Somber state of comedy in the mideast

Humor is a great vehicle, and political humor is actually one of the greatest tools of political critique. In some Western societies, political humor is more popular than straight politics and certainly more popular than the evening news. Many more Americans watch Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” than watch the evening news.

Political humor can only emerge in a free society, so, as you can imagine, because most of the Middle East is not free, most of the region is devoid of political humor. The little political humor that does exist is most often the comedy of parody and skits, of mockery, making fun of leaders and play acting exaggerated situations. But there is still a glimmer of hope for true political comedy in, of and about the Middle East.

During the last year, one of the funniest and at the same time one of the boldest political moves in the Middle East was made by LBC, the Lebanese Broadcasting Co., a private network that broadcasts from Beirut.

Every Friday night, LBC airs a comedy show that pokes fun at the situation in Lebanon and the whole Middle East. Most of their comedy is, true to form, simple imitation and role playing. The name of the Friday night show is in itself a play on words. It is called “Bas Mat Watan, which means “The Homeland’s Laughter”; the comedy lies in the fact that Bas Mat Watan sounds very similar to “Bas Met Waten,” which means “The Homeland Is Dying.” It’s an inside joke, but a good one.

One episode last November depicted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Nothing of this kind had been performed on air since 2006, and undertaking the parody took a great deal of courage even in free-thinking Lebanon. People have been assassinated for much less.

The show caused riots and a huge tidal wave of activity on Twitter. 

Nasrallah’s supporters complained that it was inappropriate to mock a cleric. Supporters of the show said that was fair game because he was a political figure and no different from any other politician the program lampoons. Besides, supporters said, this program impersonates religious leaders all the time.

Until November, LBC was too afraid of the repercussions to touch Nasrallah. The reason they finally felt empowered enough to rake him over the proverbial coals of television comedy is that as the Syria conflict spilled into Lebanon and more Lebanese lives were lost, they felt comfortable challenging Hezbollah, which is a major player in the unpopular war.

Egypt, too, has been host to a new breed of political humor. Bassem Youssef, a leading, controversial, and very popular satirist and comic, hosted a well-watched television show that targeted politicians and politics. Under the government of Muhammad Morsi, Youssef was arrested and, for obvious reasons, the show was canceled. But after an international outcry especially from U.S. political comedy super star Stewart — Egypt released Youssef from prison. When Morsi was ousted, Youssef was given a show called “Al Barnameg,” or “The Show,” on a private Egyptian station. 

Youssef is often called the Egyptian Jon Stewart. In June 2013, Stewart actually visited Egypt and made an appearance on Youssef’s show. It was very funny, especially in light of Youssef’s reciprocal appearance on Comedy Central, Stewart’s network.

The popularity of Youssef was not limited to Egypt. His was one of the most-watched shows in the entire Arabic world. Egyptians waited to see if Youssef would be as forthright and critical of the new military regime as he had been of Morsi. He was. And so, on the eve of his second show, the network pulled the plug, damaging the new form of Arabic political humor.

Tolerance for political humor was very low under Morsi. During his tenure as president, the Egyptian court also prosecuted a famous humorist film actor; this time, however, the humorist was prosecuted in absentia. Adel Imam, the humorist, is arguably the most popular actor in the egion, an Arabic version of Charlie Chaplin. Imagine prosecuting him when he was in his 70s and was found guilty of making fun of Islam and the prophet Muhammad. Now that’s funny.

In spite of the setbacks, Egypt is still working hard to develop a sense of political humor. But there have been unfunny repercussions. After Stewart’s appearance on Egyptian TV, some Egyptian pundits speculated that the American-Jewish comedian was announcing a plan that the Jews were preparing to invade and capture Egypt. 

Jordan saw its first hint of political humor about 20 years ago. A duo named Nabil and Hisham emerged and toured the country with their political skits. They were so popular at home that someone thought it would be a good idea to bring them over to Israel so that they could perform in Tel Aviv. Their comedy consisted of crude, almost high school-style, play-acting parody. They poked fun at the entire Middle East and, of course, the leaders. In Jordan, it was acceptable humor. In Israel, although not very professional, it was accepted, as well. Much of the regional political humor has been filled with bile and acerbic hatred of Jews and Israel. Nabil and Hisham were the exception.

Today, several Arab expatriates who live in the West offer hope. The best example of this political humor is a recent YouTube video by an expat from Saudi Arabia named Hisham. Dressed in a kafiyah, Hisham sings the words “No Woman, No Drive” to the tune of Bob Marley’s 1979 hit, “No Woman, No Cry.” Hisham Fageeh, a graduate student at Columbia University, was making fun of the fact that women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. The YouTube video went viral with over 12 million views.

Despite government’s attempt to silence comedians, humor in the Arabic world is going to improve, thanks to technology, and will provide the perfect barometer by which we will be able to measure and judge freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).