Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Salah has been turned into a symbol of pride, modesty, and good morals. But what is at the heart of the hero worship?
CAIRO — Did you know that Mo Salah is made of "0% fat, 0% grease, 100% morals?"
Did you know that the real theory of relativism belonged to Mo Salah, and it was called the Salahiyya, but out of modesty and morality, Abu Makka gifted it to Albert Einstein? This is why it is called the theory of relativism — because Salah ‘related" it to Einstein!
Albert Einstein and Mohamed Salah — Photo: @palestinianmemes via Instagram
In a wave of trending memes across Arabic social media pages, Egyptian soccer player Mohamed (Mo) Salah has been turned into a symbol of Arab pride, modesty, and good morals. Some of these memes exaggerate everyday activities like breathing or drinking water, expressing surprise that Salah drinks normal Earth water like everyone else, or claiming that he blocks his mouth with his hand in order to leave some oxygen for other people.
Other memes tap into the imagination, making up stories that fit with the morals fans associate with Salah. One meme features an image of Gandhi (and evokes a famous hadith by the Prophet Muhammad), reading: "You should marry a girl who has good looks, because all the good morals have been taken by Mohamed Salah." Another one suggests that "Cristiano Ronaldo tried to drown his wife Georgina, but the Pride of the Arabs, Mohamed Salah, rushed to save her."
While we might scroll past these memes, dismissing them after a light giggle, a quick "like" or a "share", a closer look shows that they contain several layers of meaning. These "Pride of the Arabs' memes have a complex relationship to fandom, identity, values, and the way we express them. In creating and sharing these memes, Internet users are not only expressing their love for Salah, they are simultaneously commenting on their culture and the morals that they want to promote.
Salah becomes a connecting figure across different Arab countries
Previous articles about these memes have pointed out the fact that Arabs have not had such a source of pride in soccer for a long time. Zinedine Zidane, the French player of Algerian origin, may have been close to this hero status in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but his headbutting Italy's Marco Materazzi's chest in the 2006 World Cup final significantly detracted his status for some. Egypt's Ahmed Hossam (Mido) also played internationally in the early 2000s, but continual friction with his teammates and managers gave the public the impression that he was difficult to handle.
Mo Salah has reached far beyond what any other Arab soccer players has in the past. He's been called the king of Egypt, the prince of Egypt, and even the fourth pyramid. In Cairo, a mural of Salah has become a place of pilgrimage, where his image sits next to historical cultural figures like singer and songwriter Umm Kulthum. Mostly, though, fans seem to appreciate how Salah stayed true to his humble beginnings even after becoming internationally famous.
Said El-Shishini, who coached him on the Arab Contractors' under-16 team, says that despite his fame, Salah never forgot about his home village, Nagrig, north of Cairo. An article in El Watan News features testimonials from residents of the village, demonstrating his humility and his loyalty to the place where he grew up. One resident says: "Mohamed is a simple man who enjoys high morals, respect, and humility, and despite his status and stardom, he does not think himself superior to anyone else in his village. He has done many charitable deeds for the residents of his and the nearby villages."
The creators of these memes name Salah "Pride of the Arabs' to celebrate not only his humility and morality, but most importantly his global success, which may help lift up an image of Arabness that stands counter to common images of Arabs that have dominated global media for decades. Salah's fame, in other words, is an opportunity for the world to see that an Arab man can be a successful athlete, a modest individual despite his fame, and a loyal person who is generous to his community.
"Cristiano Ronaldo tries to drown his wife, but Pride of the Arabs hurries to save her" — Photo: @shitarabsneversay via Instagram
While these memes express how proud Arab fans are to have someone like Salah, pride alone does not explain why they contain so much exaggeration and fictional stories that are so over-the-top that their creators are not even trying to mask the fact that they are made up; it's all part of the humor. In one such post, Salah is seen on a boat holding a fish on a hook with a caption that says: "Mohamed Salah saves a fish from drowning. You are amazing, Pride of the Arabs."
The majority of Salah's fanbase does not seem fazed by criticism directed at the star. The attack on him for posting a smiling selfie after a deadly train crash that took place in February in Cairo without an acknowledgment of the tragedy, and for some comments he made about "Egyptians' lack of interest in education" in a press conference one month later, did little to abate the majority of his fans' gushing admiration. The excessive "Pride of the Arabs' memes continued, regardless.
