The Bold Comedians of Syria Strike Back
By Jess HillJuly 11, 2012
Trapped in a surreal zone between chronic brutality and absurdist politics, anti-regime Syrians have discovered a powerful way to resist, and attack — humour.
There is an Ethiopian proverb that goes, "When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts".
Before protests swept across the Arab world last year, Syrians had been farting silently for decades. While cartoons derided generic authority figures and sketch-comedy shows made fun of 'the system', they would never have dared to target individual figures — to fart aloud. Even sharing a political joke with a lover or relative was risky.
In the past 18 months, all that has changed — radically. While most of the media understandably trains its focus on shelling, violence and death, something unexpected is happening in Syria: it's having a creative renaissance. From Damascus to Homs, Syrians are reclaiming their right to comment, using every medium they can get their hands on: protest banners and posters, for example, and homemade videos broadcast on YouTube. Much of this material is being produced under the most extreme conditions imaginable. And a lot of it is funny.
President Bashar al-Assad, the son of a leader to whom Syrians once assigned god-like qualities, is now mercilessly lampooned across the country. Renowned Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat picks on Assad's schoolboy awkwardness, drawing him on a giant throne in an oversized military uniform. An undercover theatre group in Damascus has turned him into a paranoid finger puppet with a crippling lisp, and made him the star of a popular 13-part YouTube series called Top Goon.
In Kafranbel, a northern Syrian town currently occupied by the Syrian army, residents dash boldly into public squares to pose for photos with their now-famous banners and cartoons, many of them written in English, showing Assad in various states of indignity. One memorable Kafranbel caricature portrays Bashar as Gollum, Tolkien's scrawny, obsequious creature from The Lord of the Rings, with a speech bubble quoting his mantra — 'my precious'. Here, the satire is razor-sharp: in the fiction, Gollum, a once-reasonable young man, becomes corrupted by his possession of the 'ring to rule them all'. When the ring is stolen from him by a village hobbit, Gollum, complete with speech impediment, lives out his days in lonely, vicious pursuit of his former power.
The residents of Kafranbel (and many other Syrian towns) are storming into this previously forbidden territory, perhaps because making Bashar al-Assad an object of contempt diminishes his power over them — and their own fear. In a recent interview, Top Goon director 'Jameel' said, "We wanted to break the barrier of fear and remove the god-like aura around [Assad]. He's a puppet — you can carry him in your hand. You can move him yourself. You can break him. You can actually deal with everything that is scary with laughter".
In 1945, George Orwell wrote, "Every joke is a tiny revolution". For Syrians in 2012, these words ring especially true. Making fun of the regime isn't just a coping mechanism — it's a middle finger raised at the power bent on destroying them.
It makes sense, then, that the area hit hardest by the Syrian army has become the heartland of its comic rebellion.
BEFORE THE UPRISING BEGAN, the citizens of Homs were famous for their sense of humour, and the jokes Syrians made at their expense. The 'Homsi joke' is Syria's answer to the Irish joke, and plays on the national stereotype that Homsis are dim-witted. "Why did the Homsi stare at the frozen orange juice? Because it says 'concentrate'". And:"How do you keep a Homsi busy all day? Put him in a round room and tell him to sit in the corner." Like the Irish, Homsis are pretty good at making jokes themselves, and are therefore renowned as the most light-hearted people in Syria.
But in the past 15 months, the Homsi stereotype has changed dramatically. Although the uprising started in Deraa, Homs has been dubbed the revolution's 'capital' — acknowledging both the violence wrought upon the region and its people's determination to fight back. After the uprising started last March, anti-regime Homsis were some of the first Syrians to join the protests, tearing down and defacing posters of the Assads and staging raucous demonstrations in the city centre. They were also the first to be shelled. In May 2011, the Syrian army launched a ferocious campaign against the restive province. It continues to this day.
Today, Homs is a tale of two cities. Some Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods, such as Baba Amr, a former Free Syrian Army stronghold that came under savage attack in February this year, have been bombed into rubble. Those who have stayed have moved into abandoned homes and shops — anywhere they can find shelter.
