It’s the day after the Helsinki summit and two days after the final game of the World Cup when I talk to Bassem Youssef on the phone. So it seems natural to ask him about both.
About the strange events in Helsinki, he sighs before saying, “The right-wing media is still in denial about who Trump is. You can read a lot into the reaction to what [Donald] Trump was saying. What you see is great division. A country divided into hate-voting and hate-supporting.”
On the matter of the World Cup, for which his home country Egypt qualified but failed terribly, he’s not exactly sanguine. “I was looking forward to it and there were big hopes for Egypt. But if you have a corrupt country like Egypt, things will fail time after time. I supported France in the final but I wouldn’t have minded if Croatia won. The underdog, you know…”
His voice trails off on the phone, as if I’d just reminded him of calamities and errors that must be contemplated. He sounds melancholy, to be honest.
Youssef will be in Toronto on Thursdayat Harbourfront Centre to perform a show he calls The Joke Is Mightier than the Sword. It is, he says, simply him telling his personal story, offering his insights into the hopes and turmoil of the Arab Spring, and in particular, linking contemporary U.S. politics to his experience of how dictatorial regimes are founded and thrive.
His own story is the gist. And what a bewildering, near-tornado of a story it is. Look him up online and inevitably you will find him described as “The Jon Stewart of the Arab world.” He was that, and he says, he’s not tired of that phrase.
In 2011, during the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, Youssef, a heart surgeon by trade, started making YouTube videos in the laundry room of his home in Cairo. Inspired by the type of humour The Daily Show exemplified, he mocked politicians, the media and anyone who reeked of hypocrisy. He had milllons of viewers while the maelstrom of events unfolded.
As Hosni Mubarak was ousted from office, replaced by the elected Mohamed Morsi, and then the military government led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over, Youssef’s career careened upward. He did a satiric news show on a small TV channel, then on a channel with much larger reach. At its height his show had 30 million viewers. He appeared on The Daily Show and was celebrated as a hero by Stewart. But he managed to annoy everyone in power and they all loathed his mockery. There were death threats. Sometimes when his show aired, the channel’s signal was jammed. In 2014, after he was held and interrogated, he and his family fled Egypt.
He’s been in Los Angeles for the past two years, building a new career. He has a podcast, Remade in America, and has honed a stage show. When I talked to him he was in New York, where he been doing a comedy residency at Joe’s Pub, a gig that’s part of a project by The Public Theater.
Part of his stage show is reflecting on the Arab Spring that so totally changed his life. To some, the movement is in tatters, but he demurs. “It was a necessary step, the first part of a revolution that failed but only failed for now. Look at the French Revolution, look at other revolutions that caused enormous change. Revolution happens phase by phase. It’s a process that takes years, decades even, to fully evolve.”
He’s been to Canada before and the country amazes him a little. “I’m a doctor and I can say with certainty the health care is much better. The people are nicer, but really it’s a matter of people being chill. I ask myself, “How can the discourse be so different there?”
A good part of his show, like his online and TV material of the past, is about propaganda and the confusion over what is “fake news.” He says, “The media always find a way to support those in power. One of the things I do is compare Egypt with the United States today. The thing about comedy is that it can expose the empty rhetoric of dictators. You have to wonder why Trump is in power and wonder who challenges him? In Egypt those in power have vast experience controlling the message. I experienced that and I apply what I learned to America today.”
In our conversation he comes across as a man who is melancholy but tense with anxiety to do what he needs to do. That is, to tell his story as a cautionary tale and to mock so many absurdities of this Trump era.
It is extraordinary, really, his story, the one he tells onstage. These days he looks at what Trevor Noah does on The Daily Show and what Samantha Bee does, and what John Oliver rants about, and he appreciates all of it. But his story is so very different. He’s a TV satirist who, one day, was obliged to throw some belongings in a bag and head straight to the airport to escape, before he was arrested and held again by the government. No wonder he’s melancholy and tense.