By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: In 2014, Kuwait Times journalist Thaar Al-Rasheedi noted a changing pattern in Kuwaiti politics that got me thinking about the vast social and political changes that I have witnessed in Kuwait in the last five years. According to Al-Rasheedi, one of the huge changes from previous parliamentary politics has been a rise in political statements that look more like stand-up comedy acts than the tailored speeches of the voice of the people. Much of the tone of statements is mockery, gloating, and sarcastic criticism that look more like verbal duels than attempts to provide a particular policy message. Why the change in this phenomenon? While there has definitely been an uptick in crudeness and lack of respect in politics worldwide (yes I mean Trump), there has also changed to comedy in Kuwait (and the region at large) that have altered the political landscape and satire in general.
One of the best kept secrets in Kuwait that outsiders don’t notice is the country’s comedy scene, and the rich history of political satire that is ingrained in the arts in the Gulf state. Its development also coincides with changes in rhetoric in Kuwait. As I have discussed in previous articles, Kuwait has always been the hub of culture and arts in the Gulf. In the 1950s and 60s, only Egypt outshined Kuwait in this role. Kuwait tended to be a trend-setter, especially in satire, one reason being that the Kuwaiti dialect of Arabic was easy to understand, making it acceptable to a wide audience.
Kuwait also had some of the only infrastructure in the region to provide artists and actors with the facilities necessary to peddle their acts. It was especially known for its production studios for music and film outside of Egypt in that era. Many famous artists like Umm Kalthum came to Kuwait from Egypt to record some of her most famous songs. Kuwait was also one of the first to provide access to audiences being one of the first countries in the Arab world to get television.
Furthermore, the sense of humour of Kuwait is well known an aggressive style of comedy that pokes fun at political issues and people, although no names are mentioned and audiences are left to guess at the target of the jokes. Famous for this was the classic comedy mini-series Darb Al Zalakh, performed by pioneers of political satire in the region, Abdul Hussein Abdulreda, Khaled Nafisi, and Ali Mofeedee. As Mohammad Aqua of “Sheno Ya’ni” fame noted, the “monologues in the sketches were really unique” and along with the silly musical scores, and Charlie Chaplain like slapstick comedy in each sketch, added a specific flavour to Kuwaiti comedy that impacted the entire Arab world. Kuwait has always been a relative safe place for free speech, so many actors and comedians have developed their art in the country without the fear of being persecuted as may happen in less liberal countries.
The impact is felt to this day. Old Kuwait plays and theater still played on MBC and other satellite channels, especially during Ramadan. Forsan Al Manakh (the Knights of the Kuwait stock market) is a classic, that plays across the region during the holy month. A humorous take on life in the Al Manakh stock exchange, which collapsed due to fraud in 1982 with losses in the billions, commented on the corrupt environment of the exchange and the characters who inhabited it. We saw this type of satire during the runup to the parliamentary election in November last year. Comedians took the opportunity to capitalize on their nation’s attention by producing many sketches tackling political and social issues. Comedy actor Sha’ban Abbas, also known as “Sha’bola”, ran for elections in the fifth district as a humorous statement. Comedian Ali Kamal, who created a character named “Mansour (Victory) Man” as a parody of superheroes like Superman and Batman stated that “I, as Kuwait’s Superman, have decided to run for local elections just to spite some of our politicians. I see some of them have gotten used to the chair,” This sketch went viral on social media in Kuwait.
Much of these events can be linked to earlier comedy actors, who paved a path for newer comedians. Individuals like Ahmad Al Shammari, Bashar Al Jazzaf, and Mohammad Aqua, known for the Youtube hit “Sheno Yani” and earlier short sketches on Fanoon TV, began doing stand-up comedy shows in 2012. At first these were largely informal and had small audiences of 150 people. Fast-forward to the present and crowds of 1000 people are the norm. What was unique about these earlier events was how gutsy they were, talking about sex, politics, and religion in a way never before performed. Opened the way to doing more gutsy stuff, which we normally see on TV in the U.S. or in Europe but which is barely present in the MENA region. Using such indirect ways of illustrating social problems is an important release valve for any society. As one comedian said, I am not “there to make them laugh, if they do that’s great. If you want to condemn someone, or a society on their behaviour, you have to wrap it up in a joke. For people to acknowledge it or accept it…[otherwise] It’s a shock for them.”
I sat down with Moe Ibrahim, the owner of Al Gas Events, one of the premier management companies for comedians in Kuwait, we discussed the development of the comedy scene in Kuwait, and its contribution to political satire in the region, especially concerning stand-up comedy. Since 2010, he commented that with the introduction of talent agencies and professional services for organizing events, the increase of interest in comedy and political satire increased exponentially. Fees for different acts have doubled 16 times the original fee structure since 2012, and there is a growing interest in international acts to come to Kuwait as the hunger for comedy grows in the Kuwaiti market.
The rise of stand-up comedy, along with the long-standing history of political satire in the country can be seen as having a major impact on parliamentary politics in Kuwait. As the public has become more aware of these forms of satire these performances, while not considered acceptable, have become normalized for society. Perhaps this is not a local phenomenon, but the sardonic and sarcastic humour of Kuwaiti comedians has definitely made its mark.
* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.