A COMEDY CLUB IN PALESTINE

mark thomas

New York is famous for its basement comedy clubs. Los Angeles is famous for a well established comedy circuit. Chicago is considered to be the spiritual home of improv, with the world famous improvisational comedy club The Second City. Melbourne in Australia has a huge annual comedy festival, as does Montreal in Canada with their annual Just For laughs festival being the biggest international comedy festival in the world.

Here in Britain we have a history of working class comedians who come from real working class backgrounds, people such as Lenny Henry, Sarah Millican, Frank Skinner, Victoria Wood, Peter Kay, Jason Manford, and, the king of them all, Billy Connolly, all of them diligently working their way through various pubs and working men’s clubs, honing their craft along the way. And barely a month goes by here in the UK where we don’t have a comedy festival, culminating with the Edinburgh Fringe Arts Festival in the month of August, the biggest arts festival in the world.

One place you may not expect to see a thriving stand up comedy scene is in occupied Palestine but, as with many things in life, you would be surprised. Palestine has given rise to many comedians who tread international waters, comedians such as Maysoon Zayid, Suzie Afridi, Mo Amer, Atheer Yacoob, Ray Hanania, Manal Awad, Aron Kader, Dean Obeidallah, Amer Zahr, Eman El-Husseini, and Mona Aburmishan. The West Bank now also boasts its very own comedy club, or at least the remnants of one. And it is all thanks to Mark Thomas.

Thomas is a comedian, author, and activist from south London whose work has tackled social inequality, human rights violations and the arms trade. Born in 1963, he broke into stand up in the mid-1980s and became renowned for his no-holds-barred political comedy. A 30-year veteran in the entertainment field, he decided to hold a comedy show in a refugee camp in Jenin. Thomas had for a while been thinking about setting up a comedy club in that part of the world. He spoke to a Palestinian man about his idea and where exactly the show should take place. “What about Nablus?” he asked. “No, they’re too shrewd,” the Palestinian replied. “Hebron?” “No, they’re too stupid.” “Ramallah?” “No, they’re too bourgeois.” Thomas loved the fact that even in a place as small as Palestine they had regional stereotypes, which aren’t necessarily helpful but do show a sense of fun and playfulness. When Thomas asked “What about Jenin?” his Palestinian friend replied “That’s a great idea.” Just as well, because Thomas is no stranger to the Palestinian town:

I have been to Jenin several times since 2009. The first time was when I walked the 724km around the length of the Israel Wall in the West Bank. What amazed me was there was a Jenin Freedom Theatre there which would have defied people’s ideas of a refugee camp. It was a battered building with a flat above it and I was asked if I would like to stay. It is an amazing place and I love it. – Mark Thomas

And so, of he went. Dodging cultural and literal bullets, Israeli incursions and religion, Thomas and his team set out to run a comedy club for two nights at the Jenin Freedom Theatre. And what of the actual show itself? Thomas has explained that the experience was different from what he was perhaps expecting:

Some people don’t think women should be on stage, some think men and women shouldn’t be rehearsing together, and so it was quite fraught at times. We were putting on our comedy show in the middle of the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, which created tension, with people questioning whether we should do it…I was fascinated to hear all the different voices, speaking out about living in the camps, about the intifada, about the occupation, the rage people have about how inept, corrupt and incompetent the Palestinian National Authority are and how they collude with the Israeli occupation. But also there were some who made jokes about just wanting to get a girlfriend, or how their parents treat them badly. One of the most challenging performers was a young woman who impersonated a male Palestinian boss, and she was genuinely radical. It was brilliant…I had gone there with this grand vision of Palestinians talking about their experience of the occupation, that it would be some Palestinian equivalent of socialist realism. But actually the most exciting thing was just these ordinary voices – for people to have their own voice, not an official voice and a flag, was the most radical thing. – Mark Thomas

Thomas ended up creating a stage show based on his experience called Showtime From The Frontline, which the Guardian called “defiant comedy that gives a voice to the voiceless…in its gesture of common humanity and its call to laugh in the face of totalitarianism, it flies a defiant flag.”

