The Riyadh Hotel for Current and Future Exiled Arab Leaders in Saudi Arabia gets a phone call. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is on the line asking if they have any positions for accountants.
“No,” the nervous receptionist answers. “We live comfortably in Saudi Arabia. Don’t come and impose taxes on us.”
The satirical attack on the Palestinian leader, who has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to impose income tax on his people, was part of a new assault by a popular but harassed trio of Palestinian actors at a theatre in Ramallah on Wednesday night.
Banned from Palestinian television because their satire was just a little too biting, the Palestinian group called “Watan Ala Watar,” two men and a woman, have taken their standup comedy show directly to the people. They called their show “After the Ban” and they didn’t shy away from taking a crack at every institution and leader in the Palestinian Authority and out.
Watan Ala Watar had a successful run on Palestine TV three years ago and was particularly popular during Ramadan when new shows traditionally debut. The fresh, unabashed and even courageous satire was even said to have been popular with PA leaders, but their attacks on Fatah, Hamas, Arab leaders, government decisions and corruption must have touched a nerve for somebody in the system.
In August 2011, the PA prosecutor-general shut down their show, claiming it had humiliated and defamed PA officials. The three members of the trio include Imad Farajin, from Ramallah, Khaled Al-Missou from Beit Jala, and Manal Issa from Gaza.
“The ban of Watan Ala Watar was a political decision and not because any PA official sued us in court,” Imad Farajin, one of the actors, told The Media Line in an exclusive interview before the show. “As the Arab Spring began, the PA became very sensitive of any kind of criticism and this was the major reason for halting us.”
The PA High Court eventually rejected the charges against the trio of actors and allowed them to continue their work. Palestine TV, however, has kept its distance and has declined to cooperate with them ever since. Yasser Abed Rabbo, the head of the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation, which is responsible for Palestinian TV and radio, told the group that the orders to drop them came from above. Farajin interpreted that to mean it came from Abbas himself, he told The Media Line.
“If we were living in a democratic state then we were should have been allowed to resume our work at the PTV,” said Farajin, adding “But even if they banned me, I will stay in my country. Today’s standup show is our respond to their ban.”
The 70-minute show at Ramallah’s Qqsaba Theatre opened to a full house of about 400 people, including intellectuals and politicians. Interior Minister Said Abu Ali showed up and told The Media Line he supported their “comedic style.” Fayyad’s closest adviser Jemal Zaqout and dozens of other PA employees also attended.
Back on stage, PA President Mahmoud Abbas asks to book a double room at the Riyadh Hotel for Current and Future Exile Arab Leaders for himself and for his top adviser, Saeb Erikat. He wants to continue negotiations with Israel from there. The audience chuckles.
When the hotel telephones Syrian President Bashar Assad whether he needs to reserve early he answers “Yes. Please do book a room because I’m planning to send you all the Syrian people.” The audience roars.
“Our play aims to express our anger against the PA ban for our comedy,” said Watan Ala Watar actor Khalid Al-Missou. “We’re not politically affiliated to any group and the PA has to accept criticism,”
Farajin said it took him three months to write the script. The group plans to take their show on the road to several West Bank cities and abroad in order to earn a living.
“If the PA banned us from being broadcast on Palestine TV, then we will go to our public at their homes in the villages, refugees camps, and courtyards,” said Farajin, who studied theatre arts in the United Kingdom.
The defiant 35-year-old actor blasted the PA on stage and off, telling The Media Line that the Palestinian authorities should never had tried to stifle them while it continues to proclaim to the world that the PA is a “democratic regime.”
The Watan Ala Watar group has set up a Facebook page that chalked up 48,000 fans. But hackers apparently attacked the sight days before they appeared in court. Farajin said they have yet to restore the site.
Al-Missou believed that his comedy was a true expression of the issues affecting the Palestinian people but which are muzzled by the mainstream Palestinian media.
“The concerns of the Palestinian people are not aired on the news of PTV,” he told The Media Line. “Also, I want to insist that after the launch of the Arab Spring there is no more quelling of freedom.”
He was still bitter by the court experience, particularly at the way the general prosecutor referred to him.
“It was a sad moment in my life when he called me ‘the suspect Khalid’ instead of ‘the artist Khalid’,” he said.
After the play, Ghassan Abdullah, a Palestinian prominent intellectual told The Media Line praised the group for continuing their satire efforts despite everything.
“This strengthens the culture of comedic criticism and shows that there is no politician beyond criticism,” he said.
Accolades flowed in from other actors and writers. Akram Malki, a Palestinian actor, said the play was “highly creative and courageous.” Amina Odeh, a Palestinian journalist at the government’s WAFA news agency, said the return of the group to performances was a positive step against their ban.
“We need constructive criticism and not run from our problems and mistakes,” Odeh said.
“I’m a fan of this team performance. They are honest, courageous, know how to make us laugh, are persuasive, successfully express the Palestinian mistakes, and defend the simple people,” Palestinian writer Ziad Khadash said. “Watan Ala Watar is an artistic phenomenon that deserves support and appreciation. Every Palestinian intellectual should be ashamed of themselves by allowing their performances to have been banned.”
After the show, the group had more than just good reviews to celebrate. They cut a deal with an Arab satellite television station to broadcast their own show in place of Palestine TV.
“Today we signed a contract with Jordanian Ro’aya TV to start air our show," Farajin said. Continuing his irreverence for authority, he added: “They asked me not to name them, but I don’t necessarily see that it’s a big problem if I do.”