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Ramadan: a time for fasting, prayer, reflection – and laughs?

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It's a well-known device. Sometimes the best way to grapple with difficult personal, social, and political issues is through humor. In Jordan, entertainers are delivering just that to theater and TV audiences during the holy month of Ramadan.

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Click, a short comedy series poking fun at 21st century social media use, in which each character personifies a social media app, is one of a dozen Jordanian comedies produced for the holy month of Ramadan.

Courtesy of Roya TV

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Divorce? Terrorism? Pollution?

After a long day of fasting, work, and prayer, many Jordanians are gathering each night this Ramadan for one thing: a good laugh.

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In what is quickly becoming a Ramadan tradition, Jordanians are filling theaters, hotels, and their living rooms for comic relief and satirical social commentary to cap the night during the holy month.

But it often has quite the edge.

Local TV stations have produced no fewer than 12 Jordanian comedic miniseries this Ramadan, marking a break from recent years in which lavish period dramas from the Gulf and Egypt dominated Jordanian airwaves during the Arab world’s biggest television and media season.

Experts and artists say the satire does more than tickle the funny bone. It fills a deeper need for citizens to discuss issues and frustrations in a country that over the past decade has borne a substantial burden from the region’s crises.

Local laughs

During the holy month, theaters and hotels in the capital host nightly “dinner and show” performances featuring regional and local actors and comedians.

Comedy has also become a genre of choice for TV stations who plan all year for holy month, during which family, friends, and neighbors gather in living rooms following the iftar meal, drinking coffee and having post-meal sweets in front of the TV.

Comedy, say artists and producers, has become a preferred entertainment for practical reasons: Comical situations, unlike heavy plays or drawn-out Ramadan dramas with casts of dozens and complex soap-opera plots, demand less from viewers.

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Some stations, like private Jordanian channel Roya TV, have dedicated an entire hour of short local comedy programs each day for post-iftar viewers.

“People are home after a long day and they want to relax, laugh, and have a change of mood,” says Nasser Khoury, content supervisor at Roya TV. “Nothing does that better than comedy, and the most effective comedy is comedy speaking directly to the people.”

While local and regional channels also air Lebanese and Egyptian comedies during the holy month, networks have found that Jordanian comedy – scripted, acted, and produced by Jordanians using the local dialect and touching on local issues – evokes greater laughs, and better ratings.

The subjects are topical, but often heavy: unemployment, overcrowded schools, refugees, rising divorce rates, government incompetence, pollution – and of course, taxes.

In an episode of the series, Jalta, featuring a stereotypical Jordanian family, the father of the family starts life after retirement from a government job – once a lifelong goal for most Jordanians – only to find that the free time, lack of purpose, and a small pension is not all it is chalked up to be.  

In another local series, Maalam Sahas, a crude-talking puppet surveys various hot-button issues. One episode explores the rising “exploitation” by taxi drivers, merchants, and Jordanian beggars who even throw themselves onto cars in order to receive compensation.

Another focuses on the ludicrously high tuition for private schools – one of the few options left for Jordanians due to public schools overcrowded with Syrian children – which can reach as high as $20,000 a year. In another, the love-crossed puppet goes into shock as wedding costs soar into the thousands – a familiar burden on young Jordanian men.  

At the end of each episode, the puppet hits the streets for reactions from real people.

Some comedy shows pull no punches.

In one such miniseries, 1,001 Dreams, young Jordanian men dream of an idealized world around them – the creation of a free Palestinian state, for example, or a united Arab nation that is a source of financial aid, rather than a taker of Western funds – only to wake up to harsh news reports of dead protesters and bitter Arab rivalries.

“Don’t look at me like that, this is the news, I’m just an employee,” says a news broadcaster on the show, breaking the fourth wall.

Populist punch-lines

Despite a reputation within the Arab world for being serious, stoic Bedouins, Jordanians have a comedic tradition of populist-driven satire that pokes fun at Arab leaders, the Mideast peace process, and even includes impersonations of King Hussein himself.

Artists say the time is ripe this year for Jordanians to once again turn to comedy.

“Jordanian comedy is originally from the people, for the people, by the people,” says Hussein Al-Khateeb, an actor and head of the Jordanian Artists Association. “It speaks about the issues facing average people and gives citizens an opportunity to express themselves and articulate their shared experience.”

“With the poor economy, unemployment, terrorism, refugees, wars, and the issue of Jerusalem,” he says, “there is plenty to talk about this Ramadan.”