What's So Funny in the Mideast?

Ayman Nahas, left, and Hanna Shammas met at a theater festival and decided they could produce laughs together.
Ayman Nahas, left, and Hanna Shammas met at a theater festival and decided they could produce laughs together. (Courtesy Shammas Nahas)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

HAIFA, Israel -- It's hard to joke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its almost daily fare of bombings, violence and assassinations, but a pair of Arab comedians, citizens of Israel, are making the unfunny comical and, through humor, signaling discontent among the country's large and formerly docile Arab minority.

They are Ayman Nahas and Hanna Shammas, the Arab version of Laurel and Hardy, though their jests sometimes leave a bitter aftertaste, even for the Arabs who make up the bulk of their audience.

Consider the skit in which a Palestinian, delayed at a military checkpoint, teaches a raw Israeli soldier how to properly mistreat him. "Don't say 'please,' " says Shammas, in the role of the Palestinian, as he objects to Nahas the soldier telling him to pick an identification card off the ground. "You should hit me with the rifle butt -- three times on my left shoulder."

By skit's end, the two performers have changed roles: Shammas imitates an Israeli army officer, orders the hapless Nahas to step away and then tells him, "Stop, or I'll shoot."

Or take their sketch on holiday cheer, sung to the tune of "Jingle Bells." It satirizes fellow Arabs in Israel for feigning concern about the Palestinians while leading a detached, self-involved life.

"Okay, boys and girls, let's all join in," suggests Nahas, the gangly, wild-haired member of the pair. He and the rubbery-faced Shammas sing in Arabic:

We'll go to demonstrations

Then come back to cafes

Chant our slogans loud

And get dizzy and high!

Oh! Martyrs rest, martyrs rest,

Martyrs rest in peace.


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