The re-reinvention of Bassem Youssef
September 15, 2013. Bassem Youssef is sitting in a café in El Gouna, Egypt. He has just taken a bite out of a double cheeseburger. Instinctively he closes his eyes, savouring the taste of that juicy meat-filled bite that his body had become so accustomed to over the years that his mouth started salivating with an almost Pavlovian response to him picking it up. Across the table his friend, Nader Montasser, watches him relish eating the burger with a smile on his face and chuckles softly.
The two men have known each other for over twenty years. Both keen athletes in their youth, they played on pretty much all the same sports teams together throughout Middle and High school: basketball, football, volleyball, track and field. Montasser had even represented the Egyptian national team at water polo.
But as the way of most childhood friendships go, life had gotten in the way and they had grown apart. Montasser had gone on to set up a successful business, while Youssef, well, he went on to become ‘Bassem Youssef’—the surgeon-turned-political-satirist who dared to be the irrepressible voice of the people, as Egypt spiralled into a political power struggle in the aftermath of the Arab Spring movement. But more on that later.
Suit and shirt, both by Berluti
Their lunch is somewhat of a reconnection and, unfortunately, one that was triggered by some upsetting news. Youssef had reached out to Montasser after hearing that his friend had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis—a brutal, debilitating disease that attacks the central nervous system—of which there is no cure. Except, as Montasser explains, that was not the case for him. Over the course of the lunch, he explains to his old friend how following the diagnosis he dramatically changed his lifestyle and diet to a strictly plant-based one, which had a life-saving impact on him recovering from the disease.
As a qualified doctor, Youssef is initially skeptical but, as his friend explains the affect it had, something deep inside him clicks. “After I finish eating this burger, I am never going to eat meat again,” Youssef declares, making sure to look his friend in the eye. Holding his gaze he says, “I am going to change my life, and the lives of so many other people for the better.”
Montasser chuckles and warns him: “That is what most people say!” The thing is, Bassem Youssef is not like most people...
Bassem Youssef must hate filling out forms. Especially the box that requires you to write your profession. For 19 of his 46 years he was a medical surgeon—and a respected one at that— but he could also add salsa and tango teacher, stand-up comedian, kite surfing instructor, TV host, children’s author and, of course, scourge of the Egyptian military regime.
The remarkable thing about all these elements is that they all happened to Youssef as an adult. He may very much be the quintessential polymath, but he is a late bloomer. Born in Cairo, Youssef was raised in a very middle class family. His father was a judge, and his mother—the matriarch of the family— was a university professor.While he was lively and loud as a child, growing up he tended to be more disciplined than his older siblings, and by his own admissions, not especially funny.
Seeing his brother hating his university engineering course, he decided to enroll in medical school. “In the Middle East you grow up knowing only three career paths: a doctor, an engineer or a disappointment,” he quips in a deadpan manner, as if he’s used that line a thousand times before, but it isn’t any less funny or any less true.
For the next 19 years he studied and worked as a doctor, and then in 2011 everything changed.
Fluff jacket, by Tommy Hilfiger; Denim shirt, by BOSS
Together with his friend Tarek El Kazzaz (a media entrepreneur who wanted to put original Arabic content on the Internet) they created a series of five-minute webisodes that explored religious cults such as Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Youssef wrote the scripts, chose the videos and music and made all the final cuts. The videos received a positive reaction, but the political climate at the time was tense so they held off. All of a sudden it was January 25, 2011 and the Arab Spring had come to Egypt.
During the next few months and years Youssef became somewhat of a legend across the Arab world. As fighting broke out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Youssef was one of the many doctors who helped the wounded protestors in those first chaotic weeks. The reality of what he saw on the streets versus what was reported on the news at night was so different that it gave him an idea. He wanted to take on the official news broadcast, and started writing and filmed a series of YouTube videos in the laundry room of his apartment and called it The B+ Show— named after his blood type. The videos caught the attention of Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, owner of ON TV, who made a deal to take the show to television, and the Bassem Youssef-fronted political satire show, Al-Bernameg, was born.
Al-Bernameg was big. Like, really big. At its height it had an audience of 40 million people weekly. For context, that is nearly half of the population of Egypt. The show, (which translates as ‘The Programme’, hence Youssef’s habit of introducing it by saying “Welcome to The Programme programme!”) parodied celebrities and politicians from all sides, a previously unthinkable concept in Egypt.
This caused delight and outrage in equal measure, depending on the viewers’ political affiliations, but all sides would watch regardless, giving Youssef a global profile, the nickname ‘the John Stewart of Egypt’ and even a spot on Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ list.
Unfortunately, history is littered with examples of political power hammering down the nail that sticks up, and in 2013 that hammer fell on Youssef as he was issued with an arrest warrant for allegedly insulting Islam and (then-)President Mohammed Morsi.
