From checkpoints to punchlines: the emergence of Palestinian stand-up comedy

Stand-up comedian Khaled Tayeh performs during an open mic night at the Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah on 13 May 2023. (Stefano Lorusso)

As the night unfurls its dark veil over the towering buildings of Ramallah, the spotlights illuminate the stage of the Ashtar Theatre, casting a captivating glow on what is no ordinary cultural event. It’s a gathering that blurs the lines between Palestinian spectators and performers, where comedians, poets, and musicians from all walks of life unite in their bond with art, stand-up comedy, and the Palestinian cause.

Khaled Tayeh is one of them. He has been showcasing his stand-up comedy repertoire all over Ramallah, gaining recognition in the city’s burgeoning and vibrant stand-up comedy scene. His comedic prowess lies in exploring the complex relationship individuals have with their bodies in an age inundated with images of flawlessly sculpted stars on social networks. Yet, it is his biting commentary on the cost of living in Ramallah that truly resonates with the audience.

“I see incredible Palestinian talent here tonight, and it’s fantastic,” Tayeh begins, bathed in the spotlight while surrounded by the theatre’s shadows. “But the only thing I don’t understand is why you have to pay to perform,” he says, pointing to the ticket prices that both the audience and performers had to shell out to attend the show. “I’ll tell you why! Because it’s Ramallah and here you have to pay double price for everything. When I received my first salary, I had sushi for lunch. A few days later I started crying at a falafel place,” he quips, exposing the stark contrast between the soaring cost of living and stagnant wages in the city.

“I’m sure you saw these videos which show you what you can buy with 20 shekels [approximately US$5.38] in different Palestinian cities. Nobody did this in Ramallah. Here you need a sugar daddy or a sugar mummy [to make ends meet financially],” he exclaims, his voice almost drowned out by the thunderous applause and laughter from the audience.

In his pursuit of becoming a professional stand-up comedian, the 32-year-old journalist diligently hones his comedic style while juggling his regular responsibilities reporting from the West Bank. It was four years ago when his mentor, the Palestinian-American stand-up comedian Mona Aburmishan, insisted on having him perform at a local event, sparking his comedic journey.

“At the time, I was full of insecurities, but it turned out to be a success,” he recalls. “I realised that if you have the ability to laugh at yourself and the struggles you face, no one can hurt you anymore. You strip away the seriousness from subjects that weigh you down and render them powerless. In the end, comedy becomes a psychological game, providing a protective shield,” Tayeh explains.

Through his sketches, Tayeh aims not just to entertain but also to evoke critical thinking about the Israeli occupation, using humour as a tool to shed light on pivotal historical events in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One of his sketches captures the bitter reality faced by Palestinian refugees after the Nakba: “I was in a restaurant in Haifa and suddenly it struck me as very familiar. It felt like being in a family member’s house,” he remarks, alluding to the forced displacement of Palestinians from what have become present-day Israeli urban centres and the appropriation of their homes by Israelis during the 1948 ‘catastrophe’, marked by the establishment of the state of Israel.

Sowing new cultural seeds on fertile ground

Open mic events have become a regular fixture in Ramallah’s cultural scene, offering a platform for amateurs and professionals to take the stage and showcase their talents. Reflecting on the experience, Konrad Suder Chatterjee, a Polish actor and writer who is part of the Palestinian and international collective behind the open mic nights, says: “We were aware of the potential risks of failure since stand-up comedy, being a popular and somewhat overused theatrical form, may provoke mixed feelings. Fortunately, we were proven wrong and found fertile ground for this form of art in Ramallah.”

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The first open mic night attracted an audience of 50 attendees and took place in a pizzeria in Ramallah. It has now found a new home in a theatre, which is part of an ongoing effort to attract a younger audience, explains Ashtar Theatre artistic director Emile Saba. “My aim is to bridge the gap between traditional theatre, which is known for its lyrical and formal aspects, and the emerging comedic scene. By bringing comedy to the theatre, we seek to attract an audience that may be less drawn to the traditional theatrical elements but more captivated by the biting and caustic content of stand-up comedy,” Saba tells Equal Times.

Over the past decade, Ramallah – the seat of the Palestinian Authority’s government, a semi-autonomous body governing the occupied territories in the West Bank – has undergone a profound transformation. What was once a city ravaged by Israeli military operations during the Second Intifada (2000-2005), and a local economy crippled by curfews and powers cuts, has now evolved into a bustling urban centre adorned with chic bars, towering skyscrapers, and student cafés.

Despite Ramallah being under full Palestinian Authority control, the Israeli military occasionally conducts incursions into the city. One such incident took place earlier this week on the night of 7-8 June, when a significant Israeli convoy entered the city to demolish the residence of a suspected perpetrator of a bomb attack, sparking violent protests by residents of Ramallah.

