Video: Saudi comedian attempts a ‘reverse cultural invasion’ of America

March 28, 2013

Fahad Albutairi has been described often in the Western press as "the Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia," including by me only Wednesday, but the more time you spend watching the polished and hilarious YouTube videos that have made him so popular in the Arabic-speaking world, the clearer it becomes that he's so much more. His videos, which run under the title La Yekthar (rough translation: "Zip It"), combine monologues and skits under a single theme, typically with an undercurrent of cultural commentary. There's not a ready American counterpart, which is part of why looking for an American analogue sells Albutairi's work short.

The above video, for example, explores the idea Western "cultural invasion" into Saudi Arabia, and satirizes Saudi views of America in the process. The influence of Western, particularly American, culture is a big, touchy topic in much of the world, with people torn between their love of Michael Jackson and their desire to patronize compatriots over foreigners. It's about national pride and about preserving one's own culture.

The above video, which includes good English captions (click the little "CC" button in the bottom-right corner), is actually from a year ago, but it's still relevant, not to mention funny. The first half is actually about a then-recent Saudi anti-corruption effort. It's worth watching for the insight into Saudi Arabia, as well as the humor.

Skip to about 3:15 to see the segment on the Western "cultural invasion" of Saudi Arabia and, appropriately, a very funny bit on attempting a "reverse cultural invasion" of Saudi cultural in America. It starts with British rapper M.I.A.'s then-new music video for the song "Bad Girls," which portrayed Saudi women stunt-driving cars in the desert. The video was taken as a criticism of Saudi Arabia's law banning women from driving. Though Albutairi doesn't talk about this aspect, perhaps fearing the censor's touch, he does feature a (fake) interview with the video's (fake) Saudi director, "Sinhat 2000." (The video was actually directed by Romain Gavras.)

"Here we have talents that no one appreciates," Sinhat 2000 (who, to be clear, is a character invented for this video) says. "Now that the West are appreciating them, they'll appreciate them here. That's how it always is." He vamps for a little about shooting a Lady Gaga video in the kingdom as well, maybe bringing the American pop star to one of Riyadh's famous malls in a crimson abaya. There's talk of having Michael Jackson moonwalk across a Jeddah boulevard famous for upscale shopping. This is the cultural invasion in its most terrifying form, as satirized by Albutairi.

The video's last (and, to me, funniest) segment is purportedly shot by a Saudi student on study-abroad in New York, where he is serving on "the front line" of the "Saudi cultural invasion" of America. His Borat-style interviews with New Yorkers seem mostly about mocking Saudi perceptions of the U.S., even if the interviewee victims are American. He tries to persuade an increasingly impatient woman not to drive, slipping between English and Arabic. At one point, he approaches a scarf-wearing man, assuming he is a fellow Arab, then runs away when the man answers that he's Jewish.

Mickey Mouse makes an appearance, along with his "wife" Minnie. "Where's your family card? What's wrong with you?" the student asks a surely bewildered man in a costume. "It's shameful that you let your wife out looking like that. I'm very upset with you, Mickey."

Albutairi's videos are meant to speak to fellow Saudis and Arabic-speakers, of course, but they are worth watching for Westerners, who might not always associate edgy humor or incisive social commentary with the Gulf kingdom. In his skit, the exchange student says, "We want to blur [Americans'] ideas about Saudi Arabia." Even if that wasn't really his goal, maybe Americans who watch the videos might indeed find their perceptions of the country expanded beyond the abayas and fatwas, the extreme conservatism, that typically define Western views of Saudi Arabia.

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Max Fisher | March 28, 2013