On Monday night, we went to our second Stand Up Comedy Qatar event. Home-grown comedy in Qatar is just a seedling at the moment, but SUCQ is nurturing and promoting new talent, through a series of workshops, open-mic events and full-scale comedy shows, such as the one which took place at Bistro 61 in West Bay on Monday evening.
I am a big fan of stand-up comedy. Good comedy can raise awareness of important social and political issues, and break down barriers between different sections of society and cultures. There was a (lengthy period of) time when my limited knowledge of current affairs was gained entirely through the BBC’s Have I Got News For You! And my hazy recollection of political issues during my 1980s childhood is heavily influenced by what I saw on Spitting Image…..
I’ve been keen to support SUCQ since I first heard about it. Qatar is at a crossroads right now, and the next generation will have to decide how the country moves forward from this point onwards. Comedy is a great tool for airing issues and opening up the debate.
As an expat, I was also interested in seeing local comedy because of the opportunity it offers to gain some rare insight into Qatari society and how local issues are perceived by other cultures in the great melting pot of Doha.
The affable compere, Halal Bilal (follow him on Twitter and Facebook), was on good form on Monday night, and seemed much more confident than he had been during a slightly nervous performance at the Sheraton in November.
Issa’s confidence and stage presence is especially notable, considering that he is only fifteen years old! Much of his act reflects on his experiences as an Arab attending an Indian school here in Doha, a rich source of material, but it was a shame to see his act revert half-way through to some old material that we had heard at the last SUCQ event in November. During the first half of his act, I was seriously impressed that he had come up with some new material, as many Western comedians get months, or even a year or two, out of their acts before disappearing underground for a while to come up with new routines. Just as I was pondering this in amazement, he suddenly lost his way a little with his routine, and I don’t know if the reversion to old jokes was deliberate, or out of desperation at forgetting his new routine. Still, you have to hand it to him. At just 15 years old, he’s got many more years to polish up his already promising act. If he was to draw on his Palestinian roots a little more, I am sure that if he wanted to, he could develop into a world-class comedian who could use his skills to raise awareness about Palestinian issues on the international stage.
I was especially looking forward to hearing from another Qatari comedian. At the previous November SUCQ show, Qatari comedian Mohammad Fahal Kamal had been a real highlight for me, with his hilarious insight into Qatari girls and consideration of the disaster that would be a Qatari air hostess. He dared to walk a slightly wobbly line and sometimes crossed it and we loved him for it!
Monday night’s Qatari performer, Abdallah Al Ghanim was a smiley, happy chap, in head-to-toe national dress, and I immediately warmed to him. His slot was short and funny, but didn’t offer a great deal of insight into local culture unfortunately; it was fairly generic men vs. women stuff, but amusing all the same.
I am very naive about Qatari culture, having had little interaction with the locals since I’ve been here. I have blogged before about the false impressions about local society that can be gleaned by casual observers, so for me, the opportunity to hear a Qatari stand up is absolutely priceless, whatever their material.
Overall impressions of the SUCQ comedians.
I am a little wary of criticising the local comedians. Who am I to say what is and isn’t funny? Comedy is such a culture-dependent thing and this is a real challenge for SUCQ, which attracts very diverse audiences. There isn’t much comedy which translates from my native Britain across the Atlantic, and certainly not through Europe or beyond. And would I ever have the balls to stand up in front of a room full of people and crack jokes? Of course not!
Us Brits have a unique sense of humour which many other cultures find offensive and baffling. Our dry wit leans heavily on sarcasm and we are so emotionally retarded that for many of us, the only way we have of expressing affection for someone is to take the p*ss out of them!
We have a history, going back centuries, of comedy being used to keep politicians in check (for example, the Punch cartoons) and it has been used as a driving force for change, influencing and shaping public opinion in a way that probably doesn’t happen elsewhere in the world. Our self-deprecation extends to tearing down ‘the establishment’ at every opportunity.
This is important in a democratic society. If you choose and elect your own leaders, you have to keep them in check and make sure that they are delivering on promises.
It doesn’t work in a society like Qatar’s. The attitude to leadership is completely different. The Emir is doing a fantastic job of managing his country’s internal and external affairs, and there is no reason for this to be questioned. Society sticks together; something that is hard to grasp for someone from ‘Broken Britain’. Taking the p*ss out of your peers, or questioning the establishment, is just not the done thing here, not because people are scared to, but because they don’t really have the need or desire to.
I know from a personal exchange with Halal Bilal on Twitter that he was offended and hurt by this BBC article, which didn’t take too kindly to the SUCQ approach. The article had an air of arrogance which implied that SUCQ is backward and unfunny and the message that local comedians should take advice “from the white man” did not go down well.
I can sense that you know there is a ‘but’ coming….
BUT. The only problem I have with the SUCQ comedians is that Qatar provides so much in the way of rich material and they don’t seem to make much use of it. Most of the acts centre heavily around racial issues, taking the p*ss out of accents and mannerisms. To a Brit, this can be a little grating to watch, as it harks back to the bad old days of British comedy, in the 1970s, when racism was rife and little progress had been made to integrate immigrant cultures into British life. (Of course, there are Brits now who feel that British society has now gone too far in its multi-culturalism and too politially correct in its comedy, but that’s a whole other debate).
I think that’s where the author of the BBC article was coming from. For us Brits, it’s actually quite uncomfortable to sit through comedians taking the mick out of different races. And although the BBC article is clumsy and very insensitive to local culture, I personally think that SUCQ can learn from it, as long as they can get past the hurtful tone and try not to take it personally.
Qatar has a deeply racially divided society and you know your place in it based primarily on the colour of your skin and your passport. Halal Bilal cleverly drew attention to this with an amusing anecdote about entering Qatar as an Asian man with a South African passport. However, the other comedians’ occasional mocking of other cultures’ mannerisms and accents isn’t really doing anything constructive to try and tackle the issue and it’s only helping to reinforce cultural barriers, not break them down.
Qatar is riddled with comedy-rich material at every corner. From entire supermarket aisles devoted to tissues (why?!) to crumbling balconies on brand new villas, through to the driving (oh, the driving!), there’s a lot for a comedian to get his teeth into without causing offence or insulting the country’s political leadership.
That said, SUCQ has my absolute support and I urge everyone to try and attend at least one event. My husband was quite reluctant to come with me on Monday night, but despite my criticisms outlined above, we did have a really good laugh and he was glad he came.
And despite my concerns about racism, I must admit that the constant ribbing of the groups of Qatari ladies and men who occupy the VIP seats at SUCQ events is absolutely hilarious, and it’s good to see it taken in good humour! The Qatari audience can give as good as they get and you will see some excellent heckling. The presence of a 13 year-old Al Thani at the November event put all of the comedians on the spot and they all had to think on their feet, proving that they can hold themselves in the most challenging of conditions……