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Standing up for unity: building bridges through comedy in the Gulf

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Whilst there are inevitable irritants to living in such a multicultural society, these are far outweighed by the positive aspects of the interactions that everyone has to experience in their daily lives.

Michael Stephens
15 October 2012

Just before his death the late (and great) Anthony Shadid toured Doha to write an exposé on Qatar’s capital and its cultural life. It was not an overly flattering picture. Whilst Doha looked very impressive he concluded there was no soul to the place. Life stood empty even as Doha’s power and influence increased day by day: usually stories about Syria, Libya or enormous wealth and mega-purchases tend to fill the column inches, and that is just about all Qatar is good for.

He was partially right of course; Doha hasn’t quite reached the point at which it could be considered a bustling metropolis. But something is changing in Doha, and whilst it may be seen mostly through the expansion of glass and steel skyscrapers on the horizon it is also occurring in the day to day life of the city in more subtle ways.

As the country rapidly expands, bringing in people from all over the world, new outlets and ideas have taken root, and whilst usually quiet in their observance concerning the changing face of their country some Qataris are now adding their ten cents to the national conversation. Some even make jokes about it.

Qatar is a not the sort of place one might expect to see a stand-up comedy scene, yet Shadid was quick to pick up on it, and rightly so. In a country packed full of cultures forced together cheek by jowl, comedy is perhaps the best form of release to help deal with some of the growing pains that the country is going through. 

Hamad al Ammari, a 24 year Qatari is one of a few budding comedians that have risen to prominence in the tiny emirate in the past few months. He can be found dressed in the traditional Qatari thobe and gutra performing to crowds of mostly expat audiences, addressing topics ranging from the terrible driving habits of the locals, to terrorism, or the bizarre and often amusing questions that are put to him by curious westerners wanting to know more about his culture.

But all is not as it seems, Hamad is as comfortable in western culture as he is in Qatari. His English is heavily tinged with a thick Dublin accent so as to be indistinguishable from that of a local Irishman. A product of many years growing up in the Emerald Isle before returning to his homeland after university. Able to navigate seamlessly in and out of two worlds he is perhaps better able to talk to expats about Qatari culture in a way in which they understand and identify with, and which is simultaneously not offensive to the locals.

‘I feel blessed to be able to see Qatari culture as an outsider, and to have a foot on either side of the divide’ he says. Having initially been encouraged by a friend to try stand-up comedy, it has grown into something much more than just a fun hobby.  ‘I feel a sense of responsibility to fill the gap [between cultures], Qatar has opened its doors to the world, and forming a bridge between two different cultures is what I’m trying to do’.

Qatar’s diversity of cultures means that for the observant there are sources of comedy almost wherever you look, miscommunications, puzzled looks, and downright bewilderment are all part of the Qatar experience,  ‘there’s material everywhere in this country, it’s great!’ he adds.

Being able to tap into some of that confusion is often cathartic, and to have it voiced by of all people a Qatari is especially freeing, as Hamad understands well, ‘by addressing issues in a funny way, I can talk about things that everyone’s thinking but not saying.’

In a way the role of a comedian in a place like Qatar is not just that of being a funny man, but also providing a public space for a collective social release. The socially elevated position of Qataris relative to the expatriate population is a constant source of anxiety amongst foreigners fearful of upsetting their hosts. For a Qatari to stand up in front of expats and parody his culture as well as that of others allows people to see Qataris in a less distant light.

‘It’s good for your heart to laugh’, he adds ‘I want to bring everyone together to understand that we’re both here [expats and Qataris], and that as a Qatari you’re responsible for creating an impression in their experience’.

Hamad’s particular skill of switching accents to mirror the culture he is parodying greatly enhances this sense of collective togetherness. ‘If you talk to someone in an accent they’re familiar with it’s easier to get the message across, and using that can diffuse a situation and make it funny’ he says with a broad grin across his face.

One minute he is poking fun at Qataris speaking in broken English accents and driving too fast, before switching into Filipino English to make fun of Filipino airport attendants, before focusing his lens onto English expats from the north of England constantly complaining about the weather, in a broad northern English accent. No one is safe.

Whilst there are inevitable irritants to living in such a multicultural society, these are far outweighed by the positive aspects of the interactions that everyone has to experience in their daily lives. For Qatar to work, both as a nation and as an idea, the role of people like Hamad and other cultural commentators will only increase in the future. They serve to transmit information between cultures in a language which both sides understand.

‘I stand in the middle, and people inevitably ask me all sorts questions’, Hamad notes ‘but I want people to know that although we are different, we’re all the same’.

If it takes us laughing to achieve that goal, then long may it continue.

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