Di Salata: Life is like a bowl of salad, but online

South Korean music artist PSY became a household name when his “Gangam Style” video went viral earlier this year.

Months later in Egypt, a local spin on the song dubbed “Hobba Egyptian Style” proved to be a big hit for the launch of Season 2 of Di Salata, the country’s first online video magazine.

With over 1 million YouTube views, the song helped Di Salata’s diverse multimedia platform gain a wider audience.

Mohamed al-Bassiouni, co-founder, is an engineer who decided to take a break and pursue his passion for media. He says the idea for Di Salata was born out of the pleasant explosion of artistic talent after the 25 January revolt.

The goal was to create a hub for the abundant young talent to gather and get started.

Di Salata launched in March 2012 with the slogan: “Join the Salata that is our lives.”

Bassiouni says that the name came from the idea that life is like a bowl of salad. It also refers to the diversity of the programs presented.

“We wanted to do something about everything in life, to talk about what’s happening in the country — not just political or comic — but general [issues]. Our edge is variety,” he says.

“We started brainstorming and thinking … how life is like a big bowl of salad, every component in it stands on its own with a different color, look and taste,” but it all comes together in the end, he adds.

The video magazine hosts eight shows on a range of topics: fashion, cinema, politics, motivational talks, poetry and even interesting places to go.

At first, the target audience was quite narrow.

“We started with our circle of friends … four guys and four girls. We began with the class ‘A’ segment, and this was part of the plan because we were testing the waters and wanted to see how it will work with our social circle first,” he explains.

With the start of the second season, their strategy began to change.

“We didn’t expect that, in such little time, we would start thinking about changing the way we communicate in the shows and try to speak mostly in Arabic to attract a wider audience,” Bassiouni says.

Consistency and teamwork are the main elements of their success, according to Nardine Gerges, business development manager.

Gerges was at first a public relations consultant before she eventually joined the team. Her mission is to help out with creative ideas and make sure each show follows a strategy for a specific target.

“Di Salata is maturing. We work together on everything and brainstorm together … that’s the fun part,” she says.

A passion project

Di Salata is self-funded by Bassiouni and his partners, and due to limited resources, program presenters are volunteering their time for now.

“We work on a very low budget and this is the challenge. The idea was to start presenting what we have and show the quality of our work in order to capture the attention of sponsors.

“At the end of the day, it’s a business and in order to continue, these people have to get paid [eventually],” he says.

Driven by passion, presenters at Di Salata are mostly in their 20's. The diverse group is not concerned with money at the moment, and is happy to have a platform where they can express themselves.

Ramez Youssef, an architect and stand-up comedian who presents “Mish Impossible” (“Not impossible”), says the show allows him to convey his sense of optimism to the audience.

“We wanted [the show] to be an umbrella for a lot of things, like how to be happy, how to accept each other, how to love your country, how to stay positive — all delivered with a message of sarcasm,” he says.

Youssef takes his show to the street. One episode features him walking around Cairo’s streets with a banner that reads, “Optimism,” calling out through a megaphone for people to stay positive.

In another, he holds a sign that says, “Smile and take an apple,” urging people to be happy.

He says the feedback he receives from people is what keeps him going.

Youssef’s program quickly gained popularity, faster than the other shows.

Bassiouni attributes that success to Youssef’s natural charisma and sense of humor. 

But it’s not all about optimism and happiness — the show tackles critical issues such as sexual harassment, albeit with a unique twist. In a recent episode, Youssef dressed up like a woman to show the nuisances they deal with on a daily basis.

The more experience they get, Youssef says, the more they have a critical eye for the work produced. “At first, we were trying everything for the first time, experimenting. Now we are more confident, and we have a responsibility to present quality work.”

While not all the shows had the same instant appeal, Bassiouni says the constant diligence of the other presenters helped them establish a name for themselves in the longer term.

“‘Mona Appetite,’ the cooking show, gained the interest of sponsors even though the viewership is less than others,” he says.

Another example, “Al-Mokhreg ‘Ayez Keda” (“It’s what the director wants”) is a show about movies which simply features the presenter talking in front of a white background. It took time for people to start watching the show, but “now enough people wait for each episode eagerly,” Bassiouni says.

Catering to the same market is ElGomhoreya TV, an Internet channel established in 2011 to present shows online, but tackling more political issues.

Bassiouni, however, insists that they are not a TV channel; rather, Di Salata is more like a printed magazine but utilizing online video, and depending on audience feedback and interaction.

As for the team members, they share the same goal: proving themselves and showcasing their talent.

For some, it’s the start of the path in realizing a long-term dream.

Shahana Helal is a freelance graphic designer who spent her childhood in Alexandria, lived in the US for 10 years and came to Cairo three years ago. She has always been interested in exploring new places and attending interesting events. And this is what she does when presenting “‘Ala fein?” (“To Where?”), which highlights cultural, musical and art events.

“There are a lot of talents and events in Cairo that just need attention. We are trying to help people find them,” she says.

And while Di Salata was initially Bassiouni’s dream, now they all share the same vision.

“We all want to give people hope and make them believe in a better future. It’s about time we all do something for the country, even if it’s on a small scale,” Helal says.

Season to season

With the launch of Season 2, Bassiouni wanted Di Salata to have more exposure, and he thought an Egyptian rendition of “Gangnam Style” would do the trick.

Menna al-Kiey, the poet who wrote the lyrics for the song and who also presents the show “Sotouhy” (“My roof”), says the idea was to write random statements about different things in Egyptian society without making a mockery out of it.

The 22-year-old presenter used to recite her poetry at open-mic events, but Di Salata gave her the platform to reach a wider audience.

“Writing poetry is what I want to do in life, and Di Salata is helping me reach that target,” she says.

The online video magazine is set to expand, and its anniversary in March 2013 will be marked with more shows featuring new presenters.

The social hub is meant to “entertain, inform and inspire,” Bassiouni says, adding that he sees the platform playing a community service role in the future.

“We want to inspire people by entertaining them or teaching them something new. We want our presenters to somehow have an impact on people and to have [influence] among Internet users so we can use it for corporate social responsibility campaigns — tourism, poverty and educational [awareness] campaigns.”

And of course, the ultimate goal is to expand in the Arab world.

“We want to be a brand, to franchise. We want to sell the idea of the video magazine of Di Salata to exist in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and different countries. For each country to establish a Di Salata show that tackles their own issues and culture,” he adds.

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