- Published on Thursday, 12 May 2011 20:00
- Category: Featured Partner: Palestine Note
A good comedian is like a funhouse mirror: reflecting an amusingly exaggerated image of human behavior that makes audiences take a harder look at themselves. In times of heightened societal tensions and dramatic changes, this carnival attraction becomes an integral part of community cohesion and challenging the status quo.
Over the past few decades in America, as immigration and issues of tolerance grow in importance, we’ve seen a rise in comedians and shows that cater to minorities. Comics like Chris Rock (an African-American), George Lopez (a Mexican-American), and Margaret Cho (an openly bisexual Asian-American) have all cultivated, intentionally or not, their own niche audiences among minority populations. Their material often serves to foster a sense of shared experience among the identity group while also posing a challenge to a society that excludes them from the mainstream.
Arab-Americans, and others from Middle Eastern diaspora, are one of the latest minorities that have asserted themselves in the stand-up comedy scene. After the attacks of September 11th and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even more pressure was placed on these performers to fight the growing prejudice against Arabs and Muslims (two distinct identities that many Americans erroneously view as synonymous).
A few weeks ago the I had the pleasure of attending the “Funatical Comedy Tour,” which boasts an impressive lineup of multi-faith and multi-ethnic comics including Egyptian Christian Maria Shehata and Palestinian-Jordanian Muslim Said Durrah, when it stopped in Washington, DC. Headlining this leg of the tour was veteran Egyptian-American comedian, actor, and (now) filmmaker Ahmed Ahmed. Both Maria and Ahmed had recently returned from performing for Arab audiences in the Middle East. Said has also performed in the Middle East but his shows, he says with a smile, have usually been of the “unpaid” variety.
“When it comes to comedy, unfortunately, stereotypes sell,” he sighs. That seems to be true of multiple forms of mass media these days. Stereotypes can help the brain organize what may seem to be a lot of chaotic and conflicting information. It can be a natural and more comfortable reaction to a changing world, but it has serious consequences for those of us on the road toward equality.
“Comedy shows help break down social constraints,” Said continues. “Because when you’re laughing, you’re vulnerable.”
The Funatical tour was designed to “break barriers between cultures, races, and religions” by poking fun at stereotypes and bringing “people of all colors together to laugh at themselves, and each other.” The overt nature of the program’s message of social change made me a bit nervous, balancing such an objective while still delivering an entertaining product is a very difficult feat. And I wasn’t sure what they meant by “taking comedy to the extreme” (Were we going rock climbing? Would Mountain Dew be involved?). Luckily, the performers were strong enough to not be overshadowed by the message. I’m not sure anyone walked away with a more enlightened view of the identities represented but it was clear everyone just had a generally good time, which is accomplishment enough.
Ahmed is also a member of the wildly popular “Axis of Evil” comedy quartet that also features Iranian-American Maz Jobrani, half-Palestinian half-Mormon Aron Kader, and half-Palestinian half-Italian Dean Obeidallah. That tour had a similar, if a little more subtle, goal of social change in mind and was also an absolute riot.
It perhaps also helps that almost none of the comics take on the role of an official representative of their identity group, something no artist could ever responsibly take on. Both at home in the States and in the Middle East, the focus of the comics’ material is telling individual stories about their daily lives. Ahmed was even reluctant to repeat the term “Arab comedy” when I asked him to describe its characteristics in the Middle East.
“The term ‘Arab comedy’ can be a little misconstrued. I don’t like to classify it by any racial distinction. A comedian who is telling their personal story just happens to be black, or Asian, or Arab. Comedy is specific to each performer’s personality and point of view,” he says.
Following the Axis’ American success, the group decided to take their show to Arab audiences in the Middle East, giving locally grown stand-up a much needed push into the spotlight. Apparently, some enterprising bootleggers also gave the Axis a fortuitous boost.
Comedy is, of course, not new to the Arab world. Stand-up, a modern and mostly Western invention, however, is relatively new and still in its early stages of development.
“I think in the past romantic comedies and satire were the more dominant formats, its what people had been watching their whole lives,” Ahmed says. “Its been opening up to more of a general population in the past couple years. But there are also 23 different countries in the Middle East, so everyone has their own defined spectrum of comedy.”
Ahmed, and most of the other comedians he brings along with him to the Middle East, perform mostly English but also make a point of including native Arabic speakers in their shows. As audiences come to see the shows, not only to be entertained but also for a “safe” social experience, more and more non-English speakers have been in attendance.
“One of the biggest challenges to performing stand up comedy in Arabic is dialect,” says Said. “A Lebanese audience might laugh at an Egyptian, but it could just be because they think he talks funny.”
Said adds that the Egyptians are well known for their humorous mannerisms. I wondered if that cultural heritage may have influenced Ahmed’s style, since I found myself laughing doubly hard every time he made a face or gesture to match his anecdotes.
Language is hardly the biggest hurdle to the growth of stand-up comedy in the Arab world. In countries that impose numerous restrictions on individual freedoms due to social, political, and sectarian conflict it can be difficult for anyone, not just stand-up comics from the diaspora, to play the role of comedian as social critic. The line between acceptable and haram is a challenging wire to walk, but Ahmed and his colleagues have proven to be agile performers.
Maria, who ever so often carries the burden of being the only female in a group of performers, doesn’t consider herself to be a “dirty” comedian, but does find there is a little more pressure on her to be clean when performing in the Middle East because of her gender.
The recent uprisings in the Arab world that have overthrown governments in Tunisia and Egypt, sparked civil war in Libya, and now threaten the stability of some of America’s favored authoritarian leaders in the Gulf, have not gone unnoticed by the comics or their Arab audiences abroad. As people lose their fear of oppressive authorities, a new opportunity for comics, and other artists, to engage in some free speech has presented itself. One of the more popular requests has been for jokes about Egypt’s now deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
By the way, if you’re looking for some, you may want to check out Issandr El Amrani’s Foreign Policy article, “Three Decades of a Joke that Just Won’t Die”.
“Its really about having the freedom to jokingly criticize what’s been going on,” Ahmed says. “There are about half a dozen countries in the Middle East now where leaders are being asked to step down. There’s definitely a general consensus among people who feel its necessary to have the freedom to criticize.”
That desire for freedom is surely facing a long hard battle in the face of so many entrenched systems of repression. Comics like Maria, Said, and Ahmed may not be agents of revolution, but they can help it along just by being so damn funny.
By Christa Blackmon, Aslan Media Social Media Editor
This article originally appeared on Palestine Note. It is re-posted here with permission.
Photo Credit: Fanatical Comedy Tour