N.Y. deli owner an Egyptian TV star
NEW YORK – Every other day or so, Hatem El-Gamasy connects to a news audience nearly halfway around the world, delivering hot takes on U.S. politics, live from New York, but on Egyptian television.
When the broadcast ends, he slips out his earpieces, opens the door of his makeshift studio and returns to his day job.
“You want ketchup on that?” he said to a customer on a recent morning. “Extra ketchup as usual?”
El-Gamasy owns the Lotus Deli in Ridgewood, Queens, a place known for its sandwiches, extensive craft beer selection, and its gracious, friendly owner. But few of his customers – and likely, none of his viewers in Egypt – know that the man making egg sandwiches and small talk behind the counter is the same one who appears on popular Egyptian television news programs, holding forth on subjects from immigration policy to North Korea.
Nor do many know that his television studio is actually a washroom in the back, past the potato chips display.
After a reporter approached El-Gamasy about his two careers, he decided to go public for the first time.
“The fear for being exposed is that they’ll say, ‘He’s just a sandwich guy. How does he talk about these big issues?’ ” said ElGamasy, 48, sipping coffee in his bodega on Seneca Avenue on a recent morning. “But I’m also an educated guy, and being a sandwich guy is not against the law.
“And look at what I say,” he added. “It’s very credible.”
El-Gamasy’s improbable broadcast career began last year, not long after he wrote an opinion piece for an Egyptian news organization predicting Donald Trump’s victory in November, at a time when Hillary Clinton was still nearly 20 points ahead in the polls.
He had written op-ed pieces over the years, mostly as a hobby. But the article predicting Trump’s victory caught the attention of someone at the Egyptian state broadcaster, Nile TV, who was looking to interview an Egyptian-American about the election.
The interview went well; ElGamasy’s phone began ringing with more requests, each one expanding his journalistic reputation in a country that has been known to detain reporters.
“He’s very polished and he knows about political life and political news in America,” Muhammad El-Muhammady, a producer for ONtvLIVE, said in an interview from his office in Cairo. “He can talk about a variety of political topics,” he said, from the president’s posts on Twitter to hurricanes, and he is deeply prepared for every broadcast.
“If I said I need something specific, he will say, ‘No, wait, I have to verify this,’” El-Muhammady added. “If he doesn’t know, he says so.”
A former English teacher from the Monufia province in Northern Egypt, El-Gamasy moved to Brooklyn in 1999 to study teaching English as a second language at St. John’s University. To support himself, he took a job at a deli counter in an Associated Supermarket in lower Manhattan.
He was working there in 2003 when a woman, a psychotherapist from Chicago who was to return home that month, walked in and asked for a sandwich.
“Extra vegetables,” he recalled. They went for pizza next door. “I knew if I was going to have one more pizza with her, we would be married,” he said.
They had more pizza: Lynette Green and El-Gamasy have been married for 13 years. They have two children, Faizah, 12, and Omar, 8.
He bought the deli in Queens about four years ago, and amid the bricks of cheese and cold cuts, El-Gamasy found something of a vantage point into the American psyche.
During the run-up to the presidential election, his backand-forth with Ridgewood’s newest arrivals – “my hipsters,” he said – helped hone his understanding of millennial disenchantment with politics, their rancor around the Democratic Party’s treatment of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and their disgust that their middle-class parents outside of New York planned to vote for Trump.
“Most of the customers, they vent to the bodega owner,” he said. “And actually, I listen.”
On a recent morning, a pair of customers stood beside a shelf of ramen packets for an hour, heatedly discussing politics. One customer, Kelvin Gerold, paid for his coffee, and headed out, leaving behind a conversation about entrenched misogyny, only to return a few minutes later to add another thought for El-Gamasy, known to his customers as Timmy.
“I don’t think he is undermined by the fact that he makes sandwiches,” said Gerold, 41, a computer network engineer. “Think of all the people you meet in your corner store; you meet people from every single walk of life and every single political opinion, range and spectrum.”
Plus, he said, “The bacon, egg and cheese is ridiculous.”
On Thursday morning, ElGamasy’s phone rang. A producer from ONtvLIVE, which positions itself as a politically independent Egyptian television network, wanted to know if El-Gamasy was available. The quick transformation into Clark Kent began: El-Gamasy removed the clear plastic deli gloves, the flat cap he uses to keep his hair back over the griddle, and the apron that protects his dress shirts from fryer splatter. On went his suit jacket and earpieces; he ran past the house bodega cat, curled on a garbage bag, and into his backroom studio.
“Sometimes I’ll be busy with an order with my customer, then I will have to jump. It’s – ‘One. Two. You’re live,’ ” he said, imitating the booming voice of a newscaster. “It’s, ‘Mr. Gamasy, are we going to war in North Korea?’ ” (The shoot that day was ultimately postponed.)
El-Gamasy decorated the walls of the converted washroom with maps of the United States, lending an academiclike backdrop to his televised appearances.
When news producers have asked what he does for a living, El-Gamasy has been evasive. (Last week, when a television network sent a camera crew to interview him on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he met them at the bodega, but did not mention it was his. “I asked them if they wanted to stop for a sandwich,” he said. “I said, ‘I know the guy.’ ”)
El-Muhammady, the news producer from Egypt, said he did not know that El-Gamasy owned a bodega, and did not care. “The quality of the work is more important than the appearance of the person or the company,” he said.
As for the washroom-turned studio, he added, “Good for him that he prepared something that looks nice.”
Next week, El-Gamasy said he will report from the U.N. General Assembly for several stations in Egypt. He sees his role as part translator of the American people to his homeland, and part goodwill ambassador for a country where he feels more at home than where he was born. “With Mr. Trump as president, I feel compelled to explain America more to the Middle East,” he said.
“Over here, the sky is the limit,” El-Gamasy said. “And I’m living proof of it.”