As George Orwell famously wrote, “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” Indeed, since time immemorial, humor has been used to confront authority and overturn the status quo. Political satire, in particular, has taken on many forms and has played a natural role in national debates of all types, from Chaucer’s medieval social humor to the political cartoons of the French Revolution and the modern-day satire of Steven Colbert and The Onion.
In countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, the rebellion inherent in humor is particularly valuable and powerful. Where censorship is widespread and coercive, satire, parody, and political humor are often the best or only means available to air opinions, voice dissent, or challenge government institutions or officials. Astonishingly effective, mockery can destroy mystique, break tensions, and disarm seemingly omnipotent, oppressive powers more effectively than any serious, overtly political challenge. During the 20th century in the American South, the barrage of ridicule heaped upon the Ku Klux Klan by Stetson Kennedy and the Superman radio show was more effective in undermining and unraveling the Klan than any number of strongly-worded protests.
Similarly, today, in many parts of the Arab World, political cartoons and clever language are bringing countless dictators down to size. In particular, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where public protest is forbidden and political activism is sharply curtailed, there is a fount of material for satirists and comedians, which they are tapping into with great success.
Thus far, the Saudi regime has been accepting, or even encouraging, of satire and parody, within limits. Despite recent crackdowns on freedom of speech, satire and parody are likely to remain important pillars of political expression in Saudi Arabia for some time to come.
Satire in the Arab World
Political satire has a long and illustrious history in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria have been known for their use of literature, art, and humor as tools of political protest, and the Arab Spring has encouraged more mature comedic art forms – like the ever-present political cartoon – while also offering new and inventive ways of mocking social and political structures and reclaiming and re-appropriating civic discourse, as demonstrated by this Syrian viral art campaign described by Muftah writer Donatella Della Ratta.
Satirists, like protesters or activists, are also increasingly relying on the web to transmit their message. YouTube, for instance, plays host to a number of provocative new web series. On the Syrian side, this includes “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator” and Jim Siin’s “Chronicles of a Pressure Cooker” (both in Arabic). The Egyptian satirical series “El Bernameg” (“The Program”) is revolutionizing the genre, and in many regional countries, comic series, satirical newspapers and wordplay abound on Facebook, blogs, and other social media platforms.
For some Arab Spring countries, the presence of open revolt and/or the overthrow of dictatorial regimes have helped satirists speak with unprecedented bluntness. However, for countries, like Saudi Arabia, where the old guard still holds power, a better comparison would be China, where ongoing government censorship and limitations on freedom of speech have prevented open challenges to the status quo. In these cases, the internet is perhaps even more essential, not just for distribution of material, but also as a means of side-stepping the intense government scrutiny given to traditional, non-web media.
In Saudi Arabia, parody is not a new phenomenon. For the past fourteen years, the most popular TV show in the country has been Tash ma Tash, a satirical sitcom aired every Ramadan on MBC, a government-regulated and Saudi-owned station. Tash ma Tash, whose title is supposedly based on a traditional Saudi children’s game, regularly earns the wrath of conservatives and religious authorities for its sociopolitical commentary.
Despite its iconic status, Tash ma Tash remains limited in its ability to connect with young Saudis. In the Kingdom, there appears to be an enormous and seemingly insatiable appetite for content that more concretely reflects, and incisively mocks, the country’s complicated realities. Though considered controversial in some circles, Tash ma Tash fails to fill this void and is seen by some as a government-controlled, “establishment” production that does not sufficiently reflect the modern realities of a country torn between competing and often contradictory values.
The YouTube Generation
Every day, Saudi Arabia’s 25 million inhabitants watch over 90 million videos on YouTube, over half the views from the Middle East and the largest per-capita use in the world. And while many of those videos are the standard YouTube fare – music videos, movie clips or funny cat tricks – some also reflect the country’s increasing political consciousness and social realities. As with those from other Arab countries, some of these political videos purport to show demonstrations, police brutality or unfair arrests and detentions and to spread information both inside and outside the country. Other videos disseminate religious teachings and opinions from well-known and well-respected Saudi sheikhs. There is also a growing body of what Lebanon-based journalist Habib Battah calls “hyperlocal content” – media produced for local, not global, consumption, and addressing very local concerns.
This YouTube expansion is also driven by the stunning popularity of a few comedic web series directed specifically to an educated, well-informed and urbane Saudi audience. “La Yekthar”, a monthly comedy skit show whose title translates roughly to “put a lid on it”, has been viewed 41 million times in the past year and a half. The Jeddah-based satirical news show, “3al6ayer (‘Ala al-Tayer),” translated roughly as “on the fly”, has earned over 30 million views during the same time period.
