Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Political Humor in Jordan

I wrote last week about the piece in the New York Times (by Michael Slackman) about political humor in Jordan. A Jordanian graduate student wrote to Slackman and and she allowed me to cite her letter (I deleted personal references): "I am writing with regards to your recent piece in Amman Journal/ Middle East section of the NY Times entitled "Jordanians Can Take a Joke, Comics Find" and dated December 23rd, 2009. I couldn't help detecting a condescending tone underlying your reporting on the Amman Comedy Festival. You made it seem as if Jordanians did not know what laughter, or indeed comedy, are before the advent of the Great North American Comics. You seem to be arguing that Jordanians never really "laughed at themselves" before the Amman Comedy Festival, while the contrary is true and would have been easy to discover with a little bit of research on your part. Jordan has had, and still has, very well-known local comedians such as Nabeel Sawalha, Hisham Yanes, Amal Dabbas, and Musa Hijazin, to name but a few. These local comedians who performed on TV and in live plays were extremely popular in the country and they still are (Sawalha has a radio show on Mazaj FM, Hijazin an animated comedy sketch on Jordan TV). Moreover, Jordanians are used to "laughing at themselves" if their reception of these comedians is anything to judge by. As a matter of fact, even the late King Hussein "laughed at himself" when Hisham Yanes impersonated him on stage. While you mention en passant that "Arabs are not new to comedy," you somehow still fail to acknowledge that Jordanian comedy has already done everything you claim the "American stand-up" has brought to the country for the first time: the "emphasis on self-deprecation and crossing red lines." And it's ironic how the "crossing of red lines" said to have been delivered to the Jordanian audience contains "No cursing. No making fun of religion. No making fun of the king (or his family). No sex jokes. No drug jokes. And, of course, no alcohol allowed." What red lines do you exactly mean, then? What redder a line can there be than posing as the late King Hussein on stage in the 90s (as Hisham Yanes did), or posing as the Sheikh Ahmad Yaseen doppelgänger after he was assassinated (as Yanes, again, did), or posing as a bitter, home-bound Jordanian women from Salt-Jordan in America (as Amal Dabbas did), or even making fun of the Quranic story of Adam, Able and Kane (as the Yanes, Sawalha, Dabbas trio did)? Examples abound of Jordanian comedians crossing red lines, and they are available on YouTube and in Arabic. Quite bold, eh? As a Jordanian, I felt that your piece made sweeping judgements about Jordanians' sense of humour, perhaps relying on the stereotypical belief that "Jordanians are too serious." The piece contained an implicit patronizing undertone that would steer the reader to believe that A) Jordanians did not know what comedy/laughter is until the arrival of the North American Gods of Stand-up Comedy, B) Jordanian comedy never crossed a red line, as crossing red lines is the speciality of American stand-up comedians, C) Jordanians can't express their minds without the help of the Missionaries of Laughter, American and Canadian alike. I hope this e-mail was a response to your piece's condescending, comico-orientalist grand finale delivered by Russell Peters. One Jordanian kid had something to say and she said it without the aid of comedic workshops or North American stand-up comedians, and -- haha-- that's the punchline."