Nabil Sawalha, Jordan's veteran comedian poking fun at authority for 40 years
AMMAN // Long before they turned to the censorship-free forums of Facebook and YouTube for political satire, Jordanians had the irreverently delivered punch lines of Nabil Sawalha.
The stocky 70-year-old actor, comedian and playwright has for more than four decades daringly, if carefully, made his name by poking fun at authority during countless theatre and television performances.
He can evoke laughter even from those whom he skewers with his subtle wit and impish grin. His performances and commentary do not spare Arab leaders or Islamists. He cleverly lampoons US presidents, effortlessly impersonating the elder George Bush's nasal tone.
Through his comedy he has helped move forward the discussion of hot-button social issues, such as government corruption, that have sparked the wave of revolutionary fervour across the region and anti-government protests here. Today more protests are planned after Friday prayers. The demonstrations have become a weekly occurrence for more than two months. The protesters, from different groups, have called for political, social and economic reforms.
Sawalha sees his and the theatrical legacy of his generation as helping to play no small role in dismantling the wall of official impunity once shielding regional governments.
"We managed to destroy the halos that Arab leaders built around their heads," he said last month.
"And I see a lot of people doing what we used to do, which is satirising the leadership."
And yet, in an interview with The National, Sawalha recounted a career that in many ways was fostered by the goodwill of Jordan's ruling Hashemite monarchy. He even once served as the hairdresser for one of the late King Hussein's brides on their wedding day and recalled having to console another queen, who broke down in front of him after a spate of publicly uttered criticisms against her.
Born near the village of Madaba and educated in Britain, his family tree is well endowed with entertainers. His brother, Nadim, is perhaps Jordan's most well-known actor, and his children are also involved in the field.
Sawalha is no stranger to controversy. In 1995, for example, he performed in Israel, prompting a short-lived blacklisting of his theatrical performances in Jordan.
Yet he does not consider himself overtly political, but, rather, an artist who portrays the political circumstances of the moment.
"The job of the artist is to reflect the situation, whether you are a painter or a theatre man," he said. "And you are a better artist if you don't have an agenda, because the moment you have an agenda, you are a politician."
Even so, Sawalha's recent discussions about King Abdullah II would have been considered politically taboo only a few months ago. Emboldened by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, he and more Jordanians have begun to openly question the powers of their monarchy - something that not so long ago could have resulted in jail time.
While he said he admired the king and his father, Hussein, he recently discussed on his morning radio show, Dirty Washing, the idea of a constitutional monarchy.
"Somebody said, 'After Allah, Abdullah.' And I went on my news show and I said, 'Don't overdo it, mate. There's a country more important than all of us.'
"And now, because we love Abdullah and respect him, we want a constitutional monarchy where we don't blame him for faults."
Two decades ago, his conversation about Jordan's leadership was perhaps less radical but no less brave. With his friend and colleague, Hisham Yanis, Sawalha performed a series of popular comedy skits that portrayed regional leaders at Arab summit meetings or during the 1991 Gulf War.
During one performance, King Hussein and his prime minister at the time both had front row seats to a show during which their characters were played by Sawalha and Yanis.
To break the ice, Sawalha recalled how he leaned over to king during the show and said: "There are a couple of con jobs imitating us, your majesty. Should we send the police after them? And [the king] said, 'It's OK. Leave them. After the play, we'll sort them out.' And the king laughed hard."
Laughter aside, he cited that as a seminal moment. "Once King Hussein saw that play, and saw how the leaders were portrayed, and saw himself on stage, the censors stopped asking us to bring in our scripts" before performances, he said. "And that became a milestone in Arab history, because now, all the plays I do, all the radio programmes I do, I have no censorship."
Others have not been so lucky when it has come to crossing still very apparent red lines, with newspapers and other media still heavily censored.
Mahmoud Zawawi, a Jordanian cinema critic, attributed Zawalha's success at striking a balance between the need to make people laugh and what is perceived as constructive social satire.
"The successful comedian is the one who tackles social issues, and in this area, Nabil comes in the lead," he said. And yet, he has done so without overstepping boundaries because he has "showed respect for the characters he depicts".
Nowadays, Sawalha said he only preferred writing and performing comedy. Asked why, he recounted the experience of a television series he did in 1980.
"It was all about government stacking up of employees, corruption, bribing," he said.
"And still people come to tell me about it, acting out scenes, even though I had already forgotten about it."
Then he said: "The type of comedy that talks to peoples' lives is never forgotten."
* With additional reporting by Suha Philip Ma'ayeh
Updated: April 15, 2011 04:00 AM