In 1967, during the Six-Day War that turned Israel into a regional powerhouse and the West Bank into an occupied territory, Ramallah was a quiet city inhabited by around 12,000 residents. However, over the past few decades it has emerged as the hub of Palestinian economic, cultural, and political life. The demographic make-up of the city also experienced a significant surge, with the population reaching 39,000 residents as reported in the last census conducted in 2017, projected to further rise to 47,000 by 2026, as reported by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

The event kicks off with a collective poetry workshop, where attendees write and share instant poems on stage.

“Our goal is to democratise this creative space and provide an opportunity for everyone to showcase their talents. Comedy has long been prevalent in our community, even before the establishment of our open mic nights, which break down the barriers between the audience and performers,” says Dalal Radwan, co-organiser of the open mic event.

For many Palestinian youths, stand-up comedy resonates as it exposes the absurdities of their daily lives and offers a much-needed release through laughter and self-deprecating humour. While the challenges of living under occupation – such as intrusive checkpoint searches and restrictions on freedom of movement – serve as sources of inspiration, these comedians also venture into the unexplored shadows of Palestinian society, providing a rich environment for sarcasm and self-reflection.

While stand-up comedy as a form has its roots in American culture, Palestinian comedians bring their perspectives and experiences to the stage, infusing it with Palestinian cultural references. Overbearing family obligations, navigating the complexities of dating, and societal conservatism surrounding body image are common experiences that create a shared bond of laughter between the audience and performers.

Comedy in the face of increasing conservatism

In 2022, Alaa Shehada, a 30-year-old freelance artist and stand-up comedian, along with a group of six Palestinian comedians, established the Palestine Comedy Club, a touring comedy club that travels to different venues, both in the West Bank and Europe.

He finds inspiration for his comedy in what he describes as occasionally overwhelming family dynamics. “I’m an adult, single man with no children from Jenin [a city in the northern West Bank]. Yet, that’s enough for my family and relatives to believe that I’m secretly hiding the existence of two children with a foreign woman in the Netherlands,” he shares with a hearty laugh, referring to what more liberal-minded Palestinian youths call a conservative mindset.

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“There are certain topics you cannot discuss,” says Shehada. “Relationships between men and women, religion, and politics are all red lines. You have to be cautious. Through my art and humour, I aim to push those boundaries a little further. That’s the spirit of stand-up comedy,” explains the artist, who studied theatre and embarked on his stand-up comedy journey in 2017. He writes his shows in both English and Arabic to reach the widest possible audience and is currently preparing for a summer tour in the UK with the Palestine Comedy Club.

In one of his sketches, Shehada tackles the topic of gender relations, using the different ways money is passed for a ticket in shared eight-seat taxis as his entry point. “If you do it the wrong way and accidentally touch the hand of a lady, everybody in the village will gossip about your bold approach to women,” he humorously remarks.

Shehada acknowledges that making such jokes in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, may expose him to criticism and scrutiny from the authorities.

The West Bank has shown signs of increasing cultural conservatism, with events like concerts often being shut down by the police. Years of conflict, prolonged military occupation, exposure to violence, and the systematic repression of Palestinian identity have nurtured a prevailing conservatism within a society where cultural and religious traditions hold more than a symbolic significance.

Last April, a techno concert in Ramallah was abruptly halted by dozens of armed police, highlighting the precariousness of cultural expression in the Palestinian territories.

Palestinian cultural centres have also become targets for conservative groups. Last August, al-Mustawda, a youth-driven cultural centre in Ramallah, closed after around 40 men disrupted a concert by the Palestinian artist Bashar Murad, accusing it of being a “gay party”. Cultural events or pub nights can also be cancelled or suspended when the Israeli army kills Palestinians during its daily raids in villages and cities of the occupied territories, as a sign of respect for those considered martyrs in the struggle for Palestinian independence and sovereignty.

These events shed light on a significant fault line within Palestinian society. On one hand, there are those seeking to redefine Palestinian identity and avenues of self-expression, while on the other, there are conservatives who view these changes with skepticism.

In such circumstances, art becomes an act of defiance, breaking social and psychological barriers and the glass ceiling that many Palestinians from impoverished villages in the West Bank have to shatter in order to establish themselves and build a career in Ramallah.

Khalil al-Batran, a 30-year-old actor and director hailing from the Palestinian village of Idhna in southern West Bank, shares a personal reflection on his journey.

“In my village, I used to walk barefoot, but upon arriving in Ramallah, I had to purchase my first pair of Nike,” he reveals. It was through a fortuitous audition for a show directed by Alaa Shehada that al-Batran embarked on his stand-up comedy career.

While art and stand-up comedy have served as transformative forces in al-Batran’s life, the young artist, frequently contemplates the extent to which his comedic endeavors push societal boundaries.

“I know that art here holds limited influence. Palestinian attention is rightfully drawn to weightier existential challenges like potential wars, occupation, freedom fighters, and restrictions on freedom of movement. Nevertheless, it still plays a role in the struggle. As an artist, my aim is to release the pent-up tensions experienced by Palestinians at the checkpoints through my punchlines.”

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