5 Reads: The DNA of Palestinian Political Comedy

In their introduction to Raeda Taha’s “Where Would I Find Someone Like You, ʿAli?” Robert Myers and Nada Saab invert the “personal is political” for Taha’s work, saying that, for her, the “political is personal.”

This is unavoidably true of Taha, where, as the daughter of a martyr and later a PLO employee, Palestinian struggles have been inscribed into her personal life. But it is also unavoidably true of all the political comedies below. While they are markedly distinct — one is satiric; one personal; one a work of comedic investigative journalism; one a Palestinian political romcom — they all take the larger political sphere and inscribe it onto the life of an individual.

Comedy is often subversive, and it simultaneously creates both an intimacy and a bird’s-eye view, bringing the reader close to the narrator and pushing them away. Comedy offends, exaggerates, delights, and — if done right — gets the reader to lower their defenses, if only for a moment, to see the world anew.

Raeda Taha, from “Where Would I Find Someone Like You, ʿAli?”

1) The Secret Life of Said the Pessoptimist, by Emile Habibi, tr. Trevor LeGassick and Salma Khadra Jayyusi.

This is the classic Palestinian political comedy, originally published in 1974, and its titular Said is a prototypical holy fool of the Guha variety. It begins with a visitation from aliens, but the comedy works essentially as self-mockery of Said’s cowardice, as well as his stupidity and candor, which creates a bond of comic intimacy with the reader. After all, once he’s freed of the earth, he can be honest with us about himself and others. He satirizes not only the Israelis, but also, for instance, the Arab nationalist lawyer who: “Recognized neither the state nor its newspapers and adamantly refused to meet any but foreign journalists. His declarations therefore appeared only in the two Times, that of London and that of New York, as well as in the major newspapers in the Arab world. As for us, leaders in the Union of Palestine Workers, we whistled in amazement, our lips pursed, at his patriotic impudence when we heard he had refused to educate his son at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But when he sent him to Cambridge—Cambridge, no less—we whistled in even greater astonishment.”

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2) “Where Would I Find Someone Like You, ʿAli?” by Raeda Taha, from Modern and Contemporary Political Theater from the Levant, ed. and tr. Nada Saab and Robert Myers.

This Palestinian political comedy was first staged as a one-woman show in Beirut in 2015 and is born of Taha’s personal experiences as the daughter of a martyr, as well as her long relationship with literature (she apparently told Mahmoud Darwish that she wanted to do stand-up), and her collaboration with Lebanese theatre-artist Lina Abyad. It opens with her sexual assault, when she was 24, by a PLO functionary. This might not seem like a launching-off point for comedy, but political comedy, by its nature, must make us laugh and open our eyes to things as we haven’t seen them before. There is perhaps no tool to make us trust a narrator better than candor.

Throughout the piece, Taha maintains a loving commitment to Palestine while also opening herself, fellow children of martyrs, and her mother up to comic exaggeration, and particularly skewering predatory men. At one point, the family visits a friend of hers, Simsim, who has complained about not being able to go on field trips for martyrs’ kids (who apparently got to have all the fun). Then Simsim’s father is assassinated and, “as we entered the house, right in the middle of the crying and screaming and the horrific scenes that we knew all too well, stood Simsim–smiling! ‘My wish has come true,’ she said. ‘Now I can travel with you.’ And she did. We would go on trips together and represent Palestine and perform dabka. Our group grew and grew.”

This one-woman play comes at the end of Modern and Contemporary Political Theater from the Levantand is the most recent, the funniest, and the only play in the collection by a woman theatre-artist.

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3) Nothing to Lose But Your Life, by Suad Amiry

Here, Amiry constructs herself as a foolish narrator who takes us into a deathly serious situation — sneaking past the Wall to find work — and turns it into absurdist political theatre. This is part stunt nonfiction, part comedy, part reminiscence. Amiry positions herself a coward, “a pretentious bourgeois, a romantic, and a leftist.” What she’s doing is serious investigative journalism, she tells us, but also a game.

😂

4) Native, by Sayed Kashua, tr. from Hebrew by Ralph Mandel

This book is made up of selected columns Kashua wrote for Israel′s Haaretz newspaper between 2006 and 2014, but it soars high above most of the newspaper-column genre: these are neither tedious chats with taxi drivers nor grandiose pronouncements on the state of the world. Most are semi-autobiographical shorts about Kashua and his family, a sort of one-man-show wherein we bear witness to the growing Kashua family and their struggles. Many of the columns have a larger-than-life feeling that are more TV sitcom than one-man-show. Kashua fashions himself as a chain smoker and heavy drinker; a clumsy husband with an overworked and underpaid wife; a bumbling dad; and an out-of-shape slob who′d love to impress cute younger women. He relies a bit too much on male boorishness for laughs. But for the most part, it′s family-friendly comedy.

He gives a particularly tragi-comic account of going to report that his car has been egged, after which his screens were ripped and egged, both presumably hate crimes. Police attitudes shift dramatically after Kashua mentions that he is a journalist with Haaretz. The officer who ultimately takes his report is helpful and kind, insisting that Kashua call for assistance at any time. Meanwhile, on TV, a football match has just finished: ″′Thank you,′ I said, and shook his [the policeman′s] hand. We both looked at the celebrations on the television screen. The fans and players of the victorious team from the country′s capital were celebrating the winning of the cup, dancing and singing ′Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs!′″

😂

5) “Sleep it Off, Dr. Schott,” by Salma Dabbagh, in Palestine + 100. 

The narrator, Layla Wattan, is telling us this story from the Security Bunkers in the Gazan Secular Scientific Enclave, which wouldn’t be such a bad place if there weren’t for the people constantly spying on you. This story, relayed partly as narrative and partly as playtext, is a Political Romantic-Comedy set in Gaza in June, 2048, leans on Dabbagh’s skills as a playwright as well as her sense of the delicate relationship between comedy and tragedy. As in Taha’s “Where Would I Find Someone Like You, ʿAli?” there is a sexual assault that is in no way played for laughs, but which offers the reader intimate access to the narrator, while comedy creates the distance we need to maintain both this intimacy and to see the larger world around us.

This story also uses a naive narrator, although she comes to understand her situation, as we do.

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