Inspired by the Daily Show, a political satirist took to the airwaves of the fledgling democracy. Now he’ll talk shop with the master.
“You have to meet Bassem! He is the Egyptian Jon Stewart.” That’s what a friend told me last July at a party in Cairo. I was in town to organize the first AFAR Experiences event, and I was eager to meet all the interesting people I could. It seems that all of the interesting people in Cairo know each other, so within two minutes, I had an appointment to meet Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian Jon Stewart. And if you tune into the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on June 21, you’ll meet him, too.
Bassem didn’t set out to be a television star. Prior to the Egyptian uprising, he lived happily as a cardiothoracic surgeon who loved to dance the tango with Hala, his wife and mother of their daughter. He was mulling an offer for a position at a children’s hospital in Cleveland. But everything changed after the protests began on January 25. When the regime sent armed men to attack the protestors, Bassem assisted those injured. Cleveland would have to wait. “I felt like it would be a sell-out to leave my country at this time,” he says.
Bassem had been a fan of the Daily Show since he first saw it while on a visit to the United States a few years earlier. He longed for an Egyptian version of the show, but that would have been impossible prior to the revolution. “In Egypt, with our history of state-controlled television, people in power could get away with saying whatever they wanted and wouldn’t be called on it,” he says.
Once the protests began, Bassem decided the time was right. He talked to a couple of friends who worked in television production and decided to start “The B+ Show,” which began broadcasting on YouTube in March 2011. It was a low-budget effort. They worked out of Bassem’s home and produced three 5-minute ‘shows’ per week. “We were the ghetto version of Jon Stewart,” he says.
Within two weeks, the show was the second most popular YouTube channel in Egypt. Viewers loved how Bassem poked fun at powerful Egyptians, and mocked the absurd claims they made. By that summer, he had gotten a contract from the Egyptian satellite broadcaster, ONtv, to create a television show he named Al Bernameg (The Program) that launched in August with three half-hour shows a week.
In October, Bassem spoke with the attendees of the inaugural AFAR Experiences event in Cairo. One of the AFAR travelers was Alisa Regas, associate director at Pomegranate Arts, a New York City artist management company. “Bassem was funny, he was smart, and I believed in what he was trying to do,” Alisa says. When she got back to New York, she told her friend Steve Bodow, co–executive producer of the Daily Show, about Bassem. A few weeks later, another AFAR Experiences attendee, Nina Dietzel, returned to Egypt and happened to meet Kevin Bleyer, a writer for the Daily Show. “I told Kevin he had to meet Bassem,” Nina says. “I was thinking it would be amazing for Bassem to meet Jon Stewart and possibly even be on the show.”
Bassem came to New York early this month. Steve and Kevin arranged for him to spend some time at the Daily Show so Bassem could, as he says, “see how the big boys do it. We had gone from producing a YouTube show in my house to a real studio with one of the largest audiences in Egypt in less than 12 months. We have a lot to learn.”
For two days, he shadowed the crew. Then Steve took him up to meet Jon Stewart himself. They discussed the role that political satire can play in a democracy and about what was going on in Egypt today. “I had a copy of one of Jon’s books and asked him to sign it,” Bassem says. Stewart told Bassem how much he respected his work and signed the book, “To Bassem Youssef, my hero.”
Then Stewart invited Bassem to be on the show.
It’s a dream come true for Bassem, and for us at AFAR. When we planned our AFAR Experiences event, we hoped that all of the participants—travelers and Egyptians alike—would make real, meaningful connections. And clearly, they have.
The next AFAR Experiences event will be in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 8–11, 2012. Our group of curious travelers will get the chance to connect with influential South Africans in politics, business, history, the arts, and media. And, as Bassem’s story shows, those connections can lead to great things.
Photo by Nina Dietzel.