Satire has become an oasis for war-fatigued Yemenis – a temporary escape from the gruelling realities of life in a combat zone.
“I think things have been so suffocating in Yemen that satire today embodies the only fulfilling means of venting,” Yemeni TV host Mohammed al-Rabaa told Al Jazeera.
Rabaa is one of the most popular political satirists in Yemen, having made his breakthrough during Yemen’s 2011 uprising with an amateur video satirising a local politician. He attributes the popularity of satire to “its ability to speak far more to the Yemeni audience than traditional news media”.
Even though the uprising presented new opportunities for political satire in Yemen, the genre is not new in the country. In the 1950s, Abdullah Abdulwahab Noman launched the al-Fudhool satirical newspaper in the port city of Aden, providing a platform for satirical takes on current events. Issued every two weeks, the paper tackled everything from corruption to food insecurity, including a piece featuring a starving TV presenter who almost fainted while asking viewers to donate food.
In the ensuing years, satirists continued to parody their political leaders via song and on radio shows. The 1980s saw the launch of the famous satirical radio show Basmah (A Smile) on Sanaa State Radio. Established by the late Yemeni journalist Mohammed al-Mahbshi and journalist Ali al-Sayani, it airs each Ramadan and is re-run at other times throughout the year, satirising issues of corruption in the country.
Under former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Basmah satirised the lack of democratic elections in Yemen; today, it takes aim at the Saudi-led coalition and the government of Yemen’s president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The station on which it airs was taken over by Houthi rebels in September 2014.
“Since its creation in 1982, Basmah broke the mould and was certainly one of a kind,” Suad al-Wisy, a host at Sanaa State Radio, told Al Jazeera. “Today, it reflects the concerns and frustrations many feel in Sanaa, regardless of which authority carries the radio. However, I think the show doesn’t enjoy the same listenership it used to have, as there is a rise of many other radio channels attracting our audience.”
Yemen’s satirical landscape is heavily infused with partisan and sectarian overtones. Satirists use their platform not only to entertain but also to subvert rival media narratives.
Aden-born Karam Bahashwan, who began his career as a satirist via YouTube in 2013 in Aden, today hosts a weekly show called Wala Nakhs (Shut Up) that is broadcast into Yemen from Istanbul, Turkey, on the Belqees television channel, well known for its anti-Houthi/anti-Saleh reporting.
Bahashwan, who began as a social satirist, shifted his focus to political satire as the Houthis began their armed fight in Aden in early 2015.
“In that violent and intense political situation, one can’t help but shift to politics. I realised that the main source of all of Yemen’s problems was political,” Bahashwan told Al Jazeera, noting that he hopes his show can bring laughter to the public, while also raising their political awareness.
Satirising Hadi’s government and the Saudi-led coalition is a primary focus for Abdel Hafez Moujab, who hosts a daily programme on al-Sahat TV channel, presenting a counternarrative to pro-Hadi shows. His programme, Maa al-Akhbar (With the News) airs from Lebanon.
“After many years in journalism, I chose political satire eventually. I found it a useful way to expose lies, especially in light of the Yemen war and the media misinformation,” Moujab told Al Jazeera. “I aspire to offer a more truthful depiction through my simplicity and cynicism in analysing the news. I think my political humour brings the viewer closer to current events, and it grabs their attention more than the traditional media.”
With Yemen ranked one of the most dangerous places for media groups to operate, many such shows are being hosted outside the country. “Media groups can’t work inside the country freely, while there are increasingly attacks against the press,” Ahmed al-Zurqa, an Istanbul-based Yemeni journalist, told Al Jazeera, noting that various media outlets within Yemen have come under the control of different armed groups. “It’s an extremely hostile situation for media.”
Meanwhile, anti-Houthi satirist Mohammed al-Athroui – regarded by many Yemenis as a pioneer in the country’s political satire scene, having sung satirical songs on television since the 1990s, such as Toz (Whatever) and Ham Shaab (A Nation’s Concern) – has continued his work throughout the war. His show Ghagha (Cacophony), which airs long-prepared episodes every Ramadan on the Islamist Party Islah’s television channel, is broadcast from Saudi Arabia, as the channel’s official offices were looted by the Houthis in 2015.
Ghagha includes sketches and songs that heavily mock Shia scholars, prompting fierce criticism from pro-Houthi media outlets.
“I respect our religion and all sects, and I don’t aim to insult anyone, but [rather] to uncover some of the Houthis’ fictitious tales,” Athroui told Al Jazeera.
The dangers of his work are clear: A pro-Houthi judge in Sanaa recently issued a statement on Facebook advocating Athroui’s death “for his deliberate and repeated insults” against prominent Shia religious figures.
“I am not scared; in fact, I am certain now that my show is very influential,” Athroui maintained.
Rabaa says he has also received death threats because of his work; in one instance, his home was hit by bullets. “Over the course of Yemen’s war, Houthi supporters have tried to abduct my sister, attacked my brother and confiscated my house in Amran,” he said.
After more than two years of war, Yemen is now in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis threatening millions of lives. Despite the appalling outlook, satirical shows have found a way to lighten the mood – taking aim at everything from political oppression, to the crisis of unpaid
civil-servant salaries, to the Houthis’ hijacking of military institutions. Rabaa says he remains determined to forge ahead.
“Yemenis are reminded of famine, disease and devastation all the time, but they have forgotten how to smile, and that’s what we try to remind them of,” Rabaa said. “We don’t mock our misery, but we mock those who led us to the misery.”