Beirut, Lebanon – “For me, stand-up comedy comes from a place of sadness or pain,” Wissam Kamal says, taking a sip from a full glass of whiskey in the sticky summer heat of a Beirut bar.
“The quickest joke I ever wrote was when my girlfriend of two years left me because she was from a Christian family and I’m from a Muslim one. I did the bit on stage two days later,” he says.
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The 27-year-old stand-up comedian grew up in a tiny apartment in the Beirut suburb of Burj Hammoud, a cramped neighbourhood that makes up the eastern flank of what is known as the capital city’s “poverty belt”.
As a child, Kamal recalls being captivated by his father’s ability to raise the family’s spirits with jokes when times were tough. “The situation could be really, really bad, and then suddenly this man does something very simple – but very hard at the same time – and changes people’s moods, just like that,” he said.
“It’s a weapon, man, and I liked the idea of this peaceful weapon.”
Kamal’s upbringing reflects a reality lived by many Lebanese who haven’t had it easy in the past decades.
Deep inequalities that have always existed in the country were exacerbated and poisoned with sectarianism during the country’s 15-year civil war, from 1975-1990.
Since then, years of corruption and dysfunction have left the country paralysed by debt, with little to show for all the spending. Infrastructure is crumbling, youth unemployment is estimated at 35 percent, and the threat of war with Israel is omnipresent.
But while the perpetual uncertainty of life in Lebanon has given birth to an infamous Dionysian joie-de-vivre, it has also caused collected forms of commentary to flourish – including increasingly taboo-busting stand-up comedy.
Nour Hajjar, 27, first stepped onto the stage about four years ago at a comedy club in Amsterdam while studying food safety at university. “Nothing funny there, just a lot of cattle death,” he says with a guttural laugh.
In early 2018, he did his first set at a weekly comedy show – named Awk.word – which was founded the same year. “It’s a safe space for people: no hate speech, no homophobia, none of that stuff,” Hajjar says.
Since last year, the event has snowballed from a fortnightly affair to several comedy nights per-week, propelling amateur funnymen from obscurity to sold-out, hour-long sets.
The club has a strict no-filming policy, partially to ensure comedians can take their jokes as far as they want, and also because they have copyright privileges to their material.
“If you’re easily offended this event is not for you,” a laminated sign proclaims at the club’s entrance on the eastern outskirts of Beirut.
The sign is there for good reason. At a recent Awk.word event, Hajjar mulled why Muslims allowed depictions of Jesus, but not the Prophet Muhammad, even though they were both considered prophets in Islam.
“It’s a double standard, and I talk about that. Some people get offended, but I can bring it up with a crowd I trust,” he says.
“I feel comedy can be the nicest way of being serious.”
In fact, in a country where freedom of expression is coming under increasing pressure from authorities, Hajjar says comedy clubs like Awk.word have become Lebanon’s freest spaces.
Kamal and Hajjar, along with Shaden Esperanza – an up-and-coming comedian – all took to the stage at a recent event held in solidarity with Lebanese pop band Mashrou’ Leila after one of their concerts was cancelled due to pressure from Christian groups.
The band has an openly gay frontman and, like the comedians, broaches religion and sexuality in their lyrics.
“You don’t want me to talk? I will speak in front of thousands of people,” Esperanza, who is openly gay herself, said, recalling how she felt when she took to the stage at the packed event.
Esperanza said she specifically chose to do a bit exploring what it would be like to have separate versions of the popular dating app Tinder for each of Lebanon’s sects.
“On Christian Tinder, Syrians aren’t allowed to open the app after 8pm,” she deadpans, alluding to curfews placed on Syrian refugees in a number of Christian villages across Lebanon.
“The best thing about Shia Tinder is that the age range is from 9 and up,” she added, to a mix of laughs and “oohs” from the crowd. There is no legal minimum age for marriage in Lebanon, the matter instead being left to the discretion of religious courts.
In another show at Madame Om, a 15-table resto-pub set in a high-ceilinged old Lebanese home, Esperanza recalled being taught at one of Lebanon’s French schools.
The schools are generally attended by the country’s Christians, owing to the French occupation of Lebanon in the early-to-mid 20th century, during which Christians were favoured.
“They teach you a map of Lebanon that begins in the north and stops at Chez Paul,” she says, alluding to a French chain restaurant that sits near the intersection of Civil War-era Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut.
Behind her hung a large image of an Arab woman in black and white, smiling.
She is a snapshot of Arab nostalgia, seemingly frozen in the 1960s, when secular movements abounded in the region and the future seemed to hold promise.
Today, “the left-leaning people in Lebanon think they represent this country,” Hajjar mulls. “But they don’t. It’s the sectarian ignorant crowd who are 70 percent, and those 70 percent get easily offended.”
He himself was raised in a family who “supported with their blood” the Sunni Future Movement of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri – the billionaire politician whose father led the lucrative reconstruction of downtown Beirut after the civil war.
“Growing up, I couldn’t really express my feelings,” Hajjar said at a recent Awk.word comedy night. “My dad told me: ‘If you want to make your voice heard, go buy shares in a private company’.”
But the three comedians said they believed in the power of their jokes to strip bare the stereotypes and fears embedded in the Lebanese collective consciousness.
Simply discussing daily dysfunctions such as Lebanon’s cynical politics, or the country’s perennial electricity cuts, was becoming boring, Hajjar says, because the absurd has become common-place.
“But if say, ‘Well hey, I’ve got a joke about it, so why don’t you listen,’ people respond to that,” he said.
“After shows, I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You know what, I realised I had some extreme views, but you showed me,’ That’s amazing,” Kamal added, nodding his head enthusiastically.
Others have walked out, he says. But that is an unavoidable part of the conversation he is having with an audience that, in Lebanon, can hold vastly different values just a few kilometres apart.
“I’m not looking to please everyone. People even dislike puppy videos online. You have little puppy doing this,” – he makes a lovable face – “and people dislike it.”