GAZA CITY — In the outside world — heck, even here — two words that rarely appear in the same sentence are “funny” and “Gaza.”
But several troupes of young cutups in the coastal enclave are changing this — very, very carefully.
In the United States, the people who run TV shows have to deal with network suits and in-house censors. Say a dirty word on the “The Daily Show,” you get a bleep.
Try sneaking something past the militant Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. They hang traitors here.
“We live in the kind of place that could use a little humor,” said Thaer Munir, 23, of the skit comedy team Tashwesh Productions, whose members have managed to stay out of trouble.
Tashwesh, which means static in Arabic, puts its bits up on YouTube and recently began to air a weekly show on the Palestinian Authority’s state TV channel. A video the group made spoofing Jean-Claude Van Damme’s
epic split feat for a Volvo Trucks advertisement went viral and got more than 550,000 views. (The visual punch line is that the cars in Gaza are being pushed, not driven, because of fuel shortages.)
They’re not the only ones trying out a joke. There’s a dance group here that posted a YouTube video with a Gaza version of “Gangnam Style,” in which the guys ride donkeys, wear black-checkered kaffiyeh scarfs and dance in a shawarma joint. In the routine, they visit an ATM (busted), go to the Rafah border crossing to Egypt (closed) and take their soccer balls to Palestine Stadium (bombed).
The Israelis, whose jets attacked the sports complex during an eight-day war in November 2012, said it was being used by Gaza militants to launch rockets into Israel.
The five-man troupe responsible for the Van Damme spoof operates out of a fifth-floor apartment in Gaza City. On a recent morning, guests staggered up the five flights because one of Gaza’s daily blackouts had paralyzed the elevator.
Inside the apartment, there was a small table covered with laptops, a bedroom piled with pillows and mats, and a studio with lights, a white canvas background sheet and a small video camera. Sometimes the Tashwesh team crashes here for days, working round-the-clock.
The members produce a mix of stand-up comedy, skits and man-on-the-street interviews, a Gaza version of Jay Leno walking around Burbank in L.A. and asking the locals about current events.
“We try to touch some dangerous ideas,” said Mahmoud Zuiter, 28, the on-camera ringleader. “But they’re social topics, not political ones.”
“It’s a little different here,” he said.
“You can be arrested.”
Zuiter said the group may someday wade into political humor, but not just yet.
Over the years, Hamas has exasperated Gaza youth with government-sponsored campaigns against hair gel, skinny jeans and long hair on men. The movement also has sought to prohibit women from riding motorcycles, smoking water pipes in public and running in a now-defunct United Nations-sponsored annual marathon.
“Doing politics is like rubbing salt in the wounds,” Zuiter said.
The Palestinian people have only two real choices when it comes to political representatives — the Fatah party, which dominates in the West Bank and controls the Palestinian Authority, and the Hamas movement, which runs Gaza. The two political entities have promised to mend their broken ties but have failed.
“We want to gain the people’s trust, so then if we do have some fun with the politics, they know us, they know where we are coming from,” Zuiter said.
Right now, they make jokes and do routines about electricity outages, high unemployment, and the difficulty of traveling — anywhere.
Most of the five have never left Gaza, whose neighbors, Israel and Egypt, tightly restrict entries from the strip.
“We seek to find the beautiful side of Gaza. We tell the people tomorrow is going to be better, that there is a happy future,” Zuiter said.
“Of course, sometimes we lie about this,” said Munir.
The troupe members met while they were in university and in no big hurry to graduate, because the unemployment rate is more than 40 percent in Gaza.
Zuiter, the oldest member at 28, is a nurse, but he hasn’t actually worked as a nurse in several years. He is one of the thousands of municipal employees who are paid by the Palestinian Authority anyway.
Which is sort of funny, no?
“No,” he said. “That’s not funny.”
For one of their shows, Zuiter asks young, attractive Gazans questions on the street and then goofs on their answers. This is not easy, because
people in Gaza don’t like cameras in their faces.
“But we manage,” he said.
On a recent episode, they asked adults to remember what they, as children, dreamed of being when they grew up.
The answers included doctor, engineer, teacher — but the No. 1 response was pilot.
Gaza has no airport, no planes, no pilots.
“So it seems to me that 99 percent of our youth have dreams that they’ve never achieved,” Zuiter quipped at the program’s conclusion. “And for the 1 percent who found their dream? Well, maybe it was just an accident.”