MATHEW ANDROVETT WRITES — In recent years, citizens of the Middle East, faced with unimaginable turmoil, have looked to comedy to heal their wounds and reshape their image in the eyes of the world.
All this started in the Middle East as recently as 2008, with Arab-American comedian Obeidallah’s “Axis of Evil” tour. Comedy continued to expand in the following years, culminating in the Amman Comedy Festival, the first comedy festival to take place in the Middle East. Obeidallah, who also worked as an executive producer for the festival, elaborated on the significance of the event, stating that “the festival [was] representative of a bigger [trend]” in that comedy had become “a phenomenon” in the region. Obeidallah noted that crowds are particularly fond of “jokes about Arab culture” and, as a result, comedians in these communities spend a significant portion of their act discussing the topic.
Speaking on the power of comedy in affected communities, Palestinian comedian Nabil Sawalha labeled comedy “the biggest enemy of extremism and fundamentalism,” adding that humor worked to “release the pressure felt against dictators [and] negative social issues.” Comedy has provided people in these embattled regions the opportunity to appropriate their pain into a source of laughter, dampening the power of oppression.
Perhaps the most important contribution to the fight against extremism lies beyond the region’s borders. Viewers everywhere see these shows, which expand their preconceived notions of the Middle East and help combat the global stigmatizations of their cultures and communities. Due to extremist groups, Middle Easterners the world over are often perceived as unkind, temperamental and violent. Humor humanizes such perceptions by transcending race-based cliches.
Who would have thought that stand-up comedy could prove an effective tool for fighting extremist propaganda?