What makes an Arab laugh? Report from Jordan's comedy festival.

In a region known for conservatism and conflict, the Middle East's only stand-up comedy festival, held in Jordan, showcases how to tell an Arab joke – while trying not to break taboos.

Taylor Luck
A comedian at the Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

“In my country, just like Jordan, we aren’t tortured by our government,” said Pakastani-Canadian Ali Hassan, pausing awkwardly. Laughter filled the Amman theater before he could finish: “Inshallah (God willing).”

In a region known for conflict and religious conservatism, the Middle East’s only stand-up comedy festival is determined to prove Arabs can laugh – and laugh hard.

Arab humor is being showcased in the unlikeliest of places: Jordan, a country where residents have long embodied the image of the stoic Bedouin as immortalized in films such as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Although religion, politics, and sexuality tend to be off limits, comedians still have plenty of room to push the boundaries, according to Arab-American comedian and Amman Comedy Festival organizer Dean Obeidallah.

During the November festival, comedian Maysoon Ziyad poked fun at the pressures to get married, while Persian-American comic Maz Jobrani mused how Iranian opposition protesters were forced to shorten Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s name for rally chants.

Joke-telling in Arabic is a much more drawn-out process than in English, hinging on details rather than timing, according to Korean-Jordanian comic Wonho Chung. At times, the buildup to a punch line is closer to storytelling.

Even within stand-up, much of Arab humor remains regional; referring to well-manicured Lebanese men as “the most beautiful Arab women,” or poking fun at Saudis’ “disappointment” at the grand opening of the Virgin Megastore in Jeddah.

Although far from daring, the medium is slowly breaking a major taboo in Arab culture: discussing personal lives in public.

Not all are ready. The mention of family members or spouses on stage still attracts shouts of “shame on you!” as well as laughter, American comic Amer Zahr noted.

No matter which direction it takes, the popularity of stand-up proves that “humorless Arabs” are eager to laugh at themselves, stresses veteran Jordanian satirist Nabil Sawalha.

“Why not? We came up with the greatest joke of all time,” Mr. Sawalha said. “Arab politics.”

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