In Egypt, Ghalia Alia Mahmoud is a new kind of TV chef


Ghalia Ali Mahmoud, 33, a breakout Ramadan star in Egypt, hosts a live cooking show. The former maid and cook to the rich picks out tomatoes before her live show last week in Cairo. (Leila Fadel/WASHINGTON POST)
August 17, 2011

Only in the new Egypt could Ghalia Alia Mahmoud have become a celebrity.

A woman from a poor neighborhood, she cooks in tin pots with no handles, on propane burners lit with a match, in a kitchen without measuring cups. She uses simple, cheap ingredients such as beans, pasta and vegetables, all she can afford.

In the old Egypt, Mahmoud worked as a maid. But that was before Jan. 25, the beginning of the upheaval in which the destitute and the affluent stood shoulder to shoulder in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to force the ouster of a dictator and the end of a system that celebrated the elite while a huge underclass barely subsisted.

Mahmoud’s rise was the inspiration of Mohamed Gohar, the founder of a new television station named for the day the revolution began. He plucked the 33-year-old from his sister’s kitchen, where she had been employed as a cook, and tasked her with teaching Egyptians to prepare dishes they can actually afford.

With humor and down-home savings, Mahmoud has done it all with ease, becoming an unlikely symbol of a movement aimed at preserving the spirit of change and social justice in this country of more than 80 million people.

“This channel is letting Egyptians see themselves,” said Gohar, a media veteran and founder of Channel 25, where the cooking show, which began Aug. 1, offers niche audiences an alternative to the more popular soap operas broadcast during the long days of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

On her show, Mahmoud cooks in a kitchen that looks like her own at home, whipping up homemade yogurt and the fava-bean mash known as ful. She is tasked with making a meal that could feed a hungry family for just $4; she’s as homespun as Rachael Ray, who hosts the Food Network’s travel show “$40 a Day.”

“All women can cook. They’re smart, and they can do anything if they try,” Mahmoud tells viewers.

At home, she feeds 15 people in her immediate and extended family on an income that even now does not exceed $200 a month. She cooks meat just once a week, because that’s all she and her husband, a minibus driver, can afford; on the show, meat is prepared only on Fridays.

Growing up, she dreamed of getting married and being driven to her wedding in a new Mercedes. Instead, she ended up in a beat-up Fiat more than 20 years old. Her father died when she was a toddler; she and her eight siblings went to work as teenagers to provide for the family. A cousin went to college, but, lacking connections, he ended up working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.

On camera, Mahmoud is genuine and bubbly. She measures out ingredients in cheap plastic cups and buys vegetables for the show at the market in her poor neighborhood of Waraa. She wears fuchsia jackets and polka-dot aprons; her face is plump and inviting.

She reminds people of their favorite aunt, and her popularity has skyrocketed. Her Facebook page — which had to be set up by a producer, Habiba Hesham, because Mahmoud can’t afford the Internet or a computer — has drawn nearly 4,000 followers in less than two weeks. Hesham sees her as a future Oprah Winfrey, a poor girl who became an American icon.

Children ask her questions and tell her they love her. Men propose. And someone set up a separate Web page calling for her to be president. Last week, chic women in a Mercedes, the kind of women who used to look right through her, called to her from their car.

“Mrs. Ghalia, how do we make lentil soup?” they asked. She smiled. The world was changing for her.

It is the subtle messages on her show that carry bigger lessons than the food. She offers to teach recipes to Coptic Christians who abstain from meat and dairy products during their time of fasting. She said she does it to prove that heightened sectarian tensions, which she believes are stirred up by the government, don’t exist in Egyptian neighborhoods.

She is no longer unseen.

“The government only treated the creme de la creme with respect, and the rest of us were invisible,” she said after a show this week. “I have so much hope that for my two girls, the country will be different.”

Special Correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this article.

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