Searching for Comedy in Libya, or, Did You Mean: Lesbian Comedians?

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What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

I did not in fact mean to enter “lesbian comedians” into the Google search field; my request for Libyan comedians was 100% intentional. However, Google’s insistence on my phonetic error was an early red flag that either I was going to encounter a great deal of difficulty finding Libyan comedy or Google was now being run by a fraternity.

The former turned out to be true, the latter TBD. But beyond a crippling language barrier, any access at all to Libyan media is tricky. Is it because under the stronghold of Muammar Qaddafi nearly all media was state-owned and run, and public theater essentially verboten? Or perhaps Libyans are a people of oral tradition and have not yet succumbed to the Western vice of internet waste. Or have they not even had the privilege or opportunity to succumb to said internet waste? Maybe, up until a month ago no one in the English-speaking world cared to write much about Libya. Of course, there’s an all-too-obvious explanation: Libyans simply don’t have a sense of humor.

To the outside world, Qaddafi is perhaps the greatest comedian to come out of Libya, but I suspect few within its national borders are laughing right now. I’m embarrassed to count myself in the aforementioned group that showed little interest in Libya prior to its current political turmoil. But I do believe to understand a nation’s sense of humor is to begin an understanding of the nation itself, and so I set out to do so with Libya.

What I’ve found is many pieces, but no puzzle. Libya’s population is comprised of many pieces: Berbers, Arabs, Bedouins and the Tuareg. And Libya’s very name was bestowed upon it not by one of the many groups living there but the Italians occupying it up until 1947. For a country whose identity is made of fractions, it’s difficult to sum up a unified sense of humor. But it is within one of these fractions where I found a glimmer of not only Libyan humor but its universalism: regional jokes.

There once was a Tarhunee who was very tired of Tarhunee jokes and insults directed at their intelligence. So, he moved to Tripoli, got a make-over, got in his car, and began driving around in the country. Suddenly, he came to a herd of sheep in the road. He stopped his car and went over to the shepherd who was tending to them.”If I can guess the exact number of sheep here, will you let me have one?” he asked.The shepherd, thinking this was a pretty safe bet, agreed.”You have 171 sheep,” said the Tarhunee in triumph.Surprised, the shepherd told him to pick out a sheep of his choice. He looked around for a while and finally found one that he really liked. He picked it up and was petting it when the shepherd walked over to him and asked, “if I can guess where you’re really from, will you give me my sheep back?”The Tarhunee thought it was only fair to let him try. “You’re from Tarhuna! Now give me back my dog.”
A young man told his financee that he does not have a Mercedes or a villa and a yacht like his friend Mahmood but he loves her. She replied: “I love you too but tell more about your friend Mahmood”واحد قال لخطيبته: ماعنديش سيارة مرسيدس ويخت وفيلا زي صديقي محمود بس بس احبكقالتله :حتى انا احبك …..بس احكيلي اكثر على محمودA dying man told his son: “Don’t tell people that I died of cancer “tell them that I died of aids”. His son asked “but why daddy?” “So that nobody remarries your mom” answered the dying man.واحد بيموت قال لولده ما تقولش بوي مات بالسرطان قول مات بالايدزالولد قاله اعلاش يابوي…قاله باش ما حد يتزوج …امك A young man saw a lovely girl on the bus. He smiled at her. She did the same. He winked at her. She did the same. So he asked her to disembark the next station. As she did he took her seat.واحد ركب باص شاف لوحدة شافتله ضحكلها ضحكتله غمزلها غمزتله قاللها انزلي المحطة الجاية…. نزلت…جلس في مكانها A fasting Egyptian villager called the local radio program “request a tune.” When asked what he wants to hear. He said the Meghrib prayer call. صعيدي صايم اتصل ببرنامج مايطلبه المستمعون….قالوله شن تحب تسمعقاللهم…لو ممكن مقطع من اذان المغرب (Muslims break their fast at the Meghrib prayer call at sunset)

I did find one comedian’s name, Saleh Al-Abyad, but the translation of his name varied (also spelled Salah Alabiad), an inconsistency which left me with one picture and a 14 part Libyan comedy series on YouTube called Kaushi ya Kusha. It appears to be a stage show involving a feisty blind man whose zingers keep the audience in hysterics.

While Kaushi ya Kusha may be all over YouTube, an English translation is not. My Arabic comprehension is null, so I invite anyone who can provide better context than I to please chime in. One thing I did notice, however, is nearly every Kaushi ya Kusha video on Youtube was posted in 2008. Perhaps the show premiered in 2008 and thus explains the timing. But further attempts to find Libyan comedy videos on YouTube show an eerily similar cut off date. It’s as if time stopped when 2009 rolled around, or freedom.

Most television had been state-run since Qaddafi came to power, presumably limiting the proliferation of sitcoms. Though the government relented slightly in 2006 and allowed privatization in the media, the one major company who ran the private Allibya TV and Allibya FM radio was owned by Qaddafi’s son Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi. Prospects were grim for Libya’s Ugly Betty franchise. Programming was limited to primarily news, government business and music/cultural performances. Which leads me to my last nugget of Libyan Humor: musical satire.

According to Libyana.org, a website curated by Libyans devoted to celebrating their culture and heritage, there exists a tradition of musical satire and parody.

The site provides a whole canon of examples under the title “Galuha!: (They Said It) Satire and musical parody by Dar Ajaweed.” An exciting prospect at first, but alas I ran up against the same dual obstacle of the language barrier and a total lack of alternative examples. And again, I encourage any Arabic-speaking readers to provide context.

With this week’s article, I set out to learn some Libyan jokes, try to get an idea of the Libyan sense of humor and in doing so learn a little bit about Libyan people. In failing to fully realize the first two goals, on some level this failure helps achieve the third. Libya contains a diverse population, who possess diverse opinions, lifestyles and heritages. The one thing currently unifying them is their lack of freedom. A fact that is in fact not funny at all, but I hope that can change.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.