Despite their long and rich histories of satire and comic performance, the stereotype persists that there is little humor to be found in most Muslim countries. The opposite is true – from a centuries-old vein of much-loved wry stories to a vibrant stand-up and online scene today, it is and has always been an integral part of the Islamic world
Do Muslims have a sense of humor? For those in Islamic countries, such a question may seem startling. But for the large numbers in the Western world still mentally stuck with unrepresentative caricatures of gun-wielding, flag-burning, bearded men, it does indeed need answering.
In 2005, the American comedian Albert Brooks (best known as the voice of Marlin in Finding Nemo and for his Academy Award-nominated role in the 1987 film Broadcast News) went Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World – the title of a film in which Brooks, playing himself, is sent on a mission by the US government to find out “what makes Muslims laugh”.
His (fictional) forays to India and Pakistan and interviews with Al Jazeera are toe-curlingly unsuccessful; probably because he relies on punch lines such as:
“Why is there no Halloween in India?”
“Because they took away the Gandhi.”
Despite its self-deprecating tone, the film met with a limited release and the same incomprehension as Brooks’s onscreen jokes. Even an admirer, the late US critic Roger Ebert, declared its humor “buried, oblique, throwaway, inside, apologetic, coded and underplayed”.
At the same time, however, American Muslims were turning the stereotype of dour believers upside down. In 2004, a group of Muslim stand-ups got together to create Allah Made Me Funny, a touring comedy collective including Azhar Usman, a former Chicago lawyer also known as “Bin Laughin” and once described by CNN as “America’s funniest Muslim”.
Slowly, they began to win over mainstream audiences with routines honed at venues from Las Vegas clubs to what they describe as the “kebab circuit” of local Muslim community events. In Usman’s surreal scenarios, the sublime becomes the source of ridiculous humor – one gag imagines the chaos that unfolds when a non-Muslim mishears “Asalaamu aleikum” as “salami and bacon”.
Clever and caustic
The jokes may have evolved, but the roots of Muslim humor stretch back into the culture from which the religion itself emerged. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the best poets of rival tribes composed verses mocking the shortcomings of their enemies on the eve of battle. The genre of hija (satirical poetry), born from these wars of words, influenced Arab culture – and through it the wider Muslim world – for centuries afterwards.
In early Islamic times, many Arab satirists became superstars. The most famous of all was the ninth-century wit and man of letters Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr Al Kinani Al Basri, nicknamed Al Jahiz, “the Goggle-Eyed”, because of his protruding eyes. Clever, irreverent and caustic, Al Jahiz’s talents took him from his birthplace of Basra to the court of the Caliph in Baghdad, where he wrote treatises on every subject from Aristotelian logic to the relative merits of men and women.
His Kitab Al Bukhala (“The Book of Misers”), a collection of wry stories about mean, stingy and avaricious people from every walk of life, is considered one of the earliest works of comic literature from the Islamic world. The butt of Al Jahiz’s jokes are characters such as Al Kindi, who rents his spacious house to tenants, their families and livestock, on condition that he gets ownership of donkey or sheep droppings left behind. For good measure, the contract also stipulates that Al Kindi will take all leftover date stones and pomegranate rinds, and a spoonful from every saucepan of food cooked in the house.
It wasn’t only the intellectuals and courtiers of the time who loved to laugh, however. The folk tales shared by professional storytellers in tea houses across the Muslim world, from Turkey to North Africa, Persia and Central Asia, were full of comic characters, some of whom have survived to this day. The best-loved is the figure of the “wise fool” who wears a robe and turban and rides a donkey backwards, dispensing simple jokes and insights to passers-by.
Goha, as he is known in Arabic, is a blend of at least two characters – an earlier Arabic folk hero, and a 13th-century Sufi from Anatolia (or Bukhara, depending on who you ask) called Nasreddin Hoca.
In these stories, Goha’s naive humor upsets social convention and unmasks the failings of the rich and powerful. In one tale, a poor man passes an expensive cafe where meat is being grilled and eats his dry bread outside so he can enjoy the delicious aroma.
The cafe owner comes out and demands he pay for smelling the meat. When it becomes clear that he cannot, the owner takes him to Goha, who has become a judge. After hearing the story, Goha asks the man how much he wants to charge for the smell of the meat. “Five piastres,” he replies. Goha takes a five-piastre coin out of his pocket and spins it on the table.
When it falls, he asks the owner, “Did you hear the sound it made?” When the owner says he did, Goha tells him: “Take the sound of the coin as payment for the smell of the meat.”
Stories like this were passed down and elaborated on over generations, but with the advent of new forms of entertainment and technology, humor also changed.
Egypt, long considered the cultural heart of the Arab world, produced many of the biggest comic stars of the 20th century. Like several of his contemporaries, Naguib El Rihani, Egypt’s “father of comedy”, began his career in the theatre before transferring to the silver screen. In 1916, his first play featuring the character of Kishkish Bey, a turn-of-the-century feudal village mayor who struggles to adjust to the big city, debuted. Kishkish Bey took on a life of his own – becoming a model for dolls sold in Cairo markets, the subject of popular songs and appearing in further plays, films and even Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk.
