Syrian stand-up comedians tackle own fears, draw smiles in Europe

Screenshot from the monthly Arabic stand-up comedy show in Berlin - 23 May 2022 (Aram al-Saed)

Screenshot from the monthly Arabic stand-up comedy show in Berlin - 23 May 2022 (Aram al-Saed)

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Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas

Syria did not have a realistic, humorous space consisting of a solo comic narrative performance, currently known as “stand-up comedy,” whose purpose is to give space for individuals to express the details of the performer’s personal life and the lives of those around him, issues of public opinion in society and the work of institutions in it, despite the presence of events that enrich this field, especially the past 60 years of the country’s history.

Freedoms were killed in Syria as a country ruled by a totalitarian authority that replaced the state and as an inevitable result of this continued rule since the 1960s.

All of this did not allow the Syrian individual to discover himself/herself except through authoritarian means of education, while Lebanon, the neighboring country, has witnessed, in recent years, plenty of stand-up comedy shows in the art scene, in which young people find their new spaces for expression and display of their talents.

Eleven years after the start of the revolution, young Syrians in diaspora countries have found an opportunity through which they can own their voice and transcend their moral fears by providing lively interactive experiences with the audience.

Such experiments that tell of topics that would not have been brought to the public without talking about them through jokes stimulate observation and research within a group situation that is beneficial to both the performer and the audience.

Humor brings people together and paints laughter or smiles as a language of social interaction within human connections in order to express thoughts and feelings.

This humor requires highly sensitive linguistic and cultural proficiency; therefore, expressing humor is often a challenge in interpersonal communication, as what is considered funny may vary across people from different cultural backgrounds.

Owning tools for a “necessary need”

The graduation performance of the first stand-up comedy group in Arabic was organized in the German capital, Berlin, on 17 April, under the title “Arreb Jarreb” (Come Close and Take a Try), as part of a workshop supervised by the Syrian comedian Ammar Daba, which included 12 male and female trainees, in cooperation with the Barra Talent Management that specializes in supporting young Arabic-speaking talents to access performance opportunities.

Among the trainees who participated in this workshop, which began in mid-March, is Zaina al-Abdullah, 32, who believes that stand-up comedy shows in Europe are the “only solution left to escape” from all the psychological trauma experienced by the participants in the shows or the same audience, who comes from Arab countries mostly suffering from security turmoil and economic crises, which prompted the participants to share problems and joke about them.

During the training on the basics of building jokes and the rules of stand-up comedy, a “common sense” was generated among the group of young people participating in the workshop that “there is a need for such performances,” al-Abdullah told Enab Baladi.

The issues and topics that are talked about in a comical nature directly target those young people who are able to concretely see the problems of the society around them and address them by making fun of them and criticizing them.

In the same April, when al-Abdullah and her friends began organizing their graduation shows from the stand-up comedy training workshop, the former director of the Ibn al-Nafis Hospital for Mental Illnesses and a member of the World Psychiatric Association, Raghed Haroun, said that cases of depression and psychotic crises are on the rise in Syria with the increase in the number of diagnoses during the evident living crisis.

The nature of the problem that the patients talk about reveals that they have reached a stage of despair and frustration, after which they enter a pathological state that is “depression, anxiety, or psychotic states,” and the number of such cases arose as a result of the economic crisis, according to Haroun.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common condition even among refugees outside Syria. According to the Syria Relief report, 74 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and 76 percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey, suffer from symptoms of PTSD.

Enthusiasm, fear

Topics that al-Abdullah and her friends in the workshop want to talk about publicly include unemployment, politics, stability, religion, sex and asylum, and all the topics that concern Arab youth anywhere, but they are not often talked about, and these young people do not have stand-up comedy tools to make people laugh and do not know where to start.

During the premiere last April, “there was a great turnout from the audience who wanted to attend the Arabic stand-up comedy show in Berlin, and the reaction was great.”

Al-Abdullah describes a state of merging between the audience, the performer, the jokes, and the place to present topics that “the audience themselves were thinking about individually, and did not expect them to be talked about in public among a large group of people.”

