I’m a heart surgeon turned satirist, who started from a simple series of 5 minute YouTube videos which then progressed into the biggest live political satire show in the Middle East. I’m the subject of a new documentary directed by a senior producer at The Daily Show, Tickling Giants, and you can learn more and watch the trailer here.
I’m here at reddit HQ in New York City with Victoria to do my AMA today.
Is there any chance that you’ll take over The Daily Show?
Hosting the Daily Show is a far-fetched fantasy, because I don’t think Americans are ready to get their political satire-news from a Middle Eastern with a thick accent. However, I will dwell on that dream until they finally choose a replacement, and when that happens, I will pretend my dreams are crushed. Still, I have a very little hope that maybe Comedy Central will go somewhat exotic like me! Because that would be an incredible end to the documentary, ahahah!
I trust Jon Stewart to be the best judge for who would succeed him.
And furthermore, the Daily Show maybe has the best team ever, and I think they will support whomever will come into his shoes (which will be very difficult to fill).
Can you tell us about how you made the decision and the issues you ran into to become a satirist?
I never knew that I was funny. And I think my humour was a surprise to me. I think it was a kind of trial & error? And it was always a work in progress. And it was more of a technical issue than a talent issue, trying to find the best way to make successful videos, or successful episodes. So it was about science and practice, rather than just pure talent.
What’s your next project?
My next project is working with Arab talents across the Arab world in order to fulfill their own dream through digital media. And if you support my documentary, you will definitely see me soon!
If you can remove three people from power and send them to the moon who are they? And if you can free three people to safety to outside Egypt who are they and finally the dinner question if can have dinner with 3 famous people from past or present who are they and why.
I would remove EVERYBODY from power, everywhere in the world, and maybe start over. Then I would release all the prisoners, and then fill the prisons all over again. And then me and you will have dinner, watching the world as it unfolds.
The trailer to the documentary looks really interesting! The title is also really clever. How did you get involved in this project, and what do you hope the response to the film will be?
I got involved by being harassed by Sara Taksler, to be the subject of this documentary. I couldn’t tell her “no” because at the time, she was working at the Daily Show, and I didn’t want to say no to anybody working with Jon Stewart. So I basically said “yes” to be on his good side, but I discovered it didn’t really make any difference, so if we went back in time, I would perhaps have second thoughts about being in this documentary, but now I am amazed at the kind of work Sara has put, documenting my experience to put it in the archives of history. So please don’t let me regret this move, and go and donate.
I hope that people’s response will be in the form of understanding this era of Egyptian history, and understanding the importance of political satire in promoting free speech.
And also, it’s quite entertaining, so I hope you are entertained!
What can those of us of Egyptian descent or in the Egyptian Diaspora in the West do to help the country?
The best thing is to work on yourself. Make yourself better humans. Because when you find an opening, you can find a way to help your country.
After Morsi’s removal, the radical shift in the vehemence of your satire suggested the regime was pressuring you into softening your criticism of the military and soon-to-be-president General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Recent telephone leaks corroborate this. Did you receive any similar pressures when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power? Did they have any real effect on the satirical extent of the show?
There has always been pressure on the show, whether directly or indirectly. And if you see that my satire was soft, it was enough for the show to be banned. So again, different people have different views of the situation, coming from different places.
Many critics argue that you played an important role in the demise of Mohammad Morsi by ridiculing him and desacralizing his status as an elected president. You also endorsed the June 2013 protests. Now that a military dictatorship has been reinstated and the press’ freedom has been obliterated, do you have any regrets? If you had to deliver your show again during Morsi’s presidency, would you do it in the same way?
I have no regrets because I was doing my job during the Muslim Brotherhood Era, as well as the era that followed, and to suggest that a political satire show played a role in the demise of a certain government, it shows how weak the government is, not how strong the show is.
Do you plan a censorship-less YouTube comeback? You know, just like the good old times…
Well, the old times are different, and as I said before – to downgrade from a whole theater to YouTube is a step backwards, and the show being stopped is a much louder message than anything I could ever say on YouTube or elsewhere.
