Can Muslims take a joke?-NYT

June 1, 2012

Yes, There Are Comedians in Qatar

Peter Savodnik

The New York Times Magazine: May 24, 2012

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/magazine/yes-there-are-comedians-in-qatar.html?ref=todayspaper&pagewanted=all

 

Members of Stand Up Comedy Qatar, from left: Ousama Itani, Issa El-Fahoum, Abdulla Al-Ghanim, Halal Bilal, Said Barqawi and Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar. [Lars Tunbjork for The New York Times]

At 5 p.m. on a Sunday evening, the comedians started to arrive at the auditorium in Katara, the fake-old-looking development in Doha, Qatar. Eight of them were scheduled to perform that night, and Bilal Randeree, the 29-year-old leader of Stand Up Comedy Qatar, was worrying about the possibility that someone might joke about Islam or the emir or sex, which most of them say they have never had.

Do you love bad jokes? You might like the zingers from the comics in this small Arab nation.

“There was an incident,” said Issa El-Fahoum, who is Palestinian and, at 15, the youngest member of SUCQ, which everyone pronounces “suck.” Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, who is in her 30s and the only woman and non-Muslim regularly performing in SUCQ, nodded. “There was an incident,” she said. A few weeks earlier, SUCQ hosted an open-mike night, and a Brit showed up who apparently didn’t know his audience — which included a smattering of women in head scarves and men in white robes. For 10 minutes, he talked about being a sperm donor. “People were actually audibly groaning,” Rajakumar said.

For Randeree, who uses the stage name Halal Bilal — as in, Clean Bilal or Kosher Bilal — the main concern is avoiding “incidents” like this. “You never know when you’re going to have a problem,” he said. Bilal, who has a mellifluous postcolonial accent, lacks any whiff of snarkiness or bite, which is a bad thing for a comedian in developed countries, where there is a long and noble tradition of eviscerating powerful people, but a very good thing in the Arab world, where there is not.

By 6:30, the audience was lining up outside the auditorium for tickets, which went for 30 riyals, or about $8. Most of the comedians, in jeans and T-shirts and sneakers, milled around the entrance, going over their routines and talking about their favorite “mocktails.” Mohammed Fahad Kamal, the funniest comedian in SUCQ, explained the unofficial rules of comedy in Qatar: you can make fun of only things that only you can make fun of. “Most of my material is about my family,” Kamal said. “It’s about the tradition here and the culture. I’m trying to take it step by step. We’re not used to laughing at ourselves.”

Kamal is one of only two Qataris in SUCQ, which makes it easier for him to be more critical of his country. Still, at least half the troupe’s jokes have to do with how much they all resent Qataris. This is a major preoccupation in the country, where 85 percent of the people are not Qatari but mostly migrant workers from other Arab countries and places like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal. They are not entitled to the lavish subsidies that make Qatar’s per capita income the highest in the world. They know that they will probably never be granted citizenship and that their children won’t be Qatari, either, but in many cases members of a growing class of indentured servants.

Despite Bilal’s best efforts, it turned out that SUCQ managed to upset at least one person during the Katara show. The offending joke came from Omar Allouba, who is half-Palestinian and half-Egyptian. It is hard to believe that, up until that point, Allouba ever offended anyone. (He opted not to do his Muammar el-Qaddafi routine, in which he compares Qaddafi to Lady Gaga, “out of respect for the dead.”) The joke in question revolved around someone who “reads newspapers all day.” It was greeted with laughter.

The other comedians in SUCQ explained that Qatari men are notorious for being lazy and that anyone who “reads newspapers all day” must therefor be Qatari, and that’s funny. “There was a tweet about it,” said Bilal, who is of Indian descent, grew up in South Africa and blogs for Al Jazeera. The tweet, written in Arabic by someone named @TalalQatar, read: “Nice one: hosting scum to come make a mockery of Qatar’s issues — at your cost, and while providing opportunities to them. That’s the real joke.”

More than a year after the Arab Spring, Qatar — a peninsula jutting out of a peninsula, with little in the way of common culture or national identity — is gleaming. The desert nation of 1.7 million or so residents boasts a new waterfront, new highways, the new boxy and beige Museum of Islamic Art and the soon-to-open New Doha International Airport, which will feature an artificial lagoon. The Doha skyline resembles a cluster of spaceships about to blast off: there’s the corn-on-the-cob spaceship, the pyramid spaceship, the rolling-pin spaceship, the spaceship that looks like a very pregnant woman and the spaceships that have yet to be completed. The constant construction makes you feel as if everything is about to be replaced.

