Don’t Stop U.S. Aid to Egypt just yet
Is Culture Ministry Sit-In a Warm Up For Egypt's June 30 Protests?
Muslim Fashion On Display In Indonesia As Models Show Islamic Style
Britain's Syrian Community: How War Is Dividing Families
Palestinian Cultural Scene Thrives Amid Hardships
Minister of Culture Wages Campaign Against Egyptian Artists
Today's Exclusive Columns
When the Muslim community in America reaches a point of finally talking about the issues of radicalism that face Muslim youth, that’s a sure sign that we’ve progressed. Surely, intolerance and hate ar...
Mideast Arts & Culture
In his first U.S. exhibition, the Iranian-born, London-based artist Reza Aramesh has brought his highly political works into what would initially seem, to those unfamiliar with his work, to be...
This is part two of our interview with Zahra’s Paradise author and co-creator Amir Soltani. Click here (arts-culture/mideast-art/21339-vote4zahra-a-virtual-candidate-in-iran-s-upcoming-elections-part-one) to read part one. Aslan Media contributing writer Roxanne Rashedi recently had a...
While often perceived as a purely aural element, the word is as important a visual tool in politically-motivated art. Shirin Neshat and Lalla Essaydi, two artists known for their use of calligraphy,...
An Islamist member of Egypt’s Shura Council has stirred controversy for describing ballet dancing as “the art of nudity,” prompting objections from a number of dancers. Council member Gamal Hamed, of...
- Written by Content Manager
- Category: Culture
This was the legendary Bassem Youssef, the talk show host who broke new ground in Egypt’s stifled media with his political satire, earning him an esteemed status in Egypt culture that is now often compared to how Americans feel about Jon Stewart. A heart surgeon, living in Cairo, he was one of the doctors who cared for the wounded in Tahrir Square during the uprisings of 2011. Youssef was appalled by Egyptian media during the uprising, which he accused of spreading lies, fear and deceit. So he decided to start his own talk show.
“The magnitude of hypocrisy and misleading information never happened before and will never happen again,” Youssef said. “That’s why we have a lot of material. It was a gold mine.” Filmed with one camera in his living room and posted on YouTube, the B+ Show instantly became an overnight sensation, and soon he signed with major Egyptian Network ONTV. Last week, one of his lifelong dreams came true when he was invited to appear on The Daily Show.
But there was not the slightest inkling that Youssef was any kind of celebrity on stage last Saturday at the Imam Cultural Center in West Los Angeles where he spoke before a rapt audience at an event title “An Afternoon with Bassem Youssef.” The show was sponsored by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “I have a message everywhere I go,” he continued, “Arabs have been always trying to unite over politics, which is the first thing actually that separates everybody. But it is very easy to unite over entertainment — we share [the] same culture, same jokes - though, Egyptians have better ones.”
With that, he was off and running, tripping lightly through the minefields of sex, politics, race and religion, slipping interchangeably from English to Arabic and back again.
“Are there any white people in the house?” he asked. Although there were actually quite a few, nobody responded. Finally, I raised my hand. I am used to being the only white person in the house so I might as well own it. From that moment on I was embraced by Bassem and in fact the whole audience, who kept calling out things like “Oh, there’s the American spy!” To me it was a perfect illustration of Youssef’s message, acknowledge the (white) elephant in the room, talk and joke about it, and suddenly the separations begin to dissolve.
His whole American tour is about breaking boundaries and dissolving stereotypes, both the stereotypes that Americans have of Arabs, and conversely the stereotypes that exist toward Arab Americans in Egypt. So everywhere he goes he hosts a variety show, of sorts made up of local Arab American entertainers. The Los Angeles show was wonderful. There were four performers; Musicians, Ragy Salema a young Egyptian singer, who sang accompanied by the oud virtuoso Nasek Musa who then performed solo; a Syrian American hip hop/spoken word artist held the audience spellbound with three Arabic poems. And Mike Batayeh, a hard hitting comedian from Jordan, opened the show.