The paradox is that while fans seem to gobble up these fictional stories, they also appear to be mocking their own excitement. This can be interpreted as a particular form of self-awareness. After a long period of scarcity, fans are now expressing the cathartic joy of finally grabbing hold of this long-awaited pride, so they are gripping on to Salah so tightly that it is bringing them to laugh even at themselves. In short, the Mo Salah memes are here to say: we know we're too excited, but we're not going to stop celebrating.
These "Pride of the Arabs' memes have a complex relationship to fandom, identity, values, and the way we express them.
This celebration of Salah's presumed morality and modesty extends beyond the realm of sports, as fans use the qualities associated with Salah to comment on their local politics. Salah thus becomes a connecting figure across different Arab countries, not only bringing pride to Arabs on the soccer pitch, but also raising civic issues that are important for his fans. During the Yellow Vest protests in Lebanon, someone held a sign that read "Learn modesty from Mohamed Salah — your morals are amazing, Pride of the Arabs." In Jordan, someone tweeted an image of Salah crying during last year's Champions League final with the caption: "Salah cries after he finds out the salary of Jordanian employees." Another image of Salah with someone who looks like him is captioned: "Salah donates his face to the poor."
In this way, fans draw on the imagined and exaggerated stories they've constructed around Salah to call on their politicians to be more just. Salah becomes a symbol synonymous with values people all over the region are longing to see represented in the political sphere. He is there without necessarily being there: Even if Salah is not himself politically involved in certain causes, the image that fans have constructed of him is enough to represent the principles for which they are calling. That image thus becomes useful not only as a representation of Arabs outside the Arab world, but also locally in different contexts.
While the Pride of the Arabs memes emphasize praiseworthy qualities like modesty, there is a specific idea of masculinity entangled within this notion. Whether it is saving Ronaldo's wife from her husband, or saving Messi's wife from her own nudity, the Pride of the Arabs is portrayed as a savior of a damsel in distress. The depiction of women as fragile, helpless beings that need to be saved and the policing of women's clothing are entangled within the idea of how a moral and modest heroic man behaves.
Meme of Mohamed Salah covering up the wife of soccer player Lionel Messi — Photo: @a5la3 via Instagram
It is worth remembering that these narratives are not based on Salah's behavior, but on the fiction created in these memes (in fact, Salah himself says we could do much better when it comes to women's rights). The most recent meme of this kind was from the Champions League final match on June 1, 2019, when a woman ran onto the field in a swimsuit. Fans posted pictures of Salah looking away or praying, emphasizing that as a demonstration of his morality. Interestingly, the same day that Mo Salah scored one of the winning goals for Liverpool in the Champions League final, Egypt's Sarah Essam, the first Egyptian woman to compete in the Premier League, won a golden boot, and many wondered why Essam did not receive the same recognition as Salah, stirring a debate about the place of women in international sports. So, despite misogyny not being the prominent theme in Mo Salah memes, its entanglement as a part of morality is worth paying attention to, especially since this is not unique to Mo Salah memes alone, or to Internet or sports culture.
The Salah effect has gone far beyond the national bounds of his home country Egypt, and beyond the Arab world. The fandom of Salah the soccer player, Salah the national hero, and Salah the fictional superhero are synthesized, turning him into a folk hero of sorts. During the Champions League final match in Madrid on June 1, the streets of Madrid also seemed to celebrate Salah, and fans from different countries chanted: "Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, if he's good enough for you, he's good enough for me, if he scores another few, then I'll be Muslim too."
It has become obvious that as Salah dribbles his way across the pitch, conversations are sparked about values, beliefs, and attitudes that extend beyond the field. The takeaway here is twofold: On the one hand, it is hard not to acknowledge and even admire how fans continue to find creative ways to engage with sociopolitical issues and critique the status quo — this only emphasizes how intertwined sports are with politics and culture. On the other hand, it is just as important to recognize the unequal gender power dynamics and harmful stereotypes that this meme trend often reinforces. Excitement at Salah's achievements and finally having positive representation in international sports can serve as rose-colored glasses that make us overlook the work that still needs to be done towards a more equitable internet environment, sports scene, and society at large. Creativity and imagination are crucial for thinking about culture and politics in today's world. However, it is just as crucial to emphasize the blind spots in that imagination, or we will surely find ourselves right back where we started.