"The Jon Stewart of Egypt" Bassem Youssef with America's Jon Stewart
Each year the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference committee seeks a closing plenary session speaker to provide “inspiration and enthusiasm” to carry attendees forward through the coming year, said APAP president/CEO Mario Garcia Durham yesterday at New York’s Hilton Hotel Midtown, and Bassem Youssef certainly came through.
But the Egyptian comedian/social commentator known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt” for his former El-Bernameg (The Show) satirical news program (also a former heart surgeon and the subject of the documentary Tickling Giants who won an International Press Freedom Award and now lives in the U.S.) said he feared last week that APAP would rescind its invitation, “because according to our president, I come from a s**thole country.”
Indeed, closing speaker Youssef said he was “not supposed to be here in general,” having been trained as a heart surgeon and accepted at a hospital in “the greatest city on earth...Cleveland.”
“Nothing can show how depressed you are in Egypt [more] than being excited to go to Cleveland!” joked Youssef, whose plans were derailed by the 2011 Egyptian revolution. He then worked as a doctor, treating injured demonstrators in makeshift clinics.
“The media didn’t acknowledge the revolution but said it was a conspiracy orchestrated by the U.S., Israel, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran together. Our revolution finally achieved world peace!”
Fake news in Egypt, said Youssef, is “not just a term but a lifestyle!” But his paperwork for his Cleveland hospital position took too long to arrive, and he started making five-minute YouTube videos boldly poking fun at Egyptian media “brainwashing.”
“Suddenly five million people were watching,” said Youssef. “This should not have been happening to a nerd!”
When his Cleveand papers finally did show, he was faced with a dilemma: “Should I continue saving lives and hearts, or choose a life of empty fame and money? I chose the money.”
Still, there was “a voice n my head saying, ‘You’re not supposed to be here.’” Yet he eventually hosted El-Bernameg—“a TV show no one had a reference for in the Middle East [with] 14 million watching each episode. Every Friday it was like the Super Bowl, only with more laughs and less commercial breaks and concussions.”
Youssef soon found himself “in the middle of a spotlight I never asked for—writing, producing, hosting and telling jokes on a stage with a live TV audience, when I should be a boring, nerdy doctor performing operations.”
He continued with the program “in an unpredictable and unstable environment, and basically pissed off a lot of people” in Egypt’s religious and political/military communities, discovering that “they had one thing in common: no sense of humor.”
Authoritarian figures, observed Youssef, “are quite thin-skinned when it comes to sarcasm--or in America, orange-skinned!” Turning to the way oppressors handle satire, he noted that oppressors can be not only political leaders in power, but religious or moral authorities and anyone who uses religion, patriotism, tradition and “moral standards of society” to stifle freedom of expression.
He offered a “quick go-to guide” for identifying the steps taken by oppressors in facing satire.
“Oppressors tend to belittle comedians,” Youssef informed. “They tell you it’s not the right time to use humor...but it’s always the right time for them to take away your freedom. They put limits on what you can talk about. They alienate people and turn them against you. And their best and most effective weapon is fear: Fear sells, fear works. It scares the hell out of people and they believe anything you tell them.”
But sarcasm, he added, “is the pefect weapon for fear: When you laugh you’re not afraid anymore—but they don’t want that. They want you scared and afraid...not laughing and not thinking.”
Finally, “when everything else fails, [oppressors] will accuse you of being offensive insensitive, impolite, rude and a danger to society’s moral code--whatever the hell that means. They will demand you be reasonable and polite, but they will commit the worst atrocities--and don’t find that offensive or insensitive.”
Satire, Youssef continued, “is meant to offend and insult, and if oppressors feel insulted or offended, well, you’re doing a very good job.”
Looking back at his days as a performer/satirist in Egypt, Youssef, who now lives in Oakland, recalled how he suffered prosecution, arrest, interrogation, the cancellation of his show, exile, financial loss and the loss of friends and family members who believed “the negative propaganda against me.”
“And then that little voice came back in my brain to haunt me: ‘I told you you’re not supposed to be here!’ So I left my country fleeing from a dictatorship and came to America just in time for you as you were starting your own! Now I’m here performing, speaking, writing and producing in a language that’s not mine, using references I didn’t grow up with for an audience that is not my own--and once again I have the fear that I’m not supposed to be here.”
But instead of letting his feelings of being out-of-place and not fitting in “bring me down,” Youssef found “salvation in change and the emancipation from letting go what I was comfortable with. I made a living out of being a performer here, whether it was being a comedian, satirist, public speaker or actor, and as I look back on my life I can see that the same thing that terrified me was the same thing that gave me freedom—and the same thing that annoyed authority.”
History, Youssef said, teaches us that “painters, actors, singers comedians, poets and writers have all been targets of oppressors. It is not just satire but the mere act of liberating your mind through art, performance and creativity that really pisses them off. A creative mind is a liberated mind, and a liberated mind is the oppressor’s biggest enemy: It is imaginative, it is unpredictable, and it is a problem.”
On the other hand, “art in its free, liberated form is uncomfortable, destructive and unpredictable. These are all qualities that authorities don’t like. These are traits that oppressors will fight.These are dangers that dictators will always seek to destroy.”
And “a creative populace is an inquisitive populace,” Youssef said, noting that even though the Middle East is going through “a very tough time” right now, “if you look beyond the destruction and disappointment you can see a silver lining. You can see millions of young people practicing something that their parents were deprived of--questioning. They question everything now, the military, religion, and even society’s norms and traditions, and they do that through celebrating their creativity, their innovation, and through their own discovery of art, humor, and love for performance.”
Questioning, concluded Youssef, is also “the prequel of a revolution.”
“So maybe we haven’t seen the end of it yet,” he said. “Maybe we’re just warming up! So I invite you all to live in discomfort, to make art that is annoying, destructive and unconventional. Celebrate art, humor and love of performance, and know that if you are making certain people angry, furious and uncomfortable, then probably you are doing something right.
“And if you have this little voice talking to you, telling you that you should not be there, maybe this is where you should say, ‘I know--and I like it!’”