Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart, doesn’t get it: If Egyptians hate American policies so much, why do they stand in line for hours in front of the American embassy to pay $115 for a visa to the land of the free – or even decide to move there permanently?
“Our relationship with America is a relationship of people who don’t know what they want,” muses Dr. Youssef in the first episode of his new series "America in Arabic," describing his people as “schizophrenic.” “No one knows whether we love or hate the States.”
So during this Ramadan season, the popular comedian with 1.8 million Twitter followers is examining this fundamental contradiction on air. The series runs the gamut from tears to hearty laughs, from the World Trade Centers going up in smoke on 9/11 to Jon Stewart welcoming Youssef on his show – and includes rather sober conclusions for a man more widely known for wisecracks.
The series, with more than 20 episodes already aired, comes at a delicate time. While Egyptians have long resented America’s policy toward Egypt, especially its support of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule over three decades, anti-American sentiment has grown much more pronounced. Opponents of deposed President Mohammed Morsi have been protesting in the streets with matching posters of him and US Ambassador Anne Patterson crossed out with big red Xs, painting her as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, while others blame the Obama administration for not denouncing the July 3 military coup. Even in Tahrir Square, a symbol of freedom in the new Egypt, security guards were turning away Americans last week out of fear they would be harassed or beaten up.
But it’s not just Americans who are distrusted, notes Youssef, pictured throughout the series at a dusty old typewriter in a basement library.
“What I want to write about is why we don’t trust the West, and why we don’t even trust the Arabs who live in the West,” he says in the opening episode, looking bookish in a smart waistcoat with a watch chain dangling out of the breast pocket.
Much of the show, therefore, focuses on Arabs – particularly Egyptians – living in America.
“Everyone in Egypt is beautiful, we are proud of Egypt, but there was so much injustice there,” says one man, virtually sobbing. “If the past 30 years would have gone the right way, we never would have thought of going to the US.”
Others find humor in the discrimination they face, both in the US and from Arabs back home, many of whom suspect Arabs in America of being spies or even traitors who have been corrupted by Western money and culture.
In one satirical scene on a bench in Central Park, Youssef asks a fellow Egyptian what he’s doing in New York.
“I’m working on a film,” he responds. “Of course, on the side I’m going to the Masonic worship center and taking money from the US government.”
Youssef both criticizes US interference in Egyptian politics and takes a frank look at the discrimination Arabs still face in America a dozen years after 9/11, including the intense opposition they often encounter just to build a mosque – a problem they never had before. But he also points out to his fellow citizens the positive role they can play in the US, bolstered by interviews with everyone from a democracy activist to a Syrian rapper in Los Angeles.
“Here [in Egypt], we’re influenced by the States,” he says, “but there we’re the ones who influence them.”