IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What's so funny in the Middle East?

It's hard to joke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but a pair of Arab comedians, citizens of Israel, are making the unfunny comical and, through humor, signaling discontent among the country's large Arab minority.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It's hard to joke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its almost daily fare of bombings, violence and assassinations, but a pair of Arab comedians, citizens of Israel, are making the unfunny comical and, through humor, signaling discontent among the country's large and formerly docile Arab minority.

They are Ayman Nahas and Hanna Shammas, the Arab version of Laurel and Hardy, though their jests sometimes leave a bitter aftertaste, even for the Arabs who make up the bulk of their audience.

Consider the skit in which a Palestinian, delayed at a military checkpoint, teaches a raw Israeli soldier how to properly mistreat him. "Don't say 'please,' " says Shammas, in the role of the Palestinian, as he objects to Nahas the soldier telling him to pick an identification card off the ground. "You should hit me with the rifle butt -- three times on my left shoulder."

By skit's end, the two performers have changed roles: Shammas imitates an Israeli army officer, orders the hapless Nahas to step away and then tells him, "Stop, or I'll shoot."

Or take their sketch on holiday cheer, sung to the tune of "Jingle Bells." It satirizes fellow Arabs in Israel for feigning concern about the Palestinians while leading a detached, self-involved life.

"Okay, boys and girls, let's all join in," suggests Nahas, the gangly, wild-haired member of the pair. He and the rubbery-faced Shammas sing in Arabic:

We'll go to demonstrations

Then come back to cafes

Chant our slogans loud

And get dizzy and high!

Oh! Martyrs rest, martyrs rest,

Martyrs rest in peace.

We'll keep up the struggle

So long as it's far away-ay!

'We have to laugh, like we have to eat'
The pair performs almost exclusively in Arabic, except when throwing in Hebrew slang used by Israeli Arab youth. Shammas and Nahas also have a small following among Israel's Jewish population.

"We have to laugh, like we have to eat," said Nahas, who trained as an actor and teaches the craft to children. "The problems are what everyone is talking about, what we see all around us, the killing, everything. So why not make a joke of it?"

Such black humor is rare enough in the Middle East; that it should emerge from the minds of two Arabs in Israel is all the more surprising. Although Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel's population, they traditionally have been a passive, invisible presence. A new, assertive generation has smashed that image, Israeli and Arab observers say.

The most dramatic sign materialized in October 2000, when hundreds of young Arabs in Israel protested Palestinian deaths at the beginning of the most recent uprising. The youths imitated their Palestinian peers by setting up roadblocks and throwing stones. Israeli police used live ammunition and killed 13 youths. An Israeli government inquiry said that police used excessive force and that governments of Israel have long treated Arabs within its borders with "neglect and discrimination."

In recent years, young Bedouins in Israel's south protested confiscation of traditional nomadic grazing grounds; the government responded by destroying wheat that the Bedouins grew on the disputed land.

About half of Israel's Bedouin population lives in villages that existed before Israel's creation in 1948 but are not officially recognized by Israeli authorities. The communities receive no water or electrical services from the government.

Close identification
Pointedly, observers say, Arabs inside Israel identify less and less with the Jewish state and more and more with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. "Discriminated against and excluded from important public spheres, the one million Israeli-Arab citizens stress their Palestinian identity, express solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and view terrorist actions against Israel as legitimate 'resistance,' " Yitzhak Reiter, a researcher, wrote in 2003 while at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Nahas, 29, and Shammas, 33, reject the traditional label of Israeli Arab citizen. "We're Palestinian," Nahas said. "We have an Israeli passport, but we're Palestinian. That's how we present ourselves to the world."

The close identification comes largely through virtual contact. Nahas has occasionally visited Bethlehem in the West Bank to teach children acting techniques, but has not traveled to Nablus, the Gaza Strip or other main Palestinian population centers. Instead, satellite television, the Internet and mobile phones link him and Shammas with Palestinian areas that lie only a few dozen miles down the road. "I remember the first intifada," said Nahas, referring to the Palestinian revolt of the late 1980s. "It passed by without us really knowing anything about it. Now, we can witness everything in our living room."

The pair met four years ago at a theater festival and decided that the combination of Nahas's frenetic style and Shammas's reserved persona could produce laughs. Some of their skits were shocking, partly because of their Richard Pryor-style use of profanity, which broke the taboos of a conservative society. They used regional accents -- Nahas specializes in a lisp characteristic of Nazareth Arabs.

They appear in sold-out theaters here in the old port city of Haifa and in small Arab towns, and on their weekly show on Israel's Arabic-language radio station, Al Shams. Fans recognize them at the cafes of Haifa.

Their burlesques frequently set the Arab-Israeli conflict within the context of popular culture. They depict battles between Israelis and Palestinians as a broadcast soccer match, in which cliches about scoring goals are transformed into accounts of killing children. In another skit, they turn a music request program into a call-in show, "Music and Death," in which Palestinians vote for the most popular suicide bombing.

A restaurant parody has Palestinians ordering various kinds of torture from an Israeli waiter ("The electric shocks are fresh today.") More lightly, they mock Arab machismo; a cooking show instructs clueless husbands abandoned by wives for a day on how to turn on a gas stove and distinguish a frying pan from a pot. Shammas and Nahas use minimal props. In the skit about the military checkpoint, the soldier is simply identified by a rifle he carries and the Palestinian by his plastic bag, the ubiquitous briefcase of poor Arab travelers.

Shammas said his parents' generation consciously steered clear of politics. "A whole generation lived in fear. They would say to me, 'Don't get into this.' 'Palestinian' was a word that couldn't be whispered. Now, it's cool," he said.

"We're confident enough to say which side we belong to," said Nahas, concurring. "Of course, my mother still warns me to be careful of the secret police."

"Why worry?" quipped Shammas. "In jail, at least we'll have a captive audience."