Ahlan, Dolly!

The Next Netflix Star Is an Egyptian Puppet

Instagram celebrity Abla Fahita is slated to be translated into 20 languages

A moment from a Abla Fahita show.
Screenshot from El Duplex I الدوبلكس/YouTube

She’s neither actress nor singer nor model but commands a massive following on Instagram, has a successful international career and graces the grand openings of movies and film festivals with her presence.

Egyptian celebrity Abla Fahita (ابلة فاهيتا) now has her own television show on Netflix. In spoken Egyptian Arabic she is better known as Duda Fahita, and she’s actually not a person but a puppet, and a first class starlet in the Arab world.

Under the contract signed with Netflix last month, her program will be translated into 20 languages and streamed across some 200 countries. The program will air this year and tell the puppet’s personal story, her rise to stardom and then her downfall by running afoul of the law and facing difficulties in raising her children, Karkura and Modi, as a single mom.

Just like a genuine public figure, she lives and breathes via a well-oiled public relations firm. She has stood up before Arab media to say: “Who even wants to attain international status? I have enough work as it is. I agreed only due to a commitment of the Netflix family to translate the program into 20 languages in at least 190 countries. That’s how I’ll actually reach 158 million people. My whole life I’ve said that Egyptian comedy is like its cotton, an essential product that must be exported. For the entire world suffers and only Egyptian humor can extricate it from the depression from which it suffers.”

Fahita has been famous since 2010, when she appeared in an ad for Egyptian cell phone company Vodafone. She plugged a new Egyptian SIM card using satire, as the voice of a widow whose husband was the “late Sim.” Egypt’s CBC TV spotted the commercial potential and offered the puppet a talk show in 2015: “Live from Abla Fahita’s Duplex.” She hosted public figures and singers for six seasons. She didn’t spare the establishment and delved into such issues as unemployment, the high cost of living and housing difficulties. Within a short time she racked up a following of millions from all over the Arab world on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

And now we have reached the stage in which we must ask – who invented this character? Whose brilliant mind came up with the controversial satirical heroine who even criticizes the regime?

His name is Hatem al-Kashef, an Egyptian actor and screenwriter in his 30s who studied theater in Cairo and the United States. While working in a public relations firm in Egypt he invented the Abla Fahita character and put her on YouTube in 2010. From there, she took off.

Al-Kashef produces the show almost on his own: He operates the puppet and is also responsible for the show’s content – mimicry, visuals and all. He succeeds in combining skillful black humor with political, social and economic criticism, sending clear and stinging messages. For example, in one program Fahita is hosting one of Egypt’s hottest actors, Dhaffer L’Abidine, who hails from Tunisia, and asks women in the studio audience: “This is material imported from abroad; we don’t see this in Egypt. Whoever comes near him will be shot by my snipers.”

Tunisian actor Dhaffer L’Abidine has been one of the hosts at Abla Fahita's show.
Jorge Herrera / AP

“Hold my hand,” she tells the actor and when he does, she says, “Not too closely, we’re being watched by the morality police and the censor.” Then she tells women in the audience: “Isn’t it true you’d all like a bite of this ice cream cone?”

Fahita’s character is well developed from a number of standpoints, above all, visually. She’s lovely, colorful, fashionable and shiny. She has her own stylist, fashion designer Hani al-Bahiri. She’s a widow raising two children on her own but exudes sexuality, by her looks and what she has to say.

She’s presented as a sensual, gossipy, funny, critical female. Al-Kashef wasn’t interested in a superficially entertaining character, especially considering the crisis in Egypt nowadays, but makes sure his character is stingingly funny and aggravating. Therefore it didn’t seem unusual that after four years on the air, in 2019 it seemed Fahita had disappeared. It turns out that CBC was sued no less than 300 times for Ablati’s remarks. But justice prevailed, because now the puppet is making an international comeback.

Fahita slaughters many holy cows. Her humor takes aim at religious and sexual taboos, if cautiously. Still, for her, there are no clear boundaries. She strives to extend the boundaries of dialogue and comedy.

Fahita’s shows generally host celebrities and other successful people. We have not seen many rank and file Egyptians or poor people on the air, and perhaps this is really the best way to address the Egyptian people: by mixing unachievable success with criticism on the screen, there’s a chance they will listen. We can hope that besides some great humor, the Netflix series will also lead to a straight, honest look at reality.