Satire and Comedy in the Arab World
December 15, 2020
Jon Alterman: Karl Sharro is an architect, satirist, and commentator on the Middle East. He blogs and tweets as @KarlreMarks. In addition to his work in architecture, he's the author of And Then God Created the Middle East and Said 'Let There Be Breaking News.’ Karl Sharro, thanks for joining us on Babel.
Karl Sharro: Hi Jon, thanks a lot for having me. It's a very exciting opportunity to talk to your audience and obviously see my work through your eyes.
Jon Alterman: You have been doing this for more than 10 years. When did you realize you were funny?
Karl Sharro: I think I'm still waiting for that realization. The anxiety that comes with trying to be funny is that you never really believe that you're funny. I'll tell you when I realized that I could get away with writing satire, comedy, and jokes, and that's roughly around the beginnings of what was called the Arab Spring. It wasn't the most obvious historical moment to ignite interesting comedy and humor and satire, but I think it came out of a frustration of some commentary on the events that were happening at the time that I personally felt was ripe for satire and comedy.
Jon Alterman: You grew up in Lebanon, but you spent a lot of time as a child visiting family in Iraq and Syria—authoritarian states that had their own tradition of subversive political humor, sometimes whispered—but that still had this sense of “you have to poke fun, but you have to be careful how you poke fun.” Did you see that playing a role in shaping how you approach this?
Karl Sharro: Absolutely. I think that played a big role. It's very hard to explain to people the difference from the outside. This was during the Lebanese civil war, so 1970s and 1980s, when we felt largely free to speak our minds—obviously you don't go in front of an armed militia guy and swear at his boss or whatever it is, but you are largely free to speak your mind—versus going to Syria and Iraq in those days, when everything had to be hush, hush.
And my cousins in Iraq, in particular, had this amazing sense of humor that was very subtle—not as sort of crass and blunt as the Lebanese sense of humor, which tended to be much more in your face— exactly to get around those sensitivities. There were kind of leeway in how you do that. For example, Izzat al-Douri, who took control of the Ba'ath Party after Saddam's death, he was the second man in charge. Famously, he was put in that position when Saddam had all the real power, because then people could joke about him and that was permissible to a certain extent. His character became the butt of all jokes.
It's a very elaborate Iraqi set up. Again, it’s to get around censorship and what's permissible or what is not permissible. But essentially, what I got from that—and I think it lay dormant for decades until I started writing satire—is this ability to kind of play with these nuances and criticize the absurd, surreal, political and social situation that we find ourselves in the Middle East with more craft, so to speak, and more nuance.
Jon Alterman: Do you have any example of what an Iraqi political joke would be?
Karl Sharro: For example, specifically on the political jokes, and Izzat al-Douri in particular: Saddam had everything named after him: Saddam Airport, Saddam City, Saddam Hospital. So Izzat al-Douri goes to Saddam and he says, "I'm the second man in our system, but there's nothing named after me. Everything is named after you. I want something named after me." And Saddam is like, "Don't worry. I've heard you, I'm going to respond to your request. I'm going to name a hospital after you." So, he goes the next day and sees the hospital and says, "Izzat al-Douri Hospital" and underneath, "Owned by Saddam Hussein."
That would be the more political and there were obviously lots of very dark jokes in different periods. For example, the jokes you used to get in the '70s were different from the Iran-Iraq war jokes in the '80s, when there was very dark jokes about, "There's no men remaining,” which was very bleak and you could only encounter that in Iraq. To then the period of the sanctions, largely in the '90s, where the humor centered around a violent transformation of society that went, in a very short period of time, from the number one health problem being childhood obesity to becoming malnutrition. Then the humor then becomes about that. It was always shifting.
What I think was interesting is that you didn't actually hear any sort of sectarian jokes, which were very common in Lebanon, until the sanctions period towards the end, and then they become much more present. I think it was an indication of how of the ground was shifting and what was going to happen following the American invasion in 2003. It was a way of actually tracking those social fissures within Iraq and anticipating the sectarian confessional eruption that was to come after the invasion.
