- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2008

AMMAN, Jordan

Torrents of raucous laughter erupted through the crowd, packed mainly with youths clad in T-shirts and jeans who were eager for some good, clean fun.

“This is great. Everybody’s on time. All the Arabs showed up,” Jordanian-American comic Mike Batayneh said, ribbing the audience of 3,000 about the penchant for lateness in the Middle East.

“Normally, it’s like, ‘What time did you get here?’ Ah, ‘Sometime between 2:30 and Monday’,” the Detroit native joked in English.

The audience in the capital’s plush King Hussein Cultural Center auditorium roared.

Palestinian-Italian-American Dean Obeidallah, 38, didn’t let up on the crowd.

“There’s a reason why there’s no Arab superhero, like Batman or Ironman,” he said. “That’s because he’d be 20 minutes late for every emergency.”

Mr. Obeidallah, formerly of the Axis of Evil comic group, was one of 16 performers at the Arab World’s first stand-up comedy festival last week. The object: to show the humorous side of a region often stereotyped as militant, repressive and depressing.

The Axis of Evil comedians - Americans of Middle Eastern origin - were best known for wielding their humor as a weapon against prejudice until they disbanded a year ago. Aron Kader, Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani are the other members of the group, which reunited for a performance at the festival.

“Comedy in the Middle East is exploding,” Mr. Ahmed said, laughing at the pun. He noted that the comedy initiative started less than a year ago in the region and has taken off with shows in Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Mr. Obeidallah, who co-founded the New York-based All-Arab American Comedy Festival six years ago, said the festival in Amman surpassed his expectations.

Stand-up comedy is a new phenomenon in the Arab world, better known for its centuries-old tradition of storytelling, he said.

“The festival sold out 12 days in advance, breaking a stereotype about Arabs who always wait until the last minute to buy tickets. We were inundated,” Mr. Obeidallah said. “We could have done many, many more shows here. It’s been amazing.”

Amman’s mayor, Omar Maani, spearheaded the five-day, not-for-profit event and is pushing to turn his city into a comedy capital on the model of Montreal and Edinburgh, Scotland, which hold annual comedy festivals that draw top stars.

Other festivals in Beirut and Cairo are planned for early next year. Amman will host a 10-day comedy event in 2009 marking both the city’s 100th birthday and the 10-year ascension to the throne of Jordan’s ruler, King Abdullah II.

“The vision of the mayor and the king is that comedy is much more than telling jokes,” Mr. Obeidallah said of the festival, which had Abdullah’s support.

“It’s about art, getting people involved, and an opportunity to show people that Arabs have a sense of humor and laugh,” he said. “We all hope it plays back to the United States, Europe and the rest of the West.”

Mr. Obeidallah said he and other Arab-American comedians are able to poke fun at Arab perceptions of themselves while making Americans more aware of their common humanity with Arabs.

This picture doesn’t often come across in the media, he said, adding: “We’re ambassadors to both worlds.”

Other former Axis comics agreed. Mr. Kader said comedians have been more successful than politicians in breaking down prejudices.

“Politicians never spit it out or get it right,” said Mr. Kader, who was raised outside Washington in Virginia by his Palestinian father and Mormon mother. “It’s always been us who have to say it. We pick stereotypes that are really easy to smash.”

One such stereotype is that Jordanians don’t laugh.

Mr. Kader said that misperception was debunked the first night of the festival. “Everybody laughs here,” he said. “Even a Bedouin city council member, who looked like he was carved out of stone, grinned broadly halfway through the set.”

Canadian funnyman Russell Peters, who also participated, said he was surprised to see how many Jordanians and other Arabs understood English and the cultural contexts of his jokes.

“I don’t have to overexplain anything anymore. They get all the pop culture references and they understand the accent,” he said. He added that many of his audiences in the Middle East already knew a lot about his act from the Internet.

Mr. Ahmed said another stereotype he likes to see toppled is that of Americans who don’t think of Arabs having a sense of humor. He said this stems from how Arabs are often portrayed on television.

“Then they see the jokes on stage and say, ‘OK, not all Arabs are terrorists or [fundamentalists],’ ” he said.

The Egyptian-American said one of the most satisfying results of the comedy craze in the conflict-ridden region is simply to see Arabs enjoying themselves.

“It’s a beautiful thing seeing these crowds coming out and laughing,” Mr. Ahmed said.

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