By Emma Sarran Webster | March 21, 2017 | People
We caught up with Bassem Youssef—a.k.a. the “Jon Stewart of the Middle East”—to hear his thoughts on American politics and Chicago before his trip to the Windy City.
Bassem Youssef may be known as the “Jon Stewart of the Middle East,” an Egyptian political satirist who has found success in the States in recent years, but that wasn’t always his goal. Before Youssef skyrocketed to fame during the Egyptian revolution—first with a YouTube series, then with satirical news program, Al Bernameg (both inspired by Stewart himself)—he was a doctor without any plans for a TV career.
Today, Youssef lives in the United States, and continues to shed light on issues within the Arab world and examine the state of politics in the Middle East, the U.S., and the rest of the world through a comedic lens. He hosted the Fusion show, Democracy Handbook, and wrote a book, Revolution For Dummies, due out on March 21. Amidst all of that, he’s making appearances around the country to share his story and point of view—and that includes a stop in Chicago for two Chicago Ideas events.
On March 26, he’ll take part in a screening event and Q&A for Tickling Giants, a documentary following the team behind Al Bernameg. And on March 27, Youssef will take the stage at Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art for "Laughing Through the Arab Spring with Bassem Youssef." We caught up with him ahead of his trip to talk about his personal story, Jon Stewart, and what he expects from his Chicago visit.
What will you discuss at your talk this month?
BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, I came from a very turbulent region and people looked at the Arab Spring [2011 uprisings in the Arab world] as something with a lot of hope, and then that hope was lost. And I see a lot of parallels with what is happening now with the new administration in America. It's the same propaganda used by authority. It's the same echo chambers people lock themselves in while they are rooting for things that are against their own interests, but because of fears and phobia and hate, they sign up for it without knowing that this would actually hurt them in the long run. There’s some sort of an alternative fact universe that [people] live in, and I actually went through [all of this]. And it is an interesting story, not just on a personal level of a guy who was a heart surgeon who turned into a political satirist, and then was basically persecuted by both of the religious and the military regime. But there are [also] a lot of parallels that we can draw from both stories [between] what I [saw] there, and what I have seen when I came here and thought everything would be fine, just to find this is the same old thing happening all over again.
How did you go from being a doctor to having a hugely popular show in Egypt, then coming to the U.S. and having a show, releasing a book—and everything else you have going on right now?
BY: I was waiting for my [visa] papers to be done, because I was accepted in Cleveland to be a pediatric heart surgeon; and as that was happening, the [Egyptian] revolution happened. I, like anybody else, was previously politically apathetic and politically passive because for close to 30 years, we had the same president. I became involved in the revolution—I was not a leader or anything, but I was emotionally invested in it. And as I [would go] to the streets, then I would come back home to watch the news, I found out that there [were] two realities. There was the reality in the streets where you [had] people who are voting for freedom, and there was the reality on television where those people were signified as spies or [as being] paid to go into the streets.
So, I started to do these very amateur YouTube videos, making fun of the media and how they portrayed the people in the streets, and I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t think that many people would watch it. But two months later, with 5 million views, I was asked to do this show on television. I went on television and [went] from a small television show to a big, live audience theater, and [did that] for two years before I was harassed by the government and it was extremely difficult for me to stay in Egypt. So, I left and came to the States. Fusion television was following me and they asked me to do this show with them, Democracy Handbook, which was basically going around America with a foreigner's perspective to see what’s going on. At the same time, I was asked to write a book to tell my story. So, this is how it all came to life. I never thought that this would actually unfold like this.
Given that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was one of your biggest inspirations, how does it feel to be referred to as the Jon Stewart of the Middle East?
BY: It’s amazing. I was a fanboy of Jon Stewart for more than 10 years, and to be linked to him in any way is beyond an honor. I love him and I respect him. When people say, “You shouldn't be calling yourself Jon Stewart, you have your own thing,” I say, “[First], I don’t have an ego. Second, it is important when you speak to Americans to give them a point of reference.” It’s a very easy way to for people to understand, “Who are you, and what do you do?”
Speaking of what you do, and what Jon Stewart does, why do you think humor is important in political reporting and effective in getting a message out?
BY: Tyrants and people who are drunk on power base all their legacy on one thing, which is fake respect and fear. And when you use humor and satire to basically make fun of them, it takes that away from them. It kind of gets them down from that pedestal of tyranny and power—it’s as if you're taking the clothes off the emperor.
And even on day-to-day political issues, whether you have a good government or a bad government, satire and humor brings [up] very important issues that people might not otherwise be interested in. Humor makes people very interested in engaging. [For example], when John Oliver was speaking about the debt or Jon Stewart was speaking about the V.A.; these are very dry and complicated subjects, but they use humor to bring people to the table, and be engaged, and actually to care about something. People are not inclined to listen to boring, never-ending political [reports], but they will listen to humor, they will listen to satire. And this is why it's important.
Tell us about your book coming out later this month, Revolution for Dummies.
BY: It’s my personal story, but it’s also important for the American, or the Western, reader because it gives them a very simple account of what is happening in the Middle East. It's a manual, taking the hand of the reader to understand: What were the political powers, why did this all go wrong, and where did it all go wrong? It also gives a lot of parallels [between those times] and what you see now. I use satire and humor [as well].
We've seen an increased level of interest and involvement in politics in the U.S. lately. What would you say to people who aren't sure how to get involved or make their voices heard?
BY: The thing is, it’s lovely to see how people are galvanizing in the streets and in the protests, but I’ve come to realize that governments are extremely resilient to public protests. What happens after [protesters] go home is what’s important. How can they organize for the next election [and] how can they pressure their representatives in the congress? How can they affect the change of the local elections? If you just protest in the streets and think that you have done your job, that’s not enough. It’s what you do after that happens; what you do after the anger and the frustration settles down [that matters]. Because screams and chants [don’t] make a big change. It’s a beginning, but it doesn’t make a change.
Shifting gears to your trip to Chicago for your Chicago Ideas events. Have you been here before?
BY: I have. I actually lived in Chicago for about four months, but I went there in the winter. It was a tough winter, but Chicago is beautiful. I still remember downtown, and I still remember the lake, the restaurants, and the jazz clubs. It’s a great city.
Anything you're looking forward to doing or seeing while you're in the city?
BY: I’m ready for the good people of Chicago to take me out and show me things that I have never seen before. I'm waiting to be surprised.
Photography by Yehia Elzeiny (backdrop); Coucla Refaat (profile)
September 14, 2018