North Africa, West Asia

From ‘Tickling Giants’ to making kids laugh: an interview with Bassem Youssef

The Egyptian comedian’s first book for young people tackles bullying, racism and discrimination among immigrant children.

Aman Bezreh
15 December 2020, 12.01am
Bassem Youssef
Courtesy of Bassem Youssef. Copyright Manfred Baumann.

The renowned Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef has written his first children’s book, ‘The Magical Reality of Nadia’. Due to be published by Scholastic, the original publisher of the Harry Potter series in the US, in February 2021, the book is co-written with Catherine Daly, a former editor at Disney, Harper and Scholastic.

The book’s eponymous heroine is a 12-year-old Egyptian girl who moved to the US when she was six. She loves bobbleheads, and has collected 77 so far. But like many other children of colour, Nadia faces bullying and racism at school – particularly from one boy who considers her to be ‘different’.

When Nadia decides to organise a new exhibition at the local museum, she at first seems completely on her own in this endeavour. This is until she finds herself in the company of a mystical teacher, who takes Nadia on an adventurous trip to learn from history, opening the door to magic in her life.

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When Nadia’s hippo amulet starts glowing, she discovers an ancient Egyptian teacher stuck inside. Titi, who resembles the genie from ‘Aladdin’, has been trapped there by an ancient curse from an evil priest, which allows him to appear to Nadia only in books or on paper. Titi uses Egyptian mythology and ancient stories to teach Nadia about life.

The show must go on

Bassem is best known for hosting ‘El-Bernameg’ (“The Show”), a popular satirical TV programme, which he launched shortly after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, leaving a well-paid job as a heart surgeon. In 2013, following the overthrow of the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi and the rise of the military junta, the show was taken off air. Like other dictators, Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, could not take a joke.

After announcing the end of ‘El-Bernameg’ in 2014, Bassem moved to the US, where he began working on other ventures, such as Plant B, which promotes veganism and a healthy lifestyle. He has also performed stand-up comedy in Arabic and English around the world, and was, in 2017, the subject of a documentary, ‘Tickling Giants’, by Sara Taksler.

In an interview, Bassem walked us through the process of creating his first children’s book. The idea, he says, came from a conversation with his agent. “After thinking about it,” says Youssef, “I asked myself what is the most I am passionate about, and the answer was ancient Egyptian history, as it carries a lot of lessons that can be applied to real life.” He added that “Egyptian history has an amazing potential to tell stories”.

From there, Bassem combined his passion and experience to write a story for middle-school children about the importance of accepting people from different backgrounds. His famous sense of humour is present but, as he explains, “the comedy changes when the language and audience change”.

The story is his creation, but as Bassem mentioned in a previous interview, Daly helped breathe life into the characters – who were then illustrated by Douglas Holgate.

“Now more than ever, with the political climate influenced by Donald Trump and the rise of anti-immigration sentiment, there is a need to open a conversation about diversity with children.”

Finding Holgate, Bassem says, was a “stroke of luck”. He came across ‘The Last Kids on Earth’, a TV series based on graphic novels illustrated by Holgate, on Netflix, and knew he wanted the same illustrator to work on his book. Asked why he didn’t choose an Egyptian or Arab artist, Bassem admits that he probably didn’t look hard enough, although he is sure that the talent is there in the Arabic-speaking world.

Embracing diversity and differences

Amid the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in the US and Europe, Bassem chose to centre his story around an immigrant girl. He explains: “Now more than ever, with the political climate influenced by Donald Trump and the rise of anti-immigration sentiment, there is a need to open a conversation about diversity with children.”

Titi, the teacher trapped in the amulet, is not just there to help Nadia – he is also an example of how a person can be excluded for being different. Titi himself was cursed because he was different to other priests.

Although the genie in Disney’s famous version of ‘Aladdin’ has been accused of perpetuating Orientalist stereotypes, Bassem is not worried about straying into that territory with his story. He sees Nadia as a contemporary American-Egyptian girl, as well as a clear distinction between the magical realm and her reality.

As real-life children do not have magic to help them learn and grow, Bassem says that “there is an entertainment value in magic, fantasy, and ancient history”. He adds that the story will be “a magical trip for kids”.

For inspiration, Bassem says that he read a selection of children’s books sent to him by Scholastic, as well as Egyptian myths and legends. He thinks the latter provided a wealth of life lessons that can be applied to our current times, drawing particularly on the story of the ‘Eloquent Peasant’, which is an ancient Egyptian tale about a peasant who was assaulted by the high steward, but receives justice because of his eloquence. Its ultimate message is that with presence of mind and sensibility, any person can defend their rights and demand justice. Or as Bassem puts it, “if you are good with your words, you can get your message across.”

Girls run the world

Bullying, racism and discrimination are not new themes for children’s books, but Bassem claims that “only a few books talk about bullying against immigrant children, and even fewer use ancient Egyptian history for lessons”. He explains that his book carries a particular message to its American audience. “The power of America is its diversity, as it is a nation of immigrants”.

The book will also be translated into Arabic, with some alterations to suit this readership, and Bassem explains that across the Middle East and North Africa region, girls are constantly being judged for how they behave. In that sense, although the book focuses on an Egyptian girl living in the US, he hopes girls around the world will be able to relate to Nadia, who teaches them to stand their ground and express their unique personalities.

The book’s twist comes when the boy who has been bullying Nadia realises that he is also of immigrant descent. He learns that his forefathers, who came from Ireland, had faced all sorts of challenges. Bassem says he learned a lot from writing a children’s book, adding that what he likes most about life after ‘El-Bernameg’ is that he can now work on projects he didn’t have the time for before. Perhaps, like Titi, he has broken out of his cage to take us on a magical tour of his mind.

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