Have you read about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Pippa Middleton’s date at Wimbledon? What about how Morrissey mistakenly performed at a pro-Morsi rally? Or that the luxurious Emirates airline now boasts a shisha lounge aboard their A380 fleet? You probably haven’t. But that’s about to change.
Started in late 2010, The Pan-Arabia Enquirer describes itself as the “Middle East’s premier source of satire” akin to The Onion or The Daily Mash. The news source has risen to significant satirical stardom since March 2012.
With titles like “Middle East moves to outlaw berets in tit-for-tat row over French burqa ban” and “Israel calls on US to assist in pre-emptive strikes against the European Union,” the website covers a range of topics including: politics, business, arts & entertainment, and sport. You can also look up the made-up news by country – Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Across both satirical and non-satirical news sources, the Middle East is oft portrayed as a turbulent swath of oil-rich countries plagued with violence and overrun with corrupt leadership. In some cases, these caricatures of the region are based in reality.
Kevin Bleyer, former co-writer on The Daily Show, questions if “our sense of humor [has] grown more global? Or do those with a certain passport get jokes? “ Ultimately, he contends that the idea that “humor is local[ized] is less and less true.” This means that satire coming out of the Middle East can serve as a catalyst for more conversation outside of the region. Instead of simply relying on basic or traditional news sources, non-Middle Eastern readers may be prompted to search for further understanding if the way something is satirically portrayed is familiar.
Beyond providing its international readers with a momentary chuckle or two, The Pan-Arabia Inquirer serves a much greater purpose within the context of coping with the harsher realities of the Middle East.
Smadar Perry, The Middle East Editor of Israel’s Yediot Ahronot, believes that the “personification of the other is a healthy sign (in satire). Where there is no peace, at least we have something in common—which is a sense of humor.”
By taking jabs at multiple countries throughout the region on one website, The Pan Arabia Enquirer creates a safe space and sense of community founded in humor.
In Middle East news, we are constantly hearing about how disconnected governments are and how the multitude of factions makes any collaboration or negotiation near-impossible tasks. Being able to even relate to an “other,” even within the medium of alternative news sources, is a major step forward. Finding commonalities has to start somewhere.
But taking this plunge into the field of humor is not without consequence. Media consultant and Middle East Commentator Magdi Abdelhadi notes the recent example of Egypt’s Bassem Youssef, “whose show almost cost him his freedom because he made fun of Morsi.” In this case, the Youtube star turned host of satirical news show El Bernameg ("The Program") faced legal charges and arrest warrants as a result of the jokes told on TV that were deemed to be against Morsi and Islam. While Youssef was short 15,000 Egyptian pounds after posting bail after questioning, he did gain support from the international media community—perhaps most notably from fellow satirist Jon Stewart. His show continues to be broadcast in front of a live audience.
Perseverance, like Youssef’s, in the name of humor and satire is found throughout the region. Saudi entrepreneur Enas Alhashani explains that in her country, “there are not effective platforms to voice our humor.” Saudis have turned to Youtube because their government does not permit such shows on television. On average, Saudis watch six Youtube clips a day. Alhashani notes that the online webseries and videos are “locally produced by Saudi young men and women tackling issues such as corruption and women’s rights. The main idea is that they are being presented from the Saudi young people and this allows them to have room to maneuver than on TV shows.”
Across the region and within the international communities, satirical TV shows and videos provide readers and writers alike with a forum for which it is acceptable--and very much encouraged--to laugh at and to criticize themselves or their governments. Writers make accusations and play into stereotypes and paint less-than-favorable depictions of leaders.
And while The Pan-Arabia Enquirer staunchly defends the fact every story on the website is made up, the exaggerated articles provide a jumping point for which readers can question and reevaluate where they stand on current issues. Enas Alhashani claims there is hope for the future as a result of this new trend in satire. She argues that “This is a bold and courageous generation that has been silent for years and this is one that will lead the way to change.”
All quotes are taken from panelists during the May 2013 Enriching the Middle East's Economic Future Conference VIII in Doha, Qatar.