Five hours after the court had returned its verdict—where he was fined a barely believable 100 million Egyptian Pounds (AED23 million)—
he had escaped on a plane to Dubai, never to return. He would spend a year in the emirate, fielding various business offers—pitches to restart Al-Bernameg from overseas; offers to host TV game shows and late night talk shows; even from the Egyptian regime to return with the agreement that he would do a more watered-down version of the show—but he turned them all down.
The Egyptian media were chastising him as a coward and the sheer amount of daily cyberbullying became overwhelming. He knew that the weight of his name represented something to a Middle East audience and that any new venture would see people tuning in to expect something which they wouldn’t get, and then he would be called a failure. So he left and moved to Los Angeles to re-invent himself from scratch, again.
The above recap of Youssef’s journey to fame will please and frustrate him in equal parts today. Sitting on the outdoor terrace of the new plant-based restaurant Soulgreen, in Dubai’s Vida Creek Harbour Hotel, the waiter puts down a bowl of avocado salad in front of him and he tucks straight in and starts to talk. “I am hugely proud of what we did and, at the time, I loved it,” he says of the three years he spent making Al-Bernameg. “It was such a rush, the audience was so big and it felt important. But it has started to upset me that it has become the thing that has defined me. Sure, it was the biggest thing that I have done in my life—and might be the biggest thing that I will ever do—but I don’t want to let it be the only thing that defines me.”
Youssef still has the mischievous grin and piercing blue eyes that became the face of a non-violent cultural revolution, but behind the zinging one-liners and knowing winks things took their toll. The torrent of death threats, harassments, cyberbullying and arrests wore him down emotionally. After being forced to flee, commentators and critics denounced him as professionally ‘finished’. “I think people find it easy to define others by one thing, but life is a very organic 3D experience, and I think it is a constant reminder that you shouldn’t let others define you. I worked very hard to get out of the mindset that my best days were behind me,” he says.
So who is Bassem Youssef now?
“That is a very complex question,” says Youssef, who picks up on the narrative thread by answering in the third person. “I think Bassem Youssef is now a product of what he has been through over the past few years. A product of insecurities, uncertainties and maybe even a little bit of bitterness. But there is a lot of potential for growing up.”
His honesty and willingness to lower his guard is unexpected, and perhaps belies a man who has been through a lot since the last time he graced the cover of Esquire Middle East, seven years ago. “The Bassem Youssef today is someone who is very excited about the potential of doing something that he never would have thought possible when I was last in Esquire!” he says.
Part of what he thought would never have been possible is Isa’al Bassem (Ask Bassem)—a self-styled TV show where he uses his medical experience to advise audiences on the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Starting this month, the show will air exclusively on the Pan-Arab Asharq network. “It’s the first time that a show focused on a plant-based diet has ever been picked up by a mainstream network, and it is in the Arab world!” he says. “That’s crazy!”
The fact that the show (which first started on his own YouTube channel) about a fringe dietary requirement was bought by a network is a big success; the fact that it stars Bassem Youssef? Revolutionary.
“When I first looked for funding or media help, the shutdown response was always the same: ‘no, you’re Bassem Youssef, you do Al-Bernameg and people will never see you in any other light.’” And he really started to believe it, but while Youssef will admit that a short fuse is one of his negative traits, it is also what fuels his character.
“This may sound negative, but I think for a long time I was motivated by revenge,” he says. “Maybe a part of me wanted to prove to everyone who doubted me that I can come back, that I am still relevant and good and successful and then I will flip the middle finger back to them. But then another part of me says, maybe if I make it I won’t even care about having to prove myself to anyone. Who am I trying to prove yourself too? The media, Islamists, cyberbullies, the military? If you are happy, then why do you care about what these people think?”
As you probably expect, the new show is not the ultimate goal—this is Bassem Youssef after all. He tells of future plans to create a series of bigger shows: reality TV shows; health information shows; and his plans to work with governments, healthcare systems, and medical insurance companies to promote the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle.
He explains how he wants his company, Plant B, to offer a ‘full-works solution’ where, for a monthly subscription, people can have a medical consultation and then have a food plan delivered to them tailored to the diagnosis. “Dietary education is a huge chance to help people reduce the cost of treating chronic disease without spending all that money in a useless way,” he says.
Blue cord suit and sweater, all by Etro
On a very practical level, Youssef puts what he is preaching into practice. In the seven years since his lunch catch-up with Nader Montasser, he has made a plant-based lifestyle the “biggest thing in my life”. Yes, he has a full-time career as an English-language stand-up comedian in his adopted home of Los Angeles, but playing in the ‘vegan space’ is where he sees the next 10 to 15 years of his career.
“I often introduce myself as ‘Hi I’m Bassem Youssef, I am Arab and Vegan, which means I’m scary and annoying’,” he pauses, waiting for the anticipated reaction to his joke. When it arrives he continues. “Talking veganism to Middle Easterns today is like talking to Americans about it in the 1950s—but things are changing,” he says.
