Egypt gets comic relief
Sitting in front of a microphone in an upper-class Cairo cafe, the amateur comedian Mohammed Shaheen strums his guitar while dryly informing the audience he wants one day to be a business owner.
"I have a shop that sells 'We're Closed' signs. We've been open for a month," he said, pausing for a beat. "But no one believes us." The audience rewards him with cheers and Shaheen continues: "I want to open a shop called De Ja Vu. Then open another one a few blocks later."
When an audience member laughs loudly and noticeably later than the rest, Shaheen smirks and asks, "Did you just get it now?"
The 31-year-old engineer is just one of a number of young Egyptians who are ready to take comedy seriously. Performing stand-up and musical acts in English and Arabic under the name Al Hezb El Comedy (The Comedy Party), the young comedians draw in a largely English-speaking Arab crowd. But the sense of humour is distinctly Egyptian.
Shaheen, who delivers one-liners over the guitar, says that comics are still finding their voice in a nascent scene.
"It's tricky here. It really depends on what kind of comedy you perform," says Shaheen. "One-liners are still an alternative kind of comedy in a place where comedy is new."
Though Egyptians pride themselves on their sense of humour, stand-up is a relatively new art form in the region. It was a group of American comedians of Middle Eastern descent that jump-started the stand-up comedy scene in Egypt in 2007 with their Axis of Evil tour. When the Axis of Evil made it to Egypt, it was at auditions to open the show that Shaheen met Hashem El Gahry, Rami Boraie and a handful of hopefuls who have since pushed the local comedy scene forward.
"We all lost and, as losers, we came together and practised, practised, practised," says Boraie, a doctor.
Egypt's promoters continue to bring in famous foreign names and put them onstage with local talent. But such shows are few, and the local acts have launched their own events to help develop their craft.
Started as an informal weekly meeting for friends to develop their jokes, Al Hezb El Comedy works to promote the stand-up scene, along with sketch and musical comedy through near-monthly open mics.
"We have all these talented people and we wanted a platform for them to perform in a supportive environment that will nurture their growth," says El Gahry, a 25-year-old marketer and a founder of the comedy group.
Though the group is only a year old, its comedians have been organising shows since 2008 and drawing in huge crowds. The first show gathered a sold-out crowd of 750 people.
"I had just done a show in Toronto and the comedian told me the largest show he'd ever done was 60 people, so you realise, this is kind of ridiculous to get 700 people out for amateur hour," says Boraie.
Even a Monday night show during Ramadan draws an audience of nearly 200 people.
"It shows there is a real desire for something new," he says.
In the 2008 show, performers trod carefully around politics and religion. Now, though taboos remain, El Gahry says there is a lot more freedom to address previously forbidden topics. During last month's show, the comics addressed the daily woes of Egyptian life, from traffic to sexual harassment to marriage. But they also lampooned the newly elected president, the former Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi - a topic that would have been off limits before last year's uprising.
Boraie, who says he never used to write political jokes, now targets Morsi's pledge to fix a hundred problems during the first hundred days of presidency.
On Morsi's promise to solve the security vacuum, Boraie affects a heavy Arab accent and tells the audience: "I was going to fix that but, yanni, I was stuck in traffic on the Sixth of October Bridge."
On the promise to clear the roads of traffic jams: "Well, I was working on that but my brother got sick, so I had to be with him," he says to uproarious laughter.
Such home-grown talents offer audiences something big names from abroad never can: fresh insight into the business of life in Egypt.
"The appeal is somebody talking about something that relates to your life, in the language you speak," says Boraie.
"Egypt is a hard place, the streets are always crowded. Politically, things haven't been the greatest; it's not the happiest country to live in. You need a break from it and you want to go and hear someone poke fun at it."
The next open mic event featuring Al Hezb El Comedy will be held on August 23.
Updated: August 8, 2012 04:00 AM