Since comedy is all about punching up rather than down, and since most comedians seem to have left-leaning tendencies, you would expect stand ups to support the people of Palestine. Case in point is an event which took place early 2017 featuring six British comedians, a show called Give It Up For Palestine:

The power of comedy should never be underestimated, as the recent Netflix debacle involving Hasan Minhaj and his show Patriot Act, pulled from Saudi airwaves by Netflix themselves, clearly demonstrates. Another example of the power of comedy comes from way back in 2002, but still seems very relevant even today. Way back then, a Palestinian stand up comic who had been due to open for Jackie Mason, the world famous Jewish comedian, at Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago was taken off the bill hours before he was due to go on stage. Jyll Rosenfeld, Mason’s manager, said that Mason, a vocal supporter of Israel, was unhappy at the prospect of sharing the stage with Ray Hanania, a 49-year-old novice comedian. Rosenfeld said: “It’s not exactly like he’s just an Arab-American. This guy’s a Palestinian. We were not told about it ahead of time. Jackie does not feel comfortable having a Palestinian open for him. Right now it’s a very sensitive thing.”

Citing an example of Hanania’s act, she went on to say: “Supposedly he’s married to a Jew, and he says they had a UN peacekeeping force at their wedding. That’s not funny. It’s in bad taste right now. There’s too much misery on both sides and Jackie’s not going to let that be exploited.” She added that it was “nothing personal”.

Hanania responded by saying: ‘I’m upset because I deserve to be on stage and it was a big break for me. I wasn’t going on stage to make a political statement. I was going on stage to make people laugh.”

Ali Alarabi, the president of the United Arab American League at that time, described the cancellation as “an act of hate and racism” and demanded an apology on behalf of all Arab-Americans. You may not be surprised to learn that no apology was ever given.

Okay, so this particular Palestinian-Jewish comedy combo did not work out so well, but there are others that have. Scott Blakeman and Dean Obeidallah have been touring together for over 15 years now, Eman El-Husseini and Jess Salomon not only tour together but are actually married, the aforementioned Ray Hanania and Charley Warady have been on the road with their Israeli–Palestinian Comedy Tour, and you have various Palestinian and Jewish comedians taking part in the 1001 Laughs Palestine Comedy Festival.

You can add to this mix the following comedians, be they Palestinian, Jewish, or other, all of them using comedy in surprising ways to try and bring some sort of peace to the Middle East, or at least to ease tensions by providing a better understanding:

The satirical newspaper The Onion present their brief guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Aussie comedian Tim Minchin presents his simple yet effective peace anthem:

Comedian Sammy Obeid, like Tim Minchin, tries to bring the two sides together, this time using hummus:

Sammy Obeid again, this time giving his unique take on the whole Israel-Palestine situation:

Comedian Suzie Afridi makes a strong case for using comedy to reclaim our own narrative:

It is very important to learn public speaking because it is how we are as brown people, as Arabs, as Muslims, as Palestinians, it is how we are going to get back our narrative. Because our narrative is hijacked, it is hijacked by the terrorists and it is hijacked by the media in America that needs to continue the weapons industry. So we need to own our own narrative and I think comedy is a great way of doing that. – Suzie Afridi, Palestinian-American comedian

Another Aussie comedian, Jim Jeffries, talks to immigrants in America, including one from Palestine:

Disgraced comedian Louis CK, currently in the middle of trying to make a comeback, compares his kids to the conflict:

British comedy legend Alexi Sayle gives his views on Palestinian suffering:

Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian, gives his reasons as to why he uses humour the way he does:

