The following was written by Badar Salem for Vice in Arabic. It was translated by Elias Abou Jaoudeh and republished here.
“My dream is to be African, not Chinese.” It is with this phrase that the actor and comedian Adel Karam replied to me when I asked him about the stereotype, concerning “men in Africa” (that they have large penises), that he focused on in his new show on Netflix “Adel Karam Live from Beirut.” Vain was my attempt to explain that Africa isn’t a country and that not everyone on the African continent possess this gift that their Chinese brothers envy them for. No doubt that many in Arab and Western comedy focus on stereotypes of many peoples, and they are exaggerated to make their audience laugh. Laugh is the first and last goal. “My goal is to make people laugh, and Africans aren’t upset,” as Adel says insuring that his boldness and different style are what made Netflix give him a deal.
Adel Karam, 45, is a Lebanese actor that became famous through Lebanese comedy shows such Abour Riad’s Adventures, Ma fi metlo(previously La Youmal ), and he has acted in two films by Nadine Labaki, Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?, and recently in Ziad Doueiry’s film The Insult that is nominated in the Oscars, with the results being announced on 4 March. He also presents the show Hayda Haki on the MTV(Editor’ note: it stands for Murr TV) channel, where he hosts Arabic celebrities. Adel’s mocking style doesn’t appeal to everyone, there is a lot of generalization, stereotyping and subjectivity in his show that despite all of this, or because of it, get high view rates on YouTube.
The type of comedy that Adel Karam presents isn’t new for the Arab world, as many shows rely on “jokes” that make fun of anything that appears to them as “unacceptable”, be it related to physical shape or way talking or way of clothing or even beliefs. I was hoping that his show on Netflix, which is trying to offer new Arabic content, would be slightly different, but after watching the show, those expectations fell. I felt that most of the jokes were repeated – different kissing customs in Jordan and Lebanon, the sheep from which no part is thrown out in Lebanon, the mother that asks her daughter to dance at the wedding to seduce the man coming from Dubai, the jokes are unoriginal and full of stereotypes about Africans, women, nurses and even female tennis players weren’t spared.
Must comedy be this way? I wanted to hear Adel personally, and the interview was set during his stay in Dubai for the promotion of his show. He was wearing a white shirt and blue jeans and looked tired, an expected thing after so many interviews. I arrived to the interview before the set time, but Adel decided to start the interview, and I understood that he hadn’t smoked a cigarette before the interview (which might explain his mood later on). The moment we enter the room for the interview, the electricity went out, “since when did the electricity go out in Dubai,” said Adel surprised. I answered him “Lebanese effect,” referencing the constant electricity cuts in Beirut. No one laughed at my joke, I am not sure if they hadn’t heard or if they had decided to completely ignore me. Adel is the one supposed to be making jokes, not me.
The interview started in slight darkness, we talked about his team that helps him in his writing and about comedy n the Arab world and I asked him about the comedy landscape in the region and what plus he brings to it. “I believe that there are many people that know about stand up comedy, but I have been in this business for a long time and that is what encouraged Netflix to present this show. Stand up comedy requires a lot of work. The comedian has to be precise about the way he tells a joke, how he acts it and how he interacts with the audience. That and the majority do their shows in English, and in my opinion manliness comes from doing stand up comedy in his native language, in Arabic, and that is what is different.”
Manliness is a strong word to describe a comedy show, but that is his opinion. What about the issues that he will focus on his program? “Social life matter,” Adel answered, “personal experiences that I recount in a comedic fashion. I don’t talk of politics.” Comedy without politics, is that even possible in the Arab world that lives and eats and drinks politics? I found this matter weird but Adel explained to me his reasons: “Politics don’t mean anything to me, even though I was born in Lebanon, but since my youth I haven’t liked politics, I don’t follow it. My focus is on the societal, the daily, I like to shed light on sensitive issues such as my story at the hospital and how even in hospitals there is classism, like flight companies; there is a first class, a business class and an economy class.”
Time had come to delve into the show’s details, I asked him about the reason of why he had focused so much on stereotypes, doesn’t comedy break stereotypes instead of empowering them? Adel didn’t seem to have liked the question – and I am not sure he understood it: “I talk about personal experiences that occured to me, I tell the stories on stage as if I am talking with my friends, I speak in slang.” But slang can be simplistic, stereotyping and hurtful: “my goal is to make people, Netflix and my audience laugh, they chose me because I speak like this, and my audience knows me, they are used to me. Today someone who has Netflix and doesn’t want to watch Adel Karam can just change shows, the easiest of things.” And here comes his agent to clarify what Adel had said: “Adel focuses on the conversations we have, we all listen and talk to him, but Adel is the only one who goes up and tells these stories on stage.”
These stories with their stereotypes then achieve their purpose. “Africans” might not be disturbed by the stereotypes according to Adel, but what about sexualizing female tennis players when he was describing their clothing and their sound when playing in a disgusting way? “Do you have a problem?” He asked and I answered yes, they are models of strong successful women, and not sex icons. And here the topic changed from female tennis played to targeting me personally, “where are you from?” “Palestinian” I answered him and I felt as if I was in a television encounter – the Palestinian in front of the Lebanese, who will win the argument: “Why do you hold your cause and walk around with it? You Palestinians are only interested in causes, you understand the issue wrongly. Comedy is about caricatures I make to make people laugh. No more and no less.” I didn’t understand what he meant by causes. Are we too serious and we don’t understand comedies for example, or are we conservative and don’t like to talk about sex because it hurts our national sentiments?
I felt that Adel and his agent were becoming uncomfortable with the questions, and contrary to what I expected from a comedian, there weren’t any jokes or laughters. “There are still questions”, I asked him about comedy shows in the Arab world and especially in Egypt. “Nice and cute” he answered, but attempting to put a stereotypical sexualizing mark on everything is comedy? I asked his opinion on this especially since he focuses on this on his show “Hayda Haki” and it is what some criticize him for due to his generalizations and his sexual and shallow remarks towards his female guests. “The Arab world doesn’t have sex? It is not wrong to talk about the subject, I talk about such a topic and am proud of it. Those have issues with it don’t watch me, these are the issues that are present, the global company made a contract with me not without a reason, whoever has an problem with that has just to deal with it.
“It doesn’t seem you take criticism well,” I told him. “I accept criticism, but constructive criticism, not just any criticism. I see sex bothered you, and you come to criticize me.” I tried to explain to him that the issue isn’t a personal opinion, and that “my made up problem with sex” isn’t a cause, and here intervened his agent again, “Adel and other famous personalities don’t please all tastes, and journalism should look at the positive things and not the negative ones, considering that he is the first Arab personality that got chosen by a global company such as Netflix.” I stared at him for a moment and wondered if Donald Trump and his views on the media’s role in society got to Adel Karam’s agent?
Time had come to end the interview, but not before Adel points out that I don’t understand his boldness: “I am a bold and proud Arab man, if someone Arab sees me as too bold, he can deal with it. I am in the heaves, the clouds, whoever wants to think of camels can deal with it. Wise up, our purpose is to make people laugh, that is the summary of it.” There is a huge difference between boldness that criticizes society in a way to make us think, and mockery and repeating street slang as is without criticizing it. It can be good to put all our problems and our psychological, sexual, societal and religious norms on the screen, but there are things that we have to stop and think about. Racism, stereotypes, classism and societal phobias are accepted because “they represent the streets” or are “for the audience to enjoy their time.”
Disappointments are an infinite source of inspiration for comedy, says the British actor Martin Freeman, maybe this “disappointing” interview will be reason for new inspirations, or one of those stories that Adel talks about on other occasions, as it is a life experience after all.