Bassem Youssef fearless and vocal as Gaza looms large over Abu Dhabi gig

The Egyptian comedian led chants of 'free, free Palestine'

Bassem Youssef performed in the capital as part of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Comedy Week. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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In my 32 years of living in the UAE as a Palestinian-Jordanian, I never imagined I would hear words spoken on a stage as big as Etihad Arena like on Friday night when Bassem Youssef came to town.

For thousands of people to be chanting in unison: "Free, free Palestine" – especially at such a painful, gut-wrenching time for anyone inside Gaza and the West Bank, with a heart or just an internet connection – was truly a cathartic experience.

Performing as part of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Comedy Week, Youssef took to the stage at 10pm after fellow comedian Maz Jobrani.

Iranians are famous for their carpets. Israel for carpet bombings
Bassem Youssef

And he was fearless.

Even by his own admission, he didn’t have to change his act to accommodate the sold-out crowd, especially for folks in the UAE. Youssef's set began with a condemnation of Israel. A very, very long applause followed.

“But I’m not here to talk about it,” he said every time he did talk about it.

What Youssef performed was more than a stand-up comedy show. It was an immersive, interactive work of art that left me hopeful and certain that the world sees, hears and feels what's been happening inside Gaza and the West Bank for the past seven months.

It also reassured me that the world has changed, the UAE is part of that change, and that these cultural events are the moments that indicate this as such.

Youssef's show was not entirely focused on Palestine. He had different themes throughout, woven by the same thread of what it’s like to be an Arab in this day and age.

“Crises unify people,” Youssef said.

The coronavirus pandemic unified people’s distrust in the vaccines and the virus’s origins, he added. It kept the Arabs out of the news for once, he said.

But then back to not talking about it, he said, we’re all famous for something.

“Iranians are famous for their carpets. Israel for carpet bombings,” he said as the crowd went wild. “But I’m not talking about it.”

Youssef also spoke of his journey in Egypt and the tough choice he had to make when receiving his acceptance papers from Cleveland Clinic in the US, after working tirelessly to achieve what he thought was his dream to become a surgeon. This happened on the same day he was due to sign a contract for his first show, after making a series of satirical YouTube videos about the political turmoil in Egypt in 2011.

He spoke of being questioned by the Public Prosecutor in Egypt, after being charged with several "crimes", including “disrupting the social fabric, whatever that means”.

His infamous interrogation, that lasted six hours, he said, eventually turned into a “writers room” when the people accusing him of being hateful towards then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak were also inadvertently helping him come up with better material.

“The hardest part was learning that most of my jokes weren’t funny,” he said.

Eventually, he fled Egypt and decided to go to the US. Upon arriving, Youssef remembers seeing Donald Trump’s poll numbers going up as he inched towards the 2016 presidency.

He very intelligently wove a narrative of how certain things sound a lot scarier when spoken by an Arab, just because of their accent. He used the example of how an Arab pilot would pretend he’s “Tom Hanks” (with an accent) just to hide the fact that his real name is "probably Mohammed", so that people on board might feel a little safer.

“We’ve been conditioned,” he said.

The balance between humour, politics, impressions, serious and silly was almost too perfect. Seeing the keffiyeh decorating people’s shoulders throughout the audience was also refreshing.

Regardless of where you come from, one thing was for sure: If you were in the crowd, you were certainly pro-Palestine.

And if there was a shadow of a doubt that that is true, Youssef starting the chant of: “Free, Free.. Palestine” along with thousands of people joining in, would have made all your suspicions disappear.

To say the evening was just “funny” would be an understatement. Youssef’s performance was a cathartic experience and a validating one for anyone who will never stop talking about Palestine.

Abu Dhabi Comedy Weeks runs until Sunday

Updated: May 25, 2024, 4:22 PM