A handful of young Egyptians find relief from the country's turmoil in stand-up comedy
The group, Hezb El Comedy, also teaches the art of stand-up to other aspiring comics
Young people in Qatar have also started a stand-up comedy group
For comics in the Middle East who don't censor themselves, comedy can be a risky business
It has been a rocky couple of years for the people of Egypt. Since the 2011 revolution, the economy has tanked, street protests are an almost daily occurrence and the political situation remains volatile.
However, a handful of young Egyptians have found that the best way to take a stand against the turmoil is with stand-up comedy.
“We are like a little beam of sunlight, coming through and reminding people, ‘Don’t worry! When this cloud passes, it will be brighter. It will be happier,’” says Rami Borai, a comedian in one of Egypt’s first home-grown comedy troupes, Hezb El Comedy.
The group, whose name means “The Comedy Party,” was formed in 2009 by Hashim Al Gahry, who admits he started up with “zero capital.” Al Gahry and some friends pooled their savings, and started marketing the group through social media. When they’re not performing, Hezb El Comedy teaches the art of stand-up to other aspiring comics, instructing them on things like timing and body language.
“We’re not the funniest people in the world, but it’s the experience that has put us in a position to give them advice and tell them, ‘These are our mistakes, and this is what you can do to avoid what we did,’” says Al Gahry.
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Other Arab nations are similarly investing in grassroots comedy. In Qatar, a few young comics have come together to form SUCQ (an acronym for Stand Up Comedy Qatar).
“It’s an American art. We took it from the Americans. We have reshaped it to adapt to our culture and society and people,” says Hamad Al Amri, 24, a comedian who is also a banker by day. Mohamed Kamal, who also performs stand-up with SUCQ, notes that given Qatar’s political climate, there are limits to what he can joke about.
“We can’t talk about politics, or very sensitive topics, like sex or religion,” he notes.
For those comics in the Middle East who don’t censor themselves, comedy can be a risky business.
Earlier this month, Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef made headlines after he was charged for mocking both Islam and Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsy. Other comics in the region have faced similar fates. Sami Fehri, a Tunisian producer of a political puppet show, was imprisoned for corruption charges, and Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was jailed last year for mocking religious figures.
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Al Gahry admits that as a comic, he must proceed with caution.
“You have to push the limit, but you have to be very careful,” he says. Borai, meanwhile, finds humour in the prospect of facing arrest.
“If I ever read a newspaper that said, ‘Ramy was indicted,’ I would say, ‘Yo, mom, this is it!’ I’ll fly out of here, but I would be like, ‘I got kicked out of my country for being too damn funny!’”