Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef navigates the American dream

Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef navigates the American dream
7 min read
12 March, 2020
As Youssef tours the US with his new one man show, based on his life story, his journey into new genres reflects a personal and as well as societal shift.
Youssef rose to fame during the Egyptian revolution [Getty]
On a Vancouver stage, Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef is trying out some new material. Re-inventing himself as satirist and storyteller – in a kind of Ted X meets stand-up routine for a keynote speech at the University of British Columbia – he delivers one liners and sharp political observations from a podium.

The mainly student audience laughs and applauds enthusiastically, but this feels like a practice run for Youssef's new one man show based on his life story, Late for Democracy, that is now touring the US.

Youssef's journey into new genres reflects a personal and as well as societal shift.

When the former heart surgeon first emerged in 2011 as the "Egyptian Jon Stewart" he appealed to an Obama-era America who still saw itself as a champion of freedom of speech.

But in these darker days of Trumpian fake news he appears to be adjusting – if uneasily – to the reality of the American dream.

He divides his hybrid keynote which he calls the "Middle Eastern Monologues" into several titled sections, covering similar ground to his 2017 book Revolution for Dummies.

"Of course this has nothing to do with the Vagina Monologues," he jokes, citing Eve Ensler's 1996 episodic play, "but there may be some similarities – like the fact that the Middle East is mysterious, everyone wants it yet no one understands it, and it’s very difficult to satisfy everyone there."

But after his roller coaster ride from his 2011 YouTube clip satirising Egyptian media that developed into a TV show called Al-Bernameg, with 40 million viewers every week, to a warrant for his arrest issued by the new military regime and his subsequent exile to America, there is a certain sense of ennui in the delivery by the now 46-year-old Youssef.

Living in exile – albeit a comfortable one – in Los Angeles, he is no longer in danger, but he is more anonymous – yet another talented foreigner shopping scripts in the city of fallen angels.

Living in exile – albeit a comfortable one – in Los Angeles, he is no longer in danger, but he is more anonymous – yet another talented foreigner shopping scripts in the city of fallen angels

"Right before the revolution," he recounts, "I decided to leave Egypt for America – where I would work my ass off in a dull hospital, get a mortgage and become enslaved for the rest of my life by my credit card – you know the American dream."

At the beginning of his talk he asks for a show of hands, inquiring "how many here are from the Middle East?" before making a joke about calling immigration authorities to deport everyone.

While the internet that launched his career trajectory was once seen as a revolutionary tool, he contends it's now been "ruined".

"When Twitter and Facebook appeared a few years ago it was celebrated like, 'Yay everybody has a voice!' Now, damn, everyone has a voice! Opinions became a blessing and a curse, sharing became a crucial necessity and a necessary evil, posting your opinion, a daily adventure... tarnished by anti-vaxxers, plain stupid people and hipsters named Greg with two g's and an e at the end."

For the first time in history, he says, "the truth is based on convenience rather than facts. Universal truths became debatable while opinions and misinformation reign supreme. Our reality became virtual, our news became fake and our serious politics became a joke".

And he's not, he says, just referring to populist leaders in the West like Trump, but to Middle Eastern dictators.

His jokes about CNN pundits knowing nothing about the Middle East and the absurdity of being the "go-to guy" for issues ranging from Boko Haram to the plight of the Rohingya, are funny, but undermined by the fact that Youssef plagiarised an article by journalist Ben Judah in 2014 for a column in the independent daily Al Shorouk (he apologised once he was exposed, but Judah, who accepted his apology, became the victim of a torrent of on line anti-Semitic abuse).

Still he says he is keen to "share his story".

Bassem Youssef speaking at the University of British Columbia [Hadani Ditmars]

"I believe that the more personal we get, the more we can get a better perspective on a region or a group of people... I can make up anything and it would still make more sense than those pundits on CNN."

He calls Monologue #1 "my story"

"When people were fighting for freedom and democracy," he recounts of the heady days of Egyptian revolution, "I would leave Tahrir Square and go home to rest. I would turn on the tv and it would be a nightmare. 

"The state-run media painted the Revolution as an elaborate conspiracy, saying that America and Iran were conspiring against us. Fake news was an understatement."

He admits to being "mesmerised" for years by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, but he "never thought that political satire would happen in our region. Our satirists have a way of ending up dead."

But YouTube opened up a sudden conduit and a star was born.

"When you can laugh at something, you're not afraid of it anymore," he tells the rapt audience. "Laughter puts the power back into the hands of the people – something that dictators find terrifying."

While this narrative – the Hebdo cartoon-killing Middle Easterners needing liberation from their humourless plight – plays well to the liberal Americans who continue to champion Youssef, it's disingenuous at best.

Youssef appears to position himself as a kind of Middle Eastern comic unicorn, when in fact there is a centuries long regional tradition of satire and humour, from 9th century Baghdadi satirist Al-Jahiz, who mercilessly skewered his contemporaries with his sharp wit, to contemporary political cartoonists in Syria, like Assad mocking Ali Farzat (who was badly beaten for a 2011 cartoon mocking the president).

Then there are folk humour traditions like the stories of Mullah Nasreddin or Hoja, not to mention the ribald Egyptian street humour that inspired so much of Youssef's Arabic material in Cairo.

Laughter puts the power back into the hands of the people – something that dictators find terrifying

Even under the 30-year dictatorship of Mubarak, jokes about the leader were commonplace and celebrated in an Onionesque fake news site called El Koshary Today. And Youssef was far from the only satirist in Egypt. But perhaps his crime was that, via YouTube, he made street humour so public and televisual.

Many critics point out that while Youssef and his defiantly secular, anti-clerical humour survived the excesses of Morsi's regime, his invocation of Nasser-era watanyiat anthems may have helped pave the way for the military coup and the reign of Sisi who was more thin-skinned about criticism than the Muslim Brotherhood.

But now Youssef's challenge seems to be to carve out a new path in his adopted homeland, where he is only one of many Muslim and Arab-American comics.

As always, Youssef's best moments are unscripted.

When asked by an earnest student about "safe spaces" and "cancel culture" on Western campuses, he comes out emphatically against any form of censorship – which he says, "will only push extreme opinions underground".

This may not endear him to the snowflake generation whose parents loved him on The Daily Show.

And in a parting flash of Larry David-esque comic timing, when the same student asks for his take on COVID-19, he smiles with an ironically arched eyebrow and says, "Corona? Ah… it must be a Sunni virus."

In these days of hyper vigilance and mass hysteria, I am somehow reminded of the tale of Mullah Nasreddin who carefully scatters banana skins around his home. His neighbour asks him why he is doing this. It is to keep the tigers away replies the Mullah.

"But Mullah, there aren't any tigers around here," the neighbour reliably informs him.

Mullah Nasreddin smiles contentedly: "I know. Effective, isn't it?"

While Youssef may now have a whole new zoo full of tigers to keep at bay, one hopes his irreverence will not get lost in translation.

Perhaps it's time for a cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm, in a land where, like Egypt, politics is often better critiqued through humour than state-sanctioned media.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone, and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars