Celebrating the strength of Middle Eastern stand-up comedy

Jenan Younis, founder of the Weapons of Mass Hilarity Festival, tells 'The National' what drove her to set up the world-first event

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When British-Assyrian comedienne Jenan Younis was a young teenager, she read a hefty biography about South American revolutionary Che Guevara and decided she wanted to be "just like him ― minus the stubble".

As a politically active schoolgirl in London, she protested against the Iraq war and regularly had her “free Palestine” badges confiscated at school.

But as the conflicts in the Middle East raged on, Younis felt increasingly powerless and apathetic, with "only the facial hair" connecting her to her childhood hero.

While negotiating unwieldy bodily hair was a big part of her early stand-up repertoire, the BBC New Voices winner and star of BBC Radio Jenan’s Comedy Hour tells The National she is now ready to confront some of the politics that were once a source of fatigue.

One of 11 performers at the Weapons of Mass Hilarity comedy festival in London, Younis ― who founded the event spotlighting acts with links to the Middle East ― says her own performance is a critique of contemporary political activism in the digital age.

Meanwhile, Irish-Iranian comedian Patrick Monahan, who is also performing, tells The National that our post-pandemic crisis-ridden world needs comedy now more than ever and that riffing off his heritage for laughs is a way to “bring people together, not to alienate them”.

Award-winning stand-up comedian Patrick Monahan is touring his new show and will be performing at this year's debut Weapons of Mass Hilarity comedy festival in London. Victoria Pertusa / The National

"It's a festival where you can get to see a comedy show but also you get to be more open and honest about our experiences being from these places that you normally only hear about in the news," Monahan says.

Not that he is precious about playing on stereotypes, he says, but it's about "talking about those things in a funny way while making it relatable … and where we can all laugh in a safe space.

"Festivals like this are more about having fun, laughing together and not being scared of the Middle East."

The new comedy festival in town

Upending stereotypes and “recalibrating perceptions of our community” is what led Younis, a part-time doctor whose parents hail from Iraq and Palestine, to start the Weapons of Mass Hilarity comedy night in the first place in 2017.

As a non-Arab, non-Muslim from the Middle East she felt as if her identity was being marginalised and wanted to open up other “sidelined” perspectives of a region that is often misunderstood and generalised in the West.

“I do it because I think people like me have stories that need to be shared and if we're not going to get that platform in a conventional creative sense within the industry then we need to create our own platforms,” Younis tells The National.

Four years and successive sell-out nights later, Younis is spreading the laughter more widely, with a three-day comedy festival that promises even more facetious finger-pointing - as well, she says, as breaking a Guinness Record for being the world's first ever all Middle Eastern comedy festival.

From Edinburgh Fringe Festival regular Amir Khoshsokhan and the British-Surinamese-Palestinian double act Shirley and Shirley, to multi-award-winning Egyptian-American comedienne Maria Shehata and Anoushka Rava ― who has Catholic, Jewish and Muslim heritage ― the line-up promises hilarious and diverse revelations about a region that is more often associated with tragedy than comedy.

Egyptian-American comedian Maria Shehata jokes about her life in the UK, her failed engagement, unlikely flatmates, and the archaic wedding vows she narrowly avoided. She was named one of the Top Five Best New Acts of the Edinburgh Fringe and was a semi-finalist at the London International Lonely Wolf Film Festival. Photo: HD Management

Younis says she also wanted to create opportunities for these talented but often overlooked comedians to get the “attention and promotion” that all too often goes to the “already established big TV names”.

“But they're not necessarily the people that need help and I really thought I want to do something different. Especially for a marginalised community that is pigeon holed as only being able to crack a terrorist joke,” Younis says.

Some of the shows will be works-in-progress ― an opportunity for performers to practise their punchlines ahead of the more mainstream comedy circuit ― meaning the audience’s input is an integral part of the festival.

Whether artist or spectator, collaboration is what Younis is hoping to achieve because “we are always stronger collectively”, she says.