These shows are written, produced, and hosted by a new generation of Saudis. “La Yekthar” is the brainchild of Saudi stand-up comic Fahad Albutairi and writer Ali al-Kalthami, and “3al6ayer” is hosted by comic Omar Hussein with the help of Ahmad Fatah al-Deen. These young men (and women, working behind the scenes) came of age with the internet, were alert and engaged before and during the Arab Spring, and are committed to recognizing and confronting the issues facing their society with honesty and openness. Their mockery is gentle but biting, carefully crafted to walk the fine line between acceptable mockery and dangerous speech.
Just as humor varies by culture and language, the boundary of acceptable speech is highly dependent on context. Maya (name changed at her request), one of the early writers on 3al6ayer, described the show’s approach to content as “self-preservation self-censorship.” Both 3al6ayer and La Yekthar began with fairly tame, uncontroversial episodes, only progressing later into more weighty sociopolitical commentary. In the case of 3al6ayer, the team felt protected from government intervention to some extent by the pious and upstanding personal reputation of the presenter. Both shows were careful to avoid topics that have been proven to cause trouble – serious commentary on poverty, for example, or anything considered disrespectful of the Prophet Muhammad.
While operating within self-imposed boundaries, these shows have been able to exercise substantial freedom. They have mocked corruption – one early joke in 3al6ayer suggests that the new Saudi traffic system is technologically unable to read the license plates of those with government connections. They have mocked inefficiency – one skit on La Yekthar imagines Saudi telecom employees playing hide-and-seek while customers are left on hold.
These programs have developed a reputation for lambasting inefficiency and corruption in Saudi ministries, underlining the absurdity in the Kingdom’s approach to women, and pointing out other hypocrisies. In its first heavily political episode in February of 2011 (also one of its most popular), 3al6ayer mocked Saudi-owned television channel MBC for airing Arabs Got Talent instead of showing breaking news of the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and then pivoted to blast local Jeddah authorities for not preparing for the heavy rains that caused severe flooding around the city.
Intriguingly, both shows are written and performed in colloquial Saudi Arabic – in the case of 3al6ayer, specifically in the recognizable Jeddah dialect. In blogs, on Twitter, and even in romance novels in bookstores, English has historically been the safest language to use in Saudi when writing about controversial issues. From the perspective of government authorities, the use of Arabic suggests a desire to influence a more local audience, and makes these writings more susceptible to domestic scrutiny and pressure.
Despite these risks, for 3al6ayer and La Yekthar performing in Arabic and relying on slang and inside jokes has certainly given these shows more local flavor. Both programs have flirted with the idea of using subtitles, either in standard Arabic or in English, but ultimately remain focused on the local Saudi community. Perhaps it is this desire for content devoted to and relying on local quirks and customs that has given these shows an enormous popularity unforeseen by their creators. Whatever the reason, through a combination of luck and skill, both shows have thus far avoided government censorship and have made themselves mainstays of the local Saudi scene.
Conclusion: Finding the Red Lines
The Saudi government is well aware that even the most constrained populations must be given an outlet for their tensions and dissatisfaction. While forbidding all forms of public protest, the government has been willing to tolerate many types of speech, hosting a series of National Dialogues on issues of importance, supporting the ongoing and controversial Tash ma Tash, overlooking the opinionated debates occurring on Twitter, and tolerating the copious Saudi-related, politically-minded content filling the World Wide Web.
As long as the satirical series are not pornographic, directly revolutionary, or religiously offensive, the government has for the most part looked the other way as La Yekthar, 3al6ayer, and other programs have grown in popularity. In part, officials clearly view these shows as part of a system for controlling the population, much like the Carnivales of yore: as long as the people are allowed to enjoy some humor at the expense of the government, they will be distracted from pushing for larger reforms, and the buildup of desperation and resentment that can trigger a true revolution will be avoided.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of these programs in facilitating discussions that were previously unthinkable and challenging the status quo. While largely a non-starter in Saudi, the Arab Spring has nevertheless allowed reformers to open the door and begin airing some of the government’s dirty laundry. Once things have come out into the open, it is hard to sweep them back under the rug. Perhaps it is this belated realization that has prompted recent crackdowns on young liberal writers in the country, and the outpouring of conservative pressure on forums like Twitter. However, for satirical videos like 3al6ayer and La Yekthar, these efforts come too late to prevent Saudis from finally enjoying intelligent and irreverent content created by, for, and with other Saudis.
*Leila is a staff writer at Muftah.