What’s It Like Being a Stand-Up Comic in Saudi Arabia?
Jan 17 2013
Breaking into stand-up comedy is notoriously hard in Western countries, where there’s an infrastructure of clubs and agents, and laws that allow performers to say pretty much whatever they want. But in Saudi Arabia, where the notoriously oppressive government still uses beheading as a punishment and women aren’t allowed to drive, among other things, it’s nearly impossible to be a comedian. The country’s stand-up scene is “burgeoning” to be kind, or “pretty much nonexistent” if you want to be mean.
So when Ahmed Ahmed, the Egyptian-American comedian, was performing in Saudi Arabia in 2008 and the bookers wanted to find some locals to open for him, they had to hold auditions to find ordinary people who were funny enough to get onstage and tell jokes. An English teacher named Omar Ramzi got a Facebook message that said auditions were being held, tried out, and soon found himself in front of a thousand people doing stand-up for the very first time.
Omar stuck with comedy, and four years after his debut he had become famous enough to acquire a nickname (“the White Sudani”), made good money doing underground comedy gigs, and was featured on national TV and in the Saudi Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper. The catch was that despite being born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Omar had never received Saudi citizenship and was living illegally in the country thanks to a string of mishaps. After navigating the not-funny joke that is the Saudi bureaucracy, he eventually managed to flee to Cairo. I reached out to him through Skype to talk about the turns his life has taken.
VICE: So your nickname is "the White Sudani”? How did that happen?
Omar Ramzi: Yeah. See, my mother’s Irish and my dad is Sudanese, and obviously most Sudanese people are dark-skinned, with African origins, but there is a small minority of white Sudanese that came from North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, and places like that. My dad is from that small minority. We’re like the bluefin tuna of the human race – almost extinct.
What was it like growing up as part of that tiny minority?
So, I was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but I lived a very different life than most people – I lived in a compound, which is like a gated community. There’s several of them all over the country. The one that I lived in was called Saudia City, which is for the employees of Saudi Airlines. They had everything: They had their own schools – American schools, British schools – medical centers, pools... It was like a little city where the rules of the country did not apply. Women could drive and wear whatever they wanted to. There were parties and alcohol. And just outside the gate, you would see women all covered up with the black [burqa], like all ninja’d out, you know? They were like completely different worlds.
When you started doing stand-up, you were doing it in that wider world of Saudi Arabia. What was that like? It must be a lot different from what I think of as stand-up in America.
The thing is, in the West, heckling is part of the norm in stand-up comedy. In this part of the world they don’t know about heckling. There’s no such thing. People sit down and they will respect you, even if you suck ass.
Omar’s first show ever.
That must be nice.
Yeah, but it’s a bit of a challenge because they had a lot of rules. You can’t use profanity. You can’t talk about the government. You can’t talk about the royal family. You can’t talk about religion. So what is left to talk about? What is left to make fun of? I ended up making fun of the students I was teaching English to. I’ll tell you one of my jokes. I was teaching them the difference between “to” and “too”. After like three weeks of going through it, I thought, They must finally understand. So I asked who could give me an example of the difference between the words.
[heavy Saudi accent] “Teacher, teacher, I have the answer for you, teacher!”
[normal voice] “OK, go ahead.”
“For example, teacher, the one with the one ‘o’ teacher: ‘I want to go to the supermarket.’”
“Oh, very good, good job. What about the other one?”
“Yes teacher of course teacher. For example: ‘I want to go tooooooooooooooooo the beach.”
So you know, things like that, things that everyone could laugh at and that weren’t insulting.
But as time went on I started to get a little more daring. I started to touch on political issues a little bit. I started to touch on things that go on in the country. Like the way people drive, the police, and the Filipinos and how they are all gay.
Why are all the Filipinos in Saudi Arabia gay?
I don’t know.
What kind of places did you perform at? Does Saudi Arabia have comedy clubs?
No, that first show of mine could have been busted at any second. They have this group of people called the Haya. They all have long beards, and they are really ignorant. Whenever people throw parties or whenever guys and girls are hanging out together and these guys come in, it’s all over. They grab you, they take you to jail, they call your parents, and they mess everything up. At any second these people could have rushed in and stopped our shows. So we chose really remote areas away from the cities to do our shows, and then we realised we could do shows in places like the Italian Club, which is actually part of the Italian consulate.
Over time, [the authorities] started to accept stand-up comedy. They started to realise that people need something to do on the weekends. People aren’t making fun of the government necessarily, and they are not going to change the system. The government is afraid of people becoming too advanced and coming together; they don’t want them to be too Westernised. But now stand-up comedy is coming to be sponsored by big national companies. It’s become legit.
