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Stand-up comedy takes the Arab world by storm

Comedians thrive with no religious or political humor

Although Dubai’s Comedy Café closed its doors after a month-long run, stand-up comedy is far from dead in the Middle East as comedy groups from the Axis of Evil to the Sultans of Satire and Allah Made Me Funny are finding an increasingly receptive audience and more venues willing to take a chance on comedy.

The Comedy Café, brainchild of Palestinian-American comic Aron Kader, brought headliner comics like Axis of Evil founder Dean Obeidallah, Sugar Sammy, Mike Bateyah and Peter the Persian and gave aspiring comics the chance to try out their material on stage and get pointers from a pro.

“Stand-up comedy is an old art form in the U.S.,” said 22-year-old Omar Abuhdy, who came to an open-mike night but was not sure he was up to getting on stage. “Not in the Middle East, here it’s new.”

Kader said the Middle East’s increasing openness to stand-up comedy was generational and due in part to the availability of comedy shows on satellite TV and YouTube.

“The young generation gets it – they watch tons of comedy” Kader told AlArbiya.net.

Comedy has taken the Arab world by storm with the month-long Dubai show coming barely a month after Jordan hosted the Middle East’s first stand-up comedy festival last December.

“Standup comedy is so new here,” explained comic Peter the Persian, who performed for the first time in Dubai at the Comedy Café. “It just started booming here.”

Stand up in Saudi

Even in Saudi Arabia, often portrayed as a conservative bastion of ‘no-fun’ in the Western media, comedy shows are becoming increasingly popular, though they usually take place within the confines of compound walls.

“You wouldn’t believe it!” Rehman Akhtar, an amateur Pakistani comic who works for an oil company in Saudi Arabia, told AlArabiya.net. “There’s no censorship.”

The amateur recently turned professional comic is set to perform at sold-out shows of more than 500 people each in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and Thursday, though the location for the country’s biggest comedic event ever has yet to be announced for fear authorities will close it down.

“Even now not many people know where it’s going to be because the show may be closed down by the Muttawa (religious police),” said Akhtar, adding that event organizers would likely be released on Facebook or another platform the day before. “It’s really amazing – you’ve paid 250 riyals ($66) and you don’t know where the event is! You can’t write comedy like this!”

Thin, or thick, red lines

Comics resoundingly say that doing comedy in the Middle East is not nearly as hard as some people think, since red lines exist in pretty much any performance situation and a comic has to know the audience.

“If you do something funny but taboo it’s OK, but if it’s not funny it’s a problem,” explained Jordanian comic Mike Batayeh, who was in Dubai for the third time.

He told AlArabiya.net the rules for performing in Dubai were pretty straightforward: “Don’t do religious humor and don’t do political humor.”
In Jordan, “keep it clean, stay away from king jokes,” according to Batayeh.

“There are lines you decide as a comedian – it’s more open in Dubai because you perform more to an expat crowd,” explained Akhtar after performing in Bahrain to sold-out crowds.

He said that he does not notice comedians from Western countries holding back in their routines. “I don’t see any of these guys pulling their punches.”

“Myself, I tend to be more of a family oriented show and I actually pride myself on getting 20 to 30 minutes of laughs without mentioning the F word. I’m pretty proud of that fact!” he added.

Undermining stereotypes

Obeidallah, whose name means “little slave of God” and is the subject of one of his jokes, said that when Americans hear he has performed in the Middle East they are surprised and ask if Arabs really laugh.

“I assure them that Arabs have a great sense of humor and actually do know how to laugh,” he said.

“To be very honest, doing stand up in the Middle East has been one of the most thrilling parts of my 12 year comedy career,” Obeidallah told AlArabiya.net. “In U.S. media we never see Arabs laughing or being funny in either the news or movies - instead they are usually depicted as scary!”

And indeed changing stereotypes and educating the public seems to be one of the goals of many professional and amateur stand-up comics in the Middle East. At the open-mike night two amateur comics got into a debate about “pure” comedy versus comedy as education, though they did not reach a definitive conclusion.

“We are breaking the stereotypes down and hopefully people in other countries will sit down and listen,” Akhtar told AlArabiya.net.