Jokes and a sense of humor have pretty much existed in every culture since mankind’s beginning. Indeed, in every culture around the world, the goal of jokes and humor is to reduce the daily pressures of life, creating a sense of understanding and often bringing us together. In this regard, the Arab world is no different and though they are often stereotyped in the West as an aggressive, serious and humorless lot, Arabs really do know how to be funny. Indeed, they have a wonderful and eclectic sense of humor which is heir to a rich tradition that goes back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians.
It has often been said that Ancient Egyptians believed the world was created out of laughter, and they did, in fact, regard humor as something holy, even going so far as to marry off the Ancient Egyptian goddess of humor to the Ancient Egyptian god of wisdom. Preserved papyrus on display in many museums around the world shows us that they used to write political and social satire on papyrus and limestone.
When the Romans came along and occupied Egypt, they said that Egyptians were “twisted and bitter people with a sense of humor” because Egyptians lawyers would laugh at Roman judges and their terrible verdicts, prodding other Egyptians into making jokes and singing humorous songs in defense of their political prisoners. So much did the sarcastic wit and laughter of the Egyptian lawyers raise the ire of the Romans that they forbade the lawyers from entering into the courts.
Egyptians didn’t let their Ottoman occupiers off any easier, making fun of the way they looked, calling them arrogant and overweight. When the French came, Egyptians mocked their rulers so much that the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, made such kinds of humor a crime and those who made such jokes were arrested, punished, and sometimes even executed for their jokes. The British didn’t go as far as executions when they occupied Egypt, but when they found out that Egyptians were meeting in cafés just to laugh at them, the British closed the café’s down. Indeed, as critically-acclaimed Egyptian journalist Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy put it: “Egyptians resort to sarcasm and humor to express their own viewpoint or evade their problems.”
Flash forward to today’s Middle East where huge Arab audiences turn out to laugh at both American comedians and at themselves in such venues as the annual Amman Stand-up Comedy Festival, which is pretty much what it says it is – an international stand-up comedy event held annually in Amman, Jordan which features eight shows over seven nights and stand-up comedians presenting acts in both Arabic and English. The event has been a game changer for the likes of Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-Italian stand-up comedian born in Lodi, New Jersey, who quit his staff job at Saturday Night Live in 2008 to do stand-up gigs in the Middle East. So, what sort of things does he say that makes Arabs laugh? Well, things like:
“It’s hard to compare the historic events in the U.S. with those in the Middle East. In the States
we brag: ‘See that building, our first president, George Washington, slept there 200 years ago.’
In the Middle East, people say: ‘See that place, Jesus had lunch there.’ I think they win.”
Canadian stand-up comedian, actor, and producer Russell Peters also had a successful comedy tour of the Middle East where after a show in Amman, the usually reserved and stoic Jordanians got in the last laugh on Peters after His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan “punk’d” the comedian for being the first to leave a party that the King had hosted the night before. American Comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias has an equally hilarious story about a gig he had in Saudi Arabia.
So why has comedy seemingly skyrocketed in a region of the world that has historically been seen as conservative and too serious? Well, maybe that’s because Middle Eastern demographics show that 60% of the population of the Middle East is under the age of 30 and these young people grew up with the internet and have gained a bigger worldview and perhaps a better understanding of the world as a result.
Indeed, Obeidallah says that he was once invited by a Saudi prince to perform in front of a mixed audience in Saudi Arabia where the young Saudis laughed at his humor, while the older generation was mostly silent, waiting for him to do magic tricks. He goes on to say that once, after a show, a young Saudi student came up to him after the show. The student, Ahmed Al Omran, first became a fan of Dean’s through YouTube and then he saw a Dean perform in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
In fact, stand-up comedy on YouTube may be exactly why comedy has grown among Middle Eastern youth and why, to paraphrase Al Omran, “Old people just don’t get it.” On YouTube, for example, young Arabs can see their favorites comedians from all over the world like ventriloquist Jeff Dunham and his politically incorrect “Ahmed the Dead Terrorist” – a doll, whose punch line often ends with an “I’ll kill you!” and the young Arabs absolutely love it.
Al Omran adds, “This whole notion of having someone who is just like you and making fun of himself and of you as well is liberating in a sense. We are not used to someone making fun of us” And that, according to Al Omran is what makes Arabs laugh loudest – the ability to laugh at themselves. Indeed, something we should all do occasionally.
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