When Bassem Youssef saw the droves of wounded citizens at Tahrir Square on the television screen during the Egyptian revolution in early 2011, he knew that as a heart surgeon he could help save lives. But he felt there was more that needed to be done, and he turned to another craft: comedy.
In the days after the revolution began, Youssef made YouTube videos poking fun at the media, Egyptian politics, and culture. The videos were a hit, with some attracting over 5 million views, and eventually led to a comedy news show, the first of its kind on Egyptian television.
“I thought maybe we would get 10,000 hits, but it just exploded,” Youssef said. “We couldn’t keep up with the demand.”
He has been in the United States for the past 30 days, filming the lives of Arab-Americans in an attempt to break stereotypes held by some of his viewers back home, such as the idea that Arabs and Muslims cannot truly be American.
On Saturday afternoon, while on vacation in Boston, Youssef met with Egyptian community groups and political satirist Jimmy Tingle in Brookline.
“I wanted to clear stereotypes on both sides,” Youssef said. “People don’t know what is happening with the Arab communities here, and we have to shed light on that.”
Youssef has been described by several media outlets as the Jon Stewart of Egypt, and he appeared on “The Daily Show” in June and told Stewart that he drew a lot of his inspiration from the program.
‘I just want people to be more knowledgeable as they are entertained.’
In Brookline, Youssef said comedy is one of the best ways to shed light on current issues.
“It’s education with a tinge of entertainment. I just want people to be more knowledgeable as they are entertained.”
Pamela Frank, executive director of the Egyptian Cancer Network, saw Youssef on “The Daily Show” and saw similarities to Tingle’s work. She arranged the meeting when she found Youssef would be vacationing in Boston.
Tingle said he had not heard of Youssef before, but was honored to meet him after he heard about his impact in Egypt.
“I love when comedy can do more than just make people laugh. It’s the most rewarding form of comedy for me,” Tingle said. “They are able to look at things and, yes, there is humor, but there is an undercurrent of truth.”
The two met at a restaurant in Brookline and talked extensively about Egyptian politics and media. Tingle asked Youssef if he thought this kind of television show would have been possible under the Hosni Mubarak regime. Youssef quickly responded, “No.”
“This is a tangible result of the revolution,” Youssef said. “For example, two years ago you would not dare criticize.”
Although many in the United States may not recognize Youssef , many Egyptians in Boston follow his show. That is why Egyptian community groups Egypt NEGMA and the Center for Arabic Culture hosted a potluck at Amory Park in Brookline before the meeting with Tingle on Saturday.
About 200 people gathered at the park, and Noor Dughri, executive director of the Center for Arabic Culture, said it was not surprising that many people wanted to meet the comedian.
“He doesn’t see a division between community issues in Boston and community issues in Egypt,” Dughri said. “It’s also quite rare to be that outspoken in the Arab world, and that resonates with people.”
Youssef hopes to continue shedding light on political issues in Egypt through his show, and hopes that people in the Arab world will view politics as simply politics.
“Fascism begins with ‘I am right and you are wrong.’ Nobody can claim they are right,” Youssef said. “I want to break the kind of holiness that people use around fascism, whether it be in the name of God or the name of the nation.”