In a dimly lit Damascus cafe, Sharief Homsi kicked off comedy night with a quip about war-battered Syria’s modern-day prince charming: an eligible bachelor with attractive supplies of fuel and electricity. “Marry me, I have a bright future: 100 litres of petrol, solar panels to generate electricity and three gas canisters,” he said, performing a mock proposal that had the audience howling. Every week, members of Syria’s first stand-up comedy troupe crack jokes about daily struggles like power cuts and fuel shortages, lightening the mood for despondent Damascenes after 12 years of war.
The audience prefers “to laugh and forget the problems they cannot solve”, said Homsi, 31. “There is nothing else to do but laugh.” He and a few of his friends founded “Styria”—an Arabic mash-up of Syria and hysteria—four months ago, and put out a call on social media for others to join. The group has since swelled to 35 members and has become a success, regularly drawing crowds at the capital’s Deez cafe. “The country’s situation is hysterical,” Homsi told AFP, and “filled with problems and gloom”. “We must face it with hysterical laughter .”
The war in Syria, which broke out in 2011, has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced millions and battered the country’s infrastructure and industry. In government-held Damascus, religion and politics are off-limits for the comedians, deemed too risky to broach. Before performances, they meet at a troupe member’s home to brainstorm and try out new lines.
“They told me to draw in the crowds with funny stories,” said one comedian during a rehearsal, as the power dropped in and out. “I thought long and hard and found that the funniest thing in my life is… my life.” His colleagues encouraged him to talk about his love life. “He now has so many exes, his life is an equation,” one quipped.
At the Deez cafe, comedian Malke Mardinali, 28, said the troupe’s inspiration came from “our daily lives, which are full of suffering”. “In Europe, even under three metres of snow, the electricity still works,” he told the crowd. “Here, when we hear Fairuz sing ‘Winter Is Back’ the power cuts out automatically,” he said, drawing chuckles with the reference to a famous Lebanese tune. Mary Obaid, 21 — the only woman in “Styria”—joked about Syria’s public transport, badly overcrowded as petrol shortages push people to abandon their cars.
“Syrian buses can accommodate 24 million people,” she joked, referring to Syria’s pre-war population. “In the end, without misery there is no comedy,” she told AFP. Fellow comedian Amir Dayrawan, 32, said doing stand-up helped him “face the fears locked inside”. Depression set in after he lost his sister and nephew in the conflict, and worsened after a deadly earthquake struck Syria and Turkey on February 6, killing thousands.
Joining “Styria” helped him shake off his despair and cope with his loss, he said, despite having to self-censor. “We don’t mention politics, though we sometimes hint at sexual and religious issues—but within the red lines,” he said. “One day, I hope we can free ourselves intellectually and discuss any topics without fear.”—AFP