The organisers of an Arabic stand-up course in Dubai hope to give homegrown regional comedy a boost.
Stand-up comedy - in Arabic
If Ali Al Sayed and Mina Liccione have anything to do with it, home-grown regional comedy is set for a boost. The co-directors of Dubomedy Arts - the community arts collective started up by Liccione in 2008 - are soon due to begin teaching stand-up comedy workshops entirely in Arabic - a first for the UAE.
But why now? "Our classes have evolved in the right way," says Al Sayed, the Emirati who gave up his day job two years ago to work with Liccione, a former performer with Cirque du Soleil. "Arabic was the right transition."
"English is the common ground," adds Liccione, an ebullient Italian-American who moved to the UAE to start up Dubomedy. "It brought everyone together. We had to teach people what stand-up comedy was, and that it didn't have to be a lot of swear words and just talking about gritty stuff. You can totally be a clean comic and be funny, so we had to re-establish that.
"Now that we are all on the same page, there are a lot of people that really want to pursue it and we have this amazing Arab culture that people haven't really been tapping into. There used to be a lot of comedy coming from Egypt and there are a few stand-ups who specialise in Arabic, but not in this region. Now that people know what it is, they're comfortable. This was the perfect time to say: 'Hey, let's start an Arabic programme.'"
From the small group of Emiratis sharing a private joke, to the charming Texan (a veteran of the English-taught workshops) conversing loudly with the entire room, the first class of the year at Dubomedy's base in Dubai Community Theatre and Art Centre is full of aspiring comics, each there for a different purpose. The first workshop is a mix of English and Arabic speakers, including every single one of Dubomedy's fledgling comedians, as a means of introducing the groups to one another. The Arabic classes will get underway in earnest later this month.
At the initial session most are friends, with plenty having met at previous workshops although, stranger or not, there are no awkward silences here. As one might expect of aspiring stand-up comedians, they are all gregarious by nature: the spacious room is soon full of chatter, abating slightly (the ticking-off from Al Sayed only making the perpetrators giggle more) when teaching finally commences.
From simple word association games, all of which descend into farce, on to harder tasks where pupils act out a certain scene conjured up by their partner before passing the baton on to the next pair, the first workshop is the ultimate icebreaker - watching people wrestle an imaginary crazed monkey into an equally imaginary small box or milk a cow (a popular scenario) sends the entire room into conniptions.
The excitement is palpable, even more so among the Arab pupils. Shaima Al Sayed, Ali's sister and one of the most vocal members of the group, agrees that the time is ripe for Arabic comedy to make a stand. "Arabic comedy as such, the idea of comedy, is very, very old in the Gulf region. As far as we can remember, Egypt and Kuwait were the pioneers of this, although what they would have was a stage drama that would go on for two or three hours. It's a story, a set-up, within which you would have glimpses of what we call stand-up comedy. So comedy on stage is not a new thing for us. But the idea of one person standing solo and catching the attention of the audience? That's not something that we've had in the region. It's going to be quite fascinating."
A natural-born story teller, it would be hard not to imagine the bubbly Emirati telling the same stories to a much larger audience. But there are a few hurdles she - and the other Arab pupils - have to contend with first.
"Generally we're very funny people, the people from the Gulf. But although I think it's amazing to have classes to generate a new class of stand-up comedians here, my family just think it's a hobby. As long as it's not something I'm going to depend on for income, they're cool. It's not a taboo thing in society, but when Ali quit his day job to pursue this, everybody was like: 'You've got to be kidding?' you know. And he's a man!"
"This is a great step," says the Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah, who taught a three-day Dubomedy comedy workshop last year.
"I have performed around the Middle East and there are an increasing number of young Arab comedians who perform in Arabic. But there is no one teaching comedy classes in Arabic. The Arabic comedy classes," he adds, "will open the door to people who want to try stand-up comedy but feel they can be funnier and more comfortable performing in Arabic. I believe that Arabic comedy will become more popular across the region in the near future as more and more young people start hearing how funny these Arab comedians are in Arabic."
Where there is enthusiasm, there is a way, but given that some subject matter is regarded as being off-limits, could this have an adverse effect on Arab stand-up? Not according to Liccione. "It just forces people to be more creative." Their pupils agree. "There are things that are wrong with us which we need to address and sort of rectify," says Shaima Al Sayed, nodding her head fervently in agreement. "But it needs to be done in a comedy manner so that nobody gets offended.
"When you're laughing, you really can't think of anything negative. When you make people laugh, and you address an important issue in a sarcastic manner and in a joke, they will accept it better. Perfect comedy is an awesome way of communicating with people."
"I am sure we will have some difficulties in the beginning, some challenges," adds Ghassan Al Katheri, an Emirati actor who trained as a doctor before pursuing his dreams in the media industry, "but I think that after some time the people will accept it. This could be a benchmark for other Arab countries. This is a nice beginning for the people in the Gulf. They need some new kind of art, and I feel this is it."
Class over for the day, the group makes its way outside, the chatter continuing along the hallway and outside the building. As Liccione and Al Sayed say goodbye to the stragglers, I ask them if there's anything they'd like to add. "Ali always likes to say this quote which I love," says Liccione. "You can say it because I don't want to misquote you."
"I can't do it now!" interrupts Al Sayed.
"Go on!" she laughs. "You tell it so well."
"The idea is, why I do what I do, and why we do what we do, is that we've imported entertainment for as long as I can remember," adds Al Sayed. "The dream is to start exporting entertainment from here. We have the talent."
For more information go to www.dubomedy.com or call 050 44 00 994