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Interviewing the Editor of the Middle Eastern Version of The Onion

The Pan-Arabia Enquirer does satire in a region that isn't good at laughing at itself.

af James Tennent
09 august 2013, 10:10am

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohamed Morsi playing squash. (All images courtesy of the Pan-Arabia Enquirer)

For reasons pertaining to sanity, it tends to be useful to occasionally find the humour in the midst of a crisis. But when the Pan-Arabia Enquirer – a satirical news website, kind of like The Onion of the Middle East – published a blog post called, "Starbucks Central Tahrir Square Branch Reports Record July '13 Earnings," not so many of my ex-pat friends found (or even realised there was) a funny side. They took to social media to post outraged messages about corporate greed, "black gold exploiting revolutionary spirit" and other righteous stuff about corporations profiteering from social upheaval.

The same sort of thing happened when the Pan-Arabia Enquirer broke their "story" about the new Sex and the City film being shot in Gaza, or when the press release for Emirates Airlines' new in-flight shisha service was leaked on the website. Then there was the time, earlier this month, that the site declared that Qataris were being given the rest of the year off for Eid and a bunch of them believed it and freaked out on Twitter about spending the rest of the year lounging around on paid holiday.             

The concept of a satire website existing in such a tumultuous region was interesting to me, so I thought I'd get in touch with the people behind the site for a chat. However, when I approached the founder for an interview, he asked to stay anonymous. When I asked why, he said, “While most of the stories are harmless, [this region] is not a place that is particularly good at laughing at itself, and people can get the wrong end of the stick and take offence at the most minor of things. We wouldn't want this to jeopardise our ability to live and work here… yet.”

So, for the sake of addressing him here, let's call him Mr Pan. Here's my interview with Mr Pan.

VICE: So how long have you been doing the Pan-Arabia Enquirer for, Mr Pan?
Mr Pan: It's been going longer than you’d think. It started off way back in about 2006 as something called The Dubai Enquirer, which focused solely on Dubai and was just a front page of a newspaper sent around as a PDF. We had to stop that, though, because Dubai was building more ridiculous things than we could even imagine. It was in the silly season before the crash happened, and I think the crux came when it was announced that Dubai was going to be building a tower in the shape of a man in Arabic dress. At that point we just thought, 'You win – we can’t beat that.' It was put on hold for a bit and then, about late 2010, I picked it up again, but this time as The Pan-Arabia Enquirer to give it more of a regional focus. It's been going properly since February of 2012.

Is it just you at the moment?
It’s a very small team; there’s only a tiny handful of us who actually write. We do get people sending in ideas, which is very nice and they are coming quite regularly, but by and large it's really just a small handful of mates who write it.

Have the good responses outweighed the bad?
Oh god, yeah – 100 percent. To be honest, there haven’t been that many bad responses. The main bad responses have been people getting confused because they’re not used to the concept of satire and they’ve genuinely thought the story is real. They haven’t really been angry at us – they’ve been angry at the story, were it to be true. 

Yeah, I grew up in the UAE so I’ve got a lot of ex-pat friends who have been sending me messages with links to the site saying stuff like, "Have you seen this story? Can you believe this actually happened?"
Brilliant. At first, a lot of our followers were Western ex-pats, because they got that kind of humour. But now we’ve got more of an Arabic following, which is very nice. And obviously I would say that a sizeable percentage of our readership are people who probably still think it’s true. I just put up a story about five or ten minutes ago about Qataris being given the rest of the year off for Eid, and already there are people on Twitter going "WTF?!!" In a way, it's unintentionally become something of a social experiment watching how people react to some of the stories.

You’re Dubai based?

That’s just how it happened? You’ve not chosen to be based in the Gulf?
No, no – we were just working out there with some friends and we all have a similar sense of humour and we were bored one day and decided to set up this thing.

