Cairo practice

Mike James witnesses the birth of a new Egyptian stand-up scene

My forays into stand up have been international: I started out playing to expats in Seoul, continued to drunks/students in Budapest, through to one forgettable experience in Liverpool and finally here to very sober Egyptians in Cairo.

After the January 25th revolution there has been a growing sense of optimism around the arts in Egypt with open mics both in Arabic and English and proper shows springing up around the city. However these have been largely populated by Egyptians mostly giving their own comedic take on the political events of the last 11 months.

There is a long history of Arabic stand-up in Egypt, performed often by a besuited middle-aged man telling mother-in-law jokes with a backing keyboard playing a musical interlude after every punchline, just in case the audience had missed it. However, what has changed is the younger generation now trying to make their own mark on the comedy landscape and do something that relates to them, that makes them laugh.

There is a new-found freedom to the Egyptian youth and an ability to express their hopes and frustrations to other like-minded individuals who for so long were unable to voice their angst. Whatever the quality of the comedians – and it is incredibly variable, many taking on the mannerisms (and often the actual jokes) of American-style comics who have noticed things, or have comical sounding parents who say the funniest things – the fact that these people are able to criticise the place, the institutions, in which they live is truly remarkable.

This is how I came to find myself at Up On The Roof a bi-weekly open mic night that showcases local poetry, storytelling and stand up in both Arabic and English. The running of the night itself is a disaster, set up by an English writer living in Cairo who does not so much host as performs a matronly duty of ‘encouragement’ to the acts and kindly reviews and praises each act between sets. This is not King Gong at the Comedy Store. The venue being an actual second-floor roof, with the sound of cars below and the wind stealing punchlines, is also not ideal.

I decided to go with a mix of poetry and straight stand-up in keeping with the type of performers the evening usually attracts. Unhelpfully, I was introduced as the first and only native English stand-up in Egypt, to which the audience honestly seemed unimpressed.

I thought it arrogant of me to comment on the political situation seeing as I had only lived in Cairo for three weeks when the revolution happened and was quickly evacuated first to the Marriott Hotel, for five-star revolution-watching, and later to a five-star hotel back in London (I work for the British Council)

The set itself comprised of a poem about love, discussion of the nature of birthdays and forced social engagements and ending with a poem entitled A Man Walks Into A Bar, a personal favourite. All in all it went all right, all of the material was new and a lot of it was written with an audience in mind who would have very few of the same references that I have.

I have been back since and this time focussed more upon discussions on Egyptian life and culture from the perspective of a foreigner (in this respect Egyptians are a lot like Northerners, they like jokes about things that have happened at the end of their road) and it went down well.

But, whatever my own modest successes or failures, the fact that these type of events exist and are giving a platform for performers wanting to do something for themselves is a true reflection that the revolution has given people a way to express themselves.

It is not perfect, the taboos that existed before, around religion and sex in particular, are still there and are not spoken about comedically, but slowly people are pushing the boundaries and creating something truly meaningful and worthwhile.

Published: 28 Oct 2011

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.