Nothing compares to Egypt (or does it?)

Through his fictional newspaper, Al Khan, and his personal blog, Cairo Freeze, Egyptian cartoonist Tarek Shahin offers a clever take on life, politics and social taboos in modern-day Egypt. MENASSAT spoke with the young cartoonist about challenging the clichés about Egypt, and telling Egypt's story to the world at large.

BEIRUT, Sep. 3, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Tarek Shahin may only be in his mid-twenties but he is certainly not a newcomer. Already as a student back in 2000, he started a weekly cartoon strip in his school magazine, "Caravan," in which he portrayed what he calls the "absurdities" of student life at the American University in Cairo (AUC), a popular educational facility for Egypt's rich and privileged.

Now, Shahin provides his readers with a shrewd, often satiric take on the politics and social-economic issues of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. His two outlets are Al Khan, a more or less daily section in Egypt's only independent English-language newspaper, Daily News Egypt, which debuted on May 3rd of this year; and his own blog, Cairo Freeze.

"Cairo Freeze is more about my personal views on world issues. Al Khan is character-specific," Shahin tells MENASSAT.

"I chose the name Al Khan [a word used to describe a market, a coffee shop or any busy meeting place in the Arab world, Ed.] because it connects all the countries of the Arab word. It's not confined to a specific country like Egypt or a city like Cairo."

The characters

Al Khan revolves around the fictional character of Omar Shukri, a slender London ex-banker who has returned to Cairo to take over the family-run magazine Al Khan. The reader is given a glimpse at the life and work of Shukri, and a diverse collection of editorial staff, friends and peripheral contacts.

From left to right: Omar Shukri, Nada Saleh, Anwar Abutaleb, Yunan Saliba, Big Falafel.

Nada Saleh, for example, is the fictional editor of Al Khan and refers to herself as a social liberal, although her boss Shukri believes she's more of a communist than a liberal. A rebel both at work and within her own family, Nada's leftist views often lead to heated arguments with Shukri, who prefers a more capitalistic approach to politics and social issues.

Nada's best friend is the seasoned photographer Yunan Saliba, a 40-year old Coptic Christian who still lives at home with his family. Sporting a pony tail and an unshaven laid back look,  Saliba has been the staff photographer for Al Khan for the past twelve years. His family, however, still hopes that  their son will "choose the right path" and become a doctor. Perhaps he will even find that "nice, young, ripe-for-marriage girl," as they keep telling him.

Unlike Saliba, who is wary of religious intervention in his life, Dr. Anwar Abutaleb, a close friend of Omar Shukri (although for reasons Shukri can't remember), considers himself a devout Muslim. Shukri often feels that his friend's views and life style are rather extreme.

A key character in the sense that "he represents a significant part of the Egyptian population," as Shahin puts it, Abutaleb earns a modest salary as a general practitioner. He has seven children with his fully-veiled wife Aisha. In their habitual shisha sessions at the local Qahwa, where Abutaleb and Shukri meet to discuss life, Abutaleb jokingly tells Shukri from time to time how he would like to exercise his Muslim right to polygamy.

Then there is Big Falafel, the astute, over-sized street beggar who always seems to know what's going on and who is an invaluable source for Nada in her journalistic work.

"Big Falafel is a clear representation of the power of the street in Egypt. He is the everyday guy who knows his country and his neighborhood. He always turns out to be right," says Shahin.

Asked about the choice of name, Shahin says Big Falafel was the only character whose name he chose "just for a laugh."

Bridging cultures

But the goal of Al Khan is not only to give its readers a good laugh over their morning coffee, Shahin says.

He hopes that Al Khan will come to serve as a "bridge between cultures," connecting readers from across the world with Egypt.

In his own words, his two biggest priorities are to show the world that there is more to the  Middle East than the negative picture provided by the mass media; and that there is more to Egypt than the pyramids and camels in the "Nothing compares to Egypt" commercials run by the Ministry of Tourism .

"Tutankhamon and the pyramids are not our only deal anymore. I want to show that there are issues and daily conflicts in Egypt that are just as relevant to international audiences as, say, the inner struggle of Batman, or whether Ross and Rachel will ever get back together on Friends."

Writing in English instead of his native Arabic, Shahin has deliberately chosen a handicap.

"I don't reach as many Egyptians as I would like," he admits. On the other hand, English allows him to reach an international audience, and to tell the stories "that are perhaps not known outside the country."

In a country like Egypt, where censorship is rampant and writers are dragged in and out of court for criticizing of the regime, one has to wonders if Shahin has gotten in trouble with his often very outspoken cartoons.

"No", he says decisively. "I have never been subjected to intimidation."

Could it be that his choice of English makes him a lesser target than his colleagues writing in Arabic?

"No, I don't think it will protect me more than other journalists."

My Photo (Al Khan is available online on the site of the Daily News Egypt; Cairo Freeze can be found here.)