Neighbourhoods spared by the army are home to the Alawite community, the minority Shia-Islam sect of the Assads, who have bunkered down alongside the Syrian army soldiers who now occupy these areas. It's too dangerous for Syrian soldiers to enter most Sunni neighbourhoods, one regime soldier recently told Reuters; they are worried that the houses may be mined, "like they were in Baba Amr". So they stay mostly within the confines of the Alawite neighbourhoods, where schools are still open and markets still trade, and shell the Sunnis from there. In the Sunni areas that have been raided by the army, pro-regime militiamen, or shabiha, have followed the trail of destruction like birds of prey, stripping homes of furniture and clothes, and hauling their loot back to the Alawite neighbourhoods to be pawned. "These are the spoils of war," one woman recently said to a Reuters reporter, as she browsed the stolen items. "It's our right to take them." This is ghanima, an Islamic rule of war which says that if I defeat you, I am entitled to distribute your property to my people.
Pause for a moment now, and consider how remarkable it is that in the face of all this, the Homsi brand of humour hasn't just survived, it's thriving.
Amid the tide of graphic videos flooding the Internet, another genre of amateur video is coming out of Homs: parody. These videos lampoon everyone from the Arab League observers and United Nations monitors to, of course, the Assads themselves.
In the town of Talbiseh in Homs province, which has been under heavy shelling for several weeks, one group of men has even created a dedicated YouTube channel for its homemade skits. Much of it looks like the kind of thing first-year university students might put together with their friends, except for the fact that in most cases, the guns they're using as props are real, and the actors really are rebel fighters surrounded by the rubble of their own neighbourhoods. On Facebook, a spoof page advertising 'Homs Tank Wash Services', claims to be a business tending to the upkeep of Syrian army tanks occupying the city, has over 80,000 subscribers. The page posts spoof photos: a tank, freshly washed, with a hot-pink towel wrapped around it; posters for a television talent show of a different kind, 'Arabs Got Tank', and a particularly Syrian take on the classic poster for The Godfather, which depicts Hafez al-Assad as Don Corleone, The Duckfather. This is one of Syria's newest in-jokes. In March this year, an email exchange between the First Lady and the President was part of a massive cache of emails leaked to The Guardian, in which Asma al-Assad refers to Bashar as her batta, or duck.
"Daily life is filled with small jokes that are being told among people," says Alaa, a 28-year-old Syrian against the regime, who's still living in al-Ghouta, a Homs neighbourhood four kilometres away from Baba Amr. One incident Alaa remembers happened early in 2011. The armed resistance hadn't begun, but Syrian officials were already blaming 'armed gangs' and their 'sophisticated weapons' for the unrest.
"In old Homs neighborhoods some protestors started making weapons like toys using stuff from their homes. A guy took a big tube, placed an eggplant in it and called it 'Eggplant launcher'; another used okra and a string to make an okra cartridge clip and attached it to his chest like real bullets. Others hung potatoes and zucchini off their waists like grenades."
Ridiculing the 'enemy' is hardly a new phenomenon; the persecuted have lobbed comedy at their persecutors for centuries. During the American Civil War, unionists and confederates wielded a witty arsenal, as did the Jews during the Holocaust. But Homsis aren't merely directing their satire against the regime; they're turning it on themselves.
Take this video, which parodies the outgunned Free Syrian Army. We see a rebel soldier sitting cross-legged and hunched amid the rubble of a destroyed street. He squints meekly up at passersby, beseeching them for donations. One by one, they oblige, dropping bullets, a gun, and a two-way radio into his lap, patting his head affectionately as they pass by.
"We Homsis can't survive without our humour," says Alaa. For those living under daily bombardment, enduring the deaths of friends and relatives and struggling with diminishing food supplies, there's not much else left.
SYRIAN SATIRE MAY BE IN A WHOLE NEW LEAGUE, but it's building on an established tradition. "There's a long history of political humour in the Arab world, but the Syrian national style, as it has developed, is much darker," says Christa Salamandra, a Syrian media specialist and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York. "Egyptian satire, even when it's political, is much more light-hearted, whereas Syrian political satire is not the kind of humour you necessarily laugh at."