Jon Alterman: When you told the joke about Izzat al-Douri and building a hospital, it sounds a little bit like what I used to hear in Egypt with people telling Abdel Nasser jokes. I guess authoritarianism probably creates its own approach to humor, which may be more universal. As somebody who thinks a lot about humor in the Arab world, do you think there's sort of an Egyptian style and a Lebanese style and a Saudi style? Or is it really more driven by more authoritarian, freer "What are the margins? How do you get through?" And how much cross-fertilization do you think there is in the Arab humor world?
Karl Sharro: I think it's very specific in many respects and I'll give you an example. In Iraq, in its history, it has witnessed a lot of violent periods. I see the dark humor comes out much more with the Iraqi humor style than in other places. Then there's the style of humor that comes from the outlook of the people, but there's also the social and political formation itself. The kind of jokes that you would make in Lebanon, simply because you don't have one authoritarian figure but 100, are by definition different.
Then you get different styles. For example, Mubarak wasn't exactly of the same caliber of Saddam, let's say, and their oppression manifested itself in different ways. Particularly when you look, the humor doesn't tend to be about the political system in the abstract, but about how people experience it, and how they experience it is through lack of employment, lack of basic foods, that was a very big theme. It's through specific shortages, so to speak.
There's a whole strand of what I would call “Soviet humor.” For example, there’s a Syrian joke that goes: they open a new chicken distribution center, all very modern, 12 stories, and a guy goes to buy some chicken and they say, "We have the brand new system." And he goes in and they say, "Well, do you want to organic chicken or a nonorganic chicken?" He says, "Organic." They say, "Go to the first floor. Do you want chicken pieces or one whole chicken?" He says, "One whole chicken." "Go to the second floor." And it goes so on and so on. And he's going and it gets to the 12th floor and they finally say, "Look, we don't have any chicken, but how did you like our system?"
But then obviously, you get the very specific humor that emanates from, say, Lebanese sectarianism, or Iraq's relationship with the Kurds. There’s a lot of jokes about that as well. I would say both of these things happened simultaneously and manifest themselves differently through humor.
Jon Alterman: You tweet in both Arabic and English, although more recently, principally in English. You've written in both Arabic and English, more recently in English. Do you find that there's the same audience for your work in Arabic and English and how does humor work differently in the Arabic context than in the English language context?
Karl Sharro: I think you're touching on what has been one of my key challenges, which is trying to translate my humor into Arabic. It's not a mistake what I just said, I have to actually translate it because the humor comes from my English side and primarily through the things that I'm exposed to that influenced my comedic style. For example, the writings of Robert Pirsig, or Woody Allen, or Dorothy Parker, or British satirists, because I could never emulate the great Arab satirists that have such a good command of the language to make the language itself almost like the subject matter of satire, and they can do it both in the classical period and in modern times.
It was always kind of a process of trying to take that Anglo-American type of humor and trying to put it in Arab context. Most of the time, it hasn't worked. I had a much more difficult time kind of developing an audience for that. Occasionally I'll do something in Arabic that will be precise and to the point that will go viral, but much less frequently than in English.
To me, English is a dispensable language. I can use it in a very throwaway fashion. It's not my first language. It’s very expedient. I can use it very flexibly. Whereas if I start thinking or saying something in Arabic, the humor isn't the first thing that comes in, especially with classical Arabic, where I find myself dreaming about al-Andalus or wanting to write poetry about the desert night. Obviously, it's a joke, but it doesn't have expedience for me.
Jon Alterman: Are there humorists in the Arab world who are able to get a more international reach? Certainly, in the United States we've had Monte Python and Benny Hill, and there are certainly comedians who've crossed the ocean. Is there anybody in the Arab world who you think either has been able to do it or seems to be on the brink of being able to create a genuine regional audience?
