Standing in the frigid heart of Berlin in February, recent refugee Firas Alshater blindfolded himself next to a scribbled sign that read, in German, “I am Syrian. Do you trust me? I trust you. Hug me.”
It took awhile. But after one selfie-snapping man gave a half-hug, others lined up to embrace Mr. Alshater. “When the Germans start with something, they can’t quit,” he muses in a YouTube video he made about the social experiment. It has now garnered more than 700,000 hits.
The clip was a test run for the filmmaker from Aleppo who was imprisoned and tortured under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for making movies. Two and a half years after being granted asylum in Germany, he sought to shed light on his unexpected life in the way he always has: humor.
“When I see someone crying in front of me, I try to make them laugh,” Alshater says. “It’s really a way to come into the hearts of people.”
He is one of a handful of Syrian and Muslim comics drawn to the German capital for its “anything goes” attitude and ability to make fun of subjects that they could not in Syria or many places elsewhere. And they are finding that the Berlin comedy scene provides them not only with opportunity to express themselves freely, but also to build bridges between themselves and their European-descent neighbors.
"All people are laughing and smiling in the same language," Alshater explains. "When I smile, it doesn’t matter where I come from, or what my language is, because you will understand my smile. That’s the most important thing."
Not a laughing landscape
Germany is perhaps as well known for a lack of comedy as it is for well-designed cars. Germany scored the title of “least funny country” in one 2011 survey of 300,000 people from 15 countries worldwide. The country’s comedy is usually dominated by Kabarett, a theatrical pre-World War II creation, and stolen jokes from American sitcoms, says Kinan Alattar, a Syrian stand-up comic who has lived in Berlin for the past 16 years.
He recalls typing “German com” into Google’s autosuggestion feature. “German computer” and “German company” emerged, but no German comedy. “It was totally lacking,” says Mr. Alattar.
He found the same to be true for the comedy scene in Berlin, which remains dominated by nightly expat-driven English shows, he says. In response, he founded a weekly comedy show in German a year ago at Mastul, an arts and culture association with a bar. It’s located in the neighborhood of Wedding, known for its large population of Turks and people of Arabic origin – the same demographic as many of the comics and audience members.
Alattar’s own jokes tie in with his background – “In comedy you’re always explaining what’s personal,” he says – and can sometimes edge into societal criticism.
Taking the stage last Thursday, he described a benefit football game between Syrian refugee children and German children. The refugees would receive 1,000 euros from a sponsor for each goal they scored. The ever-competitive Germans won seven to zero.
“That’s a joke about refugees trying to integrate in German society,” he later told the Monitor. “But it’s also a joke that we in Germany take everything too seriously.”
'How you change perceptions'
Through comedy, the very act of not being too serious can spark change or at least provoke people to think differently, says comedian Toby Arsalan.
"When you say you’re Muslim people always have a certain image of what they can expect and that lets you play with it,” says Arsalan, a German-Pakistani who also grew up in Syria and South Africa. "And I think one of the first things you realize when you start doing comedy is, as you go on stage, people are always going to have some first impression. So a lot of people tell you that, as the first joke, you should you know play with your own perception."
His self-description as "German. Muslim. Comedian." is one way he tries to do that. "I would say I’m German and Muslim and the crowds would get completely quiet,” says Mr. Arsalan. “Because Germans and Muslims aren’t known for spreading joy around the world.”
But that gives him a chance to change minds. “If I’m funny, it reflects well. People might think: Germans do have a sense of humor. Or Muslims. That’s how you change the perception of something.”
Drawing from his experiences, Arsalan’s sets sometimes include material from when he lived in Syria “before the war, when it was just a normal, peaceful, oppressive dictatorship,” he says in one act recently posted to YouTube.
To reach a wider audience, including new refugees, Arsalan does his acts in English. While he has hosted and performed at various refugee fundraisers in Berlin, “I would rather have them in the audience than simply raise money for them."
"For a brown guy to see someone brown on stage is already an empowering thing," he says. "So it’s really more on a personal level that comedy can have an effect. If you have a sense of humor it can make you feel better about yourself."
Winning people over through humor
Arsalan is planning a comedy show geared toward bringing locals – Berliners, expatriates, and refugees – together, by featuring comedians from the same variety of backgrounds, and advertising it at and around the shelters in which refugees are living.
Alshater also strives to reach both Germans and refugees, and has had success. His initial YouTube video has evolved into a series, Zukar (Sugar), that tackles Zeitgeist themes such as integration, women’s equality, right-wing extremism – and even, on occasion, cats. “They get way more clicks on YouTube than me without doing anything,” he explains.
He receives hundreds of comments a day in Arabic, German, and English. And his playful antics have also changed the minds of some of his viewers.
“I get a lot of comments,” he says, “from people who write, ‘I am against Islam and never thought I would like refugees in my life, but I want to be honest with you. I like your videos. And now I think all refugees are like you.’”
This was part 7 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.