Egypt’s ‘al-Hezb el-Comedy’ on mission to spread laughter
CAIRO - Amid the bitter social and economic problems facing many Egyptians, here comes a glimpse of laughter — al-Hezb el-Comedy, a group dedicated to establishing the stand-up comedy industry in Egypt, where this artform is relatively new.
Established in 2011, al-Hezb el-Comedy (Arabic for “the comedy party”) derived its name from the wide-scale partisan life in Egypt since the uprising that toppled the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
“We have no political affiliations or interests but we noticed that several parties were founded at that time so we tried to make fun of this fact by calling our troupe a ‘party,’” said Hashem el-Garhy, stand-up comedian and group founder.
Garhy described his “party” as a one-stop shop for aspiring stand-up comedians to explore their comedic talent and learn how to harness and express it in humorous ways. He said the aim was to develop a generation of stand-up comedians that would have a positive influence on the community.
While other parties produce politicians, al-Hezb el-Comedy promotes comedians by training and advising them. It also creates content that is funny and meaningful to all audiences.
The important thing is to make sure the performances are something the public can relate to and can easily be understood through humour, explained Garhy, a promising stand-up comedian who left his job in marketing to become a humorist and entrepreneur.
Garhy said a stand-up comedian was no actor. “Actors portray other people while stand-up artists portray themselves,” he said.
Among the goals of al-Hezb el-Comedy is to turn stand-up comedy into a job rather than a hobby. Most stand-up artists have day jobs.
“Unfortunately, in Egypt stand-up comedy cannot financially support a person unlike the case in the United States, for example. We don’t have comedy clubs in Egypt. Our goal is to have ones where shows take place every night,” said Garhy, who defines himself as a “comediapreneur: — an entrepreneur plus a comedian.
There are three red lines al-Hezb el-Comedy members never cross: sex, religion or politics.
“We try to spread the stand-up comedy industry within the constraints of the rules of the country where we are performing,” Garhy said. “We can seek to solve social problems through positive comedy. Comedy could be a therapeutic tool.”
Approximately 50 stand-up performers have joined the group and each performance consists of appearances by five or six artists. They sometimes make fun of everyday life situations and others talk about personal issues in a humorous manner.
Living up to its slogan “foko nafsak” (“loosen up yourself”), al-Hezb el-Comedy offers comic relief in performances, which mostly take place in cultural centres. It has monthly open-mic events to select new comedians based on feedback of the audiences.
“I really loosened up during today’s gig. Life has become so tough in Egypt to the extent that one is eager to face anything funny to relax and vent out,” Mohamed Samir, 35, an accountant, said at the end of one of the group’s performances during Ramadan.
Heba Botrous, a 27-year-old pharmacist, said some situations narrated by the comedians “mimic states people go through in their daily lives.”
“Tonight, I felt as if one of the stand-up comedians was talking about me,” she said.
In a male-dominated society, female stand-up comedian Reem Nabil stirring surprise and amazement might seem weird to many.
“Many people felt astonished that a stand-up comedian is a woman but when I start my part of the performance, people change their minds,” said Nabil, who joined the group six months ago.
“I make fun of girls rather than boys and I deal with dark comedy, speaking, for instance, about issues like how people handle death with fake feelings,” she said.
“When it comes to men, it’s relatively OK if they speak openly about sexual harassment or use an obscene word, but for me, as a girl, I always try to revolve around subjects to deliver my message,” she added.
The group’s logo is a tarboosh, the red hat worn in Middle Eastern countries in past centuries with the black tassel of the tarboosh replaced with a microphone.
“The tarboosh reminds us of the golden era of Egypt, which we hope it could come back, while the microphone stands for our voice as youths,” Garhy said. “We can be the number one country exporting culture (in the Arab world) like in the past if we just work harder.”
He said the group hopes to go on national tours to take comedy to audiences outside Cairo and Alexandria.