The Syrian refugee comedians of Istanbul breaking stereotypes
Using stand-up comedy as a way to address stereotypes, a group in Istanbul finds humour in bleak experiences.
“We’re walking down the street, and I wanted a charger for my iPhone. I had 15 lira. So I picked it up and this is my way of bargaining – I’m Syrian pretending to be Turkish so I get the price lower. The guy selling me is Syrian pretending to be Turkish to get the price higher.
I met an American girl. We went on a date. I took her to a Syrian restaurant, because that’s the only place I can afford.
I’m like, What would you like to have?
And she’s like, I don’t know, what should I have?
And I’m like, Well there’s shawarma.
She looks at me and says, No, I’m a vegan.
I’m like, What does that mean?
She’s like, We don’t eat meat or chicken.
I’m like, Oh a vegetarian.
She’s like, No, a vegan. We don’t eat eggs, milk, chicken, yoghurt, or honey.
And I’m like, Oh a Syrian refugee.”
– Jokes by Omar Mohammad
“Romantic comedies are my favourite type of movies. My favourite scene in every romantic comedy movie is the airport scene – you know, where she leaves him and he goes and gets in a plane right away and follows her.
That’s so romantic. I saw that scene and I thought, ‘What if that guy was Syrian?’ You’re not going anywhere buddy! Like 30 percent of the movie will be in the visa office, right? Running from place to place, getting stamps. At the end, you get the final stamp: Rejected.”
– Othman Nahhas
“Put two Arab guys in one room and have them talk for five minutes about their parents, and it will turn up into a competition over who used to get kicked harder by their parents.”
– Osamah Shhadat
Istanbul, Turkey – Standing in front of an audience of more than 100 people, 21-year-old Syrian comedian Omar Mohammad jokes about his mother’s harsh discipline, trips to the cinema with friends, and desperately trying to get a girl to like him when he first moved to Istanbul.
“I want people to know Syrians away from the news,” he says.
On this Wednesday night, Mohammad has organised an event – Halalarious Stand-Up Comedy – where people from across the world take the stage to perform a mix of improv and stand-up.
He has been performing stand-up for two years in the bustling city of Istanbul, finding humour in sombre subjects including the refugee trail, the dangers of going out to sea, and integrating into Turkish culture.
“If it wasn’t for my refugee background, if it wasn’t for all the experiences that happened to me … I would have never had material to get on stage.”
After the comedy show, he recounts the story of how he arrived in Turkey from Syria.
He left with his family in 2012, first moving to Iraq. His father became ill, so it was down to Mohammad to support the family, working 14-hour days as a janitor at a furniture company.
Mohammad said he cried every day.
Eventually, his family went to Turkey and immediately headed towards the coast, hoping to get to Greece.
On the second attempt, his family was robbed at gunpoint.
It was then – on his knees, fearing for the lives of his mother and younger siblings – that he promised himself never to be sad again if they made it out alive.
I talk about being a refugee. I joke about it a lot and a lot of Syrian people get angry at me because I'm joking about Syrian refugees … but I'm always just showing the different point of view of a Syrian refugee.
They did, and Mohammad told his family he would build a life for himself in Istanbul instead of attempting to go to Europe again.
He got an apartment but didn’t speak the language and was eager to make friends.
He was inspired to try stand-up comedy after watching performers on Youtube.
In August 2016, he did his first performance at an open-mic night.
“I talk about being a refugee. I joke about it a lot and a lot of Syrian people get angry at me because I’m joking about Syrian refugees … [but] I’m always just showing the different point of view of a Syrian refugee,” Mohammad says.
“People who were, let’s say, disagreeing with me or didn’t like it, slowly started to like it because they were also laughing.”
He then started encouraging other Syrians to take part. One of them was Syrian-French Rama Rata, who was studying in Turkey at the time.
When you are doing comedy, people don't see you like you're in Syria or another place. When you are on stage, you create a person that is not totally you … I think maybe it will change people's minds.
She first tried stand-up in Istanbul at an event to raise funds for school supplies for Syrian children in Turkey.
Rata said after the war broke out, people in France assumed she was a refugee, despite the fact that she was born and raised in the country.
Performing allowed her to escape being stereotyped.
“When you are doing comedy, people don’t see you like you’re in Syria or another place. When you are on stage, you create a person that is not totally you … I think maybe it will change people’s minds.”
Mohammad says he organises his own Arab-themed nights in the hope of showing Syrians beyond the headlines.
Farah Hallaba, a 22-year-old university student who attended the Halalarious show, said such events increase her understanding of the refugee experience on a more personal level.
“Making fun of their own tragic realities, it’s definitely breaking the stereotypes … You’re more tempted to hear the story this way than on the news,” she says.
A study in February by the Istanbul Bilgi University and German Marshall Fund found that 67 percent of respondents thought Syrians were raising crime rates in Turkey, and 66 percent believed Turkish values and traditions were in danger because of Syrians.
Othman Nahhas hopes to change some of those perceptions.
As a liberal atheist, he says his jokes about family, relationships and God give him a chance to fight the typical labels of Syrians in a non-combative way.
“When you confront people with it, they get cagey, but when you make jokes about it … it gets them thinking, ‘Oh, they’re just people. Everyone has their own beliefs.'”
He left Syria in 2013 at the age of 17 to avoid conscription.
He reached Belgium, where he attended university, but, as his father was unable to find work in Turkey, Othman moved to Istanbul to support his family.
He had first performed stand-up in Belgium, realising it was a way of channelling his restless energy.
“When I make fun [of], for example, about how Syrians can’t go anywhere, how we can’t travel, a) I’m educating the people that you have more rights … b) I’m venting and c) I’m making people laugh, so it’s a win-win-win kind of situation.”
I got interested in comedy to let people know how we were living.
Also at the Halalarious event, 21-year-old Osamah Shhadat says he was inspired by the confidence and success of Lebanese-American comedian Nemr Abou Nassar.
But Shhadat’s nerves get the best of him at the beginning of his set.
He forgets some of his lines under the bright lights.
The crowd cheers him on.
He regains composure and starts joking about Syrian fathers beating their children as a form of discipline. Laughs ensue and his performance ends with enthusiastic applause.
Shhadat arrived in Istanbul as a refugee in December 2015. He now works at a sweets shop, where he says some tourists turn away from him because they are scared of interacting with a Syrian.
He hopes comedy allows people to understand his culture better.
“I got interested [in comedy] to let people know how we were living,” he says.