In her writing for stand-up comedy shows, al-Abdullah is inspired by her life experiences and focuses on communicating her feelings and opinions about these experiences by performing in front of the audience.

With every show, al-Abdullah feels that her performance is evolving thanks to the accumulation of experience in the stand-up comedy field, which she is very enthusiastic about as a future career after the workshop ends.  

Al-Abdullah also does not hide her fear and uncertainty about the readiness of the Arab audience for this type of comedy because there are sensitive topics such as religion, politics, and sex, which are difficult to criticize in a sarcastic and direct way.

“We are breaking these restrictions, and at the same time, there is a fear that we will not be able to express completely freely about these topics,” since the audience is the party who shapes the experience with reaction and response,” she adds.

“We realized a long time ago that this world could no longer be turned, nor changed for the better, or stop its miserable flow forward. There was only one possible means of resistance, not to take it seriously.”

Al-Abdullah quotes the words of the French novelist Milan Kundera to reflect her enthusiasm and courage to master the comedic performance on stage, in front of an audience with different opinions and ideas but stands on a common ground, which is an overwhelming desire to laugh, waiting for the performer to have a comic narration in which he/she expresses disappointments and pain.

Syrian society a stranger to stand-up comedy experience

Fear is the raw material that fuels the prosperity of security systems and social control, and it is constantly spreading in most countries in the Middle East, most notably Syria, where the president and statues of the ruling family are depicted in most public squares and streets, bearing witness to the brutality of the authority that has terrifyingly changed the features of entire Syrian cities.

Syrian comedian Ammar Daba told Enab Baladi that “irony is a necessity for us as Syrians because Syria has many statues. We have many idols that must be broken so that we can analyze in more depth what happened to us over the past 11 years?”

In order to understand what happened in Syria in recent years, we must free our minds, and in order for that to happen, we must study and analyze everything that has happened around us during the past period, in terms of circumstances and data, and one of the most successful ways to achieve this is by sarcasm.

The Syrian stand-up comedian Ammar Daba

According to Daba, moving away from dealing with arts, specifically theater, has made the Syrian society away from the experience of stand-up comedy as a form of comedy, and because access to these arts was very limited in Syria, the Syrians did not succeed in the process of making jokes within stand up comedy.

“The Syrian society did not experience any types of art performance, and therefore the form of comedy was limited to the patterns presented by Duraid Lahham’s plays, Yasser al-Azma’s series (Maraya) or Mirrors, and the series of (Bokaat Daw) or Spotlight, and the things that we did not like, we used to categorize as (clowning), and this is very wrong because clowning is a specialty within the specializations of comedy, in the meaning that within comedy there is clowning,” Daba said.

“Because we want the familiar, and we are afraid of experimenting, we deprive ourselves of trying something new. The fear of what we do not know always turns into a fake tool for illusory distinction,” Daba revealed, justifying why the move away from the arts contributed to making Syrian society write off rich comedy schools.

The way to address this fear embedded in the depths of Syrian society from any new experience is the freedom to express an opinion, and stand-up comedy is one of the most important tools for freedom to express an opinion because it is simply a person standing on the stage telling his/her views and opinions of society or personal life in a very straightforward way by jokes.

The bids to create frank and direct comedy in Syria were violated by all means of security censorship, and the attempts to circumvent censorship by laughing through political comedy had an irresistible effect on the part of writers in Syrian drama through the series “Maraya” and “Bokaat Daw,” the most prominent examples.

The small stories within each episode of the two series bore maximum indications of administrative, social, and political corruption in the country, despite accusations against these works of being allowed by the authority to serve as an outlet for people’s anger and resentment. 

In an interview with the Jadaliyya website, the Syrian drama writer Mamdouh Hamadeh, who presented the famous series “Daiaa Dayaa” (The Lost Village) in its two parts in 2008 and 2010, said that “Syrian comedy does not have a great experience, as it is almost limited to some of the few names that originally worked together in joint drama works, almost limited to the experiment, whose most famous symbol was the character of Ghawar al-Toushe.”

