RIYADH (AFP) - Saudis took the stage one by one to poke fun at the world - and themselves - introducing a hissing, cackling audience to an art form widely unknown in the conservative kingdom: stand-up comedy.
Chuckles and squeals ran through the crowd at a rare amateur comedy festival last week in the capital Riyadh, organised by the official General Entertainment Authority, the main engine of social reforms sweeping the kingdom.
The authority is boosting entertainment options like never before, from a Comic-Con festival to concerts by female musicians, helping shed the kingdom's austere reputation and introducing many Saudis to a novel concept - having fun in public.
"I am a jobless dentist," 26-year-old Battar al-Battar said in a slow, deadpan delivery on stage to a smiling audience. "My prayers have been answered. I see lots of braces in this crowd."
Next up was a short, corpulent man, equally deadpan as he took on the skewed power relations between the sexes in the patriarchal kingdom. "I called my fiancee to say: 'Listen, I am the man. If I eat dust, you eat dust'. "She hung up. A week passed by. I heard nothing. "In a panic I texted her: 'I am not the man! Take me back!'" Men in the audience - as well as women sitting across the aisle - erupted in laughter.
The festival would hardly be unusual if it weren't in Saudi Arabia, typically stereotyped as a nation of stern, unsmiling hardliners.
"The common perception is that Saudis don't have a funny bone," Yaser Bakr, a festival jury member and founder of the kingdom's first comedy club, told AFP. "Saudis love to laugh. Numbers don't lie," he said, scrolling through a list of Saudi comedy videos on his mobile's YouTube app, each with hundreds of thousands of views.
COMEDY CLEANSES THE SOUL
The venue for the five-day festival, Riyadh's King Fahd Cultural Centre, was like a bubble of laughing gas over the course of the performances. The festival, a talent-hunt of sorts for Saudi Arabia's own version of Seinfeld, was a rare attempt to introduce stand-up comedy to the masses.
Aside from a handful of Saudi YouTube comedy stars, performers are largely struggling without theatres and entertainment companies, as well as a lack of mass awareness of the art form.
"Many people think comedy is only sex jokes. We are trying to change that," festival director Jubran al-Jubran told AFP. "Saudi Arabia needs to cultivate this art. Comedy has a purifying effect, it cleanses the soul. It's a relief to laugh about our own problems."
But the audience was only mildly amused by cringe-worthy jokes and low-brow humour from some performers. None of the participants breached what are typically considered red lines in the conservative kingdom - sex, religion and politics. But some deftly pulverised a few old stereotypes associated with Saudis, including perceived links to extremists, while others dared to mock the once-untouchable elites.
"When I first came to Riyadh I was afraid they would lock me up in the Ritz," quipped Rakain al-Zafer, one of the performers, prompting sniggers and groans from the audience. Riyadh's opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel has become a gilded prison for dozens of princes, ministers and tycoons swept up in an anti-corruption purge. The joke resonates with most Saudis - except perhaps those locked inside - reflecting a strong public revulsion for the elite.
DESTROY EXTREMISM THROUGH COMEDY
The performing comedians were all men, but the festival organisers said women were expected to participate next year despite the risk of riling religious conservatives. The festival highlights a broader reform push by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful heir to the throne who has curbed the influence of the religious police, once notorious for disrupting such mixed-gender events. The prince appears to be balancing unpopular subsidy cuts in an era of low oil prices with more social freedoms and entertainment.
Saudis themselves appear quietly astounded by the torrid pace of change - including the historic decision allowing women to drive from next June and plans to reopen cinemas after a decades-long ban.
Legendary Greek composer and pianist Yanni performed to a packed mixed-gender audience in Riyadh last week, accompanied by female vocalists. The change chimes with Prince Mohammed's recent pledge to return Saudi Arabia to an "open, moderate Islam" and destroy extremist ideologies.
Expanding on the prince's comment, Jubran said: "We aim to destroy extremism through comedy, by making people laugh."