Last Updated: Sun Sep 25, 2011 14:41 pm (KSA) 11:41 am (GMT)

Sonia Farid / Letter from Cairo: Not all that hits the billboard …

A tale of two Turkish superstars in Egypt: Mohanad (L) the TV soap star and Prime Minister Recip Erdogan. (File photo)
A tale of two Turkish superstars in Egypt: Mohanad (L) the TV soap star and Prime Minister Recip Erdogan. (File photo)

A couple of years ago, I started hearing the name Mohanad who looked like he was becoming the prince charming of every Egyptian female aged 15 to 75. In no time, he became the talk of the town not only because he does everything a woman would want ─ which happened to be everything Egyptian men do not do ─ but also because he started becoming the direct reason for several divorces, whether because the wife kept whining about her husband being good for nothing compared to the blue-eyed heartthrob or because she put a life-size portrait of him on the wall of their bedroom or at least kept a miniature on her cell phone or computer or both. The end result being the husband felt trapped in a triangle where the third side is not really there yet is all over the place while the wife was left wondering a flesh-and-blood scoundrel was better than a non-existent chevalier. The fuss over Mohanad was playfully dealt with in a movie where the husband, an Upper Egyptian macho, almost shot his wife after finding out she had the man’s picture printed on her pillow.

Let me first tell you that Mohanad is not the name of a person; it is the name of a character in a Turkish soap opera. It’s not even the original name of the character, but the name given to him in the Arabic-dubbed version. Let me also tell you that probably no one, and that includes me, knows the name of the actor. Even the billboard that announced the imminent release of his new series read, “And Mohanad is back.”

In fact, it was this billboard, which I first saw one morning as I was driving across Cairo’s main flyover (and which I later found in several other places) that made me realize the craze is far from over: we were in for 100-plus episodes of what women should want and what men will never give and maybe another round of family squabbles and a couple more divorces. I did feel sorry for those Egyptian women who, like the rest of their compatriots of both sexes, seem to be always looking for something that turns out to be too far-fetched.

I don’t know if Egyptian women forgot about Mohanad, but I know I did … until a few days ago when I was driving across the same bridge and looked up at the exact same billboard space to find another Turkish superstar also “coming soon” but with a less tantalizing picture and a rather sober motto: “Together hand in hand for the future.” The new Turk on the block, who I later found on almost half the city’s billboards, was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

That same day, you would have been hard pressed to find a tweet or a Facebook status that did not in some way or another see the Turkish prime minister as the answer to every single problem Egypt has been facing before and after the ouster of the regime, and maybe since the beginning of time. Like Mohanad put all Egyptian men to shame as far as knowing how to treat a woman was concerned, all potential presidential candidates seemed absolutely incompetent compared to Erdogan and jokes about him winning the elections circulated with the speed of light. Once again everyone was glued to the screen, including men, to hear the champion of democracy in the Middle East lead Egypt’s first steps towards the post-revolution state it is striving to be and to crown Turkey the official Bon Pasteur of the Egyptian people.

The majority of Egyptians made some connection or another between Mohanad and Erdogan if only because they share the same homeland but there were many who scoffed at the comparison. “So is it just because they both are from Turkey?” Well, to a great extent yes. Mohanad is not the only handsome actor Egyptians have seen, but how do you explain that the American Tom Cruise or the Australian Eric Bana or the Spanish Antonio Banderas — all possessing the main attributes of a “beau” and definitely not in any way similar to Egyptian men — have not been half as popular? He is also in no position to compete with award-winning actors, many of whom also happen to be handsome, like the British Colin Firth or the New Zealander Russell Crowe. What makes him that different then? He comes from a country with which Egypt shares historic and cultural ties that go back several centuries ago, a country from where dolmas and Turkish coffee come, a country whose language influences can still be seen in modern Egyptian Arabic. Another factor which undoubtedly plays a major role in this preference for a sizable portion of women is that he is Muslim. Mohanad is, therefore, more “next door” than any of those dudes who speak English, drink coffee from the percolator, or have pancakes for breakfast. If he were real, he would be called “available” or “eligible.”

Erdogan is similarly not a superman. He is a politician, a good one for that matter, but certainly no Mandela or Gandhi and not even a Kemal Ataturk as far as the Turkish people are concerned. But like Mohanad, he is the most accessible option at the moment and an alliance with his country is the most practical at a time when any rapprochement with Israel will be seen as undignified and too much compliance with U.S. policies will be considered a sign of weakness. And as Mohanad is compared to Egyptian men, Erdogan is set in stark contrast with Arab leaders not only for being democratically elected, but also for his latest bravados with Israel, this last factor being of great significance for the Egyptian street and therefore capable alone of making Erdogan a hero of all times.

And like Egyptian women who fantasize about a lover who brings them flowers on the anniversary of every single thing they shared during their first year together, who gets down on his knees to propose, and who plays the violin under their balcony to say he is sorry for something he said or did not say, the Egyptian people dream of a proper leader who assumes power because they want him to and who quits because it is time for him to go.

Mohanad is fictional and Erdogan is real, yet both are equally a figment of the Egyptian people’s imagination: like the first will never alter through a soap opera the way Egyptian men view women, the second will not be capable of effecting from across the Phosphorous the change Egypt needs to create a real democracy. T.V. screens and political borders will remain in the way and billboards will never function as road signs.

So, while you lift your head up to see who the next billboard star is, bear in mind that not all that hits the billboard is the awaited Messiah. Otherwise, that man with the electric shaver or that woman in the pink baby doll would have been our next president and prime minister, respectively!

(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: sonia.farid@mbc.net)

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