DUBAI: Bassem Youssef is on a mission for the masses – and the topic is definitely no laughing matter.
For the Egyptian surgeon-turned-comedian – mainly known in the region for his standup and satire – is concerned with the serious health issues the Middle East is facing.
“The rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, are exploding (in this region) – the percentages were not this high 30, 40 years ago,” he tells Arab News. “I think we need to do something about it. We have been adopting the Western lifestyle of eating, and so we’re suffering from the same diseases now.
“We need to take a step back and try to modify our approach to food and our lifestyle.”
Youssef’s latest TV project forms part of that mission.
‘Is’al Bassem’ – which translates into ‘Ask Bassem’ – is a new weekly programme on Asharq News that focuses on “challenging traditional food myths” whilst introducing viewers to “doctors, athletes, and influencers who have changed their lives through a balanced diet”.
Youssef, 46, who has been following a vegan diet himself for over eight years now, wants to show that the current health crisis in the Middle East can be reversed.
But he’s the first to admit that change won’t happen overnight, citing challenges such as “elevated levels of lifestyle, more money, the introduction of fast food and international chains, and people using meat as a sign of status.”
He elaborates: “I make this joke a lot – that when you talk to people about their lifestyle and food, they attack you more (compared to) when you talk about politics or religion!
“And I get that, but I’m not even criticizing what they do. I am criticizing the marketing around it; I’m criticizing the science that promotes an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s really up to the people to choose.”
‘Is’al Bassem’ isn’t Youssef’s first foray into health and wellness content. The personality launched Plant B, a media portal dedicated to plant-based eating and more, in 2019.
“There has been a very positive impact, and I see it every day. I see it with people sending me messages telling me how it has affected their life for the better – that’s what keeps you going,” he says. “I think this initiative has touched a lot of people’s lives, so I am quite happy and proud of it.”
No looking back
So where did this love for plant-based eating initially come from?
“I still remember the date: 15 September 2013, because it’s the day that I met with my friend who had MS (multiple sclerosis), and he kind of converted me.”
On the Plant B website, Youssef explains that his friend overcame MS through changing his diet.
And while he himself went “cold turkey” in following his friend, Youssef advises against that approach, instead encouraging others to go slow and steady.
“My advice is to read and to take it in baby steps. Try and take out one group of food; (start with) dairy. If you feel better, take out a second group. I always say that any change is good.”
Going beyond TV
Youssef’s mission isn’t just reserved for what he presents on the small screen. He’s keen to turn it into something greater that has the potential to influence and improve public health policies.
“I consider ‘Is’al Bassem’ a stepping stone. Plant B was a stepping stone. And I want to actually extend that beyond the boundaries of television and media,” he reveals. “I want to make a real impact in society. I want to be able to one day speak to governments; to try to change policies; to make an impact on the way people think about lifestyle, healthcare initiatives, and healthcare policies.
“And I think we can do that. It has already been done in the United States, and I think we have an even better chance of doing it here in the Arab world.”
So is it out with the old career and in with the new? Does this mark the end of ‘Bassem Youssef: Political Satirist’?
“No, because I’m still doing comedy that is related to politics, but in the United States,” he says. “My beginning (was) in Arabic on a show called ‘Al Bernameg’ in Cairo. Now, I live in the United States, I still do comedy, and all of my comedy is still politically-oriented. But it’s now done in English.”
“People judge you based on their perception of what you present and if it’s still relevant to them or not… but I am the product of the environment that I live in. I’m living in the United States as an immigrant, and I speak towards that. So I hope it doesn’t get old!”
He continues: “The thing with Plant B and ‘Is’al Bassem’ is that it’s not a replacement… This is a side passion project that I’ve been doing for years. It’s an addition to what I do.”