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School Notes: Egyptian Comedian Turns Educator

  • Bassem Youssef



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2018

Egyptian surgeon turned comedian-in-exile Bassem Youssef is still navigating the American systems of education, entertainment and politics.

“It’s a learning process,” Youssef said last week, during a telephone conversation from California. “It’s a different audience, a different language. You have to feel the room, learn the room. There are so many things I still have to figure out.”

During visits with students and at two public appearances at Dartmouth College this week, he’ll be sharing his experiences as a TV icon who ran afoul of his native country’s parade of repressive governments, along with his evolving observations on the state of democracy under the presidency of Donald Trump.

College campus visits, most recently at the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin, and still to come a date at Princeton, are a growing part of his new life’s work, which includes efforts to break into television.

“It’s always a very rich discussion,” Youssef said. “A lot of people are very receptive about learning what is happening in the Middle East. I’ve been clarifying the dynamic, because so many people see Egypt and other countries as a polarity between the military government and the Islamists. In some cases, they aren’t always in opposition to each other.”

Youssef, 43, ended up irritating both the military and the religious extremists between 2011 and 2014: Amid the protests and marches that led to the overthrow of the government of 30-year-dictator Hosni Mubarak seven years ago this winter, Youssef ventured into the streets to interview protesters and confront authorities trying to stop the movement, and put the videos on YouTube. Before long, he was fronting a satirical news program in the mode of American comedian Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, that drew tens of millions of viewers a night, as well as writing a scathing opinion column for a major Egyptian newspaper.

Tickling Giants, the 2016 documentary that the Hopkins Center will screen at Loew Auditorium on Wednesday night, recalls those heady days and traces the downward spiral that followed: After the election of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, in 2012, Youssef started receiving threats both from the new government and from Islamists loyal to Morsi.

And things didn’t improve after Morsi’s overthrow by the Egyptian military in 2013: Soon, the interim government was leaning even harder on The Show’s network and on Youssef. He briefly moved the program to a satellite network and resumed making fun of both the interim government and of former field marshal Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, the defense minister.

The ensuing complaints by avid supporters of al-Sisi prompted the satellite network to suspend The Show during the presidential campaign. At the end of the elections, Youssef shut it down, citing the dangerous political climate in his native country. And, taking the hint, he fled to the United States, where he now lives in Oakland, Calif., with his wife and children.

Youssef caught Dartmouth’s attention early on. After attempts to bring him to Hanover fell through — once for an April 2016 screening of Tickling Giants, later for a visit combining a stand-up session with a signing of his book, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring — social science professor Jonathan Smolin arranged to bring Youssef to campus for Smolin’s Introduction to Arabic Culture class. Built around that session will be Wednesday’s screening of the documentary, a public panel discussion on Thursday night and more encounters with students and faculty on Friday and Saturday.

Throughout his time in Hanover, expect Youssef to mix his reminiscences with their lessons for an American democracy struggling for unity on issues ranging from immigration to the nature of truth in the age of social media.

“With the deportations of undocumented people, they’re basically doing what Obama did, but in a crass way,” Youssef said. “Trump is doing it with out-and-out racism — invoking fear of the Other.

“That’s how dictators thrive.”

Bassem Youssef will answer questions after the screening ofTickling Giantson Wednesday night at 7, in the Loew Auditorium theater at Dartmouth College in Hanover; for tickets ($5 to $10) and more information, visit hop.dartmouth.edu or call 603-646-2422. And on Thursday afternoon at 4:30 in room 28 of Dartmouth’s Silsby Hall, Youssef also will join a panel discussion led by the college’s Middle Eastern Studies program; admission is free.

S.T.E.M. Cells

Twenty-five Upper Valley students presented research last week at the annual symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas.

Attending the symposium for the third time in four years as a representative of the New Hampshire Academy of Science (NHAS), West Lebanon’s Zach Herndon, a junior at Lebanon High School, outlined his findings in the detection of genetically-modified organisms in organic foods. Under the guidance of NHAS executive director and Crossroads Academy teacher Peter Faletra, the other Upper Valley delegates conducted their research in the fields of molecular genetics, toxicology, environmental biology and biochemistry, at NHAS’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) laboratory in Lyme and at labs at Dartmouth College.

Presenting research at the symposium for the second year in a row were Herndon’s sister Emma Herndon, an LHS sophomore; Hanover High School senior Ethan Adner and sophomore Claire Adner, both residents of Hanover; Hanover High freshmen Rain Liu (Hanover resident) and Miriam Viazmenski (Hanover); and Piermont resident Fiona Sweeney, a junior at St. Johnsbury Academy.

Other Upper Valley presenters, by school, follow:

Crossroads Academy (Lyme)— eighth graders Matthew Adner (Hanover resident), Eden Anne Bauer (Hanover), Sophie Bridge (South Strafford), Maxine Park (Hanover), Saia Patel (Hanover), Eleanor Press (Hanover), Mikey Rieger (Quechee), Cecelia Sweeney (Piermont) and Anna Testorf (Hanover).

Lebanon High — Sophomore Irina Stan.

Hanover High — Sophomore Fiona Barthel (Norwich resident) and juniors Andy Kotz (Lyme), Sam Seeling (Lyme) and Emma Tysinger (Norwich).

Phillips Exeter (N.H.) Academy — sophomores Katherine Duan and Alexander Kish, both of Hanover.

St. Paul’s School (Concord) — freshman Leanna Kish, of Hanover.

Continuing Education

Quechee Public Library hosts workshops on beekeeping and bee-related medicine on Saturday.

At 10 a.m., beekeeper Troy Hall, of Plainfield, will talk about his work at his apiary, where he breeds queen bees for winter hardiness and tolerance for mites as well as for honey production.

At 11, apitherapy advocate Reyah Carlson will speak on the theme of “The Medicine Chest Known as the Beehive,” in outlining the use of beestings and bee products to fight a variety of ailments.

Admission is free. Between the talks, honey-based refreshments will be served.

Colby-Sawyer College’s Adventures in Learning (AIL) office has begun enrolling adults for its spring term on Monday.

The deadline to register is March 23. In addition to courses and trips, AIL members can attend the program’s Lunch and Learn Series, where Sunapee-area leaders in the arts talk about their work.

To become an AIL member and learn more, visit colby-sawyer.edu/adventures or call 603-526-3690.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304