Cross posted from The National.
Keith Lane for The National
CAIRO // Girgis Abu Habib Sidrak says he watches professional wrestling 10 hours a day but would watch “all 24 hours” if he could.
Every night, without fail, body slams and chokeholds light up the TV at this elegant rooftop Cairo bar.
It is 9.30 on a Sunday evening and in between taking drink and shisha orders, Mr Sidrak and his co-worker, George Milad Abib, are flipping through the five different channels all broadcasting World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fights.
On one is an old bout featuring Dave Batista and his partner in crime, Rey Mysterio. “Look, look,” Mr Sidrak repeatedly interjects, jabbing his index finger towards the screen. At one point, Batista flattens his opponent by launching himself feet-first into his chest.
Mr Sidrak, 21, and Mr Abib, 20, explain that they have been tuning into professional wrestling for more than a decade.
They watch the fights and WWE-produced films. Mr Abib is a member of a WWE Facebook group. Sometimes they practise the moves they see on each other.
Their obsession with a quintessentially American entertainment genre, often derided as gratuitously violent and misogynistic, is anything but an oddity here.
Professional wrestling is everywhere in Egypt – from televisions in dingy Cairo cafes and Bedouin huts in the desert, to merchandise hawked on the streets, to online message boards.
WWE made its live debut in Cairo last month with three performances. More than two hours before the 8pm start on Friday, thousands of fans streamed into the arena inside the Cairo Stadium complex, many with homemade signs bearing their favourite wrestlers’ likenesses.
WWE, which rakes in almost US$500 million (Dh1.84 billion) a year and broadcasts in 145 countries to more than 600 million households, has found the Middle East a fertile frontier.
It launched an Arabic site, WWE Arabia, six months ago, and has held live events in Qatar and Abu Dhabi in the past 18 months.
Ed Wells, the senior vice president and managing director for WWE International, declined to provide exact television viewership or revenue figures for the region, but touted the inroads WWE has made lately.
“WWE’s programming in the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, has very strong audience figures and we have seen steady growth of the popularity of the brand in these markets in the past 12 months,” he said. Its Cairo Facebook page is one of WWE’s most popular internationally.
By the time the first wrestlers pranced into the ring to blaring music and flashing lights, the crowd had stirred itself into a frenzy. The vast arena was only about a third full, owing no doubt to the high ticket prices, which ranged from about 250 Egyptian pounds (Dh150) in the nosebleed seats to 3,000 Egyptian pounds ringside.
Yet the noise was almost deafening, as alternating spells of cheering and derision rained down on the performers below, the throngs of young fans in attendance lending the cries a distinctly high pitch.
While professional wrestling strikes many in Egypt as a crude western import, the WWE’s styling of itself as wholesome entertainment rang true among the parents with small children in tow.
Ahmed Hussein sat in the upper deck with his wife Radwa Gadou, 8-year-old daughter Malad, and 6-year-old son Mazen. He said his children have been watching WWE since they were 2 or 3.
“They first got into it on PlayStation,” he said. “They would know every player, every movement.”
The expensive tickets were too much for many devotees, such as Mr Sidrak and Mr Abib, but the crowd was well-versed in the ways of WWE. They cheered on the heroes and taunted the villains with chants while responding on cue to the wrestlers’ patented gestures.
Menna Mohamed, 13, who was joined in the stands by at least five members of her extended family, showed off the signs she had made, including one with a caricaturised rendering of Dolph Ziggler alongside his catchphrase, “It’s not showing off if you back it up.”
Menna said she has been watching WWE for years. She used to stay up until 3am to catch airings of Monday Night Raw. She explained that she loves Ted DiBiase, but not so much Zac Ryder, whose biography she dismissively rattled off while anxiously inquiring if anyone knew who was up in the ring next.
“The programming and storylines are based on the age old story of good versus evil, which is a narrative everyone can relate to globally,” said Mr Wells, trying to explain the WWE’s diverse appeal.
“In addition to that, the product is family friendly – and is presented in a fun and engaging way.”
For many young men here, who comprise much of the core audience, professional wrestling seems to offer something else: a rare image of pure masculinity. Mr Sidrak says he wishes he could go to the gym to get ripped like the fighters he idolises.
“Of course,” he replies, when asked if he would like to be a professional wrestler. “That is my dream.”
Unfortunately, with his scrawny frame, Mr Sidrak cuts an unlikely candidate to become Egypt’s first professional wrestling superstar.
Ahmed Hussein offered one more explanation for WWE’s allure. “I think Egyptians like to do things that the American and Europeans, and the developed world in general, do.”
It is not quite the image the US is looking to export. In March of last year, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, lamented that America was losing the information war in the Muslim world.
She recounted a meeting with an Afghan general to the Senate foreign relations committee. “The only thing he thought about Americans was that all the men wrestled and the women walked around in bikinis.”
Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who has publicly expressed his disdain for “naked restaurants” in the US, is unlikely to be a big fan of WWE and its scantily-clad “divas”.
Still, at least one online enthusiast was prepared to give Mr Morsi the credit for the last month’s spectacle. “Anything is possible in the age of President Morsi” a commenter wrote on the WWE Arabia website.