Serious Laughing Matter: Bassem Youssef on Comedy and the Arab Spring

You can’t really respect or fear something you are laughing at.

— Bassem Youssef

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THE EGYPTIAN REVOLUTION officially began January 25, 2011. Bassem Youssef released his first five-minute YouTube episode on March 8, 2011, mocking the media coverage of the ongoing protests in Tahrir Square. According to Egypt’s news channels, protesters were engaging in “complete sexual relations” while receiving $50 and a bucket of KFC chicken from the United States, the nation, they said, that was masterminding the Arab Spring. At a time when Facebook was Egypt’s only social media and original Arabic content on YouTube didn’t exist, a Muslim Egyptian man openly mocking the country’s severe and trigger-happy regime without their approval was a novel and dangerous enterprise. And everyone tuned in.

Youssef’s new book, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring, addresses all the lingering questions we won’t admit we have. What the fuck is going on over there? Who’s in charge now? Is he one of the good guys or are we all going to die? The questions that have become easier to ignore now that we’re all experts at bullshitting our way through political conversations thanks to 140-character headlines.

Part memoir, part history course, part mutant amalgam of CNN and Comedy Central, Revolution for Dummies is, according to Youssef, “a very non-objective totally wrong oversimplified view of the Middle East.” He kids. Unlike countless articles and books delicately attempting to make sense of the Arab Spring, Revolution for Dummies stays true to its title, offering a straightforward, for-dummies account of the “clusterfuck” that is the Middle East, from the downfall of doomed leaderships to the genesis and aftermath of the “Sex Orgy Revolution” — otherwise known as the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

This book is hilarious but in the true spirit of satire, it’s also very serious and disheartening. It’s not only an account of Youssef’s experience in the midst of the Revolution but also of the Egyptian people’s plight, the bloodshed, the dangerous lunacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis (“If the Muslim Brotherhood were Southern Baptists, the Salafis were the Westboro Baptist Church.”), and the military, all at odds with each other over who can manipulate the masses for their own petty interests while sporting the gnarliest beard.

“I didn’t want this book to be about my show,” Youssef says, sitting at a Los Angeles cafe, surrounded by artisan coffee and tame mustaches. But you can’t talk about Egypt’s revolution without talking about Youssef’s show, Al-Bernameg, a revolution all its own. Egypt’s first political satire news show offered millions of Egyptians an alternative to the lies of the mainstream media along with a much-needed respite from the horror in their streets.

Youssef was a heart surgeon, every Middle Eastern mother’s dream child, when he started shooting webisodes, inspired by The Daily Show, from the laundry room of his apartment. His friend and producer, Tarek, had the initial idea to do a show and saw potential in Youssef as host. After all, he had the big personality, the wit, intelligence, charisma, and the piercing blue eyes of a Virginia lake to pull it off. But most importantly, he had chutzpah.

“You know when little children do stupid stuff and fall and injure themselves? They’re not stupid and they’re not brave. They don’t understand it,” says Youssef, dismissing the lofty heroic labels. “When I was doing the YouTube show, I didn’t understand. I just focused on what I was doing and didn’t understand the implication.”

In three months, the initial video received five million views and Youssef had found his true calling. He signed a contract to host his own show instead of following through with a plan to move to Cleveland to practice medicine. Modeled after The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a man Youssef’s been fangirling for years, Al-Bernameg — literally meaning, “The Show” — attracted an audience of 30 million Egyptians every week.

“What I was hearing in that theater was not laughter; it was catharsis,” he writes. “They watched us because they saw hope in the show — hope to challenge long-standing taboos and authority, whether that authority came in the form of a beard, or a tank, or a codger demanding, ‘Respect your elders.’”

It became clear that Youssef, this heart surgeon turned comedian, was the government’s biggest threat.

But despite the death threats, the arrest warrants, and charges pressed against him for insulting Islam, the president, and just generally “destroying the fabric of society,” he had no intentions to stop. “No, it’s not brave. I was doing my job and my job was to do a good job. And to do a good job you have to be loyal to the rules of satire, which hold everybody accountable,” he says.

For the typical American, Youssef’s ridicule of authority on Al-Bernameg is not revolutionary. We have celebrities, musicians, anchors, late-night hosts, and reality-TV stars actively renouncing the president without fear that they will be arrested in middle of the night by the secret police. While they receive their share of death threats from Trumpeteers or angry tweets from the president at 3:00 a.m., there is no legal ramification for speaking up against our orange regime.

In Egypt and most of the Middle East, openly criticizing the authority can literally earn you a death sentence. If that were the case in the United States, most of us would be dead right now.

For Americans, the most frightening revelations in this book may be the very convincing parallels drawn between Egypt and our own depraved political climate here in the States. Like Egypt, we struggle with class issues, prejudice, racism, poverty, an insecure leader with the emotional bearings of a teenager, and a government counting on people to vote against their own interest by fear-mongering and threatening religious constituents with the fiery pits of hell if they don’t blindly follow.

“When we compared the politics of hate and xenophobia in both of our countries, we found things to be sadly similar,” Youssef writes about his first meeting with Jon Stewart. “I discovered that I wasn’t actually imitating him on my show; it was the same stupidity in both nations that was encouraging similar forms of satire. We were merely seizing the moment.” Even Jon Stewart had to admit that seizing that moment had considerably different risks for him. “It doesn’t get me into the kind of trouble it gets you into,” Stewart said during his 2013 appearance on Al-Bernameg.

Turned out that satire was no match for the violent chaos that was the Sisi regime, which further complicated the fate of Egypt, caused even more bloodshed, and had less of a sense of humor than its predecessors.

The show ended shortly after Sisi’s coup, and Youssef was advised to flee the country for Dubai. Hala and Nadia, Youssef’s wife and daughter respectively — the lesser-known heroes of this story — joined him in Dubai, and eventually the United States. That was about four years ago. Today they’ve settled in Los Angeles, with a new addition to their family, a baby boy.

“I still piss off a lot of people,” he says, brightly. “I am the Antichrist there — or the anti-Muhammad.” Having fought for his people in Egypt, there is a hint of heartbreak in his tone, and though he’s assimilated to L.A.’s life of granola and hot yoga, he’s still got his edge. “I’m a Muslim. It doesn’t matter if I believe or not. I come from there. My face. My name. My accent. But even when I come here [to the States] I do not defend Islam because I think defending any religion is stupid. I defend the people. I defend the right of the people to do what they want. Not just Muslims. But any other religion or beliefs.”

It would be an understatement to say how powerful his influence continues to be not just to Egyptians or the rest of the Arab world, but also for Americans. He has the honor of being one of Time‘s 100 Most Influential People in the World, has traveled all over to perform his one-man show, released the documentary Tickling Giants, and hosted Democracy Handbook, a satirical series for Fusion in which he investigates our democracy to see how well it’s working out for us. Spoiler alert: Not so well.

But Youssef is an equal-opportunity satirist: “To be fair to Americans, Americans know about the Middle East as much as the Middle East know about Americans,” he admits. “We tend to have this notion that Americans are stupid, they don’t know anything outside their country. Well if you talk to a regular guy in the streets in Egypt, I don’t think he’ll know anything outside of the city.”

In the spirit of keeping it real, Youssef does not end this book on a happy note. “The Arab world will always be fucked!” he writes, though not before advising Americans to “do something about that Trump. Consider this book a warning for what is yet to come. Honestly, I am running out of places to go, and Canada is too fucking cold.”

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Orly Minazad is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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