El Koshary Today: Egypt’s online “fake news” paper

El Koshary Today, "Egypt’s most reliable news source" and the newest kid on the block in non-commercial news, has just proved with "concrete evidence" that prayers to God work.
An exclusive interview with a respected, albeit unknown, Islamic scholar revealed that Egypt’s two face-saving goals in the match against Algeria last Saturday (which followed a verbal war between football rivals Egypt and Algeria) could not possibly have been coincidences and are indeed an act of God. The revelation comes less than a week after El Koshary Today broke the news of the arrest of a vegetarian from Zamalek for exercising "queer behavior" – another scoop that, quite surprisingly, was not picked up or followed by any of Egypt’s respected news outlets.
If you think these news spots are ridiculous, wait until you see the rest of El Koshary Today’s "unreal news" – the website’s one and only specialization. Then again, what do you expect from writers carrying pseudonyms as deliciously ludicrous as Makarona (macaroni), Ward Zeyada (extra onions) and Subar Lox (large-sized Koshary)? The site itself is named after Egypt’s most popular meatless dish, Koshary, a yummy slapdash affair with macaroni, rice, lentils, onions, garlic and chilli tomato juice all mixed together – and as in the case of Egypt itself, order does not matter here.

The online venture is already a sensation on social network websites, mainly Facebook and Twitter, as links to El Koshary Today articles spread like fire among Egypt’s English-speaking community.
A parody of mainstream news, El Koshary Today is quite different from satirical blogs that have been popping up lately in the Egyptian blogosphere; it’s more organised, collaborative, it opts for intelligent humor and it clearly has an agenda. It also mimics the appearance of a professional, mainstream news website and produces fake news on a regular basis. Even the different sections on the El Koshary Today portal are categorized in the same manner as mainstream news websites, with content divided into Features, International, Opinions, Arts, Science-Fiction and Technology, Sports, and Mind and Soul. The website even has sections for bogus classifieds and "Horrorscopes."
"Our aim is to create stories that are fantastical but grounded in reality in order to raise awareness of these exaggerated issues at the heart of the stories. We want to keep it funny so that people are interested," Makarona, writer and El Koshary Today co-founder, told Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition on condition of anonymity.
Makarona, Ward Zeyada and Subar Lox‘s journey began in 2008 when the three friends decided to launch a paper similar in spirit to America’s The Onion, "but with a specific philosophy," said Makarona. The initial plan was to start a print edition, but practical hurdles like finding a syndicated journalist to head the paper pulled the project to a standstill, until the group decided to go online.
What’s in a name? The choice "Koshary" for the title was a spur of the moment decision made at, oddly enough, Maadi’s American diner Lucille’s. "We were thinking what’s very Egyptian?" said Makarona. The name came to them like a revelation and it fit, according to Makarona, because both Koshary and their website "are a random mix of what is uniquely Egyptian."
The choice of English as the main language of the website is a deliberate one though. Makarona said he was unsure of how Arabic satire would be received among their audience, and "as writers we’re not sure if we can pull it off in Arabic". Plus the choice of language keeps them well under the radar of the Egyptian State Security apparatus and censorship authorities, which have been giving bloggers and citizen journalists a hard time in the past few years.
El Koshary Today’s humor ranges from rollicking to black, and it’s refreshingly blunt when it comes to criticizing the Egyptian government’s seemingly feeble attempts to assuage the pains of the needy and hungry in a country where more than 50 per cent live below the international poverty line of US$2 per day. A recent piece by Subar Lox gave the government quite a tongue-lashing. It read, "The Egyptian government has decided to begin selling virtual bread to alleviate some of the stress on those less fortunate starting January 2010. Although virtual bread cannot necessarily be eaten, studies show that the image of a freshly baked, steaming loaf of baladi [oriental] bread can go a long distance in alleviating some of the mental stress associated with a lack of basic human living conditions."
Koshary’s writing team ritually make fun of the absurdities that Egyptians encounter on a daily basis without shying away from poking at taboos or shedding light on shameful practices, like sexual harassment on Cairo streets, sexism, and religious fundamentalism, among both Muslims and Coptic Christians. A popular article, "Elite declare Independence from Egypt", mocked upper-class Egyptians, jaded "by class divisions," for moving out of central Cairo and living in exclusive residential towns in the suburbs.
Koshary is especially keen on spoofing political and religious issues – pushing boundaries but not breaking them. Its three main writers and founders want to engage people, not outrage them, explained Makarona.
"Among the pressing concerns is political tyranny and religious fundamentalism. But when you’re writing satirically, there’s always the risk of looking down on people and that’s what we worry about," said Makarona.
"We don’t mind criticizing people, but we don’t want to offend them," agreed Ward Zeyada, who also chose to keep his real identity anonymous. For instance in an article that criticized the ban on driving for women in Saudi Arabia, Ward Zeyada said he wasn’t caricaturing the Islamic religion or the Saudis, but rather their interpretation of Islam which oppresses women. "Insulting religions is useless, no one will benefit from this," he added.
Despite good intentions, Ward Zeyada‘s article titled "Saudi Arabia lifts cycling ban for women," accompanied by a rear view picture of a bike-riding woman sporting skimpy swim-wear, has already received some negative feedback. A reader called Syed Asim Irshad was clearly offended by the picture and charged that the creators of El Koshary Today "are sick minded [and] influenced by the dirty, disgusting culture of the United States; your aim is only to portray a wrong image of Islam."

Ward Zeyada said he felt he had to personally respond to this message to clear up misunderstandings early on. In a six-paragraph message to the reader, Ward Zeyada insisted that Islam was not the target there, but rather "gender-inequality, which is anything but Islamic."

Fortunately, the writers don’t mind being flogged for their ideas, and said that negative comments and backlashes were quite expected. They even made fun of it on one of their main pages: "we would kindly ask you to keep lawsuits and death threats to a minimum," their Koshary Philosophy page reads. "For one thing, our mothers would not be happy at all with that."
With the spread and popularity of independent and opposition outlets focusing on "serious news" that reflects the pains of a nation and attempts to change the status quo, El Koshary Today’s method of choice seems to oppose the zeitgeist. But the buzz it has so far created on social network websites could suggest that there’s a hungry market for this brand of humor.
As well, El Koshary Today creators said they have much in store. "We have an idea for El Koshary Radio, an English and an Arabic podcast. An Arabic website is also possible but definitely not within the year."

Amateur fake news writers with a keen sense of humor and a sharp wit may rejoice in the fact that El Khoshary Today does consider headline submissions sent to them by email – and yes, they work the headline first, and then the story.

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