Gaza City – Despite frequent power outages, a fuel shortage and life under a crippling Egyptian-Israeli siege, Mahmoud Zuaiter has not lost his sense of humour.
Instead, the 28-year-old from Gaza City is using comedy to address all those issues, and hopes to inspire other Palestinians to do the same. Zuaiter is the co-founder of a popular Gaza City-based comedy troupe called Tashweesh (“Static” in Arabic), formed two years ago when five childhood friends began recording their own short stand-up routines. The routines have since garnered attention online and aired on a popular television show called Bas Ya Zalame.
“Comedy is quite an important tool to keep Palestinians in the Gaza Strip away from gloom,” Zuaiter told Al Jazeera. “Our life is full of… occupation, blockade, prisoners, [and] shortages,” he said, noting satire is a way to keep people “smiling and laughing”.
In a satirical video posted by the group to YouTube late last year, Zuaiter wears a red button-down shirt and black bow tie while balancing himself, arms crossed and legs spread, across two cars driving side-by-side, mimicking Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Epic Split” Volvo commercial.
Comedy is undoubtedly a means to relieve stress and anxiety.
“I have been living in Gaza for [a] long time… I do feel like I live, but I actually do not. I do exist, but I don’t live. Our life is not a life,” Zuaiter says in the video, which has amassed more than half a million views so far. The end of the clip reveals that the two cars are being pushed by Zuaiter’s friends; they have run out of gas. “The electricity cuts off 12 hours at a time,” he says. “I have gone to sleep and woken up and the electricity would still not be back, and the water comes on when the electricity is off. I miss taking a shower!”
Comedy and satire have become popular mediums for Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip to express their daily hardships. While no official statistics exist on the number of comedians in Gaza, there has been a noticeable increase in satirical videos, which are shared via social media and local news websites.
According to data issued by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, total unemployment in Palestine reached 23.7 percent in 2013. While the unemployment rate was 19.1 percent in the occupied West Bank alone, in the Gaza Strip it was as high as 32.5 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment among male university graduates (between 20- and 24-years-old) reached 43.1 percent, while it was 49.9 percent among female graduates.
Sami Ewida, a Palestinian psychologist based in Gaza City who works at the Gaza Mental Health Programme (GMHP), told Al Jazeera that comedy can be a useful tool for relieving anxiety.
“Various psychological studies show no clear and conclusive data on the ability of comedy and laughter to treat people with psychological problems; however, comedy is undoubtedly a means to relieve stress and anxiety and actually this by itself may be enough at one stage,” Ewida explained.
The latest study conducted by the GMHP found approximately 30 percent of Palestinian children were exposed to severe trauma and revealed high levels of emotional and behavioural problems.
Zuaiter told Al Jazeera that he aims to break misconceptions that exist among Palestinians about their society and themselves. “We are trying… to deliver both the Palestinian society and the Arab world an audible and visual message that the Palestinian youth have numerous skills in art,” he said. Thaer Muneer, another member of Tashweesh, told Al Jazeera that comedy allows Palestinians to talk about otherwise taboo topics.
Other groups of youth have been inspired by the work of Tashweesh and other Palestinian comedians. Shareeda is another comedy troupe in Gaza that posts videos online to address issues such as nepotism, poverty, factional divisions, unemployment and differences between the West Bank and Gaza.
“Shareeda is a famous children’s game in the streets, but this game is what life in Gaza is like,” Ahmad Balousha, a Palestinian living in Jabaliya Refugee camp and the founder of the group, told Al Jazeera. “One person is trying to escape while the other is trying to catch him.”
Still, not everyone is convinced that comedy will help the political situation in Gaza.
“Our life is too complicated to be solved… by comedy,” said Mona Shabat, a 33-year-old resident of Gaza City. “It might help to make us laugh for [a] limited , but all the feelings will return to reality once you finish watching such videos.”