x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Funny girls: UAE comediennes stand up

Ahead of the first all-female comedy show in the Middle East, we speak to the comediennes about their inspiration.

"BB" Bronwyn Byrnes was selected for the five-minute "newcomer" spot.

Tomorrow, history - or as the comedienne and lead performer of Funny Girls, Mina Liccione, describes it, "her-story" - will be made at the Al Shalal Beach Club on Palm Jumeirah, as Liccione and her international but Dubai-based cohort of comics present the first all-female comedy show in the Middle East. One would be hard pressed to come across five more different women in one comedy troupe. There is Lamya Tawfik, the Egyptian PhD student who is eschewing her thesis to tell jokes; "BB" Bronwyn Byrnes, the blonde Australian air hostess; Sophie Samuelian, the American-Armenian teacher; Sabina Giado, a Sri Lankan communications co-ordinator and Liccione, a vivacious, six-foot-tall Italian-American from New York. The only things that link them are that they all live in Dubai and they all are funny.

"I think here, arts and comedy have grown so much. I am ready to hear the women's voices - and a lot of people are too. I get messages saying that all the time," Liccione says. The rest of the Funny Girls have studied with Liccione in her comedy courses, which she runs at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre. When Liccione arrived in Dubai in 2008, she knew she wanted to tap into the female talent in the UAE. "I decided I really wanted to train enough women to the point where they were not just good, not just for fun, but to get to the point where they can perform. I wanted to hear a different point of view. I've heard the same Arab-American comedy for 10 years now. I wanted a different voice."

The fact that two of the troupe's members, Giado and Tawfik, wear headscarves will shape but not dominate the humour. And it has already attracted some controversy. During a recent television interview in Lebanon, Tawfik says she was asked by a presenter: "'You are veiled. Aren't veiled women supposed to keep attention away from themselves?' And I said: 'I am not disrespectful of myself or the veil.' One of the things I have always been proud of is that I am able to do almost anything I want to do with the veil on. I don't allow it to limit me.

"My Arabic and my English are the same strength," Tawfik says, "but a lot of the time I think in English and it's a lot easier for me to do stand-up in English than it is in Arabic. Arab-speaking comedians don't really do stand-up." Liccione agrees: "Arab comedy is more about storytelling." Similarly, Giado is aware that her religion marks her out as different in the world of comedy: "I'm very conscious of being a representative, but at the same time, I try not to let it limit me. It's a bit of a fine line."

Giado started performing stand-up as part of her undergraduate degree in Melbourne, Australia. "I had to pass the performance studies course and I didn't know anything except stand-up. I didn't know theatre, so I did stand-up and it went down, like, awesome. It was unbelievable. I never thought of doing stand-up, ever, but it was just so much fun that I kept doing it." Giado later showed her parents the video of her performance. "Their first reaction was shock because usually I am really quiet and soft-spoken in real life. On stage I'm different. I become a lot more comfortable in my skin. I'm just a little more open, expressive in what I think."

The jokes will reflect the social values of the women and UAE society. As Liccione explains: "We all take pride in the fact that as part of my programme, and for these girls as individuals, we do not swear. We don't talk about certain things; we genuinely respect the culture here, and the women have values that are reflected in the comedy. You don't need to swear. You can tell stories. It forces you to be more personal and more creative."

Most of the comediennes are long-term Dubai residents. Tawfik and Giado were born and brought up there, and Byrnes has lived there for 15 years. She puts her love of comedy down to her childhood as the youngest of eight children in Brisbane, where she and her mother would watch the comedian Dave Allen on television. There is a touch of Rita Rudner about Byrnes, who was selected from the students of Liccione's last comedy course to take the five-minute "newcomer" spot at the beginning of tomorrow's show.

The fifth member of the group, Samuelian, has been a drama teacher in an international school in Dubai since 2002, and has done stand-up in the UAE and the US. She caught the comedy bug while participating in an open mic day in Dubai with Ahmed Ahmed and his fellow Arab-American comics during their Axis of Evil tour in 2006. Anyone who thinks an all-female show means relentless jokes about PMT and useless husbands should think again. Liccione says her comedy comes from her loud and funny Italian-American family. "I talk a lot about my dad and my mum, but I like talking about current events or something I just went through. I take notes. I write down funny stories. Art reflects life, so whatever I'm actually experiencing, that's what I'll talk about."

Liccione also works in improvisation and movement at the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi. With her business partner and co-producer of Funny Girls, Ali al Sayed, she set up Dubomedy's Monday Night Funnies in Dubai, and launched an Abu Dhabi version last month. Liccione and al Sayed have big plans for the future of comedy in the UAE. As al Sayed explains: "We intend to walk that extra mile. Right now we are doing training, doing small shows and getting the community involved. Once the base is strong enough, we're going to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa."

For al Sayed, an Emirati, the time has come for UAE comedy to stand up and be counted. "I grew up with entertainment being imported. We're trying, hopefully, to export our entertainment internationally." Funny Girls appear at the Gusto Ristorante at the Al Shalal Beach Club on the Palm Jumeirah tomorrow. Doors open at 7.30pm. Entrance is free and a Dh145 barbecue buffet is available. Call 04 430 9466 to reserve a table and 050 440 0994 for more information.