For Expatriate Egyptians, Some Comic Relief
Over an 18-month period of political instability and historic change, Egyptians have mastered an important skill: patiently standing in line.
At home, they wait anxiously for the lifeline that is bread, or to vote for the first time. And in Brooklyn this past Sunday, expatriate Egyptians came from all over the tri-state area to wait in the riverside humidity outside the Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO – eager for a much-needed laugh at a performance by the highly popular Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef, along with four other Arab entertainers.
“Comedy is part of the fabric of Egyptian culture,” said Egyptian-born Salma Abdou, 20, who was raised in Bay Ridge. “By watching Bassem Youssef, you’re keeping up with both the culture and inside jokes that the entire country is in on.”
Patience is equally important for Egyptians, Abdou added, especially now, just days after the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was sworn into office as the country’s first democratically elected president.
“The upcoming period is going to be extremely difficult,” she said. “We need to be extremely patient. I think we want a lot, and we want it all at once. We deserve a lot and we deserve it now, but it’s not going to come as easily as we thought.”
Egyptian-Americans at the Youssef show discussed ways to keep Morsi accountable and each other united. However flawed this newborn democracy may be, some vowed to refrain from judging the new president before he gets a chance to turn his words into actions.
Bassem Youssef, who draws his inspiration from the American comedian Jon Stewart (and appeared on Stewart’s “Daily Show” on June 21), pokes fun at Egyptian political figures from across the spectrum, presenting news in a way that breaks the traditional mold of Egyptian humor. Sarcastic yet informative, Youssef’s show, “Al Bernameg,” which premiered in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan 2011, was a product of the initial 18 days of the revolution.
A year later, Youssef, a former heart surgeon, continues to experiment with this newfound freedom of expression, offering his fans some relief from the mentally exhausting roller coaster that has been Egyptian politics since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. Youssef offered an explanation of his comedic approach in his opening lines onstage on Sunday.
“We tried to unite by politics… Bad idea,” he told the crowd. “So instead we are doing it by entertainment.”
And as for those who disagree with him, Youssef said during his appearance on “The Daily Show” that he welcomes dialogue with them as part of a new mood of openness in Egypt.
“For 60 years, because of the military regime, there was some sort of a buffer, someone who was actually dealing with everybody else,” he explained. “And now, for the first time, we actually have to communicate.”
Youssef’s tour of the United States, “America in Arabic,” is being filmed and will be released during Ramadan, just weeks away.
The 300-some Egyptian faces that quickly filled up the Brooklyn venue on Sunday came from New York City’s diverse boroughs as well as New Jersey and beyond – including women veiled and unveiled, men bearded and clean-shaven, the older and younger generations. Some women wore long, flowing skirts below their hijabs, while others sported bright summer dresses with hems above the knees.
When asked about her hopes for Egypt’s near future, Mahasen Aly, of Bay Ridge, answered enthusiastically in Arabic — “kol kheir,” meaning “all the best.”
“Of course I wish Egypt all the best,” explained Aly. “I hope for justice and equality amongst the people. Now in Egypt, income inequality has split society into two extremes — there are the very wealthy and the very poor. The middle class no longer exists. I wish for it to return, and for people to be able to make a living.”
Sohair Soliman of Flushing, Queens, explained in Arabic from behind her black and white face veil, or niqab, how happy she was with Egypt’s current experiment with democracy, and that it has elected its first civilian president. She dismissed fears that Youssef’s comedy could be suppressed under the new regime.
“[Youssef] has a good, strong personality,” she said. “He is educated, cultured, and will know how to continue his work without clashing.”
Zaid Saleh, a Cairo native and Bensonhurst resident, said community-building for Egyptians should go beyond attending comedy shows.
“Volunteering and teamwork are important to build a community,” said Saleh, an activist and organizer. “Trying to teach people not to rely just on themselves, but to work as a team. This isn’t something taught in Egyptian primary schools, and we should fix it… We don’t want people to go back to the way it was before… Not caring at all about what’s going on.”
The Egyptian diaspora, with the skills and education they have acquired abroad, should take a more proactive role in trying to facilitate change, Saleh argued.
“Once the country gets more stable, [now that] Morsi has won the elections, I think Egyptians abroad, particularly Egyptians in New York, should take their expertise and transfer it to Egypt so we can build a better economy and stronger, modern country,” adds Saleh. “Every Egyptian living in the United States should feel like they have this duty toward their country.”