If you picture Saudi Arabia as a place of austerity and humorlessness, of severe religious practices and medieval gender roles, then, well, there's some truth to that perception, but it's definitely not the whole truth. There are Saudi feminists, Saudi atheists and there's even a hip young Saudi comedian and social commentator.
His name is Fahad Albutairi. An Abu Dhabi-based newspaper called The National, known for its great English-language coverage of the Arabian peninsula, explores, in a new profile, how he became known as "the Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia." (Thanks to Riyadh Bureau, the Saudi news site run by Ahmed Al-Omran, for pointing out the story.) Albutairi is hugely popular on the Saudi Web, where each of his videos racks up one or two million views, which just goes to show you that he's not an outlier, even if he does represent a side of Saudi culture that's less well-known in the U.S.: hip, worldly and politically progressive.
Albutairi's videos are part of a series called La Yekhtar, which loosely translates to "zip it." They're punchy, fast-paced, professional-quality and, alas, only in Arabic. (Update: Most of the shows have captions in English, Al-Omran points out. Thanks Ahmed!) But the show has still had enough of an impact, beyond Saudi Arabia and even the larger Arabic-speaking world, that Albutairi says he was contacted by a casting agent representing American director Wes Anderson. (The part fell through.) Here's one of the episodes:
Unfortunately, I don't speak Arabic, but the captions seem reliable and even include brief explanations of Saudi idioms. The above episode begins with a skit about the anvil-weight backpacks that young schoolkids drag around, then transitions into a funny monologue about life in Saudi schools. Some of the jokes are just as funny in the American context; the ones particular to Saudi Arabia might not be immediately funny to an outsider, but they're fascinating little windows into life there.
Here's a snip from the National's profile, written by Alex Ritman:
As La Yekthar – which is largely sketch- and character-driven but touches on socio-political issues within the kingdom – grew in popularity with each monthly episode (the most popular one got more than five million hits), so came the support. “We got sponsors and signed on Google in Dubai as a partner channel,” says Albutairi, adding that the little project quickly grew into its own cottage industry. “It has helped us build a field of business that wasn’t there before,” he says.
The group that started La Yekthar – Albutairi along with his fellow writers Ibraheem Alkhairallah, Mazroua Al Mazroua and directors Ali Kalthami and Alaa Yoosef – formed the production house C3 Films. “We now have four different shows and collectively have more than a million subscribers, with more than 100 million views since we started.”
The show has become so popular that one of its repeat characters, a puppet crocodile, now has its own spin-off program where he interviews actual celebrities.
Though the show has never been censored, a risk Albutairi says he's quite aware of, it can be pretty political:
Crocodile puppets aside, there are clear messages in La Yekthar that touch on the problems faced by young Saudis living in the kingdom today. “Each character kind of represents a sort of socio-political issue,” explains Albutairi. “There’s a tall guy who wears a shamal [ghutra] and he kind of represents corruption. Then there’s a guy who wears a ragged thobe [kandura] and carries a green film holder, and he represents unemployment. We also have a guy chained to a concrete block, the sort found in road works, and that is a kind of hint at traffic problems and corruption.”