Until the 1940s, Qatar was a penniless swatch of sand and rock inhabited by nomads and fishermen. Then the Qataris discovered oil and gas and built lots of pipelines; in the mid-’80s, they moved into the fast-growing market for liquefied natural gas. For the past few years, Qatar’s gross domestic product has increased by about 15 percent annually. The Qatari state has wielded its new power in a way that can be described only as realpolitik. Last year, Qatar’s leader, Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, backed NATO’s incursion into Libya, earning Qatar political capital in the West while expanding its power in North Africa. In February, the Qatari prime minister called for arming the Syrian rebels, underscoring Qatar’s support for less-autocratic rule. Qatar is probably the only country in the world that could host a U.S. military base and also express a willingness to conduct joint military exercises with Iran.

SUCQ, of course, has nothing to do with Iran or liquefied natural gas or the democratic revolutions that have spread from Tunis to Cairo to Damascus. But there’s a widespread consensus that the emerging comedy scene in Doha would not be what it is without the recent turmoil, which authorities may well have forestalled in Qatar by hiking workers’ wages. “I can tell you personally, before December 2010, we would be more concerned about what we were making fun of,” Bilal says. Back then, there were just a few comedians in Doha, and they rarely performed there. Bilal, who had done stand-up in South Africa and London, spearheaded the creation of SUCQ in November 2010. The next month, he and Kamal performed two gigs, in Jordan and Dubai, and in February 2011, they made their premiere in Doha with the American comedian Gabriel Iglesias.

SUCQ started with five or six amateur comedians, but it now includes at least 15 regulars and a growing constellation of intermittent performers. More important, there’s a new solidarity — an awareness of other people who are trying to make strangers laugh. This sense of community has generated more comedy shows, festivals and workshops. It has also garnered attention among Arab-American comedians, who on their visits to Qatar offer praise and advice on how to be funny. Because many SUCQ routines are not.

What unrest in the Middle East has not done — not yet, at least — is embolden Doha’s comedians to tell jokes that cross the boundaries of what can be made fun of. (Sacha Baron Cohen’s film “The Dictator” offers a far more scalding critique of Arab despots than anything SUCQ would dare.) But this may be changing. “I think you’re going to start seeing a lot of these comics in the gulf tour around and then spread around the Middle East with the Arab Spring,” says Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-American comedian who has toured the region.

Michael Rubin, a Middle East historian at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is skeptical that the same people who have cultivated and nurtured Qatar’s rather tame comedy scene can control it. “Humor is subversive, and it will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” says Rubin, who started collecting jokes when he was doing graduate research in Iran, prewar Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen as a way to put people at ease who didn’t like Americans and especially Americans with Jewish surnames. “Even if the comedians avoid discussing Qatari politics head on, the audience will read between the lines,” he says. “The best example of this, pre-Arab Spring, were taxi drivers in Cairo who would tell jokes about the king of Jordan, while taxi drivers in Amman had a stable of Mubarak jokes. Everyone knew one leader was simply substituting for the other.” Aron Kader, a half-Muslim, half-Mormon comedian who has performed with Ahmed, says: “Their first Lenny Bruce could be coming, which means they’re sort of living in the late-’50s or early-’60s. Things move fast.”

One night, Mohammed Kamal and I had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant in a shiny strip mall with a parking lot full of Land Cruisers and Ferraris. At the time, Kamal was a senior at Carnegie Mellon, one of six American universities that have opened a Doha branch at the hypermodern complex called Education City. He told me that he likes the Canadian-Indian comic Russell Peters, but he has the makings of an Adam Sandler — clownish, physical, self-deprecating. Onstage, he moves a lot. He’s good at alternately conveying respect for and parodying his father, who figures prominently in his routine. As a Qatari, he can say things — about Qatari girls, Qatari drivers or Qataris who are being too Qatari — that other comedians avoid. “My classic joke is ‘I cancel your visa,’ and it basically makes fun of locals who think that they can put foreigners in trouble by getting them out of the country,” he said. (Non-Qataris fret constantly about having their papers seized and being forced to return to their homelands; Qataris do little to assuage these fears.) Abdulla Al-Ghanim, the other Qatari in SUCQ, has a joke about the Criminal Investigation Department, which the comedians say sometimes sends plainclothes agents to comedy shows to make sure nobody says anything too racy. “I’m C.I.D.,” the joke goes. “I want to see I.D.” People love this.

