Yemen: The Political Power of Laughter

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Humor has also been used as a means to raise awareness and to express social and political dissent. (Photo: Atiaf Alwazir)

By: Atiaf Alwazir

Published Monday, April 30, 2012

Political satire poking fun at Yemeni officials mushroomed during the country’s uprising. Starting among a receptive audience in the tents of Sanaa’s Change Square, political humor now features on national television stations.

Anyone who visits Yemen will surely hear this infamous joke or a similar version of it:

“Satan decided to leave Yemen once and for all. Before leaving, the immigration officer informed the minister of interior of Satan’s plan. The minister then asked Satan, ‘Why are you leaving?’ He responded: ‘the Yemeni people don’t appreciate the good deeds I have done. I taught all the officials how to steal, and now that they built their castles, they have a sign on the entrance saying: this is from the blessings of God!’”

As this joke illustrates, humor is alive in Yemen despite or because of the many problems the country faces. Humor has in fact been used for centuries as a form of entertainment and satire in Yemen. The work of the 18th century poet Al-Khafanji, who was known for his satirical work, was very popular especially when famous musicians used his poetry as lyrics.

Humor has also been used as a means to raise awareness and to express social and political dissent. Radio programs such as Musid wa Musida in the 1980’s, depicted a married couple who faced daily struggles but always managed to resolve them. The characters often fought and poked fun at each other, making them national icons. The show was witty, funny, and captured the attention of every household and taxi driver who anxiously waited for the new episodes.

Recent television shows such as the Ramadan program Keeny Meeny also use comedy to highlight social issues such as early marriage, health care, and corruption.

Today, the complexities of the political process and the unreliable news coverage provide material for comedians and artists. Making fun of Yemeni politics has become a national hobby.

Mocking Misery

Kamal Sharaf, a 33-year old cartoonist, began his career in 1996 with a passion for drawing by focusing on social issues. “The best way to raise awareness about difficult social issues is to show the misery of people in a funny way. They have enough misery. They should deal with it by smiling, not crying,” he says.

Then, in 2008 during the ongoing war in the northern province of Saada that began in 2004 and lasted until 2010 – when government forces fought Houthi rebels and media was barred from covering the news – Sharaf began making political cartoons focusing on the situation in the north.

“I made my first caricature of former President Saleh,” recounted Sharaf, making the cartoonist one of the first to draw the president himself in a mocking way. In 2010 he found himself imprisoned for his work. In order to be released, he signed an agreement which stated that he would not poke fun at the president again, but when the revolution kicked off, he broke his promise.

The revolution has certainly pushed more artists to openly criticize government policies. At Change Square in Sanaa, where protesters are still camped out, musicians, poets, actors, and comedians all use humor to relay social and political messages.

The most crowded tents are often those where comedians imitate the president or opposition leaders, or perform comedy shows on stage. During the uprising, musicians such as al-Adrui creatively parodied many traditional songs with anti-regime lyrics, such as one wedding song which called on Saleh to leave the country like the bride who leaves her home.

Yemeni activists highlighting ongoing protests also made various short witty clips. One popular video with nearly 50,000 hits, mixed Katy Perry's hit song "Hot 'N Cold" with excerpts from former President Saleh’s speeches. The video creatively captures his contradictory statements regarding his exit from the country with Perry’s lyrics: “You change your mind like a girl changes clothes.”

While Saleh’s speeches provided material for many of these clips, the most inspiring character has been the deputy minister of information Abdo al-Janadi, whose peculiar commentary and imaginative responses to questions have deemed him a source of entertainment. Many compare his style to the Iraqi minister of information Muhammed Saeed al-Sahhaf’s messages regarding the invincibility of Saddam and the Iraqi Army in 2003.

After watching a press conference by al-Janadi, comedian and producer Mohammed al-Rubaa and his friend decided to make one satirical clip to respond to the deputy minister. The popularity of this clip encouraged them to turn it into a regular program on the opposition channel Suheil, making it one of the most watched programs in the country.

Similar to the popular American program, The Daily Show, Aakis Khat (“Against the Current”) uses news clips to highlight discrepancies between state news and reality. In one episode, al-Rubaa exposes a man who was introduced on Yemeni state TV as a political analyst, who insisted that the opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), are linked to Al-Qaeda.

One of the show’s fans contacted al-Rubaa informing him that the “expert” is in fact a Qat vendor and not a political analyst. To prove it, the viewer sent a video of the “expert” selling Qat. “I showed both images on the show to prove that state TV is not always accurate,” said al-Rubaa, with a mischievous smile. “In our program, the viewer has become part of the production,” he added.

Humor has proved more popular than workshops and seminars in raising awareness, especially in places with high illiteracy rates. To Sharaf, this is one of the reasons why his cartoons have been widely disseminated. “Caricature is the people’s preferred choice,” he said.

It is precisely because it is a language that transcends class and background, and can be disseminated very quickly, that the regime reacts harshly against it. Sharaf has not only been imprisoned, but like many others, has also been beaten and accused of spying. “They do these things because they don’t want people to think independently,” he argued.

Marked Man

Al-Rubaa’s life has changed dramatically since he began the show. He has been living in Change Square for over one year due to attempted arrest, regular death threats, and the bombing of his house. “There is an order to arrest me now, for what crime, I’m not sure,” he solemnly said. Even at Change Square, he needs to be careful, since there was an attempt to kidnap him there.

In one instance an innocent man spent one month in jail because security mistook him for al-Rubaa.

Some individuals, who have appeared on al-Rubaa’s show, such as the Qat vendor, have been alienated from their community. “When I was in prison, one Salafi man wanted to kill me because he was offended by my depiction of [conservative sheikh Abdul Majid] al-Zindani,” said Sharaf.

Despite these threats, both Sharaf and al-Rubaa vow to continue. “I have entered a door that I can no longer retreat from. I will continue no matter how hard it gets,” said al-Rubaa. With nothing to lose, are these artists free to do and say what they please? Are there any limits on their freedom of expression?

Red lines change from one media outlet to another. By working for a variety of media outlets, Sharaf was able to maneuver around dangerous subjects, diversifying his cartoons. “If I put all my drawings together from the various media outlets, you will see that I have made fun of everyone,” he said.

Given that al-Rubaa’s show airs on the opposition channel Suheil, which is linked to the Islamist Islah party, some people question his independence. “The problem with comedy in Yemen is that it’s too politicized,” said journalist Mohammed al-Maqalih in a recent article.

Al-Rubaa dismisses these allegations saying that he is open to criticizing everyone and he has already aired shows criticizing the new president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and even religious scholars.

Many Yemeni political satirists have focused primarily on raising awareness of injustice and questioning the status quo. The intent is mainly to provoke, shock, and make people question their reality.

Both Sharaf and al-Rubaa intend to continue their work in order to promote a new culture where criticism is accepted. “We need to break the custom that certain people are above criticism,” said Sharaf. “We don’t need any more idols. I draw this way to wake people up.”

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