Karl Sharro: It's a tough question because a lot of these guys are my friends and I don't want to embarrass any of them, but I think they've done it in moments, and in very specific moments, because the topic they were talking about was quite resonant across the region. So you get someone like Bassem Youssef with El-Bernameg, where he gets a massive audience, starts out of Egypt, and talks about something that feels universal in the Arab or in Middle Eastern context.
There's brilliant guys, there's Ahmed Albasheer, from Iraq. I absolutely love his work, but it's very specific to Iraq. A lot of the things that he would say in Iraqi, most Arabs wouldn't even be able to get, but when there's demonstration or something and comes to do this heartfelt, but brutally funny thing, it resonates. But I can't say it's every episode, nor is he trying to make it accessible to an entire Arab or Middle Eastern audience can every single episode.
That's where I think the challenge is. The thing about what we call the Arab world—which is a problematic term in its own right—it has different components, different occupations, the national boundaries exist for a reason, there's different social preoccupations, and it's so visceral in a way that makes it harder to translate than, say, going from an American to a British context and vice versa, where there's a certain level of almost like a formulaic thing, especially since 2016.
As I always say, as well, whenever a British comedian fails in Britain, we always send them to the United States and they thrive. That doesn't happen in the Arab world. The preoccupations are much more—when you're making satire, it's about things that you deeply feel and that's why it's much harder to transpose from one context to the other.
Jon Alterman: What do you think are the really creative things are that are happening in Arab humor today?
Karl Sharro: Oh, there's so much. My favorite example that I always cite—even though the historic moment is almost gone now, but I'm sure we'll be reminded of it, sadly— is when ISIS was at its peak, there was this satirical Lebanese band that did an amazing song that played in cabarets in Beirut. The band is called The Great Departed, al-Rahel al-Kabir, and it made fun of Baghdadi in very brutal terms. This to me was the peak of what satire could be, because it was something you could sing, when you hear it, you would get into it and it was savage, but it was beautiful musically, and it kind of managed to hit a critique of ISIS on every level.
It was particularly resonant for me because there was a sort of left liberal tendency in the West to excuse ISIS in the name of trying to kind of contextualize why it emerged, it would kind of veer into apologism for what it represents. This was an answer from deep within the region, probably 200 kilometers away from where ISIS was savagely brutal about their interpretation of Islam or understanding of Islam. It completely, savagely, destroyed that.
That, for me, represents some of the peaks. Then there are other things happening that I can't keep on top of, because you get all these young Egyptian YouTuber, TikTok guys, people like that. A lot of them, unfortunately, have been arrested and jailed.
All this new wave of younger guys, some of them doing music, doing educational stuff—this word is overused, the word revolution—but actually, it's quite organic. It's young people expressing their outlooks, and obviously you don't agree necessarily on everything they say, but the style I think is very promising, but also very diverse. It's not the Al Jazeera model, it’s not black and white, we don't want to suddenly talk about the bread shortages all the time—we will talk about that—but there's a lot of other things to talk about. There's the youth aspirations, there's freedom. You look at the Gulf, in particular, which I think is a very interesting part of the Middle East and the Arab world and it's experiences with very radical social transformation. Very few people from the outside world are recognizing its historic magnitude. It's happening simultaneously top-down and bottom-up, and that's why it's a very interesting moment. But these people have to work within a specific political and social context, and they have to try to go around it.
Jon Alterman: It sounds like this is all driven by social media, driven by an audience desire to share and acquire, rather than the broadcasting model, which for the Arab world for more than half century was the dominant model.
Karl Sharro: I think that's a great observation. For example, take my case. I started without any conventional outlet, I started through Twitter and blogging and a bit of YouTube, but not that much, and found an audience through that. I don't think social media created this; it gave people that had things to say the medium to do it. They're very savvy about it now and they know how to utilize it and they know how to stay on top of it. I think that's what's exciting about it.
Jon Alterman: Who is your audience? You’re on Twitter, you have a very good sense for both who is paying attention to you and who is responding and how they're responding. You get some hate mail, you get some love mail, who's paying attention to you as far as you can tell?