Also, the experience of the Syrian ‘monologist’ Salama al-Agwany, whose satire extended to political and social issues between the forties and seventies of the last century, was not a form of stand-up comedy, according to Daba, as stand-up comedy is not a satirical monologue.

What is stand-up comedy?

The thing that distinguishes stand-up comedy from other types of comedy is that “the area of ​​error is allowed, as jokes are modified through experience. In order for them to reach their final form and be formulated for the audience, they must go through multiple stages of experimentation,” says Daba.

Dabba gives an example to illustrate his speech, “Stand-up comedy is the hardest form of comedy, like a piece of iron that the blacksmith keeps hammering and setting in the fire repeatedly until it reaches the final form.”

“This is not done in a comic sketch, such as the comedy series of Bokaat Daw or Maraya, and it is not practiced in the theater because the play is written for one time, and there are subsequent modifications, but not as intense as stand-up comedy,” according to Daba.

He added that a stand-up comedy joke is an abstract joke that is built through two stages.

The first stage is the set-up, which is the first part of the joke that contains a presumption intended to mislead the audience into accepting a false first story, and the second stage is the punchline, which is the second part of the joke, which contains a different reinterpretation and creates a second story that breaks the assumption of the first part’s intent, and produces a surprising, humorous effect.

Based on this simple equation, the form of a stand-up comedy is adopted, and the first stage of the joke is developed by increasing its details and duration, and the strength of the punchline, which is like “pulling the trigger to laughter,” according to Daba’s expression.

Why now?

Enab Baladi contacted the Barra Talent Management, which supervises the Arabic stand-up comedy in Germany, and said the expected impact of this project is “the individual impact on people as Syrians in the diaspora because the stand-up comedy is like a psychotherapist in these situations.”

The management told Enab Baladi that there is a difficulty in understanding our psychological suffering and the nature of the areas from which we sought refuge in Europe by psychiatrists in the diaspora countries.

“The difficulty of putting psychiatrists in the picture of the turmoil and events experienced by each of us created a great need for a Syrian comic art that presents life experiences and our pain in a nice way for us to understand them collectively,” it added.

Also, the space for stand-up comedy has never existed in diaspora countries for Syrians and Arabs in general, for individuals to express their thoughts, fears, and opinions in front of an audience with different opinions and ideas, the management argues.

“At such a moment, the person standing on the stage faces his/her fears for the first time, and over time, the expression of opinion turns into a real practice through the supervision and organization of continuous performances in several places,” it added.

During stand-up comedy shows around the world, jokes are accused of offending a certain group of society, but the supervisors of this type of Arabic-language show at the Barra Talent Management see that “comedy has to do with the presenter’s point of view, the receiver’s point of view and irony is one type of comedy, so how can this joke be considered as offensive when it is not possible to collect all people’s opinions on a particular thing.

“If we suppose that there is a joke offensive to a certain group, then this is at the same time exclusionary and null and void for the rest of the people who are not of the same opinion. It is impossible for a particular subject to be sensitive to all,” the Barra Talent Management explained.

Jokes are created to make people laugh and not to offend a specific person.

“If someone feels offended because of a specific joke for a certain topic, this feeling does not generalize to the rest of the individuals, as this person has not been freed from the subject that is being criticized or ridiculed so far,” and this is the essence of freedom of expression, according to the management.

The supervising management says that one of the concerns facing this project is the language “because we are working on an Arabic stand-up comedy in a German-speaking country; therefore, the attendance is limited, and the show’s target for the organizers is the audience who speaks Arabic. Therefore, the experimentation on which stand-up comedy relies on by repeating the same show several times is still narrow and without the intended purpose.”

It is also difficult to create equal opportunities for everyone who wants to try presenting a stand-up comedy in Arabic since there are few places to host these shows.

Among the Arabic-language stand-up comedy shows that the Barra Talent Management sponsored in the past period is the “Much Respect” show, which was shown in Berlin on 25 and 26 June, presented by Ammar Daba and Egyptian comedian Mohamed Andeel.

 

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