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Laughing Stock: How Stand Up Comedy is Transforming the Middle East

By: Kate Moran December 2008, Amman. Dean Obeidallah, a New Jersey-born, Palestinian-American comedian, surveys the audience before him at Al Hussein Cultural Centre. It is opening night at the first-ever Amman Stand Up Comedy Festival and he’s scheduled to perform a set. This set will be no different than on any other night, but tonight’s show marks the first ever comedy festival in the Middle East. Pressure? I would say so. But in a region that is better known today for bloody wars, foreign policy fiascos, and perceived “extremism,” standup comedy is making a name for itself.

Fast forward three years, and the Amman Stand Up Comedy Festival is one of the most popular events in the Middle East. It hosts comics from across the globe, routinely drawing large crowds and selling out shows. Obeidallah is somewhat of a trailblazer, and many comics credit him with being the catalyst for launching a new wave of comedy. His 2008 “Axis of Evil Tour,” featuring a host of Middle Eastern comedians like Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani, as well as North Korean Won Ho Chung, met with rave reviews. In looking to transform the entertainment world in the Middle East, comedy means business.

When I first saw Dean Obeidallah perform a show, his biting humor, cultural insight, and genuine attitude captured my interest. His jokes hold appeal for both Western and Arab audiences, and like many other comedians, topics range from relationships to in-laws to popular culture and the state of the economy. Through his brutal honesty and a “no-holds barred” approach to life, Obeidallah manages to accomplish what decades of negotiations and government agendas has failed to do—make the world laugh together.

Why the sudden interest in comedy? Perhaps it is because many in the region feel as if they are in desperate need of a distraction from the seemingly endless conflict and political upheaval. More likely, the interest was already present, and it is just now gaining prominence. In fact, the Arab World has a long and rich tradition of storytelling. Such practices existed even prior to the rise of Islam in the 7th Century C.E., and among certain groups, such as the Bedouins of the Levantine region, persist today.

That being said, it comes as no surprise that the Arabs would also have a wicked sense of humor—they’ve been honing their storytelling skills for centuries and indeed the tradition is still very much a part of the social fabric of the Arab world.

Of course, there are still limits, even in more liberal countries like Jordan. Cursing is frowned upon, as are blatant references to controversial topics like religion, sex and politics. Though the stand-up movement was primarily spearheaded by Western-born comedians, more and more locals are taking part and claiming the stage as their own. Arabic is quickly replacing English as the comedic lingua franca in the region, contributing to the overall success and appeal of the shows.

As for Dean Obeidallah? He is as busy as ever, traveling and touring both domestically and throughout the Middle East. More important than the comedy, however, are the implications of Obeidallah’s work. In cooperation with Scott Blakeman, a Jewish-American comedian, Obeidallah established Stand Up for Peace, a comedy show whose goal is to bring together various groups and encourage dialogue in seeking a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. He also works with Seeds of Peace, an international non-profit that sponsors leadership retreats and implements local peace-building programs in conflict zones.

Obeidallah’s efforts are indicative of the impact comedy can have on the Middle East’s current atmosphere.  The “youth bulge” in the Arab World is producing a population that is increasingly interested in exploring and understanding the wider world. A similar phenomenon is occurring in the West. Globalization is the lens through which we view the world, and regardless of viewpoint, the mystery is just the same. There is interconnectedness to the world that has never before existed on such a large scale. Now, communities aren’t only connected through their governments, but through individuals. With luck, and a bit of humor, stand-up comedy can and will change the way the West thinks about the Middle East for the better, and vice versa. And that’s change we can all live with.

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