Karl Sharro: I don't know the exact percentage, but my standard answer and my gut feel is half of the audience would be Arabs or Middle Eastern people, either in the Middle East or living abroad. The other half would be Westerners or even to a lesser extent people from Latin America, Africa, India, Pakistan, who are genuinely interested in the Middle East. But I think the Middle East aspect is the connection. Very few people follow me because of my general humor, if you can call it that.
The hook is—and I think it's kind of the role or humorous device I developed—I'm sort of explaining the Middle East to an outside audience so you see all these guides that I do and it became kind of the vehicle, but at the same time, it's why people are interested, because they can hear something different about the Middle East. They can read satirical pieces about the factions of the Syrian revolution or whatever it is through a style that they can relate to.
So those are the two components of my audience, and generally, out of curiosity about the region or a desire for change within the region. But with it, I think, there's also a sense that—I don't think I'm necessarily trying to flatter myself here—because my politics would cut across what I'm saying, there's a kind of recognition of that from the audience. I would add that bit as well.
Jon Alterman: It is your sort of liberalism, humanism, secularism.
Karl Sharro: Yes, it's precisely that strand. Particularly the kind of strand of thinking that's to do with secularism, the legacy of the enlightenment, it's almost ideas that feel so esoteric to talk about in the Anglo-American context now, but I think that has a resonance. It has a resonance because a lot of people in the Middle East realize that, for them, freedom of expression and speech is a matter of an existential question and they're always being oppressed by top-down, or through society, whatever it is, but it's an oppressive mechanism to stop them. They're actually fighting for it, they have clarity about it, and they're willing to pay the price for it. And a lot of them do end up in jail and things like that. And I think that resonates.
Jon Alterman: As a final question, does your training as an architect inform your work as a satirist, or does your approach to satire inform the way you approach architectural projects? Is there any interplay between your professional life and your creative outlet?
Karl Sharro: I think it works from architecture to satire more than the other way around. As much as I try to make it work the other way around, architecture is way too serious to inject satire in it. Although, I do have a Twitter thread that talks about architectural jokes and particularly as seen in certain buildings.
But the way that I found that relationship worked is that I was trained in a fantastic architecture school, which is the American University of Beirut, at a point of time when there was a lot of emphasis on A) multi-disciplinary approach to architecture and B) emphasis on critical thinking in its widest sense possible. So that equips you with the analytical skills and the burning desire to find inconsistencies in texts or narratives that you just want to kind of highlight.
I would single out that we were required to write a one-page paper for every Friday that had to be basically a thesis, it couldn't have been a descriptive text. It's going to be pulled apart, and if it doesn't survive, you fail. Writing a one-page paper is much harder than writing a 10-page paper. That training was absolutely fantastic, and it helped when it came to blogging because you have to be very sharp, very analytical, very critical.
I remember even taking my first steps in that, and the department accommodated that. We got to a point where we were studying Western post-modern architecture, which is kind of a period when everything becomes fluid and people are doing different things. And I liked this American architect, Frank Gehry, who's designed Bilbao, among other fantastic buildings. Rather than submitting a paper, I wrote this fake interview with him. I got a guy with an American accent to voices answers, and then make them say what I wanted to say and submitted a tape of that rather than a paper. I could have failed. They could have said, "We asked you for a paper.” They actually accepted that and gave me a good grade for it. It was actually a good way of trying to experiment with satire in a way.
Then the other thing that architecture gave me is that I do all these maps. For example, when I divide Europe the same way that the Middle East was divided, or when I divided the United States, because it's clearly, things are not working, people are not getting along and you have to split the United States to make it more manageable along ethnic and social lines. It gives me the graphic tools to do all of that. That was a huge help because, in certain extent, I think a lot of the material was more successful than necessarily the writing in certain instances. It did have a lot of resonance.
Jon Alterman: Karl Sharro, who blogs and tweets as @KarlreMarks, thanks very much for joining us.
Karl Sharro: Thank you so much.