Heard the one about Arabs not being funny?
One group of UK-based comedians certainly has. And that is why they plan to take to the stage later this week to prove that this one-liner is very much a joke.
Under the tongue-in-cheek title “Arabs Are Not Funny,” a comedy show to be held in London on Saturday will feature the Welsh-Egyptian stand-up Omar Hamdi, along with five other performers whom have roots in the Arab world.
The aim of the event is to address the fact that Arabs are underrepresented on the UK comedy circuit, according to the organizer. Stand-ups from Jewish, Asian, African and Iranian backgrounds have all become stars in Britain – but few, if any, Arab comedians are household names.
“Arabs are funny – of course they are funny,” said Aser el-Saqqa, founder of the UK-based Arts Canteen, which is organizing the comedy night.
“There is a well-established comedian scene in the Arab world, especially in Egypt,” he added. “Yet Arab comedians in the diaspora are underrepresented. However I think there are talented comedians here – and we want to give them a platform.”
The “Arabs Are Not Funny” night will be hosted by the Tunisian comedian Marouen Mraihi, with other acts including the stand-up Khalid Winter and “Prince Abdi,” who was born in Somalia and came to the UK when he was four.
The Irish-Egyptian comedian Zahra Barri, who grew up in the UK and Saudi Arabia, is another stand-up who hopes to challenge the idea that “Arabs Are Not Funny” at the event.
“Arabs are famous for a lot of things – like being hairier, and using a lot of phlegm,” she said. “So maybe this is our chance to prove that we’ve also got a good sense of humor.”
Barri has been a comedian for four years, performing at venues like the Top Secret Comedy Club and Comedy Café. Her Arab roots provide her with plenty of comic material – but that is certainly not the only thing she talks about. “My main interest is to make people laugh,” she says. “So hopefully that will happen.”
Not so funny stereotypes
Omar Hamdi – who has appeared on BBC television and presented radio shows – is headlining the show.
Hamdi’s parents moved from Egypt to Wales in the 1970s, and the comedian says he felt like an outsider during much of his childhood. But that is something most stand-ups have in common, he says.
“It’s easier to point and laugh when you’re different to everyone else,” the comedian says. “When you’re an Egyptian in Wales, you have that outsider’s perspective built into your DNA.”
Hamdi, who has been in comedy for two-and-a-half years, says he is not aware of other Arab-themed comedy nights having been held in the UK. And while Saturday’s show will be primarily about the jokes, it also has a serious side, he added.
“It confronts the media narrative of Arabs being very serious people, who shout about stuff and fire guns into the air,” says Hamdi. “Have you ever seen any images of someone from the Arab world having a laugh?”
Such portrayals in the UK media are at odds with the reality – especially for Egyptians, whom Hamdi describes as the “jokers” of the Middle East. “A lot of people are quite surprised by how jokey and light-hearted a lot of Arabs are,” he says.
Satire in the spotlight
Last week’s attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed, prompted a heated debate about freedom of speech and satire in Europe.
But what about the role of humor in Arab society? Hamdi pointed to satirists such as Bassem Youssef – whose now off-the-air show “al-Bernameg” (The Program) was so popular that it was like “the X-Factor of Egypt.
“Arabic culture is an inherently satirical culture. And I think the less political or economic freedom people have, the less seriously they take things, and the more they poke fun at life,” Hamdi said.
“Things like ‘Arabs Are Not Funny’ are very important to keep that tradition alive. And not let a crazed, mentally ill minority stop us all from having a laugh.”
Commentator Chris Doyle, director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding, said there were many examples of the powerful use of humor and satire in the Arab world.
“The stereotype of Arabs as having no sense of humor is so gorgeously wrong,” he said. “Even in the starkest bleakest situations Arabs rarely lose their sense of humor.”
Doyle cited the example of the village of Kafranbel in northern Syria, where people have used caustic humor – often in the form of posters, cartoons and videos – to denounce the regime.
And cartoonists such as the late Naji al-Ali, a Palestinian noted for his politically charged drawings, enjoyed “huge popularity” in the Arab world, says Doyle.
“In Syria the cartoonist Ali Ferzat was beaten up because the regime knew how many people admired his work, and worse, found it funny,” he added.
New York scene
When looking outside the Middle East, Arab comics have arguably had a warmer welcome in the United States than they have in the UK. The New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which was formed in 2003, is one example of how Arab stand-ups have been given a platform.
Maysoon Zayid, an American actress and comedian of Palestinian descent, says there is plenty to disprove the notion that “Arabs Are Not Funny.”
Zayid, who speaks on disability issues, is co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, and is said to be the first female stand-up to have performed in Palestine and Jordan.
“Arabs are not funny? The sold out crowds at the eleventh annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival and at my shows in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem would strongly disagree,” Zayid told Al Arabiya News.
“A lot of people swear women aren’t funny and they’re wrong about that too… Stand-up comedy is still relatively new in the Arab World but Arabs joking is as old as Jericho.”
But Zayid said that many media portrayals of Arabs suggest otherwise.
“The way the media portrays us as dark, violent, and oppressive makes folks think were not so much funny as scary,” she said. “We are also plagued by Arab dictators with no sense of humor who jail and torture bloggers or journalists who mock them.”
Fox News to the rescue
But even these negative media portrayals can be the source of great humor.
The U.S. television network Fox News this week attracted a barrage of criticism and ridicule after its so-called “terrorism expert” Steve Emerson claimed the UK city of Birmingham is “totally Muslim” and a no-go area for everyone else. Prime Minister David Cameron did not mince his words in calling Emerson “a complete idiot.”
Hamdi had a field day at Emerson’s remarks – tweeting via @Omar_Hamdi_Com several jokes with the hashtag #foxnewsfacts, which was used to highlight some amusing, mostly fictitious media portrayals of Muslims. “The BBC have a new show, ‘Strictly No Dancing.’ First one to shimmy gets beheaded,” read one of Hamdi’s tweets.
Yet the Fox News debacle also illustrates a serious point about the “skewed perceptions people have,” Hamdi added.
“I’m actually quite grateful for Fox News, for giving such an extreme example of disinformation in the media,” he said. “It’s a real thing that happens every day.”
As the Twitter backlash showed, humor is a great way at addressing such “disinformation”, Hamdi added. And the more people who stand up and prove that Arabs are funny, the more perceptions will change, he suggests.
“It’s no good Arabs sitting on the sidelines with their shishas, going ‘oh God… all this rubbish they say about us’,” said Hamdi. “If you actually want to reframe the debate, you need writers, journalists – and comedians.”
* The ‘Arabs Are Not Funny’ comedy night will be held at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, London, on 17 Jan. For more details visit http://new.artscanteen.com/SHOW MORE