By Dean Obeidallah
1. Do Arabs actually laugh? 2. Do Arabs understand jokes? 3. Don’t they hate you because you are American?
Those are just a few of the actual questions I have heard when I tell people in the US that I’m performing stand up comedy in the Arab world. This week’s historic Amman Stand Up Comedy Festival in Jordan – as well as the other recent shows I have performed in the Middle East – have answered those questions as follows: 1. Arabs do laugh (In fact, many are very funny themselves); 2. Arabs do understand the jokes in English; 3. No, they don’t all hate us – in fact, a large number of Arabs actually love us.
I know that the Arab world isn’t the usual stop for American comedians. I still haven’t heard a comedian say: “This weekend I’m at the Chuckle Hut in Beirut.” (In part because there is no chuckle Hut in Beirut or a comedy club anywhere in the region.) But a new phenomenon has emerged in the Middle East over the last year that no one could have predicted: Arabs love stand up comedy. Finally, it appears America is bringing something to the Arab world that they really like – in fact, they are paying to see it.
While there were a few stand up comedy shows in the region over the past few years, it wasn’t until last year’s “Axis of Evil Tour” that the Middle East saw a comedy explosion. (And yes, I use the word “explosion” with great hesitancy in an article about the Middle East, but it is the best way to describe the dramatic growth in comedy.) While there is no history of stand up comedy in the Arab world, You Tube and American TV shows airing in the region have brought our comedy there and its catching on fast.
To give you a sense of how much Arabs love stand up comedy, I recently performed in Beirut with Middle Eastern-American comedians Maz Jobrani and Ahmed Ahmed and we sold over 5,000 tickets. Just a few weeks ago I co-headlined a show with comedian Aron Kader in Cairo and over 4,000 people attended.
The material we perform is almost all in English and basically the exact jokes we tell in the comedy clubs in the US. (With a few local jokes thrown in as well.) The audiences in the Arab world – which are predominantly but not exclusively Muslim – have no problem laughing at themselves or jokes about relationships, politics, pop culture, or just standard US observational comedic material. Its been amazing to see these audiences laugh at the identical jokes we have told to US audiences. It makes you realize that we have a lot more in common than some would believe. (Or frankly more in common than some want us to believe.)
The Amman Festival came about after I had performed three sold out shows there this past August. The City’s Mayor, Omar Maani, approached me about helping produce a festival in Amman. (I am also the co-creator/producer of the annual NY Arab-American Comedy Festival with my friend and fellow comedian Maysoon Zayid.)