With such variety, the Arab viewer is left wondering what to watch, and when?

 

Enter Egypt's Husain al-Imam, a musician, actor, producer, screenwriter and television chef who has brought something new to Ramadan programming - and Middle Eastern cuisine.

 

Nightly on his live slot women call to comment on his recipes, to share their culinary secrets, or just to chat about the day's news.

 

Standing in a suit in front of his pantry at the Orbit studios in Cairo, al-Imam looks a little out of place in the final segment of the late-night talk show called Al-Qahira Al-Youm (Cairo Today), which is broadcast throughout the Arab world.

 

Commenting on everything from philosophy and politics to which rice to use, al-Imam looks more like a university professor than one of the Arab world's most popular television chefs.

 

But this son of Egyptian director Hasan al-Imam may never have shifted his acting career to the kitchen had it not been for two chance encounters.

 

Rock'n'roll cooking

 

As a young man al-Imam went to Chicago to play the blues. He was an aspiring musician and guitar teacher when he befriended an Italian chef who would contribute to changing his life 30 years later.

Al-Imam plays the guitar for his
guests as he prepares a new dish

 

"One of my guitar students was a chef for a famous restaurant in Chicago. I learned from him many things about cooking and preparing meals," al-Imam told Aljazeera.net.

 

But when al-Imam returned to Egypt, cooking was the last thing on his mind. He was busy writing music for films and Arabic serials, acting and producing. It was not until the late 90s that al-Imam would find his calling – at a cookout for family and friends.

 

"My friend, the director Tariq al-Kashif, was the one who convinced me to cook in front of a camera after watching me grill food when we and our wives used to meet for dinner," al-Imam says.

 

Arab novelty

 

Al-Kashif suggested al-Imam host celebrities on his show and prepare a meal for them to eat on air.

 

But al-Imam was hesitant. He was an actor and a screenplay writer, not a chef.

"Neither al-Kashif nor I expected such a large amount of phone calls and feedback"

 

In 1999 he finally agreed as part of an experimental programme on the Orbit satellite service, which was launched during Ramadan of that year.

 

In between waiting for foods to cook, al-Imam would pick up his guitar and get his guests to chime in. The show was a novelty for Arab audiences and they ate it up.

 

"I was surprised at the positive feedback I received. Neither al-Kashif nor I expected such a large amount of phone calls," he says.

 

Men before women

 

A demographic study of the show revealed that men were just as keen on the cooking segment as women.

 

The candid-camera show plays
pranks on actors

"We discovered that the hobby of these men is cooking. We all know that men - at the time of horsemanship and hunting - used to grill what they hunted."

 

Despite hosting guests such as literary giant Anis Mansur, actor Kamal al-Shinawy, and up-and-coming Egyptian actress Muna Zaki, al-Imam is loath to be branded a celebrity chef.

 

"I'm just surprised that the press is interested in knowing how I boil eggs and in the same time I act roles that do not get enough comments," he told Aljazeera.net.

 

"The papers are full of headlines about young actors who produced only trivial work. When I have interviews, they only ask me about cooking."

 

The comedian

  

Al-Imam got his acting break through his father in the 60s. But as the grand productions of Egyptian cinema began to wane, he was drawn to satellite programming.

 

Al-Imam (R) has featured many
artists on his show

"Undoubtedly the scarcity of cinema production represents 80% of the reasons behind the migration of artists from acting to presenting," he says. 

 

In 2002, he launched a candid camera show during Ramadan called Husain on Air, which was followed in 2003 by Husain in the Studio.

 

The 2003 version involved pulling pranks on actors, directors, writers and literary figures.

 

"I would like to say that I'm happy with the success of the two programmes and even happier that they were presented in prime time, where the viewer numbers reach over 50 million," he says.

 

Severed finger

 

But the public, and the victims of his pranks, have caught on. As a result, for the current Ramadan season, he merged the sitcom genre with the candid camera in a show called Husain on the Corner.

 

The crew of Husain on the Corner
delight in the pranks they play

An actor is invited for a guest slot on the sitcom and then the prank ensues. 

 

In one show a Sudanese singer was asked to hit a student with a ruler – all part of the script, she was told. The director told her to use more anger and suddenly, the student screamed in pain as her index finger was severed.

 

The singer recoiled in horror began to cry and fainted, unaware that the finger on the floor was merely a prop.

 

* photographs courtesy of tareknour.tv