The taboo-challenging puppet

The TV puppet Abla Fahita is causing a furore in Egypt. On her new show, "Live from the Duplex", she frequently and unashamedly addresses taboo topics – a fact that divides opinion in Egyptian society. Elisabeth Lehmann reports from Cairo

By Elisabeth Lehmann

"This lecherous puppet is putting children in danger of getting themselves infected with AIDS or syphilis." – "Aids? Syphilis? But I love children!" cries Abla Fahita in a screeching voice. She is wearing gold stars in her ears and a black fur stole draped around her cleavage, having dolled herself up for the first episode of her new series. Her first aim in this episode was to take the wind out of her critics' sails. It was the smartest thing the creators of "Abla Fahita – Live from the Duplex" could have done.

The TV puppet has been whipping up feeling among Egyptian viewers for weeks. Abla Fahita (which translates as "Aunty Fahita"), is a media phenomenon, such as can probably only exist in Egypt. She is widowed, has a daughter and has had several rounds of cosmetic surgery. She certainly doesn't lack self-confidence either: she knows precisely how to make use of her charms. Nevertheless, it never quite seems to work out with men – although sex is an important element in Abla Fahita's life. Vocal pitch, vocabulary, facial expressions, gestures – Abla Fahita is the perfect copy of a typical middle-class Egyptian woman.

For weeks, Egyptians have been confronted with larger-than-life posters showing the scantily-clad puppet with curlers in her hair and a copy of the book "Fifty Shades of Grey". Incidentally, the novel about a woman's sexual fantasies was not even published in Egypt.

When a TV ad for the new show, "Live from the Duplex", was broadcast, the public debate exploded. Abla Fahita is seen lolling lasciviously on a four-poster bed, wearing a negligée. In front of her are two well-built gentlemen, who turn out to be her bodyguards. Abla Fahita has the men take off their shirts to test their suitability for the job. At the end of the ad, they are supposed to take off their shoes with their teeth, followed by the slogan "Only for adults". That was too much for the conservative Egyptian audience. There was an outcry on Facebook and Twitter; TV presenters demanded that the show be cancelled before it had even started.

"The morality police is powerful"

"We live in a country where showing massacres and beheadings on television is normal. But a puppet talking about sex is supposed to be immoral?" Talking about the wave of public indignation, Zayed Salem doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Salem is a blogger. His reaction to the Internet outcry was to write a blog entry called "Ten things that are worse for children than Abla Fahita". The declaration spread like wildfire through Egyptian social media in a matter of hours. "This is a sign that there are a lot of people here who think exactly like I do. But it's difficult to fight the mainstream." The morality police – upright citizens and journalists faithful to the regime – in Egypt are powerful, he says.

Even so, they were unable to prevent the show going ahead. It is broadcast every Friday night on the private network CBC. Over the course of an hour, Aunty Fahita chats with guests and analyses the week's news. The show is significantly less political than the material people are used to hearing from the puppet. Before Abla Fahita switched to TV, she communicated with her fans largely via Internet video clips that subtly criticised the regime, or in tweets.

For example: on the day the government called on all Egyptians to go out onto the nation's public squares in their millions to support President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, people simply refused to show their allegiance. There was not a single demonstration. And on this day, Abla Fahita just tweeted a picture of herself in bed, with the comment that today was a good day not to bother getting up. It was a slap in the face for the president.

One Abla Fahita hashtag currently doing the rounds on Twitter can be translated as "Hands off our clothes". It is an attack on Egypt's macho society, which believes it always has to dictate how women should dress.

Bassem Youssef during the last episode of his "Programme" (photo: Mostafa Hashem)
Is Abla Fahita sitting on an ejector seat? Her weekly show is broadcast from the same studio as the "Programme" by satirist Bassem Youssef, who announced that his programme was ending on 2 June 2014, a week after Abdul Fattah al-Sisi won the presidential election. He had been the target of extensive threats

A puppet accused of terrorist links

Abla Fahita cares little about such norms. "She's funny, she's different, she's a little breath of fresh air. Our society needs something like that. After all, she makes us laugh," says the blogger Zayed Salem. Nevertheless, he wonders how long Abla Fahita will remain on screen. "There's always the possibility that the show will be taken off air. Everyone knows we live in a time of fantastic freedom of speech," he says, sarcastically.

Abla Fahita's fans are just waiting for an indignant viewer to hit on the idea of complaining to the police about her. She is not unknown to the judiciary: the public prosecutor's office investigated her in 2013. At the time, the accusation was that she had delivered secret terrorist messages to the forbidden Muslim Brotherhood via a Vodaphone ad.

The person behind Abla Fahita is a well-kept secret. Apparently not even the makers of the show "Live from the Duplex" know who writes the jokes for the puppet – a detail that is grist to the mill of the conspiracy theorists.

And so the whole nation watches spellbound every Friday night to see if Abla Fahita will commit a faux pas and be taken off air. "Live from the Duplex" is broadcast from the same studio as the "Programme" by satirist Bassem Youssef. Having received extensive threats, Youssef gave up in the summer of last year. The armchair that Abla Fahita settles into every Friday night could well turn out to be an ejector seat.

Elisabeth Lehmann

© 2015

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin