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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 July 2018

Arab satirist Karl reMarks: 'I feel free to write and talk about anything in the Middle East'

Lebanese-Iraqi architect Karl Sharro talks to us about his life and career as a Twitter comedian

Karl Sharro is otherwise known as Karl reMarks. Courtesy James Berry
Karl Sharro is otherwise known as Karl reMarks. Courtesy James Berry

Although they may not realise it, the 135,000 followers of the satirical Twitter feed Karl reMarks owe an unlikely debt of gratitude to a central London architecture practice.

Identified by its cartoon avatar of a bearded Phoenician, which is taken from a self-penned cartoon series The Phoenicians Invented Everything, Karl reMarks’ jokes, cartoons, maps, diagrams and blog posts are famous for their unflinching take on western attitudes to the Middle East and to news, events, food, religion and social attitudes throughout the region.

“If we ever did a Yes/No referendum in an Arab country, most people would reply inshallah anyway” runs one tweet, while “When I travel abroad I toss my clothes casually into a suitcase, because I know that, as an Arab, I will be searched at the airport and security will fold my shirts and trousers neatly for me,” sums up Karl reMarks’ ability to satirise the West and the Middle East simultaneously.

Going viral

The pseudonym of the self-described Lebanese-Iraqi-Phoenician-British architect Karl Sharro, Karl reMarks built a profile in the years immediately following the Arab uprising before both hit the headlines in 2016 with a video, The Simple One-Sentence Explanation for What Caused ISIS, which went viral, gaining 1.6 million views on Facebook alone. Based on a graphic that had appeared in an earlier tweet, the explanation skilfully distilled a century-long history of the Middle East into a single, 187-word sentence, while warning against the dangers of just this kind of explanation.

Like the best of Sharro’s material, the Explanation worked by going against the grain of popular opinion rather than jumping on a bandwagon, and by combining satire with a serious attempt to place issues in their historical and political context.

“In 2015, there was a wave of people who wanted to understand why Isis happened, but it had to have a single reason. Isis happened because of climate change, or Isis happened because of inequality,” explains the architect, speaking from London, his home for the past 16 years. “Invariably it would be somebody who had superficially latched onto some tenuous connection in a study somewhere and then people wanted to pin the whole thing on that. I’m just trying to push back at a lot of the oversimplification.”

From architect to comedian

As with almost all of the other material Sharro has produced since 2011, which has also included longer pieces of political and cultural analysis that have featured in publications such as The Sunday Times, Foreign Policy, Politico, The Atlantic and the LA Review of Books, many of Karl reMarks’ 89,000 tweets, jokes, cartoons and maps are produced during his lunch break. By day, Sharro is a partner in a large architecture practice, leading a team and projects, while at night, when he isn’t at home with his young family, Sharro can often be found delivering lectures about architecture and urbanism.

Karl Sharro's new book And Then God Created The Middle East. Hurst Publishers
Karl Sharro's new book And Then God Created The Middle East. Hurst Publishers

In 2011, he presented an argument for open borders at a TedX talk in London, while his idea for a “1000 Mile-City” along the East Mediterranean coast was broadcast on the BBC’s This Week’s World as part of its “Think Again” strand, which explores radical, future-focused ideas. More recently, Sharro has started to convert his Twitter comedy into irreverent live stand-up routines, which he has performed at the Edinburgh Festival and his alma mater, the London School of Economics.

It’s a level of commitment that provides an object lesson in the virtues of compartmentalisation but has also helped to hone Sharro’s output. “I really only have my lunch hour if I want to do anything. From when I started to become more publicly recognised between 2011 and 2014, which was also the same time when I had my daughters, all that output was written during one or two lunch breaks because I couldn’t devote any more time than that,” he admits.

“But what was really great about that was that it took away a lot of the pressure. Before, when I wasn’t writing things so regularly, people would ask me to write a 2,000-word essay and I would take it very seriously and take a month to write it, but with comedy, you have just one chance to write something. It’s like a burst of energy and then it’s done, it’s out there, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

'I have to care about it personally'

The need to be aware of the issues and to stay on top of stories means that Sharro’s comedic output stands in stark contrast to his work as an architect, being less structured while being both more immediate and measurable in its impact. “If something has happened in the Middle East and people are outraged, you are able to target it, but then you have a very small window of time to try to catch it, whether that’s a blog post, or drawing a cartoon or doing something in Photoshop, it all has to happen really quickly,” Sharro says. “It’s more like the pressure you have as a journalist rather than the pressure you have as an architect.”

An llustration from Sharro’s book. Courtesy Saqi Book
An llustration from Sharro’s book. Courtesy Saqi Book

When it comes to subject matter, Sharro tries to avoid obvious targets in favour of things he hopes will resonate on both a personal and a political level. “It’s not as if I feel like I have to respond to something just because I can see that it’s happening. I have to care about it personally, otherwise you end up with faux outrage or with things blown entirely out of proportion,” he says.

Sharro admits that his love of satire and his particular brand of comedy stems in part from the fact that he has always found himself in the position of an outsider. Half-Lebanese and half-Iraqi, Sharro was born in Zahle, Lebanon, and spent time in both Lebanon and Iraq before moving to London. “I come from a minority in Lebanon that most people, if you asked them, wouldn’t know, so I’ve always felt like an outsider on that level.

A different perspective

My mother is Iraqi, so I have an Iraqi outlook on things, which in Lebanon isn’t really understood very well, but at the same time, when I am in Iraq, I am Lebanese,” the 33-year-old explains. “So there are layers and layers. As a Christian in the Middle East I am also in a minority. You can either become very militant about it and become very obsessive about your identity in a confrontational way or you can look at the world around you in a satirical way."

Living in the West has provided a degree of physical and mental distance that has changed Sharro’s perspective on the region and informed his comedy, he admits, but it’s a privilege he tries to keep in check. “It puts you in a very flippant position because you don’t have to make decisions that are going to have an impact on your life in the same way. That could be quite infuriating for some people, because I am not sharing their anguish at a particular moment, or their need to express things in a certain way,” he admits.

Another illustration from the book. Courtesy Saqi Books
Another illustration from the book. Courtesy Saqi Books

“I think this devalues your right to be judgemental to the extent that by not being there, the things you may be advocating don’t impact on your life. But I could separate myself from it to look at the absurdity of it and satirise, it sometimes both internally and externally in terms of the way it is perceived, which was a very privileged position.”

More taboos and possibility for backlash in the West

For Sharro, part of the answer is to highlight the absurdity of Orientalist representations of the Middle East by using the language and tools employed by western journalists and analysts to discuss events in Europe and North America. “If an American is writing an Orientalist article about the Middle East,” the satirist says, mischievously,“then I am going to write an Occidentalist article about America.”

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Read more:

With ISIL losing ground, Iraqi satirical show sets sights on other targets

‘Laughter is the best way to unify people the world over’

The rise of sectarian conflicts will not fragment the Levant

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Sharro has never shied away from the big issues, including religion, sectarianism, conflict and politics in his material about the Middle East but suggests that writing about the West is no longer as simple as it once was. “I feel free to write and talk about anything in the Middle East, but the area where I feel there are more taboos and more possibility of backlash is in the West. That’s where I feel people are becoming less open-minded,” Sharro insists.

“There’s a tendency, which I find very worrying that’s against the notion of offence itself and of the sheltering of identities from any critique that’s projected back on the notion of an Arab or a Muslim or a Middle Eastern identity. I find that really worrying because it’s not true at all.”

The man in a nutshell

Otherwise known as: Karl reMarks

Born: 1971 in Zahle, Lebanon

Hosts: A Middle East political and cultural blog under the same name. Occasionally forays into satire. Featured in: The Guardian, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC and Al Monitor.

Jobs: Architect, satirist and commentator. Partner at PLP Architecture in London (has practised in London and Beirut) and co-author of Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture. Taught at the American University of Beirut for five years.

Started blogging: In 2007 – it was bold and original, he shared his clever and amusing opinions on the world, with the world.

Joined Twitter: In 2009 (@KarlreMarks): he currently has 135,000 followers

Website: www.karlremarks.com

A collection of Karl ReMarks’ jokes And then god created the Middle East and said ‘Let there be breaking news’ is published by Saqi Books priced at £6.99 (Dh34).