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.”