Seven-star satire? Only in Dubai

Story highlights

The Pan-Arabian Enquirer is the Middle East's answer to The Onion

The satirical newspaper is often confused for fact

The region can be tough on satirists

Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef was taken off the air earlier this month

CNN  — 

Sometimes, residents of the Middle East have a hard time taking a joke. This, at least, is how the editor of the satirical blog the Pan-Arabia Enquirer sees it. The website, based in Dubai and self-dubbed “the world’s only 7-star satirical news source,” gets roughly 400,000 page views per month and is often likened to The Onion. According to its editor, some of the most popular stories are often confused for bona fide fact.

“Judging by the response it gets, I’d say it’s a 50-50 split between those that think it’s a joke, and those that really don’t,” says the editor, who prefers to remain anonymous (“Our stories generate anger from people who are outraged, and I don’t want to be the focal point of that anger,” he says).

A story published last month claiming a new gold-class lane would be introduced on the road from Dubai to Abu Dhabi – which the site joked would be paved in gold and separated from the other lanes with a velvet rope – provoked earnest ire.

“This is sick. Faux-elite structures build on the back of internationally-sourced slave labor in lifestyles financed by unearned oil revenues. I am appalled at the news that comes out of this country,” wrote one commenter.

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An article on the site about Emirates Airlines introducing shisha lounges to their flights actually inspired a few UAE residents to contact the carrier for more information. It was also picked up by a few travel websites, and published as fact.

“Even the terribly photoshopped picture,” he marvels.

As for why his readers seem so gullible, he attributes it to the infancy of satire in the Middle East.

“Satire isn’t exactly alien, but it’s not a known concept in the region. People here have a tendency to believe everything that is put in a newspaper,” he notes.

Whether the art form is new or not is subject to debate. Still, many agree that it is ripening in the region.

“We’ve always had room for satire, though maybe it was more widespread in Lebanon – due to their strong TV channels, political system and level of freedom of speech – though it’s always been around in Jordan in terms of play shows, newspaper columnists and caricatures,” notes Fadi Zaghmout, the Jordanian blogger behind The Arab Observer, and one of the Pan-Arabia Enquirer’s 4,500 Twitter followers.

“I do see it gaining ground now,” he adds.

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After running a story about Emirates introducing shisha on their flights, the carrier received requests from interested customers
Following Argo's Oscar win, The Pan-Arabia Enquirer joked about a new Angry Birds edition.

Pan-Arabia’s editor says that while some people don’t get the joke, many seem to find the site a lifeline.

“I definitely think there’s a hunger for it,” he says. “We get comments from people who say, ‘thank God there’s something like this here, I was going out of my skull,’ and readers are starting to send in their own stories. Some of the biggest stories have been sent in by readers, and not just Western expats taking the piss out of the country they live in – most come from Arab readers.”

Of course in many ways, the Middle East is not an easy place to be a satirist.

Earlier this month, Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian talk show often likened to Jon Stewart, had his show suspended after he started poking fun at the country’s military regime. Other comics in the region have faced similar fates. Sami Fehri, a Tunisian producer of a political puppet show, was imprisoned for a year on corruption charges, and in July, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for mocking religious figures.

“This is what has put us down as a community, as a population, for so long. We can’t really talk back,” Youssef told CNN in an interview earlier this year.

“People equate being laughed at as being ridiculed, [saying] ‘I can’t be ridiculed by this little dot dot dot brat. But if you start to suppress people’s freedom of speech under any excuse you want, it’s not good for the country,” he added.

Pan-Arabia’s editor, who says he admires Youssef’s humor and bravery greatly, finds his suspension from television somewhat ironic.

“There he was, happily mocking [former president Mohamed] Morsy, and he got arrested, and everyone went out on the street pushing for free speech and he gets put back on air. Then everything changes, and he goes on air and mocks [General Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi, and everyone’s in uproar. In Egypt, satire is fine so long as it’s going in one direction, which is hysterically satirical in itself.”