Bringing stand-up comedy to the Arab world

Cultural Insights — By on January 11, 2010 at 7:20 am

Do Arabs appreciate stand-up comedy? They do. At least, that seems to be the consensus of some North American comedians who recently appeared in Jordan. Interestingly, stand-up comedy is not common to all cultures. How can it be, when such comedy often involves insulting groups of people, and in particular governments and politicians? Such freedom of speech is just not as common or as accepted as it is in most Western democracies. Which makes the experience of the comedians in Jordan all the more intriguing.

Amman, which has a reputation as the sleepiest capital city in the Middle East, has decided it wants to be the center of stand-up comedy in a region not exactly known for freedom of speech or self-deprecating humor. Stand-up generally requires a political atmosphere that tolerates the challenging of taboos and the mocking of conventions.

That is not the case here, or around the region. In Egypt, insulting the president can lead to a jail term, and officials even grew furious last year when a comedian poked fun at the national airline, EgyptAir. In Lebanon, Mr. Obeidallah said, “We were told, ‘Make fun of whoever you want, but if you make fun of Hezbollah, you are on your own.’ ”

In Dubai, all scripts must be approved in advance by the official censor. In Jordan, where insulting the ruler can lead to prison, as in Egypt, social codes and religious values emphasize conformity, tradition and respect. So it was a risk when the mayor of Amman, Omar Maani, decided he would try to find a way to bring some levity to a city mired in crisis, with Iraq on one border and the Israeli-occupied West Bank on another.

The experiment started in 2007 when an American comedy group, Axis of Evil — comics of Iranian, Egyptian and Palestinian ancestry — came to Amman. “I was nervous it would not take off,” Mr. Omani said.

But it did, in a big way. The next year, Mr. Omani invited them back, and this year his city organized the festival. He said he hoped to make it even bigger next year. But there are rules. No cursing. No making fun of religion. No making fun of the king (or his family). No sex jokes. No drug jokes. And, of course, no alcohol allowed.

See the entire NY Times story for a run-down of some of the jokes and a description of more cultural misunderstandings.

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