Palestinian comedians traverse unknown boundaries

Investors sought as art form comes of age.

Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayed 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayed 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
RAMALLAH - “Can someone explain to Erekat what does ‘I quit’ mean?”
Part of the latest stand-up comedy show in Ramallah, lines like this are becoming more and more acceptable as Palestinian comedians launch their careers. This particular routine, by Palestinian-American Maysoon Zayed, cynically refers to the Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat. The veteran Palestinian politician had quit over Al-Jazeera-leaked Palestinian papers about the Mideast peace talks in 2011, yet he remains in his position today.
Applause was heard from more than 100 people attending the show on August 22 in a local Ramallah restaurant that was converted into a theater-style setting. Audience members, who ranged in age from their 30s to 60s, some traditionally dressed in hijab [Islamic head cover] and others not, many of them non-Arabic speakers working for Ramallah’s NGOs, heard jokes in English and Arabic.
Artists from abroad, especially the United States and Jordan, perform in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem, and in Jerusalem, and Palestinian theaters have hosted a number of comedic plays throughout the last decade.
This year was Maysoon’s tenth performing stand-up comedy in the Palestinian territories, and, though comedy is not new to the region, her style is not yet familiar in Ramallah.
Many Palestinians come to the world of comedic TV from the theater stage. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Palestinian television stations aired four satire and comedy shows, and this new form of Palestinian-based comedy has spawned many opinions.
“Some comedians went from making comedy to clowning this year,” Youssef Al-Shayeb, an art and cinema critic, told The Media Line.  
Another comedian, Manal Awad, does stand-up on occasion. In 2008, she helped create the “Gaza-Ramallah” play that toured the West Bank.
“We wanted to make a script that expresses the reality,” she said. “We worked as theater employees, but we used to rehearse at homes for this show.”
Awad said that popular reception for their performance was surprising, “We found that people were eager for this kind of show,” she told The Media Line.
She and her colleagues turned the theater script into a television format, which later became a famous televised Palestinian satire called the Watan A Watar Show.
But TV is more limited than theater, and there’s an absence of investors to support the genre.
“We know that people in their houses will be watching us and not coming in to watch us [live] which makes us more careful to watch what we say,” she said. “We are constantly limited by the resources.”
According to critic Shayeb, the problem is with the scenarios: “We’re missing out on good writers."
Politics has become an important part of the material, but the unclear boundaries of freedom of speech make it uncomfortable for comedians and audience alike. 
In one of the episode of Watan A Watar, “Homeland on a Thread,” the actors try to mimic a famous Egyptian comedian Basem Youssef, "transforming" him into a Palestinian and explaining the obstacles he will face.
Youssef is known for criticizing officials including ousted President Mohamed Morsi and those belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and is considered to be the “Jon Stewart of the Middle East.”
The show was first suspended and then taken off the air in 2011.
Maysoon Zayed, however, said the freedom of expression she finds in the Palestinian territories is not found anywhere else.
“We’re censored in Egypt, Jordan and many places else,” she told the audience in Ramallah. “But not in Palestine.”
Zayed explained to The Media Line that one of the organizers of her show was once arrested following a performance.
“The next day I received an apology, and this has never happened again,” she said.
Al-Shayeb disagrees. “The freedom of speech in the Palestinian territories is irregular, and depends on the general political mood,” he said.
Many officials, including the head of the corruption committee, filed lawsuits against the Watan A Watar show at the time.
“When the show was put off the air and the comedians went back to the theater, they were more successful because we Palestinians have established a theater experience,” Al-Shayeb said.
People accepted the mocking of politicians because they felt that comedians were expressing what others were afraid to say. But when the criticism shifted to doctors, policemen and the general populace, the audience was provoked.
“People are not used to being put in front of the mirror,” he said. 
But Zayed thinks Palestinians are always ready to laugh. After her Ramallah show, she mingled with her audience. Many were eager to take photos with her and expressed their appreciation for her routine.
“The idea that certain groups of people don’t have the ability to laugh is obscene and insane. Stand-up comedy is only about laughing at yourself. The idea that Palestinians can’t laugh about themselves is laughable,” she told The Media Line.
“I loved her show,” 40-year-old Hayfa Mustafa said. “I loved how she talked about the norms and customs of the Palestinian-American community in the villages of Ramallah.” 
Zayed mocked the arranged marriages that occur among the Americans who are originally from the Palestinian territories. “They make all the cousins sit on chairs and when the music plays they have to dance in a circle,” she quipped. “When the music stops playing each person has to marry the one across of him in the circle.”
A 39-year-old Palestinian-American who lives in Al-Bireh, adjacent to Ramallah, added: “I had wished that [Zayed] talked more about politics.”
But Zayed believes politics is already enough of a part of her comedy.
“When they asked me, ‘Why didn’t you do more jokes?’ I told them that I just didn’t feel like it,” she said.
Testing the limits, more comedians are trying to use technology to let their voices be heard. Sometimes, it is just for the sake of making a stand, and not for a profit.
Ahmed Baalousha is a stand-up comedian from the Gaza Strip where he believes the limits on the freedom of speech are higher. A 24-year-old journalist, he started as a writer of satire. People encouraged him to develop his ideas into a show, and he now has a YouTube series called “In Short.”
“I opt not to tackle political issues amid the current political situation we’re living in. If I criticize someone, it will be taken as if I’m biased to one party or another,” Baalousha told The Media Line. “We talk about politics in their external sense. I think the situation in the West Bank is better and comedians there have more space to tackle political issues.”
Baalousha was asked to do live shows in the Gaza Strip but he doesn’t view comedy as a job.
“It’s too early for comedians to use comedy as a source of income,” he said.
A comedy organizer concurred. “Some shows lose money,” he said, asking for anonymity. “I break even in others. But it’s okay for me because I know people need more time.”
For the Palestinian diplomat and singer Ahmed Dari, who lives in Paris, making money is not the issue. He recently posted a song on YouTube, “Mr. Kerry, Please Find Another Fool Than Us,” that ridicules the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
“The ass falls once in a trap and never does it again,” the song says. “But we’re insisting on falling in the same hole over and over again.”
“I just express what I feel and what is on people’s minds in an artistic way. And negotiations are not a likable issue for Palestinians,” Dari told The Media Line.
“Sometimes I feel people are living in a state of boredom. They hear the song, laugh a bit and bemoan a little bit,” he added.
Amid this current scene, there are plans to improve the art form -- and make it profitable.
Al-Shayeb told The Media Line that he is working on an initiative to unite all the Palestinian efforts in one major comedic drama that will be sold to Arabic channels.
“We hope to make a show that will be able to make profit to the investors,” he said. 
Comedians say that they have a duty to challenge the censorship, “We can’t sit in our houses, waiting for anyone to give us permission to say what we want to say. We have a responsibility to express the people’s voices,” comedian Manal Awad told The Media Line.
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