At the turn of the 21st century, several stars collided to create a seismic shift in Syrian political satire — one that would, a decade later, provide serious grist for the revolutionary mill. In 2000, after ruling the country for 30 years, Syria's iron-fisted strongman Hafez al-Assad died and the mantle was passed to his mild-mannered son, Bashar. After decades of media created solely by the state, satellite television was creating a wave of new channels and private production companies. Most critically, perhaps, in 2000, Syrians were connected to the Internet, an initiative led by Bashar al-Assad himself in his former role as head of the Syrian Computer Society.
When Bashar first inherited the presidency, many Syrians considered him their great, blue-eyed hope for democratic reform. He ordered the release of hundreds of political prisoners, promised to dismantle the personality cult cultivated by his father, and to loosen restrictions on freedom of expression. "I think there was a lot of new reformist energy and hope at that time," says Salamandra. "People really did see him as a breath of fresh air."
In 2001, in the wake of this short-lived 'Damascus Spring', came two new satirical creations: the satirical newspaper Al Domari (The Lamplighter) and the television sketch-comedy show Buq 'at Daw (Spotlight).
Published by Syria's famed cartoonist Ali Ferzat, Al Domari was the first independent newspaper Syria had seen since the Ba'ath Party took over the country in 1963. It was Bashar himself who encouraged Ferzat to start the paper, once even suggesting to the cartoonist that he should go after members of the Syrian parliament.
"At the beginning of Bashar al-Assad's presidency, I used to communicate directly with him, beyond the control of the mukhabarat, the secret police," Ferzat recalls, in a piece he's written for Culture In Defiance, an art exhibition currently displaying a selection of his works in Amsterdam.
The newspaper, which published satirical cartoons and critical analyses, survived for just over two years. Then it was banned. "By then I was never able to reach Bashar, and when I finally did get through, he told me to handle my own problems." Specifically, Bashar told Ferzat that when you provoke a wasp into stinging you, you have to pull the sting out by yourself.
So Ferzat resorted to posting his cartoons on his website, and built up a large following. Then, three months before the first anti-regime protests broke out in Deraa last March, he made a decision: it was time to violate one of the most dangerous taboos in Syria. On his website, Ferzat wrote, "We have to break the barrier of fear that is 50 years old". After warming up with drawings of the prime minister and Bashar's cousin, the tycoon Rami Makhlouf, Ferzat drew the President. It was the first time anyone had drawn the President of Syria since the Ba'ath Party took power in 1963. "It was a decision that took a lot of guts, but I felt it was time," Ferzat writes in Culture in Defiance. "Admittedly, it was nearly suicidal to draw someone who is considered a god-like figure for the regime and the Ba'ath party."
Incredibly, though Ferzat ridiculed the President from his home in Syria's capital, nobody showed up to arrest him. So his cartoons grew more brazen. Then in August last year, after Libyan rebels defeated Gaddafi's forces in Tripoli, Ferzat drew another cartoon of Assad, this time with a suitcase stuffed to bursting, anxiously thumbing a ride with the Libyan dictator, depicted as driving furiously away from the rebels hunting him down. Just before dawn a week later, as Ferzat was driving home from his studio, he was attacked by shabiha. They hooded him, dragged him into their car, and, using hot, electric batons, attacked the object of their hatred: his hands, and his head. "We're going to break your hands," they snarled, "so that you can't draw again and dishonour your masters".
Ferzat was thrown from the moving car onto the road, and though his head was badly battered and his hands broken, he survived. He is now in Kuwait, where his injuries are being treated, and says that since his hands have recovered enough to draw, he's more confident — and determined — than ever.
The sketch-comedy show Spotlight may not have reached the same legendary status as the work of Ali Ferzat, but its impact on Syrian society — and on the revolution — is unmistakable. Commissioned by a producer with close ties to the regime, two of Syria's leading comics were basically given carte blanche to create a new comedy show. You have to wonder if their producer ever watched the program, considering its material: sectarianism, Islamic revivalism, state corruption and the mukhabarat, or secret police.
