No, seriously, guys: Egypt's Jon Stewart probes love-hate relationship with US

Bassem Youssef's 'America in Arabic' comes at a sensitive time for US-Egypt ties.

Amr Nabil/AP/File
A bodyguard secures popular Egyptian television satirist Bassem Youssef, who has come to be known as Egypt's Jon Stewart, as he enters Egypt's state prosecutors office to face accusations of insulting Islam and the country's Islamist leader in Cairo, March 31.

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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.