Absurdities and the Arab Spring in satire

BEIRUT: When Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the U.A.E. recalled their envoys from Qatar early last month not many people saw the funny side, but for the team behind The Pan-Arabia Enquirer, the news item was a source of satirical gold. They quickly concocted a story entitled “Qatar to ban Saudis, Bahrainis and Emiratis from Harrods in response to ambassador withdrawal.”Their fictitious report was shared more than 15,000 times on Facebook. Much to the delight of the authors, it was also picked up by a reporter at a Pakistani English-language newspaper, who integrated information and fabricated quotes from the article into a serious opinion piece analyzing political relationships between the Gulf States.

“It was perhaps the funniest thing we’ve seen so far this year,” a member of The Pan-Arabia Enquirer’s team, who requested to remain anonymous, told The Daily Star. “Not just because the author – a journalist of some 48 years, I think, according to his Twitter profile – had fallen for the story, but [because] he’d simply cut and pasted large chunks of it into an op-ed.”

The PAE has existed in its current web format since 2010, but has its roots in a monthly PDF dubbed The Dubai Enquirer, which the team began circulating to friends in 2005.

“Satire is a hugely important tool,” the staffer said, “as it gives people another way to analyze and critique the society around them, by highlighting absurdities or injustices through exaggeration. While [many] of our stories on the Enquirer are simply there to entertain, it’s not hard to see where our politics lie, and there are regular attempts to bring to light certain situations.”

In the media frenzy surrounding the series of uprisings dubbed the Arab Spring, a number of international outlets suggested that satire had helped to fuel the demonstrations and pointed out that the number of satirical blogs and TV shows tackling socio-political issues from a humorous but critical perspective had increased in their wake.

Karl Sharro, who founded Karl reMarks in 2008 as a blog for serious commentary on the Arab world, found that satire was the best tool for tackling the complexities of the regional situation at a time when radical changes were taking place.

“It wasn’t meant to be a satirical blog,” he recalled. “It was meant to be more of a political and cultural blog. ... Satire is something I wanted to do for a long time, but I never really had the right outlet. With the Arab uprisings, I started experimenting. ... I never meant it to become exclusively about satire, [but] somehow it’s proved to be more popular and it generated more responses.

“I guess with the uncertainty that was all around, writing serious article sounds a bit pretentious, as if you’ve figured everything out in your head, when the reality is quite messy. I think satire allows you to talk about these things without being a know-it-all. ... Even if you’re writing about something that people disagree with, if people find it funny they will still laugh about it. ... It allows you to become a little bit more nuanced.”

The Pan-Arabia Enquirer’s articles are largely focused on the Gulf region and poke fun at social and cultural stereotypes about locals and expats alike. In spite of the fact that the website’s homepage is tagged with the line: “The World’s Only 7-Star Satirical News Site,” the site’s layout and vaguely believable name are enough to fool many readers and media outlets into mistaking the content for serious news. As a result, the comments are often as amusing as the articles themselves, several of which have been republished by media outlets across the globe.

A story announcing that Emirates Airlines were to introduce nargileh lounges on long-haul flights was shared more than 130,000 times, igniting a storm of controversy.

Sharro’s articles have also angered some readers. A recent story for VICE, entitled “The Arab Spring was Just a Translation Mistake,” which was supposedly based on a Saudi-commissioned study, attracted outraged comments from people questioning its legitimacy.

Sharro has lived in London for the last 11 years and said that distance helped him in his writing.

“I think there is a sense of clarity that you get from being outside and looking back in,” he explained. “Going abroad, you kind of see the big picture, and it allows you to be more objective. ... These things helped me write better satire because it may sound a bit callous but you have to have to be brutal when you’re writing satire. ... You have to allow yourself to cross boundaries.”

The Arab Spring has provided plenty of fodder for international satirical sites such as The Onion and The Daily Currant, as well as for other regional English-language sites, such as Egypt’s El Koshary Today, which published frequent doses of satire from 2009 until it went offline in January. The Daily Star contacted the team behind the site to ask why the satirical blog had closed but received no response.

While the El Koshary team told media outlets that writing in English was a way to stay under the radar of Egyptian censorship authorities, for Sharro, English is simply more suited to the satirical format than Arabic and attracts a wider audience.

“I have Western [readers] that are really interested in the Middle East,” he said, “and then I have either diaspora Arabs or Arabs who still live back home. They’re interested in reading about the Arab world in English because I think it has some sort of resonance to it and it allows you to break away from the stuffiness of Arabic. ... It’s the language of the Quran, so it’s quite a difficult language to work with for this kind of subject matter. ... Writing about it in English gives you a layer of detachment and allows you to be more experimental and playful with different ideas.”

While El Koshary Today and The Pan Arab-Enquirer were producing works of satire before the Arab Spring began, the PAE writer said the uprisings had helped pave the way for others.

“The Arab Spring can be seen as a cultural revolution, something that has opened the doors for people to criticize or even just comment on political situations and the society around them. Just look at Bassem Youssef – he’d never have been able to do what he does under Mubarak.”

Sharro also noted an increase in humorous social commentary.

“It was also like there was this emergence of a sudden blast of irreverence,” he said, “more than necessarily articulated, formalized satire, from 2011 onward, so it was kind of a wave that we all rode in a sense.

“We had a shared medium through which to circulate it and exchange it and comment about it, which is ... social media. That’s created a constituency that wasn’t there before, people who want to read seriously about these issues, but they also want to find the funnier side. ... I’m skeptical about the whole Arab satire thing because a lot of it is in English and a lot of it is in fragmented forms, but there is a certain energy and dynamism about it, and it definitely wasn’t there 10 years ago.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 09, 2014, on page 2.




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