Much of El Bernameg’s appeal comes from its usage of the Egyptian colloquial dialect, with its colourful expressions and natural flow. I believe your production team is also amongst the first to introduce expletives in a widely watched show, which, for those unfamiliar with the conservatism of Egyptian society, is huge. It seems impossible to convey that kind of humour through Standard Arabic. People around the Arab World learn to read and write in Standard Arabic and yet barely use it in daily life. If anything, it may hinder their creative potential. Do you believe it would be beneficial to erect “Egyptian Arabic” from dialect to language and teach children to read and write in a language they use every day? I’m playing devil’s advocate here and would hate to see Standard Arabic disappear but I would love to hear your input.
This is a very complicated zeitgeisty kind of question that concerns linguistics and culture and history and human habits! I wish I had the capacity and the credentials to give you a satisfying answer. But I fail. I hope that you acknowledge this problem and find a solution for it in your next TED talk. I’m sure it will be amazing.
Why don’t you do a program similar to America in Arabic? i.e something that is more intellectual than sarcastic, there are so many important subjects you can tackle about current issues that concern the Arab world
This could be a possibility. And if we get the right offer, and put in the right team, this program might make a comeback.
What advise you gave yo the Egyptian youth?
Eat well, brush your teeth, and be kind to your fellow egyptians.
How much input did your team have on the script ? Which e3lamy (TV host) did you enjoy making fun of the most?
Putting the script together was a collective effort that was shared equally by all of us! I always like to give credit to the amazing people that worked with me, starting from the newest intern researcher up to my writers. It’s a team effort, and this show has succeeded because no one took selfish credit on getting the show out, and this is how we were different than other programs. As far as which person I’ve enjoyed making fun of, I’ve never viewed the program as a personal tool to get the piss out of people. And I enjoyed more talking about the issues. And the bigger picture. Not the people.
Which is harder heart surgery or Egyptian politics?
What will be your next move after the movie you want to create, and when will be your next move on the TV Screens?
It’s still too early to decide. I’m taking a break and focusing all my attention in supporting the documentary, which you can find here. People!
Now that your program has been banned from several TV channels, why not start your own TV channel with other respectable journalists in Egypt? If that’s not possible, what about your YouTube channel?
About the YouTube channel: people who had followed the program on the live show have some expectations for the performers and the quality of the program. Going back to YouTube would be a step backwards, and it would be disappointing for so many people expecting a certain level of performance. Doing a show is not a single-handed effort, it is doing it with a whole team, and it is difficult to get this team to change their mindsets from performing onstage, and getting it back on YouTube.
I have said before, in my press conference as we were ending the program, that banning the program is a message louder than anything that could ever be said.
And we stand by this.
As a Youtube success story, what advice would you give to a starting Egyptian Youtuber?
So you need to watch a lot of videos. Know what people like, and don’t like. You need to enrich your experience, about understanding what makes a successful YouTube video. You need to make use of the feedback coming in from your fans, but not get overwhelmed with too much negativity. And just keep up with the flow – don’t rest on a certain technique or style, and always surprise your fans.
Why use comedy as a tool to discuss social issues?
why not? There are more than enough dull, boring people who are discussing those issues in a totally non-interesting, boring way, so why not just have a few laughs about it?
If we had the chance, do you think we should face the law in order to keep something great alive, such as a controversial website or a book, or even a satirical TV show?
It’s always worth spreading your ideas and your opinions. But sometimes, you need to think of your personal safety.
Are you scared for your well-being living in the Middle East?
Let’s say I have the normal worries and concerns that many have.
What’s your MBTI (Myer Briggs Type Indicator)?
Extrovert extrovert extrovert extrovert. Manic depressive.
Do you think Egypt will get better soon? And do u agree with the military attack on ISIS?
I hope that the whole region will heal soon. This is a much needed wish. And I think dealing with ISIS is a very-very complicated matter. And I hope it ends well.
