x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Emirati swaps investment business for comedy

The 27-year-old has taken the plunge, handing in his notice at the investment company where he works to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian.

Newcastle-born Omar Ismail moved back to Dubai in 1987 but returned to the UK to go to university.
Newcastle-born Omar Ismail moved back to Dubai in 1987 but returned to the UK to go to university.

DUBAI // If someone had told Omar Ismail two years ago that he would be standing on stage telling jokes to hundreds of strangers, he would have thought they were the one being funny.

But for the once shy and reserved Newcastle-born Emirati, this is now a living. The 27-year-old has taken the plunge, handing in his notice at the investment company where he works to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian.

His childhood as the eldest of five provides a rich seam of comic material. Ismail recalls in particular an occasion when he was six and refused to join in with Eid celebrations.

"My mum was very cross that I didn't want to celebrate. I just decided to go to bed," he says, his accent bearing just a twang of the Newcastle Geordie accent.

"Unfortunately for me, mum had been watching The Godfather, and decided to get the cow's head that had been slaughtered, put it on a tray and placed it on the bed next to me.

"I opened my eyes and saw this cow looking back at me. The weird thing is that it didn't faze me because stuff like that happened all the time."

Growing up in that kind of family left him a sense of humour that friends picked up on even in his early teens.

"He had a quirky, easy-going personality then as now," recalls Salem Yateem, a friend since they met, aged 13, at Emirates International School. "Conversations with him always ended up in laughter.

"We hit it off pretty well because we were both new and were both from England. We also discovered that we both played the Warhammer [role playing] game and that really helped to break the ice.

Ismail's father, Moosa, went to the UK in 1981 to do his bachelors degree in electrical engineering at what is now Northumbria University.

In that same year he met Ismail's mother, Teresin, at the university. The family did not return to Dubai until 1987 when Ismail was four.

After school, Ismail went to the American University of Dubai and then to Durham University in Britain, where he studied computer science and artificial intelligence.

He returned to Dubai in 2006 to work for Emirates International Telecommunications, an arm of Dubai Holding - and there, two years later, he met Lamya Tawfik, an Egyptian colleague who steered him firmly in the direction of comedy.

An accomplished stand-up comic herself, Tawfik has performed in Dubai and across the region. And she spotted his potential immediately.

"I literally had to beg him to attend a comedy class in the Mall of the Emirates run by Dubomedy," she says. "After six months of nagging he finally went along, on the condition I went to one of his role playing games.

"I hated the role playing and never went again - but Omar loved the comedy and everything took off for him."

The classes have not entirely put paid to his timid nature, but he is now far more comfortable in front of new people, he says.

"I could always be funny with my friends even if there were 50 of them, but the thought of standing up and telling jokes in front of a stranger really held me back," he says.

"I guess I was and still am a little shy with people I don't know."

With Dubomedy shows under his belt and the end of his day job approaching, he is now looking for more regular gigs.

"It's something that I've realised I have a real passion for and I love doing. It's an exciting time because the comedy and arts community is really starting to develop in Dubai and I want to be a part of that."

Although Dubai is home to ever-more aspiring comedians, particularly among western expatriates, they are being held back by a lack of suitable venues.

"I do about one show a month," says Ismail. "We don't have many venues so it's important to make sure your material isn't the kind of stuff that will get you banned.

"In the UK you wouldn't care because there are thousands of other venues you could perform at, but in Dubai there are just a handful."

nhanif@thenational.ae