Using comedy to break down stereotypes
‘They’ve occupied Faisal’s ear!’ It’s the start of the show and Faisal Abu Alhayja, one of two young Palestinian comics working with Mark Thomas as part of his new show, has had his face commandeered for a visual representation of the state of Israeli settlements in the West Bank: a corporeal ‘Palestine 101’.
‘Showtime from the Frontline’ recounts how Mark ran a three-week comedy workshop in the West Bank’s Jenin Refugee Camp – 0.42 square km of land that is home to 14,000 people – which culminated in the newly trained Palestinians comedians putting on a stand-up gig which created ripples through the local community. But this meta-comedy also succeeds in a more serious purpose: forcing us to rethink the neat ways we try to categorize – stereotype – Palestinians and refugees in general.
Of course, Palestinian society has its own tensions. Of course, it has its own, blinkered, ruling class. It’s just that it’s sometimes easy to forget that, looking in from the outside; news coverage of Palestinians dominated by images of tear gas, protesters throwing stones, Hamas launching rockets. What Mark, Faisal and Alaa Shehada succeed in doing here is getting past that, allowing the audience to empathize with Palestinians from a less two-dimensional perspective.
As one example, during the show Faisal complains about how outsiders visiting the refugee camp are surprised to see the locals with iPhones. ‘I bought this in New York!’ But the stereotyping is not always this trivial. ‘Our story comes from the heart and at the same time it’s sad and funny,’ Faisal tells me afterwards. ‘We break the expectation of the [audience] about what Palestinian or refugee means. People think either they are victims or terrorists. Palestinians, we are a hundred things more than this, but this is how the world sees us.’
Through re-enacting the highs and lows of the comedy workshops in a series of sketches, the trio provides insight into both the cultural challenges of putting on stand-up in Palestine, and also gives us an idea of what daily life is like under the occupation. Clips of the young Palestinians – both men and women – at their debut show at the end of the workshop are remarkable – and the show’s satire of the community reaction brings another layer of laughs. In the second half, Mark clears the stage for Faisal and Alaa each to do their own sketch.
‘The idea of opening an arts centre in a refugee camp sends out a real challenge to people about ways of telling our stories and who we are,’ Mark told me. ‘It raises the... poverty of vision that we can sometimes have as westerners into the idea of a refugee or refugee camp.’
Instead we get a different perspective: young people trying to do something new in the face of a conservative and religious society; and jokes about sex and dating, themes familiar the world over. There are also more esoteric gags too: one bizarre routine is built around the much-loved Palestinian upside-down rice dish Makloubeh.
‘I love the fact that it changes, it challenges,’ Mark told me. ‘I love the fact that [audience members] come up [to me] and they say “I’ve never heard Palestinians criticize the Palestinian Authority.”’
Often, the presentation of Palestinians gives a ‘“they need our help vision” – about donations and aid, us being benevolent,’ Mark says. ‘But if you look at arms sales or British government policy, then we’ve had a hand in creating the crisis. What it actually says, this vision of the non-western world is – look at them, they’re incompetent. They’re waiting for us to come and sort things out. There’s a whiff of fucking racism about it.’
For Faisal, the show’s blend of comedy and play offers a useful way to get a different message across. ‘I'm an actor and a clown, so I'm used to the theatrical life but this is something new: for us it’s an interesting new form for telling stories, our stories,’ he says. ‘We feel it's more effective because we talk to the audience face to face.’
Many of the young comics got hassled, some by the Palestinian police, for taking part in the show. ‘Some people liked it, and of course some people laughed’ says Faisal. ‘Because we talk about the food, we criticize ourselves, the community around, in a funny way... so some people didn’t like this, you know, [they would say things like]: “foreigners raping the mind of [Palestinian] women”.’ But despite publicly disapproving, several officials later took comics aside to privately offer material for future comedy.
Will they be holding any more workshops like these in Palestine? 'We hope to do some in the future but I don't want to say what they are yet!’ says Mark. ‘Because I don't want to jinx them..but there are plans.’
Showtime from the Frontline will continue to tour the UK throughout March and April. For tour dates, please visit MarkThomasInfo.co.uk.