SAT-7 recently gave thanks for the life of one of its best-loved and most influential children’s producers.
Network staff and SAT-7 viewers of all ages spoke of the inspiration and encouragement they had received from Cairo producer-presenter Mounir Zakhary, who died from kidney disease on 1 July.
Mounir was one of the first and most experienced children’s producers to join SAT-7 when he left Egyptian National Television in 1998.
Two decades before this Mounir had begun his career as a cartoonist, a talent he continued to use on SAT-7 KIDS and when meeting with children, especially in recent years when he made frequent visits to bring joy to the lives of youngsters in the Children’s Cancer Hospital in Cairo.
As a cartoonist, he was following in the steps of an older brother, Ramses, a well-known television cartoonist. Mounir’s talent, too, found early recognition. He held his first exhibition in 1976 while still a student. Later, he was one of the founders of a weekly arts magazine and worked on the state-run newspaper Rose al-Youssef.
In the 1990s, Mounir switched to children’s television production for the Egyptian national broadcaster. On screen he created programmes that were designed to inspire children to enjoy and develop their art and creativity.
“I was the only Christian producer there,” he told SAT-7 Egypt reporter Mary Joseph in 2017. Although the role didn’t allow him to show his faith openly, he said, “I tried through my work there to present all the Christian values that we learn in the Bible implicitly throughout the ten years I worked there.”
Creativity and understanding
Mounir brought a depth of experience coupled with rich creativity and an innate understanding of children when he joined SAT-7’s two-year-old Arabic channel in 1998.
He began by producing a range of children’s segments that quickly grew into larger ones: storytelling programme Marina’s Stories, a puppet show called Grandpa Kalames, and education segments on jobs and animals for the Assanabel children’s news magazine.
Mounir brought competitive fun to the channel with Bible game show Mini Match and the talent show High Speed, in which teams from two churches showed off their knowledge and talents. In The Camp teenagers camped in a desert area played games and learned how to cooperate to overcome survival challenges.
Another important innovation was Message from a Sunday School. This long-running series continued when SAT-7 KIDS was established as a stand-alone channel in 2008.
“Message from a Sunday School allowed us to connect with children across Egypt,” Mounir explained. “We visited many churches in Alexandria, Mansoura, Beni Suef and Assiut to film with the children there.”
In a country where 60 per cent of the population are poor* and unable to travel widely this was an important way for isolated Christian children and families to feel represented.
Mounir’s vision was wider than Egypt, though. “When I have a programme idea, I consider all the children of the whole Arab region, not just in Egypt,” he told Mary.
A cartoonist’s sense of humour often found its way into Mounir’s television programmes. As a gifted comic actor, he played the uncle of the lead character in a recent comedy drama, Dok Dok’s Family. The show highlighted character issues and problem solving as it followed a young inventor who regularly resolved the mayhem caused by his chaotic inventor father. An earlier drama show, Salkat and Malkat (named after the two leading characters), featured two teenage boys and a third, more mischievous one, as it used fun and laughter to tackle various teenage issues.
Mounir’s favourite programme literally took him back to the drawing board. Uncle Mounir’s Scribbles was a live art show. For someone who said, “Art is not a job; this is my life,” it was a dream programme. Alongside educational segments it showcased children’s artwork and also invited them to send in photos with details of their hobbies that Mounir could quickly turn into cartoon portraits.
Mounir was determined that Scribbles should give practical ideas, using simple materials, to the widest possible audience. Believing that “art is a universal language”, he wanted to use it to reach children of all backgrounds, including those made homeless by war and most at risk of radicalisation.
He was convinced that if a child could develop their artistic skills, they would not be drawn down destructive or violent paths.
“We have a problem in the Middle East with children that lack identity or talent,” he explained. “They are lost and can easily turn into terrorists because they don’t get any cultural nurturing from their surroundings. So, instead of them killing me in the future, I encourage them to draw, play music or discover any artistic talents they might have!”
Mounir has one son himself, but through SAT-7 his respect for children and natural ability to relate to them made him a role model for millions.
“Children are very smart and have a radar that can detect if you are lying to them,” he said. “I have a good relationship with children. During family gatherings, I talk to the children and play with them. To me, this is better than sitting with boring adults and gives their parents a break from scolding their children.
“Children watch us closely and so we must be responsible for every move and every word we say, because they learn from us. I respect children and appreciate them. Children can feel the difference in treatment. That’s why I respect them.”
Marian Ramses, Mounir’s niece and a fellow SAT-7 producer, described Mounir as her “teacher and role model in Christian media”: “He focused in his programmes on children. Everything in the programme from the title to the final production had to be interesting for the children and beneficial to them.”
Sharing happiness with young cancer patients
In recent years, Mounir needed weekly dialysis treatment for kidney disease. But this too launched him into further ministry, as a regular visitor to young patients and their families at the Cairo Children’s Cancer Hospital. Sometimes he took musician and artist friends, and, of course, he would take his sketch book to offer children their cartoon portrait.
“I go twice weekly to the hospital for dialysis, so I understand the pain children in hospitals feel,” he said. “That’s my motivation to go to children who are cancer patients. I might meet a child one day, but next week they’re gone. It upsets me. We never know how long they will remain alive. The hospital staff call our team The Happiness Makers because we give the sick children and their parents positive energy.”
When Mounir’s death was announced on 2 July, SAT-7 KIDS’s flagship live show from Cairo, Family of Jesus, invited viewers to share their memories of him. Many, like Sherry Botros, expressed their thanks for the influence he had on them:
“When I was six years old, I met Uncle Mounir. He drew my caricature and encouraged me to draw. I still draw now after five years. I’m 13 years-old now. I miss Uncle Mounir a lot, but I know that He is with Jesus in heaven looking happily over the Family of Jesus team, who will continue his legacy.”
Below are just two of the many tributes made within SAT-7 that show Mounir’s invaluable contribution to the SAT-7 KIDS channel, its viewers and team of producers.
Marian Magdy, programme director at SAT-7 KIDS
Uncle Mounir was unique. He always helped other producers and his team. He encouraged everyone around him and gave them assistance. He was patient with everyone and gave them his time when they needed him. Even when he was feeling ill, he’d go to church events in the heat of summer to spend time with the children and draw their caricatures to make them happy. He didn’t mind the pain or the discomfort he’d feel there because of the heat and the crowds; he only sought to make the children happy.”
Rita El-Mounayer, SAT-7 International Chief Executive Officer
Mounir, I first saw your passion and love towards the children you served through SAT-7 in 1998, and this is when we connected. You walked alongside me and never stopped encouraging and helping me even when I moved away from production to administration. You were among the first to help with Children Programming in Egypt, uniting the kids’ production team with Lebanon. You were among the first to present ideas and articulate challenges and the first to get behind SAT-7 KIDS launch in 2007, celebrating and praying for miracles. We will miss you. I will miss you. You are in our thoughts and hearts. Until we meet again in His glory.”
*World Bank report, 2019