N.Y. deli owner an Egyp­tian TV star

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Sarah Maslin Nir

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.”

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