I imagine they are still not allowed to criticise the government or the royal family.
No, but the thing is, whenever a business is successful, the royal family wants in on it. They say, “We’ll give you some money and take this business from you.” That’s kind of what happened with comedy. The first production company was called Smile Productions, run by a British guy named Peter Howarth-Lees. And then the prince came into it and started a company called Luxury Events and just took over. It’s always like that.
A promo for Luxury Events.
What kind of crowds showed up to these performances?
At first it was a lot of expats. But then more and more it’d be locals, Saudis, guys and girls. And there would even be some religious people. I remember doing a show where one of the comedians, a Saudi friend of mine who calls himself “the Cool Terrorist” was doing some jokes and really pushing it in terms of profanity, you know? There was one guy in the front row who looked to be very religious with the beard and everything, and his wife was completely ninja’d out with just her eyes showing. After his performance, my friend felt so guilty, he actually went up to this religious man and said, “I apologise for my use of language. I hope I didn’t offend you.” And the guy was like, “Look I have a long beard but I really enjoyed it. I thought it was awesome and I wish you the best.”
So how did you come to leave Saudi Arabia? One thing I don’t understand is that you were born there, but never had citizenship.
It doesn’t matter if you’re born in Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t matter how long you live there, it doesn’t matter if you work there, or if you go to school there. You’re still considered an expat. I have friends who are American and live in Saudi Arabia, who are married to Saudi women and have children with them, but they still don’t have residency permits, which are called Iqamas. If you don’t have an Iqama or a job that sponsors you in the country, you just gotta get the hell out. It’s crazy.
I was sponsored by my job at an English-language teaching institute, which was fine, and then they started to pay us really late. So I quit and found a job at a university. And when you change jobs you need to go to your previous company to transfer your Iqama – but when I tried to do that they said that I ran away, so I couldn’t get any of the money that they owed me or a new permit or anything. They just completely screwed me over. And this is actually quite common, especially among the people from India or Pakistan or Bangladesh; the guys who do the manual labor. They all get screwed over this way. Once this happens to you, you have no rights. If you have money in your bank account, you can’t access it. I couldn’t even sell my car that was in my name.
There were lots of things going on in my life at the time. I had fallen in love with a Saudi girl and had been with her for two years, then she told me that once she graduated college her dad was going to force her to marry someone.
So I was in this phase where I really didn’t care about anything. I was illegal, I couldn’t marry my girl, and she was going to marry someone else very soon – and on top of that, I got kicked out of my apartment building because this guy who was staying on my couch called my neighbour’s wife a bitch.
So you didn’t have a place to live or a residency permit?
It’s that saying, “When it rains it pours”. Thank God, one of my fans had an extra apartment and she said I could stay there for as long as I needed to get my shit together. So I was staying in some random apartment, with some random girl I met on Facebook.
So I was living like this for a while and doing random comedy gigs. I did shows as an illegal. I was in newspapers, magazines, all as an illegal. I did that for a year and a half, maybe two years. My status was weird – I’m Irish and I have an Irish passport, so even if the police stopped me they would get scared and wouldn’t mess with me. I couldn’t leave Saudi Arabia legally since I didn’t have an Iqama, and even travelling within the country was risky. At one point, I went to the Irish embassy and was like, “Help me! I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t have rights in this country. I’m stuck here. I can’t get out. I can’t see my family.”
They told me to get a lawyer, but the lawyer said that too much time had passed with me being illegal and he couldn’t help me. I went to the Ministry of Labour and it was just ridiculous. It was like, “Go to this office, go to that office, go to this office, go to that office.” And it’s all corrupt and everyone wanted money.
So how did you finally leave?
In the end I found someone who has what they call wasta, which means connections, like someone who knows people. And I had to give this guy my car for free and paid him a lot of money on top of that. After all of this, after three or four months of meeting this guy, I was able to leave legally from the airport like a human being.
And now you’re in Cairo, right? How are things there?
Yeah, my parents have a house here and I’m staying with them. The political situation is really unstable. You know, half of the country is with the Muslim Brotherhood and half is totally against them. No matter what they do, things always get worse.
I did meet a group of comedians called Al Hezb El Comedy. They've been doing stand-up comedy here for two or three years – small things in bars and lounges and places like that. I’ve only been here like seven months and I’ve done six shows, which is average. And hopefully I’ll be doing two more shows in Saudi Arabia soon.
Omar performing in Egypt.
They’re going to let you come back and do shows?
Well, I did pay the guy all the money and he cleared my name from the system. So, Insha’Allah, God willing, they’ll let me back in, and out again. [laughs] So, we’ll see.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter: @HCheadle
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