egypt’s Elite Declare Independence from Egypt” and “Egyptian Woman gets Travel Visa in Record Six Months” take on a larger purpose.

“If we’re not willing to accept criticism of our own societies then it’s going to be very hard to change [them],” Zeyada says. “We’re not critiquing from the outside — we’re born and raised in Egypt and know what we’re talking about. [] I love Egypt, I really do. I consider myself patriotic, and I feel this is a great opportunity for me to do a good thing for my country.”

An Acquired Taste

Launched on October 22, EKT received over 500 unique visitors on their first day and peaked at 1,500. EKT currently averages 800 to 1,000 visitors a day. The site seems to be finding its audience. According to the site’s visitor tracking program, 95 percent of the visitors are from Egypt and each spend an average of five minutes on the site. EKT has over 200 Twitter followers and their page on Facebook, which is responsible for an estimated 90 percent of their traffic, has over 1,000 fans.

“We were stunned by the number on our first day,” says Makarona. “We were afraid this kind of humor only the three of us would find funny, but [it] turns out it really struck a chord with readers. I’ve been writing for five years and never got comments. Now that I write satire, I get half a dozen comments on each article, and people are constantly sending us emails, writing jokes, keeping it alive. They keep telling us something like this was long overdue.”

EKT is written only in English, as none of the creators feels they have the skill to write Arabic satire. Consequently, readers of the site are a small segment of Egyptians who speak fluent English, and, given the responses from the social networking sites, are in the age bracket of 18-35.

Pasha believes that the limited reach is ok for now, “since satire is smart humor and you have to be educated to get it. However [this means you’re] reaching a very small part of the population and to have real change, you need it to reach everyone.”

The Onion’s media kit implies that satire is not likely to reach a mass audience. Its demographic data states that Onion readers are “are young and wealthy, see movies, live music and theater, like to go out and party, are tech-savvy, stay fit and like sports, buy CDs, DVDs and books and continue to learn.”

While that is an attractive market for advertisers, EKT founders say that going corporate is not the goal. The founders all hope to continue working in their real jobs in order to make enough money to sustain EKT without generating revenue. “We won’t be putting ads for TE Data and Mobinil,” says Zeyada. “That would take away from the koshary-ness of the site and it would no longer be purely satirical. But perhaps if we build a big fan base, we could think of merchandising.”

If they do branch out into El-Koshary Today t-shirts and ball caps, you won’t find the founders’ faces or names on the gear. “We don’t want this to be about us,” says Zeyada. “It takes away something from the humor when you know who we are and you categorize us in society.”

But there is another motivation for anonymity. Over the past four years, the government has cracked down on internet activism, detaining high-profile bloggers and Facebook-using protest organizers.

“You really don’t know what could happen,” says Makarona. “People get arrested for the most trivial things and not for the most serious things. We talk about things like the inheritance of power.”

The possibility of arrest is a hefty price for what is currently just a hobby for the three friends. The EKT team has no long-term plans for the satire news site, but they are currently looking for contributors who can help them put out articles on a daily basis. “Egypt is such an easy target to satirize,” says Makarona. “We’ll never run out of [material] to write about.”

“If we can start getting sites like this out there it will do a lot to help press and journalism in Egypt,” says Pasha. “EKT are taking the news and turning it on its head. They’re crossing a line into uncharted territory and we’ll see how it will go.”

EKT has already gotten a taste of its own dish. A week after the website went live, a blogger called ‘One Only’ posted a story dated April 1, 2009 (April Fool’s Day in the US), titled “Government Will Stick a Fork in El Koshary Today.” The story claimed, “A new program will be launched to shut down the start-up publication El Koshary Today. [Their] style of sarcasm based on underlying truth apparently does not sit well with everyone.”

“I panicked and thought we were done for,” says Makarona, “but it turns out it was a hoax. However, it could have been true.” et

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