‘Comedy In The Middle East Is An Antidote To Extremism’
Stand-ups in the region weigh in on role of humor amid Netflix controversy over censorship in Saudi Arabia
Comedians in the Middle East play an important role in combating all forms of extremism, a veteran Jordanian comedian has said, amid a widening controversy over streaming giant Netflix’s decision to yank an episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj in Saudi Arabia.
The Media Line reached out to several stand-up performers across the region to discuss the limits of humor and whether they have experienced censorship in their own careers.
“The biggest enemy of extremism and fundamentalism is comedy,” Nabil Sawalha, who has performed for nearly five decades in stage plays, films and on television, told The Media Line. “In Jordan, there are so many stand-up comedians now, as well as in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.”
In response to a request by the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission, Netflix has removed an episode in Saudi Arabia in which comedian Hasan Minhaj ridiculed attempts by the Saudi authorities to downplay crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi government charged that the segment, which remains available outside the kingdom, violated the country’s broad anti-cybercrime law, which forbids the “production, preparation, transmission or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals and privacy online.”
Sawalha—who has performed in Qatar, Dubai, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the UK, among others—underlined that in Jordan comedians are mostly free to do as they please.
“In Jordan, we don’t have censorship and what you do is your responsibility,” he affirmed, noting that the art form had recently taken off across the Middle East in recent years and had for the most part escaped restrictions. However, due to unending conflicts and war, some comics have been forced to change their routines.
“Politics in the Arab world has gotten very messy [and so sometimes] there is no line to laugh at,” Sawalha explained. “The degree of tolerance to comedy has gone down because of religious upheaval—in the face of ISIS and other violent groups—and this makes people a little bit narrow-minded. So, most comedians deal with everyday issues. You don’t touch religion in any shape or form. But we used to put all the sheikhs on stage.”
Sawalha revealed that he generally avoids political issues like those connected to Syria or Iraq because of ongoing violence. He also underlined that the only instance in which he personally encountered limits on his jokes occurred when he was invited to perform on Jordanian state television. There, he said, producers requested that he refrain from mocking the government; he eventually decided against making an appearance.
“Humor is incredible right now in the Arab world because of social media, which the authorities cannot control,” Sawalha emphasized. “Political humor is doing what it was originally made to do: release the pressure felt against dictators, negative social issues and for Palestinian comedians, the occupation.”
Others working in the industry believe the firestorm and attention being given to Netflix and Minhaj, who comes from an Indian-Muslim background, stems from a deeply ingrained system of discrimination against other Middle Eastern comedians.
“I don’t believe Indian Muslims experience the depth of the discrimination that Arab Muslims face in the news media. If Minhaj were a Palestinian or Christian, the media would not have cared if the show had been banned in Saudi Arabia or any Arab country,” Ray Hanania, a Christian-Palestinian comedian who currently resides in the United States, asserted to The Media Line. “I think American society overall discriminates against real Middle Eastern comedians in a graduated form, he said.
“Palestinian comedians like myself are excluded the most and marginalized,” he specified. “In America, the reality of racism and discrimination for Arabs and Muslims is measured not by lynching or violence but by social ostracism.”
Hanania, an award-winning political and humor columnist, launched an Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour which brought together Israeli and Palestinian comedians following the September 11 attacks.
“As a Christian-Palestinian comedian, I experience the worst discrimination from the mainstream news and entertainment media, and from the political extremists who dominate the dialogue in America,” he stressed. “I am ignored by non-Arab Muslims because I am irrelevant to their interests. It’s very important for comedians to express themselves but they have to have the opportunity to do so.”
In Israel, stand-up comics praised the willingness of Israeli audiences to hear jokes that are often deemed less acceptable to Western ears. Comedian Mike Kroll, who is originally from Texas, has been performing for the past 12 years and said his career only took off after he moved to Israel.
“I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t apologize for your comedy if you’re not hurting anyone,” Kroll, who often performs dressed as a drag queen, related to The Media Line, adding that only one time has an audience member confronted him over the perceived offensiveness of his material.
“I’ve never encountered an audience or venue that would limit what I say or what I want to get across,” he continued. “In terms of content, it’s very free in Israel. People in the West are really picking apart comedians right now, but thankfully in Israel, we’re so small and there are so many larger issues allowing comedy to grow in a positive way.
Likewise, Israeli-American comedian, educator and writer Benji Lovitt—who has performed onstage internationally for some two decades—says he does not feel hampered by so-called political correctness or censorship in Israel, but argued the same could not be said of the West.
“What happens in America or Europe is that people are getting offended and calling for someone’s head every other day—and sometimes it’s ok, but sometimes people miss the joke or are triggered,” Lovitt told The Media Line. “I think that when we lose the ability to look at someone’s intent and actually think critically, that’s when there’s a problem.”
As an example, Lovitt pointed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a thorny issue he admittedly avoids in the U.S.
“When people hear jokes about sensitive topics often they don’t get it, they automatically think: ‘Uh oh, am I allowed to laugh at this?’ That’s what annoys me: when people lose the ability to really get what’s being made fun of.
“Comedy is always about pushing the envelope and making people think but if audiences are losing the ability to be discriminating, that’s going to kill comedy.”