Being the son of immigrants, I think there’s a serious misunderstanding in the US concerning the culture and politics in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East. For instance, the Egyptian community of immigrants including my parents and the vast majority of my friends and family are huge fans of El-Sisi whereas the western media portrays him as a corrupt dictator. I’d argue that the situation is significantly more nuanced than either of those, but do you think the rest of the world will ever be able to understand that? Also, what are your personal thoughts on the General?
Political views by many people are affected by their personal take on things, and how much they are exposed to media. You can agree or disagree, oppose a certain political direction, based on your own personal exposure to the events. People who oppose a certain leader have their reasons, the same way other people would support a certain leader.
At the end of the day, it comes down to the best argument being put out there, and how can you relay your message.
If you fail in relaying your message, you only have yourself to blame. Same goes for persons or a whole media outlet.
How about that ISIS? What do we have to do to get the threat of them gone? What do you think about the call to attack the Mall of America which is owned by the Ghermezian family?
Basically ISIS are a bunch of fucking lunatics. And they should be treated as such. The people who are calling for the bombing of shopping malls are equally fucking nuts. Or has no money to shop, and they want to make everybody’s life much worse.
What would you say to those who think of youth in the region as aimless, or as we would say in Egyptian “tayesh” or “saye3”. Can you address this question with the perspective of youth unemployment? What non-political, rather social and economical movements led or focused on youth could you point as an example of youth civic activism to overcome this massive hurdle?
This kind of rhetoric is always used by paternalistic governments, to cover for its own failures, and bring down its youth. And they use this instead of giving a platform to the young people of this nation and having them realize their dream. Because the mere fact that these young people are coming into light will expose their failures and their shortcomings. That’s why this rhetoric is quite common, to cover up for their own incompetence. There are many civic movements and organizations, however it’s not usually supported by these regimes because they don’t play the same political game the government wants them to be a part of. At the end, a country that does not realize the potential of its youth is an old withering country.
Who is a guest you’ve wanted to have on your show but have been unable to get?
Mmm – certain political leaders in the country. The thought that, by coming into the show, it would hurt them politically.
My parents are part of the population that believes you are a US agent that actually hates this country. While debating them, one point I couldn’t manage to argue was that when mocking Morsi, you mocked how he ruled (once, how he dressed), yet when mocking Adly Mansour, you mocked how he looks personally (Which is something he can’t change) What’s your response to that? (that you were just finding anything to mock because you didn’t have enough material)
First of all, you need to review my episodes again, because I never mocked anybody for how they looked. As a matter of fact, that is a very similar argument that the Muslim Brotherhood was using saying that I mocked Morsi for how he looked. It is very easy to be on the winning side of the joke, and it’s very difficult when you become on the receiving end of the joke. The Muslim Brotherhood, while I was having my show, threw at me all kind of accusations including that I was an American agent, just as your parents do to me now. I was called a traitor, a Zionist, an enemy of Islam, and when the regime changed, people added to the list that I am a hater and an enemy of the army and someone who wanted to destroy Egypt. So for me, it’s quite confusing how many accusations you can pack into one person! And at the end of the day, it seems that most of the people throwing these accusations have absolutely no sense of humor.
What would you rather have your face printed on: chocolates or pillows?
Ehmmm… I would rather have my face printed on pillows made of chocolate!
Where is your best Shawarma in Cairo?
I have been vegan for a year and a half, and I have lost connection with the world of meats. Sorry to disappoint.
What’s your view on the current Egyptian government’s economic projects and policies (Suez canal, low income housing developments, reduce subsidies etc) are they being implemented effectively and will they reap the country long lasting benefits, or are they plagued by the same corruption that will cripple any potential benefit from them?
These are long-term plans, and to answer strategic questions like these, you need a whole economic panel. Not a political satirist.
How long will you stay in USA and Dubai?
I’m staying in the U.S. until I finish my residency at Harvard at the end of the spring break, and then I will go back to Dubai, where I reside at the moment.
Are you surprised to hear that the highest rate of atheism in the Muslim World is in Saudi Arabia?
The problem of faith and losing faith in the Arab World has surfaced recently, and I think people need to address this issue directly without using the usual techniques of denial and dismissing the core of the issue.
Seinfeld or Frasier?
