By Kara Fitzgerald Elgarhy
Da7ee7 is by all accounts a success story. Amassing more than 1 billion views since its establishment in 2014, the online edutainment show hosted by Ahmed Elghandour ’16 has captivated and enlightened viewers across Egypt, the Arab world and beyond with equally funny and smart takes on subjects from the science of migraines to the history of the Berlin Wall.
However, Taher El Moataz Bellah ’14, in writing his latest book, El Da7ee7: Behind the Scenes, did not set out to outline a success story. In fact, he didn’t even originally plan to write a book about Da7ee7. El Moataz Bellah instead sought to write about a series of contemporary startups. When he first began writing in 2018, Da7ee7 was only one of the chapters, but in 2019, after five years of episodes and becoming a smash hit on YouTube all over the Arab world, he decided it deserved its own book.
Still, the idea was not to celebrate or memorialize. For El Moataz Bellah, the show was a case study. “You examine a case study not to idealize the protagonist but to take away learnings and build from it,” he said.
El Moataz Bellah did not write El Da7ee7: Behind the Scenes like a typical case study. Rather, the book is written in the format of the show itself — the same dialect, the same quippy and comedic style. “I wanted this book to target young audiences of the show who hadn’t read books before; I was hoping this would be their first book,” El Moataz Bellah explained. “So I zoomed in on this story about a familiar subject in a familiar language. I hoped that readers would hear Ahmed’s voice narrating the story.”
The book plays on the same synergies of education and entertainment as its subject matter — the synergies that attracted El Moataz Bellah first as an avid fan of the show, then as a contributing writer and, most recently, as its storyteller.
Reading as a Gateway
In telling the story of Da7ee7, El Moataz Bellah looked through the lens of his own tenure with the show and the nature of the time it emerged. He also looked to the early formative experiences of Elghandour that made Da7ee7 possible.
For instance, El Moataz Bellah attributes Elghandour’s status as an avid lifelong reader to simply having so much time and few options for entertainment during his childhood in Saudi Arabia. “He had nothing to do but go to the bookstore and sporting club once a week,” he explained. “So at 10 years old, he read his first complete novel and got hooked. By middle school, he was reading about the 2008 financial crisis and World War II.”
In fact, El Moataz Bellah describes reading as Elghandour’s first and core superpower, responsible in large part for the others. On road trips with his family from Medina to Jeddah, Elghandour — the eldest of five siblings — would pass the hours telling stories from what he read. To El Moataz Bellah, “he was a storyteller long before he knew it.” But he still had to practice. “In his initial videos, he was an average performer. But he was consistent. With discipline, he transformed. You can track it on YouTube. Video by video, he became more and more comfortable.”
Finding the Formula
When Elghandour first started Da7ee7, El Moataz Bellah was one of the earliest admirers, hooked even before the viral 2016 episode inspired by the movie Interstellar. El Moataz Bellah would share every episode and exchange articles and commentary with fellow AUC alumnus Elghandour.
In 2018, around the same time that he received a scholarship for his master’s study, Elghandour signed a deal with Post Office, a production startup that produced the pilot and coordinated an agreement to air Da7ee7 episodes on AJ+.
Somewhere in the midst of traveling back and forth between Hong Kong and Cairo, he realized he could no longer continue as the sole content creator and presenter. So Elghandour reached out to El Moataz Bellah to join a new team of writers. El Moataz Bellah describes this move — giving up the one- man venture for a diversely interested and talented team — as ultimately responsible for the longevity of the show and evidence of Elghandour’s strength as a leader: “He had to be mature enough to be willing to delegate,” El Moataz Bellah said.
The new team and new way of working inherently adjusted the show’s formula, from sharing purely scientific findings and studies to addressing a wide range of fields. Viewership rose as a result. “One of the questions asked when looking at some big and bold topics was, ‘Will the Arab audience care?’ And it was clear that yes, they do,” El Moataz Bellah recalled. “They don’t just want local news and comedy. They want to know what is happening in the world and become global citizens. That is one of the reasons episodes like Brexit did really well.”
The show’s expansion in scope has meant a virtually bottomless source of content. This added to other proven elements of its appeal, like the timeliness of introducing an online show and a general departure from political satire.
The AUC Years
Elghandour’s tenure at AUC also reflects this combination of circumstance and choice. His family supported him to attend AUC after years of fostering his love of reading and intellectual curiosity with the best international education they could afford, sending him on his own to Egypt and giving him the freedom to decide what to study.
At AUC, Elghandour benefited immensely from the rich intellectual activity on campus. El Moataz Bellah describes, “He fed on it, metaphorically and literally.” Indeed, during his time at AUC, Elghandour started a WhatsApp group called AUC Food, which published information about events and activities that offered both interesting scholarly opportunities and free food.
Tracing Elghandour’s journey through these formative vignettes in El Da7ee7: Behind the Scenes allowed El Moataz Bellah to tell the story of Da7ee7 the way he sees it: “It’s not just a story of a genius but also the luck and privilege of having a loving family and inherent ability transformed through a world-class education and hard work.”
Now at Harvard Business School, El Moataz Bellah is all too familiar with case studies, and he continues to reflect on his own takeaways from observing, contributing to and studying Da7ee7 — chief among them, the power of communicating big ideas through entertaining characters and narrative. It’s a thread that’s clear in his El Da7ee7a (“The Nerds”) series, his biography of Princess Diana and his upcoming work about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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