Kamal, like the other members of SUCQ, at first performed only in English. “In Arabic, the grammar is different, so it’s very difficult to have a setup and a punch line,” Kamal said. “You have to tell the punch line while you’re still doing the set up — they get mixed up.” But there’s another reason too. The comedians say they want to perform in front of bigger audiences — their monthly shows usually draw at least 70 people — but many still perform in English, partly because they remain worried about who might be attending and how their material will be interpreted. “You can say the wrong thing here and get in so much trouble,” Kamal said. “You don’t want to be talking about the people who are running the country. There’s no freedom of speech.” (Kamal later denied making this claim.)

And whom you can make fun of is complicated. It’s O.K. to talk about the uprisings in Libya or Egypt because nobody, the comedians said, liked Hosni Mubarak. But it’s not acceptable to talk about, say, Yemen or the U.A.E. or Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. (“It’ll be a problem if I say, ‘Why aren’t we helping Syria?’ ” Kamal said.) Because the violence in Libya and Egypt is over, any jokes about those countries are academic. A biting riff on the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a little too close to home, given its proximity to Qatar.

Kamal said he’s good at pushing boundaries while staying inside them. He has performed a few times in Saudi Arabia, where stand-up is spreading. But Saudi Arabia being what it is, he still worries about what might happen if he says the wrong thing there. “I don’t know what they do to comedians in Saudi if they get caught. That’s one of my jokes. ‘What do you do to comedians if they get caught — cut off their tongue?’ ” People love this too.

Ahmed Ahmed also likes to make fun of Arabs who are scared of comedians. In 2007, he took part in the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which featured Middle Eastern-American comedians and was meant to foster a Middle Eastern comedy scene. The comedians played 27 sold-out shows in a month for more than 20,000 people. Despite this, or because of it, promoters worried constantly about going too far. “When we got to Kuwait,” Ahmed says, “the promoter said, ‘Don’t talk about sex, drugs, religion or politics.’ ” The Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani told the promoter he had one F-word in his routine. Was that O.K.? “Then I raised my hand,” Ahmed said, “and I said, ‘I have 14.’ ” The promoter gave them two each.

Ahmed laughed at the absurdity of negotiating the number of dirty words in a comedy routine. He pointed out that Arab kids across the Middle East are watching Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock on YouTube (most of the SUCQ crew love Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock). Still, the consequences of saying the wrong thing are serious. Once Ahmed made a joke about nightclubs and mosques that got him barred from Dubai for a year. “You guys want to be so damned progressive,” Ahmed said, referring to that emirate’s officials, “and you want the West to spend money on tourism, but then they get afraid.”

A few days after the comedy show, Halal Bilal and the American comedian Dean Obeidallah co-hosted a comedy workshop at Katara. About 20 people showed up. Bilal made his usual opening remarks about comedy being a serious business. Obeidallah, whose father is Palestinian, explained the difference between “killing” (doing a great job) and “bombing” (the opposite). There were lots of questions and answers, and then the would-be comedians broke up into groups. Finally, everyone did three minutes of stand-up in front of the class, after which Bilal and Obeidallah critiqued them.

There were jokes about car accidents, the lack of public restrooms, KFC, Filipino waiters and bad teeth. A few comics made fun of Indians. The Indians made fun of the Pakistanis. Someone said his wife just went into labor, but he’d rather tell jokes, which made some of the men — but none of the women — laugh loudly. One guy did a terrible Christopher Walken impression. A Pakistani man told a joke that made fun of the Western stereotype of all Arab and South Asian men being suicide bombers. It involved yanking the invisible pin of an invisible grenade that was supposedly attached to an invisible suicide bomber’s vest. After he blew up, everyone laughed.

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar and I discussed the parameters of Middle Eastern comedy. Rajakumar’s parents are Indian, but she grew up in the United States and has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida. She’s married to an American whose parents are Thai. In her stand-up routine, she usually calls him “the Chinaman,” a thinly veiled jab at Arabs in the audience who think all Asians are from China. “I think most of us feel that we’re funniest when we’re pointing out these ironies that people here would get; it’s the whole public-private thing,” Rajakumar says, by which she means that Arabs do not want to dishonor themselves in public. The comedian’s job, of course, is to say funny things out loud. The trick is knowing how funny.

