Having been a guest on former Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara’s podcast, “Stay Tuned With Preet,” Bassem Youseff decided that if Preet could get a show from Cafe, so could he.
Bassem was a surgeon in Egypt who, during the Arab Spring, started a YouTube series to show what was really happening on the front lines of the protests. This grew in popularity until he was offered a TV show, and that grew in popularity until he was hitting 14 million viewers a week and being called the Egyptian Jon Stewart. And until the government decided his humor and honesty was dangerous and tried to arrest him. He tells a hilarious story while speaking with Preet about being brought in for questioning by the authorities, and as much as I laughed at this, I can’t believe someone in the government or a member of the pro-Islamist faction that also hated him, didn’t find some reason to execute him.
That’s the shorter, less funny version of how Bassem essentially had to flee to America, so definitely go and listen to his appearance on “Stay Tuned” when Preet went live at the Apollo theater, and then check out his new podcast, “ReMade in America.”
It’s the second episode of his show that made me stop what I was doing and really listen, as it seemed to be a convergence of multiple ideas and stories that had been circling me recently. In this episode, Bassem speaks with Baratunde Thurston about controlling your own story, your narrative, and how the United States was essentially built on destroying an entire race’s ability to do just that. As George Orwell said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
As Baratunde begins to talk about that, about the history of slavery and the systemic, institutional racism that is the inoperable cancer of our nation, I was reminded of a passage by James Weldon Johnson that I came across the other day, that I believe comes from his book “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”.
“…but if the Negro is so distinctly inferior, it is a strange thing to me that it takes such tremendous effort on the part of the white man to make him realize it, and to keep him in the same place into which inferior men naturally fall.”
Last night, I overheard these two kids talking about the manga series they were reading. Have you ever listened to two nerds talk about manga? Use the buddy system if you do, it may be necessary for someone to drag you away before the sheer amount of information they retain, the convoluted plotlines, the talking gender-assigned weapons, and competitive fanboy condescension triggers a murderous berserker attack.
When I’d more or less overcome the urge to scale the shelves and attack from above and beat them both to death with a One Piece boxed set, I found myself thinking about what they were talking about, or at least about the few keywords of their conversation that had stuck with me.
So later, on my lunch break, I came up with this. I only had twenty minutes, so it’s rough and awkward. There is a lot sitting in the shadows, just behind what I was able to get down on paper….
Through the scope the boy slouched lower in his metal chair. One hand rested on the table, fingers around his cup. The fingers of his left hand drummed along his thigh.
He looked quite relaxed. Quite free. It was abnormal. No one looked like that. Since he had sat down, he had not once looked around, or over his shoulder. When two police officers had passed by the small patio, he did not look up. He did not even notice. The other customers had noticed. They had all put down their cups or silverware, they had watched the patrol pass by and continue to the corner, where they turned and headed for the last checkpoint on Zraly Street before the wall. Only after they were out of sight did anyone return to their paper, their conversation, their meals or tea. Except this boy.
But it wasn’t right to call him a boy when they were very near in age. He had always been like that to her, too. Relaxed. The city around them had never seemed to exist for him. The people, the places, they did, they were all there for him to interact with, to navigate through. But the real city—the one that built the wall, that enforced the curfew, and that armed the police patrols, that city never seemed to exist for him.
She had never been to this part of the city before.
When he slouched, the barrel of the rifle pointed at his chest from twelve stories up and half a block away lowered a fraction of an inch. The brain attached to the rifle hadn’t even noticed the movement. There was no realization that such an adjustment was necessary, no calculations to determine how much in order to keep the target perfectly within the crosshairs. The target moved. The rifle moved. The brain attached to it was no longer a part of the equation. The girl possessing this brain was no longer a part of the equation. Training had eradicated that, eliminated every trace of individual thought. Nearly.
“Take the shot,” the voice said.
The girl hesitated.