Do you think the Middle East is an easier place for satire? A good amount of the true stories that come out of the region can be quite absurd in their own right.
It is, it is. Obviously in the West we get fed a continual stream of fairly depressing headlines from the region, but behind all that lurks a truly absurd place. I mean, Dubai on its own is preposterous on a daily basis, but the funny thing is it takes itself very seriously. This is a place that builds a penguin enclosure in a shopping mall in the middle of the desert and you’re not expected to laugh at it. The rest of the region as well – you’ve got Qatar, which is intent on buying up the rest of the world, and Saudi.

There are endless jokes about Saudi, but the trouble with Saudi is that, every time we write a story and think we’ve gone a bit too far, out comes a genuine headline from Saudi of some cleric having banned air-conditioning, or something like that, you know? One of the nicest things is that now every time a ludicrous headline comes out of the region, which is pretty regularly, we get sent it and asked whether we’ve infiltrated that newspaper – whether it’s one of ours. But nine times out of ten it’s not and it’s just what it’s like out here.

Have you thought about having an Arabic language section?
I’m not sure. I think it would be fantastic for hits, but I have been warned that when you go to the Arabic side of things you could potentially veer more into the realm of offending people – getting people more rattled and more upset, which is something we definitely don’t want to do. So I think we’re better off sticking to English for now.

I was wondering whether the stories about Bassem Youssef being prosecuted in Egypt worried you at all?
There are occasional worries. What Bassem Youssef does is fantastic and necessary and very funny, but he is very much more about continual jabbing at the government. We make little jokes about things going on in society and we make references to the governments of the region, but we’re not so hardcore in our political satire. We covered what’s going on in Egypt quite a lot, and in Syria. You’ve got to try to find ways around it so it’s not offensive or crude – you can’t laugh at misery. I think we're less political than Bassem Youssef, so we are – cross fingers, touch wood – less likely to face any government action, so to speak.

That's good. What are you guys going to do now that Ahmadinejad is no longer in power? That’s half your stories gone.
It’s a nightmare. He was an absolute goldmine. I don’t know what to do now, because Rouhani looks mega boring in comparison – he really does. I’m still gonna try and drag out the Ahmadinejad post-government stories, but at some point we’re gonna have to let him go. He was the goose that laid the golden egg in satire circles. It’s a real shame. Obviously not for international relations with Iran, but certainly for us doing stupid Photoshops involving his face.

Oh yeah, the Photoshops are great.
The best one was the Emirates shisha story – that was by far the one with the most hits.

That was the first one I saw, actually. All my friends were sharing it, saying "No way!"
That was another one of those stories that wasn't that funny, and obviously it was complete bollocks, but it just seemed to capture the anger of health and safety people, anti-smoking lobbyists and flying enthusiasts. That one had 600,000 hits in the space of three or four days and crashed the site. Emirates took it quite well because people were actually getting in touch with them to ask about their new shisha lounges. Actually – this is one of my favourite comments of all time – this guy posted an email they got from Emirates that said, "It’s a comedy website, it's only meant to amuse, we won’t be launching any shisha lounges on our flights." Underneath, he wrote, "So stop spreading your lies!" It made my day.  

You have your great commenters as well.
Yeah, I think that’s what drives half the traffic. We get a bit upset when people say the comments are funnier than the stories, but in many cases they definitely are. I don’t know if you saw quite an old story about a "bewildered human rights activist who was campaigning against the chewing of cats in Yemen". The story itself – I hold my hands up – is not one of our finest, but the comments beneath it from parts of Yemen were absolutely outraged. No one seems to bother reading the comment that points out that it’s a joke, the red mist rises, they go straight to the Add Your Say section and fire out something absolutely irate, pointing out the fact that it’s "khat", not cats.

Amazing. Thanks, Mr Pan.

Follow James on Twitter: @duckytennent

More stuff about satire:

Booze, Drugs, Violence And Madness

How Teeth Made the World Believe They Hacked the Pope's Twitter

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middle east
The Onion
Vice Blog
Mohamed Morsi
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
pan arabia enquirer