Maisah Sobaihi was the first Saudi to appear at the Edinburgh Festival. We look at the kingdom's emerging generation of female comics.
What happens when you get invited to a Saudi wedding? Episode five of Hatoon Kadi’s online hit show, Noon Al Niswa (the closest equivalent in English may be 'Femme Fatale', though there is no precise translation), which satirises women’s issues in Saudi Arabia, begins with a grumble familiar to Khaliji audiences: “What's it got to do with me if your sister's getting married? Do I really have to be dragged into this joyous occasion?”
The characters Kadi depicts in her five-to-seven-minute webisodes are relatable stereotypes, such as Mrs Busy-Body, Ms Drama Queen or Miss Plastic Surgery. Saudis love to see their unconscious tics and quirks mimicked, Kadi says.
Female Saudi comedians and comic actors, though few in number, are colonising an important patch. Unlike their male compatriots, the majority of female Saudi comics are not well known. Yet Kadi attracts an average of 1 million hits per video, and last August saw Maisah Sobaihi become the first Saudi Arabian woman to perform at the world’s largest arts festival, with her theatrical comedy show, Head over Heels in Saudi Arabia. One contender for the title of first female Saudi stand-up comedian is Lama' Abdullah. Recently signed by Saudi-based Time Talent Agency, she goes by the stage name Lama’an, and has performed both locally and internationally, opening for Gabriel Iglesias in Orlando, Florida.
As the first Saudi performer at Edinburgh, Sobaihi is following in the footsteps of the likes of Rowan Atkinson, Eddie Izzard and Stewart Lee whose careers were launched by the festival. Sobaihi’s appearance at Edinburgh represents a major Saudi inroad into international theatre and comedy, attracting media attention from the likes of The Independent and CNN and pulling in daily crowds of 100-150. While her gender may make this pioneering spirit seem unusual to people in the West, female Saudi comics have often led their male counterparts in gaining global acclaim.
The commercial Saudi comedy scene dates back to 2008 when British expat Peter Howarth-Lees organised Riyadh's first stand-up events, booking established comedians - including Steve Gribbin, Kevin Bridges, Jeff Mirza, Maz Jobrani and Ahmed Ahmed - to perform in KSA. Local Saudis were enlisted as warm-up acts for Howarth-Lees’ Smile Productions. Then in 2010, Saudi comedy found its way onto YouTube, going viral almost instantly.
Comedy in KSA has enjoyed meteoric success thanks in large part to its social media presence. Social media has particular traction in Saudi as Saudis are the world's top per capita users of YouTube and account for 190 million YouTube views per day, according to Google. One Saudi viral video in English, No Woman No Drive, has also gained over 11 million hits worldwide.
If it hadn’t been for YouTube, Kadi would still be making home-made videos in her son’s bedroom. Instead she commands the support of leading Saudi internet production house UTurn, now boasting a team of nine (four writers and a five-strong production team). Yet when Kadi initially approached UTurn, they needed some convincing: “In 2011 the Saudi YouTube scene was already booming and there was lots of competition," the PhD student and mother-of-two explained, “but I didn’t have even 1% doubt about my ability. If people know they’re good at something, why do they have to think twice? There’s a stereotype that women cannot be funny, that women are only good at drama,” she says, laughing coyly, “but humor is a talent. If you’re funny, you’re funny.”
Even Kadi didn’t know how funny she was. Her debut episode, filmed by herself, got half a million hits in four days. UTurn immediately signed her up and, 13 episodes later, they are planning a second series. All Kadi needs now is a female competitor: “After we’d released four or five episodes of Noon Al Niswa, I was expecting other female hosts to emerge, because the hardest thing is to be the first. Until now it hasn’t happened, but I’m still hopeful”.
In just five years, Saudi comedy has transformed from featuring fledgling comedians with little or no experience, to a lucrative indigenous industry of production companies such as Telfaz11, Sa7i and UTurn. 2010 saw a new wave of Saudi comedy in the Arabic language, spearheaded by 29-year old monsignor of Saudi comedy, Ibraheem Al Khairallah, who, with the then 18-year old Saudi Prince Khalid Mansour Al Saud, set up Luxury Events Company to develop local, family-friendly entertainment.
Live comedy, always a clandestine affair under Smile, now has official backing. Every Eid, the government pays for a free public show for 7,000 people: “It’s crazy”, says Khairallah, “some of the audience can’t get in because the events are so oversubscribed.” Telfaz11 has organised five of these events so far.
Popular YouTube shows include: EyshElly (What is it), with over 1.6 million subscribers; La Yekthar (Zip It) with about 3.5 million viewers; 3la Tayer (On the Fly), attracting around 1.5 million hits per episode; Temsa7 (Crocodile), a La Yekthar spin-off puppet show, with 1.1 million subscribers, and Khamballah (a nonsense word roughly translated as 'Absolute Nonsense and Complete Meaning'), with 30.7 million views.
Although 3la Tayer boasts two female writers, none of these shows feature female actresses on screen. Khairallah explains: “We got lots of requests at Telfaz11 from women who want to work with us. We’re really happy to put them in shows and use them as writers, actors, even let them produce the feature – really, no problem. We’re just looking for the right talent. If a charismatic female comedian comes along, I can write a female version of La Yekthar for her. I’d be really happy if you could find me one.”
Yasr Bakr, who founded Jeddah Comedy Club in 2012, is helping female comics take “baby steps, introducing them to audiences only once they’re ready”. Comedy is, he says, a “less controversial career for Saudi women than acting, singing, or other forms of entertainment”. He argues the recent precedent of Saudi women leading mixed crowds at KSA-based Ted Talks is an encouraging sign.
Maisah Sobaihi, who started doing stand-up at private functions in Saudi in the late 1980s, while attending King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, is equally passionate about reviving Arabic theatre as she is willing to abide by gender segregation norms: “If you move together, you move forever,” she argues. Sobaihi also performs in English because she “wants the English-speaking community to hear a Saudi female voice.” This paid off at Edinburgh where she fended off a plethora of humorous misconceptions: “People in the audience didn’t even know women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to smoke!”
Thematically she draws from life: “I was both married and divorced, and many women around me were in the same situation. But I am a very private person. When I got my divorce, it took me two years to admit it. Saudi women come from such a private culture. We hesitate to come out into the public. I don’t even feel entirely comfortable with all the publicity I got over Head over Heels”.
In part, the rise of Saudi comedy was spurred by the rise of international comedy troupes of Middle Eastern descent, such as Axis of Evil, who toured across the Middle East until their break-up in 2008.
Aron Kader, a former member of Axis of Evil, explains that “one of the goals with Axis of Evil was to help develop a local entertainment business across the Middle East - because they import everything. Everybody knows Seinfeld episodes, even in Saudi. We thought, why don’t you guys have your own shows in Arabic? That would be success for Saudi Arabia.”
Camilla Greene is an Associate Editor at Qulture.com.
Photo: Peter Sanders