The Emirati online star Ali bin Swelah talks to The National about the real-life stories inspiring his sketches and his return to stand-up comedy
UAE comic Ali Bin Swelah delivers satire with a sharp edge
While the UAE is fast becoming a hot touring spot for high-profile international comedians, local comic talent is limited to sporadic open mic nights and the occasional regional comedy showcase. Wednesday, however, presents a genuine opportunity to see one of the country’s promising talents take the stage.
The Comedy Suite returns to the funky vinyl Dubai record store, The Flipside, with a special Arabic edition featuring Ali bin Swelah. The Emirati funny man – well, funny kid – makes his stage return after spending the year conquering social media with Instagram skits that earned him nearly 400,000 followers.
The 20-year-old explains that it was time to get back to the fundamentals and look his audience straight in the eye. “I look at myself as a stand-up comedian first,” he says. “I been so busy doing all these videos that I realised I was missing the stage. It will be a great chance to share my experiences and tell people what I have been up to.”
And that’s a lot. Over the space of three years, bin Swelah – whose real name is Ali Saleh – has dropped nearly 300 micro-comedy sketches on Instagram. The 60-second videos, on the account b9w.e, tackle a variety of social issues facing Arab youth across the region and use comedy that ranges from dry satire to slapstick.
This month alone, bin Swelah released topical videos examining the plethora of cards advertising massage services found on car dashboards (his take is the perpetrators evade the authorities through the use of a time machine), the agony of returning to school from the summer break (he is a Men in Black character erasing the weepy kid’s holiday memories) and the struggle of avoiding an annoying acquaintance at the Corniche.
Bin Swelah, who was born in Al Ain before moving to Banyias, explains he runs a pretty tight operation. Starring his friends, the videos are shot using a standard digital camera and often edited himself. That leanness allows him to turn inspiration to produced skit within days.
“A lot of these videos are based on real-life situations,” he says. “They mostly come from me listening to people’s stories and experiences. They would share some of the things they went through in the course of their day and that gives me the idea. Many people don’t realise that what they go through is actually funny.”
One example is that yearly dilemma of end-of-year exams. In one video, bin Swelah achieving what a good satirist does, to expose the absurdity of some of our life choices.
Posted nearly two years ago, the video begins with bin Swelah talking to the camera stating “during the school year...” before cutting to him dancing joyfully to a boisterous club song. He then returns as solemn host to say, “but once the exams approach…” and the video cuts to bin Swelah the student. He is in tears as he raises his hands in prayer pleading to God to let him pass.
In another skit, he and a friend attend a job interview where they quickly realise communicating in English is a required skill.
“Are you an animal?” the Emirati manager asks, to which both applicants give a resounding yes. “Now, that actually came from a real-life situation,” bin Swelah recalls. “This was someone who was looking for a job. So he goes to this interview where he knew they needed English but he gave it a shot anyway. The only English he knows is ‘hello, my name is Ali’ and ‘yes’ and ‘no’. He spent the whole interview just saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ without actually knowing what they were saying.”
The struggle of the region’s youth to gain employment is a recurring theme in bin Sweilah’s skits. In another inspired video, dropped in February, he is sharing a coffee with an Emirati businessman in a restaurant. The gentleman is puzzled by how bin Swelah remained jobless despite the countless job fairs he has attended.
“I went to many,” he bemoans in the video. “You go to the fair and you approach the staff to apply but they say ‘habib, you need to apply online’.”
The elder is unconvinced: “So all these people who are at the fair to help you, what you are saying is that you didn’t get anything out of it?”
Bin Swelah replies: “Of course I did. The first thing I got was some great flash drives. Then there were all those sweets that we can have. And now, they are starting to give us portable phone chargers. It is great.”
Bin Swelah makes a point in stating these videos are not mere spoofs. He says he is not interested in producing content without a purpose.
“There is a lesson behind every story, and for me they are all about positivity. I want to talk about things that relate to young people, to encourage young people to aim high, to study, work hard and achieve success. I just tell them in my own way,” he says.
Bin Swelah discovered he had a great knack for spinning a good tale during his high school years in Al Ain. It was the playground that planted the seed for his stand-up career. While he admits he wasn’t coolest kid at school, bin Swelah says he always had a good story to tell his peers.
“I would tell my friends about the things that I have seen the other day and, before you know it, there was big circle and people were listening.
“I realised that people were enjoying the way I was telling these stories. I would make them laugh and they would be intrigued about where I was going with it.”
Bin Swelah knew he was onto something potentially life-changing once he began performing impromptu stand-up gigs around Abu Dhabi and started posting his sporadic skit videos online.
A fully-fledged member of region’s social media savvy generation – bin Swelah is active in Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat – he explains these platforms have levelled the playing field when it comes to discovering talent.
“It is a totally different situation now in that you don’t have to spend all your time or money trying to get an agent or know someone in a television channel,” he says.
“Everyone has a chance now and you get an immediate reaction to your work. Instead of getting an agent to support you, it is the online audience who are the agents. They are the ones that are going to spread your name and get you the opportunities. But you need to keep producing good work at the same time.”
Bin Swelah says Wednesday's appearance at The Flipside will mark the next stage of his comedy career, which will allow him to focus more on his live performances. “It has been a while, so I do view the show as challenge for myself,” he says. “But I have learned to have confidence in myself. Hopefully, this will lead to other chances such as stage plays or more touring. I just want to go out there and meet people and show what I can do, and, of course, see if there are any more stories to tell.”
Ali bin Swelah performs at The Comedy Suite, The Flipside Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai, Wednesday. Doors open at 7.30pm, show starts at 8.30pm