Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon living with his wife and baby daughter in Cairo, was one of millions of Egyptians whose lives were changed forever by the Arab Spring. His story, however, is unique. Nicknamed ‘the Jon Stewart of Egypt’, Bassem shot to fame for uploading political satire videos to YouTube from his laundry room, which later turned into a successful comedy show watched by millions on one of Egypt’s biggest TV networks.
But his fame came at a cost. When the newly elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted in a military coup, Bassem began to feel the pressure to direct his comedy away from the powers that be. His satirical mocking of the Brotherhood had succeeded in holding them to account and aided the growing movement of discontent against them. But Egypt’s new President, Abd Al Fattah Al-Sisi recognised the danger Bassem’s show could pose to his authority. Bassem was offered the option to keep his fame and his show if he focused his comedy on less political issues.
But he refused to be co-opted, remaining committed to his belief in the importance of comedy for holding the people in power accountable – whoever they may be. He was surprised to find less support than he had hoped for from the Egyptian people. Many of those who had laughed along at his jokes when they were directed at the Brotherhood now found his comedy offensive, overlooking the need for freedom of expression in their unquestioning loyalty to the army.
Fearing arrest, Bassem was eventually forced to leave Egypt for good, taking up exile in the US. His remarkable book, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring, tells his fascinating story and offers some useful insights into the nuances of the Arab Spring, explaining how social and cultural factors as well as politics have helped shape the outcome of the movement in Egypt and beyond. He also draws a number of frightening comparisons between autocratic regimes in the Middle East and the authoritarian tendencies of President Donald Trump.
Since settling in America, Bassem returned to comedy with a YouTube series, Democracy Handbook, which explores political life in the USA from a Middle Eastern perspective, against the backdrop of political polarisation, racial inequality and widespread Islamophobia. He takes his satire to Trump rallies and gun shops, where he quizzes unsuspecting Americans on their constitution, democracy, and ideological beliefs with hilarious (if somewhat terrifying) results.
In a particularly memorable episode, Bassem interviews the owner of a Florida gun shop advertising itself as an MFZ (‘Muslim free zone’). The shop owner proudly shows Bassem his selection of Mohammed targets, ‘ISIS hunting permits’ and JFM (‘Jihadi Fighting Machine’) shotguns that are pre-lubricated with pig fat gun oil and come with a “free Infidel t-shirt” – all the while not realising that he is being interviewed by a Muslim.
Bassem has also started a podcast – ReMade in America – in which he discusses beginning a new life in America as an Egyptian Muslim during the current period of political turbulence and polarisation. He interviews a number of high profile guests from various racial and religious backgrounds, exploring the concept of belonging and being an outsider. One such guest is Iranian-American actor Maz Jobrani, who discusses how he was always cast as the terrorist in Hollywood movies.
Fascinating and entertaining, ReMade in America is essential listening for anyone who has experienced the feeling of being an ‘outsider’ – though it is arguably even more crucial listening for those who haven’t, as it offers a lesson or two about empathy, tolerance, and different cultural experiences.
Unfortunately, Bassem’s overall outlook for the Middle East is less than optimistic: “I can firmly state that in all the possible outcomes for our universe, the one remaining constant is that the Arab World will always be f*cked.”
But as long as there are people like him challenging authority in the region, whatever the cost, I personally refuse to believe that to be the case!
Bassem also tells his story in his Netflix documentary, Tickling Giants
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