What if your life as you know it was taken away from you — just for telling a joke?
While for many this may sound like the premise of a sequel to Sasha Baron Cohen’s ‘The Dictator’, for Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef it is absolute, terrifying reality. Youssef, a former heart surgeon who became the host of ‘Al-Bernameg’ (’The Show’) the most watched and greatest success in Egyptian TV and YouTube history, has been living in self-imposed exile, in the U.S. since 2014, when ‘Al-Bernameg’ was taken off the air. Well, “self-imposed” may be deceiving, since Youssef believes that although he could go back to Egypt freely, once there he may never be allowed to leave the country again.
And why did this all happen?
Because Bassem Youssef is guilty of telling the best kinds of jokes, the ones that while making us laugh, also hit straight to the heart of the matter. And some politicians got their feathers all ruffled because of Youssef’s humor. The subject of a wonderful new documentary titled ‘Tickling Giants’, directed by ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’ producer Sara Taksler and opening on March 15th in the US, Youssef grabbed one of those proverbial feathers and rubbed it under the toes of then-President Morsi and current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, and in the process, pissed off the one giant driving force for the worst kind of fundamentalism in our world: Politicians and those who love them.
I met Youssef, who has the most hauntingly intense eyes I’ve ever witnessed, in Dubai, where he often visits. While we talked, I noticed a kind of melancholy about this man who has made a living in the last six years out of making people laugh. He himself hardly smiles but his gentle humanity is betrayed by his kind voice. Since leaving Egypt, Youssef has lost both his parents, has changed homes a few times, from Cambridge where he was asked to teach at Harvard in the spring of 2015, to the West Coast where he now lives with his wife and daughter. And through the stress that go hand-in-hand with turning from friend to foe for an entire country, personal tragedy and upheaving his life and family, he has also enjoyed a new American success — a career in a completely different language from his native Arabic, which ranges from a digital series with Fusion titled ‘The Democracy Handbook’, to various appearances on stage and on TV, and new projects in the works.
On Tuesday March 21st, Youssef will bring “Bassem Youssef: Revolution for Dummies” to The Town Hall in NYC. He calls this latest endeavor “a one man show, standup, story-telling journey where I speak about the media in the Middle East, what happened in the Arab Spring and compare it with what happens here.” It’s perfect timing given our current political climate but also because the show coincides exactly with the release date of his first book, titled, you guessed it, ‘Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring’. Prepare to laugh until you cry NYC!
Following are the highlights of my talk with Bassem Youssef in Dubai, which ranged from him admitting that his Egypt “does not exist anymore,” to Youssef drawing similarities between his birth country and the US in the Trump era, to the secret of what turns every one of us into fifth graders these days and even what important life lesson we can all learn from the radio.
Born in Egypt, here you are this heart surgeon who decides that to save even more lives it is probably better to go into comedy?
Bassem Youssef: People tend to put this into a romantic context. It’s not like I thought “I need to show the people!” It was really very organic. I mean, I was there, I saw what was happening in the streets and me and a couple of friends decided that we would put something on YouTube. I always liked Jon Stewart, and my friend wanted to test a concept of putting original Arabic content on YouTube. In 2011 we didn’t have any original Arabic content. So for him it was a test and for me it was fulfilling my dream of doing something remotely similar to ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’. I didn’t believe, or think or even imagine that it would be that big. I expected ten thousand views and I ended up with five million in eight weeks. I should change my story and make myself more heroic.
But the show really ended up being the perfect storm in Egypt.
Youssef: Yeah, I think that it was timing, it was the message, people needed a way to vent the frustration at the media and I offered that. At that time, I didn’t expect that I would leave my job and do it. That first season of the show I was still a doctor, I was still going to shifts to do operations. I didn’t leave my job. It really happened organically, I know it’s less romantic… We took it one thing at a time. I didn’t say, “Right, I’m going to save people now by making them laugh.” It didn’t happen like that.
I know you come back to Dubai quite often, how does it feel to be so close, and yet so far from home?
Youssef: I stopped pondering too much about it, it’s healthier that way. Because it’s not a physical place, it’s what you have done and what was taken away from you. To have such a success that most people can’t even imagine having in all of their lifetime, in such a short period, and then watching yourself being stripped away from all of it, all of this taken away from you overnight, becoming an outcast and an enemy of the state after being a national hero... I didn’t mind it because I saw it coming but also losing both of my parents in the period of one year. It is not the same place anymore. So when people say, “do you miss Egypt?” I say, well the Egypt that I miss does not exist anymore. What I have done and what I achieved is not there anymore. The people that I relate most to are not there. Even the mood that I had there, it has ceased to exist. So it is a totally different place.
When you moved to the US, it was a different place. There were things then that were unimaginable to most US citizens, which actually happened within the next 24 months...
Youssef: Like Donald Trump?! The Orange Menace. For me it was pretty much a déjà vu of what I’d seen. As I saw him rise, towards the end I was kind of like “hum”… It could actually happen. The similarities, the populism, the “demagoguery” — he’s a demagogue. It was just like a repetition of what I’ve seen, using the politics of fear. Using identity, politics and people don’t even care about facts anymore. They use what is already there to reinforce what they want and what they already feel. No common sense will work anymore. Common sense becomes a stranger and it is replaced by hate and fear and anger.
Do you think we are in that kind of world right now, where we are throwing our thoughts at each other through social media but we’re never really listening to anyone?
Youssef: Yeah, why listen? I have my own pulpit. Why do I have to listen to you, I feel more important this way… In social media everyone has their own platform, they’re on a stage and everybody is watching. And there, anger is louder and it gets more attention. So basically we turn into fifth graders just smearing each other.
Are you angry at what happened to you?
Youssef: I am frustrated, of course, because at the end of the day it’s my country. And to see it be abused this way, from a freedom standpoint and an economical standpoint even, and for the fact that people don’t even see that what happened is wrong. You go through stages and right now I’m trying to focus again on my own success and my own survival in a totally different, cutthroat competitive environment in the United States. It’s going to be very difficult, it’s a tough nut to crack. This is what I try to focus my energy on right now.
What is different about your book ‘Democracy for Dummies’ from other books about the Arab Spring?
Youssef: I noticed with books that are trying to explain the Arab Spring, they are very scientific and objective, so I decided not to do that. My book is totally nonscientific, totally subjective and full of pseudo science, and pseudo knowledge and I will give my readers the lowdown and dirty perspective of what the f**k happened in Egypt in the last five years, from a satirist’s point of view. I try to add a little bit of humor, it’s my story embedded in the Arab Spring. Being a doctor turned into a satirist, and then the Revolution having all of these high hopes, what the f**k are the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. There is a chapter called “What is Political Islam” and the first line is “Don’t expect anything out of this, everything I’m going to tell you is totally wrong.” It’s that kind of book.
Which is a film you remember watching?
Youssef: I always remember ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’. I like those two movies and watched them one week apart, in 1996.
Do you have a favorite song at the moment?
Youssef: If you asked me four weeks ago, it would have been Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills’ but now I like ‘It Ain’t My Fault’. I like listening to the radio, I don’t have a playlist on my phone. I like the surprises that radio throws at me. I’m exposed to whatever the DJ wants to send my way. I don’t like doing playlists.
You diversify that way, you let radio be your playlist. Is that how we should learn to live life?
Youssef: Yeah, we should. Make yourself open to whatever possibilities are out there. It’s more interesting, it’s fun.
To someone who doesn’t know you, how would you describe yourself?
Youssef: I’m a heart surgeon who left everything to become a political satirist, and I paid dearly for that. I’m someone who has been hated because of my jokes.
All images used with permission.