After the First World War, El Rihani transferred his theatrical hits to the new medium of film, where he was joined by comic actors including Stephan Rosti, the son of an Italian-Egyptian dancer and the Austrian ambassador to Egypt. Rosti made his name playing satirical villains in the mid-century golden age of Egyptian cinema – the first time “bad” characters had been seen as worthy of the funny lines previously reserved for their virtuous adversaries.
Every joke is a revolution
Where actors like El Rihani and Rosti satirized individuals rather than political systems, a new generation of Middle Eastern comedians has adopted YouTube and stand-up in the service of George Orwell’s observation that “every joke is a tiny revolution”.
Egyptian cardiac surgeon Bassem Youssef’s satirical news show El Bernameg – based on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show – started life as a YouTube series in 2011 before being picked up by a major TV channel. More surprisingly, in conservative Saudi Arabia 28-year-old comedian Fahad Albutairi – who began to perform live comedy as a university student in Texas – has become one of the country’s hottest celebrities.
While Albutairi sometimes performs in English – he jokes that before arriving in the US he had seen so many Hollywood action movies he was afraid the country was all shoot-outs, car chases and explosions – his big hit is the online Saudi dialect comedy show La Yekthar (“Put a lid on it”). The show, which attracts two to three million views per episode, has won a devoted following for its mocking take on Saudi youth’s battle with underemployment and inefficiency – one skit imagines Saudi telecom employees playing hide-and-seek while customers are left on hold.
The Jeddah-based online show Ala Al Tayer (“On the fly”) is similarly popular. Hosted by local comedian Omar Hussein, its barbs are particularly aimed at problems of corruption – one early joke suggested that the new Saudi traffic system was technologically unable to read the license plates of those with government connections.
From modest beginnings, the grassroots live comedy scene in the region is also flourishing. Along with a growing number of comedy nights and even dedicated clubs in cities such as Jeddah and Beirut, Amman has hosted several stand-up festivals. Boosted by visiting initiatives such as the Middle Eastern-American Axis of Evil comedy tour, in the past few years local stand-ups have branched out to create their own platforms.
SUCQ – Stand Up Comedy Qatar – is the brainchild of Bilal Randeree, who performs under the name Halal Bilal. One of its brightest stars is Hamad Al Amari, a 25-year-old Qatari comedian whose Irish upbringing has left him with an unmistakable Dublin brogue – incongruous when combined with his traditional thobe and gutra.
Accenting the difference
It’s the assumptions this appearance provokes that Al Amari, who returned to Qatar when he was 16, has learned to capitalize on over his 18 months of performing.
One of his favorite tricks is to appear in Qatari dress and address the room in broken English with a heavy Gulf accent, before switching to his natural voice – leaving unwary audience members stunned. “I speak perfect Arabic, of course, but I always perform in English,” he says. “I know we live in Qatar, but there are people here from all over the world and in order to communicate with them all there’s a common language: English.”
The diversity of the audiences, he says, makes performing in Doha uniquely challenging. “It’s very difficult here. You’ve got Qataris, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Jordanians, French, South Africans, Australians, British, New Zealanders – I even had a Nigerian lad heckle me once. It’s easy for me to make fun of Qatari stereotypes because I am Qatari, but you have to connect with the whole audience. If you don’t, it all goes bad. So, you have to keep talking about things that are common, that affect everyone – and for me that means Qatar.”
It’s this urge to bring people together and make them laugh that motivates Al Amari’s set. “The West hasn’t seen us Arabs in any other light than the angry, war, terrorist image,” he says. “We’re hilarious, but we haven’t done anything to let people know it, we haven’t presented anything. We haven’t had a blockbuster Qatari comedian – yet. But, hopefully I’ll make it.”
Over in Cairo, 26-year-old comedian Hashem El Garhy, founder of the collective Al Hezb El Comedy (“The Party of Comedy”), has similarly big dreams. “I want Al Hezb El Comedy to be the biggest entertainment hub in the Middle East,” he says. Inspired by the Axis of Evil tour’s visit to Cairo in 2007, el Garhy started to perform stand-up with a group of eight friends. “We did a show called Shut Up and Laugh in March 2009,” he says.
“That was the first local comedy show in Egypt, and we performed to 750 people.” After the events of January 2011, however, their ambitions grew. “We thought: why are we waiting for people to come from overseas and perform here? We’ve had the revolution, we know we can do things ourselves, let’s get out there and do it.”
The result, Al Hezb El Comedy, is a democratic platform which pays all performers equally and incubates new talent with open-mike sessions and stand-up coaching.
One of its products is a young veiled stand-up called Noha Kato, whose jokes about the downsides of ladies’ Islamic swimwear – “like wearing a diving suit with a ballet dress on top” – have won her a big following. The next challenge, according to El Garhy, is to take the shows to an audience beyond the English-speaking urban elite. “The last show we did, I performed in Arabic for the first time in my four years of doing stand-up.
Onstage, I realized that I can’t express my humor in the same way – I have to become 100 percent Egyptian,” he says. On this showing, Albert Brooks has little to worry about. The new generation of comics, taking part of their inspiration from the West but drawing on the quirks and absurdities of life in the Middle East, prove that there is still plenty to laugh about in the Muslim world.
Rachel Aspden is a former Literary Editor of the New Statesman and Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellow. She is currently writing a book about the youth of the Arab uprisings.