Jordan: Teaching Jordanians To Laugh At Themselves?

The second Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival was held in December, with comedians mostly from North America. The New York Times published an article about the festival entitled “Jordanians Can Take a Joke, Comics Find” – but some people did not appreciate its tone.

As'ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese blogger who writes at The Angry Arab News Service, quotes from the article by Michael Slackman:

Look at this intro in the NYT: “For all of the animosity, mistrust and lack of understanding between the West and the Muslim world, this small Middle Eastern country has demonstrated that most people here have the capacity to laugh at themselves – and at jokes about bodily functions, too.”

First of all, what does the “West” have to do with anything here? Unless it is implied that the West invented humor, in addition to blenders of course. Secondly, what kind of assumption is being dispelled here? That “those people” can laugh, so wake up the children and release the pigs from the barn? What is next for the foreign investigative team of the New York Times? A story how Arabs know how to flush their toilets and to use a towel? How condescending.

In a subsequent post, As'ad AbuKhalil quotes from a letter that a Jordanian graduate student sent to Slackman:

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.

The student's letter continues:

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, Abel and Cain (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.”

She concludes:

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.


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