Ideally, Younis would hang up her scrubs for ever and make laughter her medicine, but the pandemic’s decimation of live shows scuppered those plans and her comedy night needs a lot more funding before it can be a viable full-time job.

“This is a pan-Middle Eastern Festival and the acts that are performing come from a really wide range of backgrounds and sometimes that doesn't tick the right boxes for certain organisations who want the performers to either be all ex-refugees or talking about the Calais jungle or Trump’s travel ban,” she says with tired frustration after struggles to get backing.

Meanwhile, audiences tell her they’d like to see more of the acts she brings presented on mainstream comedy stages and channels, but the producers Younis regularly invites never show up.

“I think they also pigeonhole us. Sometimes we're too niche and sometimes we’re not quite niche enough.”

Politically active comedy

Younis takes particular aim at what she calls “toxic white feminism” that often sidelines the narratives of women from ethnic minorities.

“I grew up in a very British, white, middle class environment and feeling left out wasn't always just about ethnicity, it was also about gender. And so I think a lot of it is sharing some of those stories, not just from my early adult life, but also some of my earlier encounters of those micro-aggressions,” she tells The National.

Tokenism and unfair assumptions that she was “destined to be uneducated or to be repressed or to behave a certain way” because of her ethnic background are some of the frustrations Younis “will be getting out of my system”.

It’s an issue Younis finds relevant to the politics of today.

As the UK government overhauls its immigration system, its new deterrent policies ― from criminalising asylum seekers to offshore processing and deprivation of nationality ― are seen by some as hostile to ethnic minorities.

“Something that we don't talk about as a community is that it's hurtful being reminded that we are not just second-class citizens, but we are bottom of the barrel. You know, does that mean if my parents came here now they'd be sent to Rwanda?”

London-based Jenan Younis is a comedian and part-time doctor. She started the Weapons of Mass Hilarity night as a way of highlighting Middle Eastern talent in comedy. Her set this year looks at political activism in a confusing era. Photo: Jenan Younis

Western public reaction to the war in Ukraine has raised some eyebrows, particularly from those with Middle Eastern backgrounds, over “selective sympathies” and biased media representation.

All the more reason to get a different perspective, Younis says.

“I think if you come to any one of our nights, you see that no two comedians are ever going to talk about the same thing. And their material isn't necessarily identity driven. So I think we need to showcase our stories in a medium that's not necessarily a documentary or a strait-laced news piece.

“I think that the arts is a great medium to find that and to talk about things that make people listen to things they wouldn't normally listen to. So that's a huge motivating factor for me."

Looking up, not punching down

Given the plethora of volatile topics to poke fun at from the multinational set, is Younis worried about potential skirmishes in the wake of the Chris Rock and Will Smith punch-up at this year’s Oscars?

“Well, so far we've not had any physical violence, we've not even had any verbal violence,” Younis says.

Although she admits there have been some “close moments”, she says their audiences tend to understand the context and nuances of the jokes told, taking them “with a pinch of salt”.

More importantly, she says, the comedic crop she engages with tends not to “punch down” with “inappropriate roast jokes” about situations or conditions that don’t affect them (a reference to Chris Rock’s quip about Jada Pinkett’s alopecia).

“Smart comedians will be able to talk about whatever they want in a way that is sensitive. But I also think you need to know who the comedian is and where they're coming from,” says Younis, who recalls being angered as a child watching an American comedy show that mocked people from the Middle East, including their abundance of body hair.

“I thought, what right has she got to say that? She had no personal experience, no personal connection, to talk about something that I struggle with on a daily basis.”

Having now reclaimed those hair jokes for herself, Younis seems set on her mission to give other culturally similar comedians the platform to laugh at their own expense.

Weapons of Mass Hilarity Comedy Festival will take place from Thursday, June 2 to Saturday, June 4 at 2Northdown in London. For more details see here

Updated: May 24, 2022, 2:14 PM