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Dean Obeidallah

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The Comedy Jihad Has Begun!

Posted: 12/17/2010 9:22 am

Young Arabs are gathering in small, clandestine locations across the Middle East to prepare for their "big day." They hone their skills in the hopes they will soon "kill" and "destroy" groups of innocent men, women and children. These young people are devoutly committed to their cause--they cannot be deterred from their planned mission by conventional means. When they are ready, they will be unleashed to wage en epic battle that may change the face of the Middle East and possibly even the world. And then, finally, the unsuspecting world will awake to the reality that a "Comedy Jihad" has been declared!!

A bit dramatic but nonetheless accurate. A comedy jihad is underway and it's truly a great thing!! When I say "jihad" I don't mean it in the way it's defined exclusively by Western media as a "holy war" but I use the term as it's defined more commonly in the Middle East as "a crusade for a belief " or as "a personal struggle" -- and in this case it's a personal struggle by young people across the Arab world to perform stand up comedy.

I just returned to the US last night after performing at the 3rd annual Amman Stand Up Comedy Festival and in Dubai. This not for profit comedy festival was created by the City of Amman to encourage people from the region to perform comedy as well as to provide entertainment. (Full disclosure: I also serve as the Executive Producer of the Festival.)

Things have changed greatly from when I wrote my HP blog about the first Amman stand up comedy festival in 2008. Then, the story was about how Middle Eastern-American comedians-most notably "The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour" -- were drawing big crowds performing the first stand up comedy shows in the Arab world.

But today the truly exciting story is the rise of stand up comedy by Arabs across the region. There are now comedy shows performed by aspiring young (and sometimes not so young) comedians in English and Arabic across the Middle East, from Amman to Oman, from Doha to Damascus and from Beirut to Riyadh. Yes, that is Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and there is truly a vibrant stand up comedy scene there. (Click here to see a CNN segment from last week which includes clips of comics from Saudi, Jordan, Doha and Egypt performing stand up.)

Before I go any further, I don't want anyone reading this to think that before a few years ago there was no comedy in the Arab world. There has in fact been a long tradition of Arabic comedic movies, sketches and story telling which dates backs for generations. (I recall as a child my father telling me these long "jokes" that seemed to go on for days which ended with one punchline.) What has changed in the region is that the American form of stand up comedy has now taken hold.

What impresses me greatly with the Arab comedians is that they are developing without the benefit of any full time comedy clubs. Instead, they perform in whatever venue will give them space to do a show: cafes, empty warehouses and even Indian restaurants as I just witnessed last week in Dubai where students taking a comedy class I taught being offered by Dubai's Dubomedy Arts performed their classes' graduation show. So not only do the aspiring comedians in the region have to develop as comedians, they have the extra burden of being required to build a comedy infrastructure at the same time.

For the most part, the aspiring comedians learn about joke structure and how to perform stand up by watching comedians on YouTube -- their favorites include Russell Peters, Jon Stewart, Gabriel Iglesias, Chris Rock and even Jeff Dunham the ventriloquist comedian who has a character named "Achmed the Dead Terrorist" which, amazingly, every young Arab I spoke to loves!

Just as in the US, most of the comedians are male, but there's a growing number of Arab women performing. Most female comedians perform there dressed the same way as female comedians do here, but a few have performed wearing an hijab -- the head covering -- and recently I saw two young female comedians performing wearing the abaya -- a long black robe but their faces are not covered.

So what do these Arab comedians talk about? In large part, the same topics the typical US comedians address: Facebook, daily life, relationships, pop culture and current events. The biggest laughs are generally reserved for jokes about Arab culture, such as Arabs being late all the time ("Arab time"), excessive smoking, parents pushing them to be doctors and engineers, etc. With few exceptions, Arabs love laughing at themselves which, frankly, is an image absent from the Western media coverage of the Middle East.

There are, however, limitations with respect to content, namely no sexually graphic material, no jokes demonizing religion -- and not just Islam but comedians are expressly counseled against jokes mocking Christians and Jews as well. (Buddhists are of course fair game -- kidding.) And finally no mocking the leaders of the country you are performing in.

I know many of you are thinking -- how can a comedian be asked to censor him or herself? It's not something a comedian wants to do but to put things in perspective, in the US, when a comic is booked to perform at a corporate event, he or she will almost always be instructed to avoid jokes about sex, politics and religion.

In time, I would anticipate that some of the Arab comedians will push the envelope on this subject matter and there one day may be an Arab Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor. But for now, comedy is in its infancy there and all the comedians -- those visiting from the West and those in the Arab world -- have a sense that violating these rules at a time when comedy is so new, could set back or even destroy the comedy movement in certain countries.

Not only has the quantity of comics grown in the region in last few years, but so has the quality. Many are at truly at a professional level and are now appearing increasingly on Middle East TV networks. Indeed, just last month the very funny -- and best-known English speaking comic from the Arab world -- Lebanon's' Nemr Abou Nassar -- became the first Arab comedian to ever headline a big tour across the region. (All previous tours used a Western comic as the main draw.)

So can comedy bring our two worlds closer together? If you believe the US State Department cables disclosed last week as part of the WikLeaks, American entertainment programs like Desperate Housewives and The Late Show with David Letterman are actually combating jihad.

While I don't believe the overly simplistic notion that just because we laugh at the same jokes we agree on everything or are the same, but as comedians, we truly share a common language in writing and performing comedy. And audiences in both the Arab world and US enjoy laughing at stand up. This may not be an earth-shattering revelation, but in a time when we are bombarded with people focusing on our differences, why not also start looking at what we share in common and where real bridges of understanding between our worlds can be built.

As a comedian, and being of Arab heritage, I'm excited that this "comedy jihad" is taking hold and that on some level I am able to play an even small role in nurturing this phenomena among the Arab comedians. It appears that I, too, am a comedy jihadist -- I'm on a personal crusade to help spread comedy across the Middle East. Of course, the downside is that by using the term "I'm a comedy jihadist" likely means that I will never be able to board a plane again, but it's all part of the struggle.

 

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