With the new season of Ramy receiving rave reviews, and the recent success of Mo, which stars Mo Amer as the first Palestinian lead character on American television, Arab comedy is enjoying a renaissance.
The effect can be seen across the comedy landscape and particularly among an emerging group of Arab comedians who have been carving out large audiences through social media platforms.
While the pandemic had a devastating effect on live comedy, it created a unique set of opportunities for some tech-savvy, aspiring comedians. Many Arab comedians saw their popularity soar during the ensuing restrictions as social media sites TikTok and Instagram offered a reprieve from the doom and gloom.
“During Covid, I stayed home and decided to create an Instagram page detailing the daily doings of my daughter and myself in a realistic way,” says Syrian influencer Dima Mousseli, who lives in Dubai.
Mousseli has almost half a million followers on Instagram. "I was tired of all the perfection shown by mummy bloggers, and I used to feel guilty whenever I used to see a mum who seemed to have it all.
“I wanted to do something in my way, using my voice that reflects the ordinary mum life. I also decided to compare how Arabs and non-Arabs deal with parenting.”
In the early days, Mousseli, who has always loved to act, had few fans. “I had 200 followers when I started; they were mostly my family and friends,” she tells The National.
“Then overnight, I woke up and found 4,000 followers. People started sending me screenshots of my videos being shared on Facebook and other platforms, and that is when I realised that I could do more than just the mummy and daughter page.”
Mousseli’s comedy skits compare the ways Arabs and non-Arabs react to different situations ranging from simple food allergies to the constant pressure Arab mothers exert on their daughters to get married.
For Iraqi-American comedian Reem Edan, the shift to social media began in 2020 after her US stand-up shows were cancelled owing to Covid-19 restrictions.
“I took my phone out and started making funny skits based on being an Arab and a Muslim,” says Edan, who has 65,000 followers on TikTok.
“I also did other skits based on timely things like the quarantine or shows that came out during the pandemic like Tiger King.”
Lebanese-American influencer Maya Hussein, who has close to one million followers on TikTok alone, says she first joined the platform for fun. However, when she began amassing followers, she started to take it more seriously.
Hussein’s skits are set in Lebanon and Canada, where she performs humorous conversations between two characters: herself as a young Arab woman who doesn't wear a hijab, and her older, more conservative mother, who does. She explores the daily life of growing up in an Arab household where young women are pressured to get married and mothers avoid discussing mental health issues. She also draws humour from interactions with non-Arab neighbours.
“Growing up, I always made my friends and family laugh by telling them jokes and re-enacting certain scenarios that happened to me. I decided to try that on TikTok and realised many people related to how I grew up,” she says.
Meanwhile, Iraqi-American comedian Abdallah Jasim, who has 177,000 followers on Instagram, was an early adopter of comedy on social media. He began in the heyday of the video-hosting app Vine.
“I started when Arab vine was a thing," Jasim, who lives in the US, tells The National. "A girl I knew started sending me videos of Arab guys making comedy skits, and she said they were making her laugh, so I said to myself, 'Hell, I'm funny too,' so I decided to start making my videos.
However, internet fame can come at a heavy price — namely abusive messages. Arab social media stars have developed a variety of strategies to deal with these.
“I do get hate messages, and some can definitely be hurtful,” says Hussein.
“In the beginning, I used to answer back to the messages because I was trying to defend myself, and a lot of the times in the comments, my followers backed me up. But now I ignore them as best as I can because you can't control the way certain people speak or how they think.”
“I do not take things too personally,” says Edan, “and this is something that I live by even outside of comedy because you don't know what people are going through, and the internet provides this curtain that people feel they can hide behind to act mean.”
Meanwhile, Mousseli says that cyber-bullying is a manifestation of mental health issues. “I don't get mad at them. I feel sorry for them.”
For Jasim, the best way to handle hate comments is simple: “Just delete and block.”
Despite these drawbacks, in recent years, social media success has opened up new pathways and career possibilities for Arab comedians.
“When multinational brands started approaching me, I decided to quit my full-time job and make this my occupation,” says Mousseli. “I started doing paid partnerships with brands and in less than two years, this became my bread and butter.”
For Edan, in addition to brand partnerships, she has became part of the Instagram and TikTok creator programmes, so she gets paid for views.
“I'm a professional, funny person, which means I do stand-up comedies, and I do comedy writing and write memes and jokes for different social media pages; for example, I write a lot of the memes and jokes for the Tom and Jerry Twitter page, for Looney Tunes and social media, and Scooby Doo social media.”
Hussein, who lives in Ontario, says: “In Canada, we don’t get paid with views like in other countries.
“I am working with an agency called Viral Nations, which brings me work and manages opportunities that come my way when it comes to commercialising or any other opportunities.
For many Arab comedians on social media, the future looks bright. Hussein, who quit her job in childhood education to pursue content creation full-time, says: “I’m planning on learning how to become a stand-up comedian."
Jasim, who still maintains his day job as a chemical engineer, says: “My plans are pretty big. I want to be a comedian who travels the world and does one-man shows, and I also want to be an actor. Jasim is working on a project called First Arab Superhero, which he is pitching to different production and steaming companies.
Mousseli, who quit her job in media to focus on content creation, sees a move into television. “This is the next dream,” she says.
With Arab comedy on the rise across the board, there's never been a better time for it.
Scroll through images below of Mo Amer's groundbreaking comedy 'Mo'