One of the biggest appeals about stand-up comedy must surely be that performers are able to take a very real issue, narrate it to the audience and induce laughter. It’s a simple enough idea; it requires minimal acting and is highly effective. Take for example a snippet in Ahmed Ahmed’s film entitled ‘Just Like Us’, which features a stand-up comedian revelling in the irony that Muslims always seem to be late for everything, when it was they who invented mechanical clocks. I’d love to disagree with this, but even I have to admit there’s some truth in it.
In true Muslim style, the MENA film festival kicked off around 25 minutes later than expected. With the suspense heightened, the eager audience were first shown a short film about how non-Arabs perceive Arabs, and whether they knew the distinction between an Arab and a Muslim. Not one of the people featured did.
The main event of the festival was the screening of the documentary by American-Egyptian stand-up comedian Ahmed Ahmed, ‘Just Like Us’, in which a group of stand-up comedians go on a comedy tour of the Middle East, including Dubai, Beirut, Riyadh and Cairo. What was clear from the opening prologue was that forward-thinking film makers, such as Ahmed Ahmed, consider comedy not just as good entertainment, but also as a powerful tool for expanding the Arab identity and expression, bridging cultural gaps and misunderstandings, and more generally, to show the world that Arabs like to enjoy themselves too and have a laugh “just like us”. Films and other expressive arts, then, could be considered a vehicle capable of fulfilling multiple objectives.
Though the stand-up comedy tour was aimed at Muslims, there was little evidence of sketches being adapted for a supposed orthodox Muslim audience. For example, Omid Djalili, the British-Iranian stand-up comedian, is seen in the film making jokes about his genitals. In this portion of the clip, we also learn that Ahmed Ahmed was previously handed a one year ban in Dubai for breaching censorship regulations. Meanwhile in Beirut, the attitude was ‘anything goes’, but there was a sharp awareness that in Saudi Arabia the religious police could shut down a show at any moment. Clearly the Saudis were not quite ready for such a drastic culture shock.
Nonetheless, all of the comedians involved were quite well-received by the audience, who were in a relaxed, mixed-gendered environment in all shows. The film also featured Saudi Arabia’s first and only female stand-up comedian who seemed to appreciate the increased freedom of expression offered by stand-up comedy. An interesting difference between the audience I was sitting with, and the comedy show audience, was that the latter consisted mainly of young people.
Reading between the lines, I couldn’t help but feel that Arab filmmakers now consider themselves in the front line of reversing years of negative media coverage of the Arab peoples by showing their human side. To this end, the notion of ‘laugh at yourself, and the world will laugh with you’ was echoed several times.
As I approached the end of my stay in the auditorium, I wondered whether the forward thinking film producers and their audiences shared a common aspiration. While Ahmed Ahmed might have had freedom of expression at heart when doing these shows, I wonder how much of the audience went along to his show to exercise their freedom. I wonder how much of the audience went along for a laugh, and how much went along to be part of a new breed of Arab identity. Of course, it’s probably too early to tell. It’s also probably true to say that Arabs are misunderstood for a number of reasons. In fact, if the opening short video was anything to go by then one would say that Arabs have a negative reputation attached to them.
But a pressing thought on my mind is whether comedy is a significant enough phenomenon to bring about a shift in thinking. If my views are commonplace, then I would suggest that comedy is, and will always be, restricted to a small part of our lives; the part that we activate when we have free time, say after work or on a weekend. Wanting to inspire change with comedy and films is not that different to wanting to bring about change with football or any other sport. It simply isn’t important enough to make people sit up and listen.
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