"They pushed early on, and then kept pushing," says Christa Salamandra. "They got themselves in hot water, and then backtracked. The head of television was actually sacked for allowing certain Spotlight skits to be aired."
Apart from this heavy-handed response, Spotlight director Laith Haijo says the team has surmounted many political obstacles faced by other artists. "Here we must recognize the truly wide range of freedom Syria drama enjoyed, which other Arab countries lack — except, I think, for Egypt."
One skit broadcast in 2005 (described by journalist Marlin Dick), starts with two grumpy, middle-aged men, complaining that fruits and vegetables have lost their taste, compared to the fruit they ate in their youth. The conversation soon turns to the mukhabarat and how in the good old days, a person picked up for questioning could disappear forever — a far cry from today's 'weak' mukhabarat. As they lament this change in affairs, an actual mukhabarat appears, and politely asks one of the men to come with him for questioning. The man challenges the mukhabarat, hurling insults at him, until he finally just picks the man up and carries him away. His friend turns to the camera and grins: "Now that's what it was like in the old days!"
But it's a Spotlight character called Spray Man who has had the greatest impact on revolutionary Syrians. "Basically Spray Man was this young man who begins to vent his frustration by writing on walls," says Salamandra. His slogans aren't metaphorical, either. "One of the comments that Spray Man sprays on a government building is, 'Get off our back'." Finally, Spray Man is confined to a white prison cell, watched by two guards who repaint the cell repeatedly to stop him reoffending.
Last year in Damascus, life imitated art when one Syrian took on the role of Spray Man. On the night that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, somebody reportedly sprayed, 'Now it's your turn, doctor' under a bridge in Damascus (the 'doctor' refers to Assad's training in opthalmology). As protests broke out across Syria a month later, Spray Man's identity became a thing of legend, until, months later, one Syrian journalist wrote on his Facebook page that he had met this 'Spray Man' at the criminal security division, and that he was a 30-year-old architect from a 'posh suburb' of Damascus. He had been caught by the police when a resident, purporting to offer him refuge from security officers who were chasing him, locked him in the house until the police came to arrest him. His fate is unknown. A Facebook page has since been created in his honour: "We are all the Spray Man".
Adnan Zira'I, the actor and writer behind the original 'Spray Man' skit suffered a similar fate: he was arrested in February this year, says Salamandra, and is still in detention.
Given its producer's strong ties to the Assads, some have accused Spotlight of aiding the regime by engaging in tanfiseh, an Arabic term for "letting off steam", and thereby discouraging real political action. Salamandra doesn't agree with this line of thinking. "If it was indeed a regime strategy, it backfired because what we're seeing now are forms of satirical dissidence. Dissident cultural production is being uploaded on YouTube [like the sketches from Talbiseh] that draws very heavily on the forms of satire that were honed in state-produced and/or state-controlled media, like Spotlight. We actually see some that have been picked up almost verbatim. If these were scholars, it would be plagiarism."
Whether you find them funny or not, Syria's political satirists have shouted from the rooftops jokes that were once barely exchanged in whispers. Like protesters calling for the fall of the regime, they have exposed President Assad for what he is: an emperor with no clothes. And let's face it, a naked emperor is a great starting place for a joke.
"Artistic work is very interesting right now and important because our revolution is being portrayed as killing, murder and shelling," says Top Goon director, Jameel. "It is a matter of merging, meeting and discussing ideas, despite the fear. In this period I have met more people than I have during my entire lifetime. I'm re-discovering new voices and ideas that I never thought were available or possible. Although the regime narrative is that we are a mob taking over the streets, we want to show that the Syrian people are culturally aware...Syria has become an incredible workshop for artists."
Laith Haijo's comments translated by Christa Salamandra
To read more about Syria's creative renaissance, see 'Culture in Defiance: continuing traditions of satire, art and the struggle for freedom in Syria', which was produced to accompany an exhibition currently showing in Amsterdam.