Last spring, a Canadian who thought he was very funny came to one of SUCQ’s open-mike nights. “He started with ‘Any Palestinians here tonight?’ ” Rajakumar recalled. Someone raised a hand. “So then this guy said, ‘Happy Nakba Day!’ ” Arabs use “nakba,” which means “catastrophe,” to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s war of independence in 1948. “He was like: ‘Hey guys, I heard you celebrate Nakba Day. What you need to make things fair is, like, laser-guided rocks.’ ” Many in the audience were stunned. But the Canadian kept going on and on, talking about Jews and Arabs and nakba.

The problem with the Happy Nakba Day joke was not that a white non-Muslim Canadian told it. The problem was that it was told at all. In Qatar, as in other Arab countries, the “catastrophe” is a crime against humanity that cannot be joked about. Halal Bilal, however, has found a way to weave an Israel joke into his routine. At the Katara show, Bilal riffed on trying to get into the Palestinian territories:

“Any Palestinians here? I wanted to go to Palestine, but to get there I had to go through Israel. I get to the border, and the Israeli soldier says to me, ‘What are you doing here?’ I was like, ‘Dude, I could ask you the same question!’ ” Then he paused. (In his notebook, Bilal had instructions to himself to look for someone in the crowd who was not laughing and make a joke about that.) Then he went on: “I lie — I actually said I’m Jewish! You’re shocked? So was he! He didn’t believe me. I said: ‘Dude, I am Jewish. I have evidence, but it’s circum-stantial.’ Get it?”

The joke, which everyone besides Bilal agreed wasn’t very funny, is less offensive to Muslims than the nakba joke in part because it’s told by a Muslim. But there’s more going on than just that. Happy Nakba Day confronts Arabs with a disaster, while Bilal’s joke simply acknowledges something that most Arabs already concede, albeit grudgingly — that Israel exists. It pushes, but not too much. It resides, barely, inside the invisible boundary between the acceptable and the unfathomable, and in this way it does something that very few SUCQ jokes do: It echoes the reality of what people talk about behind closed doors. As Rajakumar puts it: “Most people in the region will say that as long as Israel exists, Arab governments don’t have to get their own house in order because they can vilify Israel. A lot of people agree that Palestinians are being used as political collateral by Arabs. But when it comes to the public discourse, most Arabs feel they have to take the side of Arabs.”

After dinner at the Lebanese restaurant, Kamal gave me a lift to my hotel. Kamal said that he wanted to keep doing stand-up (he showed me a business card he made for himself), but he had been offered a job after graduation at Qatar Petroleum that would pay, he said, $8,000 a month. (Following graduation, Kamal said he received job offers from three other employers.) Then he added that he thinks he could be a great comedian. He might be right. At Katara, a few days before, he sounded a little like that guy who just started doing stand-up in 50-seat dive bars in New York or L.A. or Vegas — naturally funny, with a sense of cadence, edgier than everyone else, bolder, bawdier, but rough, prone to occasional fumbles. He talked about wanting to polish his act, weave in new material, but there was an undertone of resignation in his voice, an awareness, perhaps, that he might never do these things.

In the future, no doubt, there will be a great, breakout Arab comedian who will make jokes about emirs and Muslims and sex and newspaper-reading Qataris, and this comedian will have not only talent but also drive. He won’t be tempted by Qatar Petroleum, and he won’t count the number of F-words in his routine. This comedian will owe a huge debt to SUCQ, but he (or she) won’t see it that way. He’ll look back at Bilal and Kamal and Omar Allouba and think the same thing that people in New York or L.A. would think if they heard them today, that they are the Amos ’n’ Andy of Arab comedy.

Speeding along the waterfront, past the Museum of Islamic Art and a fake old-looking marketplace and a procession of silver Audi TT’s, Kamal recalled getting up in front of class one day, when the professor was late, and mimicking the professor. It was so much fun, he said. Everyone was laughing. “When you’re making a joke about yourself,” he said, “you’re doing it either because you’re doing something wrong or stupid. And when you point those things out, we can figure in our minds: ‘This is dumb, yeah. I know it’s part of the culture, but why are we doing it?’ So there’s an underlying message there. For example, if you ask a local guy, ‘What’s your mom’s name?’ he never says it, because it’s considered embarrassing here for people to know your mom’s name. It’s stupid, I know.” Kamal paused, as if he was about to say something monumental and possibly blasphemous. Finally, he said, “If you ask me my mom’s name, I’m going to tell you.”

Peter Savodnik lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His book, ‘‘The Interloper,’’ on Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union, is due out next year.

Editor: Jon Kelly

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