Jan 31, 2019
Upon hearing Bassem Youssef, dubbed the Jon Stewart of the Arab World, made his Kennedy Center debut on Feb 1, 2019, I decided to watch a documentary 'Tickling Giants' about this most courageous individual to emerge from the Arab Spring. For anyone who doubts the importance of the role that freedom of the press plays in an open and democratic society, the documentary is a must see.
This film reminded me in painful detail how delicate our freedoms are and how quickly they can be taken away. With all the recent back and forth between President Trump and media outlets like CNBC and CNN, it’s easy to dismiss the role that freedom of the press plays in an open and democratic society. When leaders choose to attack and silence the media, the outcome can be devastating.
We get to know Bassem Youssef a heart surgeon with a penchant for humor and sarcasm intimately as we meet his toddler daughter and outspoken, sharp beautiful wife hanging out in his living room. We see his trepidation then his embrace of a career in comedy. What drives him is the opportunity to express views on politics with a comedic twist in his then Tumultuous Egypt.
The revolution in Egypt and its aftermath was an amazing time that reverberated with hope only to spiral out of control and into old patterns. But I do believe the uprising and the small window of freedom of expression, made an indelible mark in Egypt's younger generation and planted a seed deep in the souls of Egyptian society. As Bassem explains "a revolution is not an event. It's a process. And it takes its time". In 'Tickling the Giant' we get to understand the cultural changes and circular trajectory of a dictatorship through the openness to TV satire.
This documentary lets us be with Mr. Youssef, his young modern hopeful gender-balanced crew, and even the Egyptian populace intimately. It is both uplifting and heartbreaking and we experience Bassem's tears well up at times and we feel his dejection due to repression of his feather of humor. Hence the name "Tickling the Giant". Believe me, it is a story whose lesson is not valid only in the Middle East.
When we first meet Bassem Youssef, he’s in his late thirties, handsome and confident and he knows from the start what the stakes are. The convulsive Arab Spring uprising in Tahrir Square in 2011 results in the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, who had been the president of Egypt for 30 years. Youssef expresses this with his on point sarcasm: “Mubarak's first term”.
The sweeping away of the entrenched power of Mubarak gives Youssef’s dream of launching a national satirical news program an opportunity to become a reality. The show “Al-Bernameg” — literally “The Show” — transparently modeled on “The Daily Show,” amasses a nightly audience of 30 million out of a total Egyptian population of 82 million. “The Show” becomes the most blockbuster TV program in the nation’s history and Youssef himself the most popular entertainer and the most popular person in all of Egypt.
The very fact that he’s on, satirizing 'the powers that be' is a declaration of freedom. What the laughter begets is emancipation, finally a chance to express what was inexpressible for so long.
Soon, Egypt's first democratically elected president Morsi is sworn in on 30 June 2012, but proves to be yet another ruthless ruler calling for more constitutional powers to establish his rule. Just a year later, on July 3, 2013, the Army Chief General Abdul Fatah el-Sisi assumes command in a military coup as the country’s clashing factions begin to fight.
Sisi is a dictator even more repressive than Mubarak; hundreds of thousands of dissident voices are jailed, including journalists. “The Show” is still on in the first year of Sisi’s reign and Youssef is at his most open and inspired. Although the show has to find a new network, Youssef, leading the program’s writers, a cool and youthful bunch, refuses to tone down his honesty.
To him, it’s all or nothing. He sees every joke he makes is about Egypt becoming a free society. Yet Youssef married, with a young daughter has to make a decision when things come to a head... for you to find out.
“Tickling Giants” is an engaging documentary that leaves one with gratitude for the freedom we do have, and becoming more willing to defend it from those who compromise it. Mostly, as Bassem Youssef says we must remember every laughter is a testament to our resilience and strength to fight for what is right.
Review by Ceylan Karasapan Crow
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