As Arabs, as Muslims, as Palestinians, we all have stories to tell, especially Palestinians, we have long stories to tell about our history and our struggle and all that kind of stuff. So for me I use comedy as my form of activism, I use humor to tell our story. A lot of times people say to me “You’re a comedian, I never know if you’re being serious or you’re not being serious.” Comedians don’t lie, we use humor to tell the truth. We don’t use humor to lie, we use humor to tell the truth, like modern-day philosophers, so we’re always telling the truth. And I learned that if you make people laugh they listen to you. And so when we want to tell our stories comedy is a very very effective tool to do that…We Palestinians have been using art for a long time to talk about our struggle, whether it’s poetry, art, drawing, painting. And now we’re starting to use comedy as well to talk about our struggle…We have enough doctors and engineers, we need more comedians. – Amer Zahr

Final words go to the always brilliant Frankie Boyle:

Among the lowlights of 2018 were the Palestinian right-of-return marches that demonstrated the old Israeli proverb, you can’t make an omelette without shooting protesters. Trump said the US was “fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement”. The lasting peace that will come about once Israel has shot all the Palestinians.

BBC’s coverage of Gaza is as shameful as anything it has ever done. Except Mrs Brown’s Boys. Actually, there’s a bunch of stuff. Forget it.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was in London this week. Netanyahu’s got a combover. I always think his hair is a kind of living metaphor, occupying territory where it doesn’t really belong. Israel are saying that people in the Gaza Strip are attacking them with kites. Kites! I think the main problem of being an Israeli military spokesman must be keeping a straight face. “These people have kites! If we don’t stop them they’ll start farting into beach balls and bouncing them over the fence.”

I honestly think there will be peace in the Middle East once the oil runs out, although knowing their luck someone will invent a replacement that involves mixing sand with falafel.

I think we’re heading for a two state solution. Israel as a solid, Palestine vaporised into a gas.

I’ve been studying Israeli army martial arts. I now know 16 ways to kick a Palestinian woman in the back. People think that the Middle East is very complex but I have an analogy that sums it up quite well. If you imagine that Palestine is a big cake, well…that cake is being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew.

Israel say civilians are being killed because they’re living near terrorists and, to be fair, they are living stupidly close to Israel.

Israel this week shot dead 58 Palestinian protestors and wounded another 2,000 people, in what the British media disgracefully described as ‘clashes’. It’s not clashes. If one side has sniper rifles and the other side has a few catapults and slingshots, you’re basically murdering the Ewoks.

Republican elites seem to hate everything about Jews, except Israel. It says something about the incredible strength of antisemitism that paranoid ideas about Jews controlling the media and banking systems persist even among the people who control the media and banking systems.

So I did a joke about Israel’s last assault on Gaza. I did two jokes on a show called Political Animal. I was censured by the BBC Trust and they called the jokes anti-Semitic, which they weren’t, and I wrote a response. Jeremy Clarkson tells a nursery rhyme that ends in the word “nigger” and the controller of BBC One comes out to defend him and say he’s not a racist. And the reason is there’s no content to what he’s saying, so he can be defended. But if you want to defend what I’m saying you’ve got to actually talk about the situation in Gaza.

The death toll rose from the protests in Gaza. Over 100 people have been shot dead and thousands more have been shot and wounded. But to be fair there were injuries on both sides. One of the Israeli snipers got an erection for so long that his foot went to sleep. Things are bad in Gaza. Things are so bad in Gaza that porn stars have started referring to their pubic arrangement as a ‘Gaza strip’, an area that has been so brutally pummeled that no child could ever hope to crawl out alive. So why is it important to talk about this? It is important to talk about this in Britain because Britain still provides moral and practical support to Israel while Israel breaks international law. And I don’t think British people would be okay with that if they knew the full facts of the case, if they knew the full extent of Britain’s hypocrisy on the world stage. Britain sells weapons to Saudi Arabia that Saudi Arabia uses to kill people in Yemen. Yet Britain is the number two provider of aid to Yemen. And why not? Life gives you Yemen, you give Yemen aid.

We are told that Prince William is to visit Israel and the West Bank. He’s not the first member of the royal family to go over there, but he is the first one who isn’t leading a crusade…It’s Israel’s 70th anniversary, so William will be greeted with a 70 gun salute, fired straight into some Palestinians.

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