Bassem Youssef obviously has a special place in his heart for comedians because they are always trying to break down stereotypes. “They are doing a job that maybe preachers in mosques and in churches do not do, they actually reach the public much faster”
Youssef himself was certainly preaching on Saturday — preaching openness, preaching respect and preaching democracy. He quoted Bertram Russell as saying that the important thing about democracy is that people have to listen to each other.
It was the day before the results of the Egyptian presidential election result were announced and Youssef said that, “If you think what’s happening in Egypt is a mess, I totally disagree. It has come down to the 2 best possible candidates in the history of Egypt! You cannot get better!”
Somehow the audience was not convinced, but Youssef insisted, going off into a long riff in Arabic, which I couldn’t follow entirely, but I caught the gist: On the one hand was Mohammed Morsi, who could easily be mistaken for an alien from the movie Independence Day. While on the other hand was Ahmed Shafiq, the zombie pilot who never dies, straight out of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
The audience never stopped laughing. But in between the jokes were a couple of very serious messages. The big one was that we need to talk to each other and understand each other and learn from each other, across boundaries of class and religion.
Youssef explained that for the first time Egyptians really had to talk to each other. The army had always been there like a big buffer zone to take care of “those people” whoever the others happened to be from your vantage point. Now we actually have to talk to each other, he said, and we have a lot to learn. We can’t just go back to our bubble. If you want democracy it’s not just about your side winning (look at America, where they had to accept George Bush for eight years!)
Shafiq, he said, represents everything we revolted against, the old regime. And yet at the same time I cannot blame anybody who voted for Shafiq, because the other side caused them to vote that way.
I can understand, because I wanted to vote against Shafiq, and it was very difficult for me to vote for Morsi.
At that point, it was clear that much of the audience, largely progressive, secular and what he called elitist, disagreed with him. But he insisted, “This is my opinion, please respect it, I respect yours.”
He talked about how Egypt was divided. Half the people who voted for one side are afraid of the other. Whoever wins already comes with a preset opposition. This is a blessing.
And he went on, The Muslim Brotherhood are not just going to go away. We have to study what they’re saying. We need to speak with the same language.
People fear religious fascism, but it’s not going to happen in Egypt, he promised, it’s not practical. “I want the Islamic movement to come and take their chance, and if this is democracy we have to accept it.” Let them talk the talk, let them walk the walk, let them show us what they can do”
He explained to a skeptical audience that the Brotherhood is at its most vulnerable now. “They are not stronger than the guy sitting on the tank, they are not stronger than the Mukhabarat or the guy who owns the media and 40% of the budget. They have so much stacked against them, and if they do good, great, if not it could be the end of them ... At the end of the day it’s going to be about food and education and who takes care of the trash... At least Morsi will try to expose the military, or if not, at the end of the day it will prove that the Muslim Brotherhood is just another corrupt political party.”
He ended on such a positive note: “No matter what, Egypt is so much better off now because the whole country is politically involved, everybody has their eyes are wide open.”
Then he invited anyone who wanted to come up on stage and have their picture taken with him. Of course the entire audience lined up, and he clowned and joked with each person. What a genuinely thoughtful, warm, funny and brave man. It was an honor to sit in the audience as an American spy!
For anyone who cares about Egypt, watching the news and listening to the pundits pontificate makes you feel like all was for naught. But Bassem Youssef was genuinely hopeful. It did my heart good to hear him. For him this is just the beginning, the whole revolution and the painful political process that has followed are perhaps just the first steps in the long, difficult and painfully hilarious road to democracy.By Eve Chayes Lyman, Aslan Media
*Photo Credit: Courtesy of the author and Hossam el-Hamalawy
AUDIO: Will Scandals Stall Obama's Agenda?
Support our Mission with a Financial Donation Today
Donate below! Why Support Us? Click Here
Join our Book Club!
Newsletter: Stay Connected