Saudis hobbled onto the stage one by one to poke fun at the world -- and themselves -- introducing a hissing, cackling audience to an art form widely unknown in the conservative kingdom: stand-up comedy.
Titters and squeals ran through the crowd at a rare amateur comedy festival last week in the capital Riyadh, organized by the official General Entertainment Authority -- the main engine of social reforms sweeping the kingdom.
The authority is boosting entertainment options like never before, from a Comic-Con festival to female music concerts, helping shed the kingdom’s austere reputation and introducing many Saudis to a novel concept -- having fun in public.
“I am a jobless dentist,” 26-year-old Battar al-Battar said in a slow, deadpan delivery on stage to a smiling audience.
“My prayers have been answered. I see lots of braces in this crowd.”
Next entered a short, corpulent man, equally deadpan as he took on the skewed power relations between the sexes in the patriarchal kingdom.
“I called my fiancee to say: ‘Listen, I am the man. If I eat dust, you eat dust’.”
“She hung up. A week passed by. I heard nothing.”
“In a panic I texted her: ‘I am not the man! Take me back!’”
Men in the audience -- as well as women sitting across the aisle -- erupted in laughter.
The festival would hardly be unusual if it weren’t in Saudi Arabia -- typically stereotyped as a nation of stern, unsmiling hardliners.
“The common perception is that Saudis don’t have a funny bone,” Yaser Bakr, a festival jury member and founder of the kingdom’s first comedy club, told AFP.
“Saudis love to laugh. Numbers don’t lie,” he said, scrolling through a list of Saudi comedy videos on his mobile’s YouTube app, each with hundreds of thousands of views.
‘Comedy cleanses the soul’
The venue of the five-day festival, Riyadh’s King Fahd Cultural Centre, was like a bubble of laughing gas over the course of the performances.
The festival, a talent hunt of sorts for Saudi Arabia’s own version of Seinfeld, was a rare attempt to introduce standup comedy to the masses.
Aside from a handful of Saudi YouTube comedy stars, performers are largely struggling without theatres, entertainment companies and a lack of mass awareness of the art form.
“Many people think comedy is only sex jokes. We are trying to change that,” festival director Jubran al-Jubran told AFP.
“Saudi Arabia needs to cultivate this art. Comedy has a purifying effect, it cleanses the soul. It’s a relief to laugh about our own problems.”
Saudis turn to comedy in snowy, wet weatherWhite and brown merged into one color as snow covered the desert sand in central and northwestern regions in Saudi Arabia Gulf
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