“Yes, I understand the reputation that vegans have about being ‘preachy’, but I’m not trying to convert anyone who isn’t already interested. I am running a series of shows and websites where people can come to learn about a plant-based lifestyle if they want. The name Plant B is a play on ‘Plan B’, because it is an alternate option. Try it, if you don’t like it, then you can go back to your burgers!”
One of the more successful parts of his Plant B network is the ‘21-day Plant B Challenge’ —a custom-built diet plan based on eating purely plant-based foods for 21 days in order to help people ‘lose weight, improve health and feel energetic’. “I have voice messages on my phone from friends telling me that their family members have improved their health simply by following the ‘21 days Challenge’... in fact, they just call it ‘the Bassem Youssef diet’!” he says with a chuckle. “People have told me that it has helped them defeated cancer, overcome IBS and even diabetes because of it. When you get this kind of feedback, you know that you are doing something meaningful.”
The majority of people work their entire lives striving to contribute, grow and perfect their chosen profession. Some may two careers. Three, maybe. Four, rarely.
Five years ago Bassem Youssef reinvented himself as a stand-up comedian. Yes, he is naturally funny guy and jokes littered his satirical show, but having moved his family to LA he now does them in English rather than Arabic. “Growing up my English was shit, so I had to learn it as an adult,” he says. “Then when I moved to the US, I had to learn how to perform in English, which is a whole different thing. And then, I had to learn how to perform comedy in English—which is another completely different thing!”
He tells stories of when he first started doing stand-up in English in US comedy clubs, and would go home crying at how badly he would bomb. It’s not that the material was bad, but as an art form so much nuance and understanding of the craft is needed. Or as he puts it: “there is a huge difference between saying a joke, and telling a joke.”
White shirt, by Valentino
Considering the spectrum of careers (and lives) Youssef has had up to this point, we ask what the 16-year-old version of himself would think of what he has achieved. Would they be more impressed that he was a heart surgeon, a TV host or a stand-up comedian? He answers without hesitation: “Having a career in a different language. The fact that I do stand-up on stage in a language that I didn’t speak when I was 16, would have blown my mind,” he says. “What I find even more crazy is that now, after having had to re-learn how to do comedy in a different language, I can’t do stand-up in Arabic anymore!”
This month Bassem Youssef adds (yet) another section to his CV, that of ‘children’s author’ with the release of his book The Magical Reality of Nadia. The illustrated book was written for his daughter, Nadia, about a young immigrant girl exploring the realities of growing up in a new country. Published by Scholastic—the publisher of the Harry Potter series—the book is a humorous and heartfelt story about prejudice, friendship, empathy and courage, with cultural references from Ancient Egypt weaved in.
“My daughter Nadia relates more to America than she does to Egypt, but she will always be viewed as different, and that is the story of millions and millions of sons and daughters of immigrants,” Youssef explains before mentioning that he is already in advanced talks with animation studios to adapt it into a television series.
Prospective writers are always told to ‘write what you know’, and therefore despite being a children’s story, a lot of the lessons are born from Youssef’s own experiences, particularly with regards to the issue of race in his newly adopted home.
“In the US there is still a real hang-up from both sides with being ‘American-American’ or not. People are too offended by the question ‘Where
are you really from?’, but I don’t see anything wrong with it! Maybe people are just curious and want to learn more,” he says. “When I was coming up with the idea for the book, I was inspired by my daughter’s kindergarten class in LA. There were 25 kids in the class from 18 different nationalities.
I could never give her that same experience in Egypt. I truly believe that being different should be viewed as a point of strength and not as a disadvantage.”
If we are to run with the notion of difference as a strength, then it explains a lot about the life of Bassem Youssef. While he openly admits that part of him wishes life was a bit more predictable, there is another side of him that relishes the excitement and unknown.
Cream turtleneck top, by Tommy Hilfiger
For 37 years he worked diligently as a respected surgeon (albeit one who taught tango and went kite surfing on the side) before a tinderbox of opportunity, necessity, risk and perseverance combined to rocket the naturally charismatic man into the global conscious. From a pedestal exposed to daily cyberbullying he rebuilt his image and his lifestyle, with a goal to ultimately bounce back and benefit so many of those who previously turned their backs on him.
The life Bassem Youssef has lived since 2011 could never be described ordinary, and it is his ability to adapt, evolve and reinvent that, in fact, makes it extraordinary.“I am at a stage now where I can look back at things and appreciate them, as well as where I am right now—and where I am right now is good,” he says. “What I have come to realise is that I no longer define myself by medicine or tango or kite surfing or Al-Bernameg. If there is one thing I’ve learnt in this world, it is to enjoy the journey of reinvention every single day.”
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