I have to say… that it took me a while to appreciate both. I didn’t understand the humor of Frasier or appreciated fully the humor of Seinfeld until I better understood American culture and American humor. Frasier is a very sophisticated comedy, and Seinfeld, although being a comedy about nothing, both of them have their challenges in understanding the humor.
I’m glad to say that i enjoy both of them, although I have to admit that I did not miss a single episode of Frasier.
Why do you think satirical comedy is taken so seriously in the Middle East, and does that play a role in how governments interact with you?
To appreciate satire, sometimes you need to lay a whole foundation of acceptance of criticism by others. And being at peace with being put on the spot and being responsible for your actions. Sadly, many of these elements are not present in that part of the world. And this is why satire could be viewed as an insult, or a direct attack.
What’s a piece of advice that has helped you during a tough time?
It’s an advice that I got from Jon Stewart. When I didn’t know what to say, he told me “Make fun of whatever you’re feeling. See how you feel about something, and so when the joke comes out, it will come out very truthfully and honestly.”
Are there any Arab comedians/shows you follow or recommend?
There are lovely Arab talents on the internet, and I would refrain from answering this question because I don’t want to influence anyone’s opinions, so I will keep the answer to myself.
Have you ever thought of doing stand up?
I already did! I did a few standup comedy shows. I did a few standup comedies, but I decided I would not do it after the program, because people expect a certain performance from the program that might not be present in the standup comedy. However, this might change in the future, but I don’t know now.
Amr Diab or Mohammad Mounir?
Both of them have been in the arena for quite a long time. They both have incredible success stories, and the fact they are still big stars after all these years is impressive by itself.
Do you and Jon ever hang out? Just get a good bagel?
We get a bagel in his office. Because he’s an extremely busy man.
Is there any chance that your show “albernameg” will be coming back airing from Egypt or any other country?
I have explained in my press conference before that there was extreme pressure for us to continue the program. I cannot really elaborate on that. Because that might hurt other people. But I think anybody with half a brain, haha, would understand what we mean! I have always emphasized that we cannot do a political satire show from outside the country, because that would take away from the program’s credibility. Having the program getting back on-air is something that is unknown to us.
There were rumours when you reportedly relocated to Dubai that Al Nernameg may be following you and going out from MBC Dubai. Was there any truth to this? Could it happen in future?
There are so many rumors that have been circulating about me, including that I am a secret alien.
But as you can see – all of them are not true.
How is baby Nadia? Do you ever plan on returning? How are Shady, Khaled Mansour, Wattar, Hesham Mansour?
Nadia is doing fine. I am trying to make her accommodate to the snow. As for my lovely friends and colleagues, they are doing fine as well. And I wish them all the best in their future endeavors.
How successful do you think democracy can be in a country with a nearly 29% illiteracy rate such as Egypt?
Illiteracy rate has nothing to do with how successful democracy can be. If you look at India, they are the biggest democracy in the world, even bigger than America, and they have similar illiteracy problems, and sectarian problems, even more, but nobody is holding democracy as a hostage to their domestic problems.
How did you go about the decision process of discontinuing your career as a surgeon and took the media career?
It was not an abrupt decision. It happened pretty much gradually, because I was still doing my hospital shifts as I was doing my YouTube videos. It came very gradually as I started to have more success with my television show. So I did play it safe, I wasn’t the radical person you think I am!
Being a fan of both, The Daily Show and Albernameg, what is the most important characteristics of Albernameg show that makes it different?
We always insisted on putting something new, other than just the fake news, we put sketches, and musicals, and songs. We wanted this to be more of a mini-Broadway show every single week, like a showcase. And of course, there is a huge difference in the atmosphere that we had to get the show through.
If money and backing wasn’t a factor, what dream project would you like to work on?
My dream? I want to make a show traveling the entire world, discovering what makes people believe and where does faith come from.
Did your family and wife really support your decision to leave your job as a surgeon to enter the world of comedy? Did they even take it seriously or were they on board from the start?
My wife is an incredible person who has supported my decisions all along, and I am lucky to have her.
What do you think of your fans?
My fans are amazing.