Laughter is the best medicine

I was given a great piece of advice recently about living in Qatar: “Doesn’t matter where you’re from; things are different here.”

It may sound obvious, but it points to a deeper truth: life here in the eclectic melting pot of Qatar is unique; it may feature elements and ingredients of a life you know, but it won’t replicate them.

It’s advice I kept in mind as we bookended the week with two very different, but uniquely Qatari, experiences.

At the start of the week, it was having to navigate the healthcare system for the first time. Amnesiac had picked up a bug and, despite everything that our medicine cabinet could throw at it, we reluctantly conceded that he wasn’t getting better.

With limited primary healthcare options in place here, we were recommended to take him to the paediatric emergency (PE) dept.

It sounds dramatic, but the system in the PE is actually pretty slick. Amnesiac was triaged by a nurse, seen by a doctor and had his medicines dispensed at the pharmacy inside an hour.

(It would have been even quicker but as we were sat waiting patiently for our number to be called by the doctors, a nurse appeared and told us we could go on through because there was no one else being seen by the doctors.

Pointing at the wall, she explained: “When there are no patients, they forget to advance the counter,” as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.)

Whatever it was, there was a lot of it about. The post-Eid return has seen bugs everywhere, difficulty sleeping, lethargy, short tempers. Not a week to write home about.

So come Thursday night, going to my first stand up comedy gig here in Qatar sounded like just what the doctor ordered (although if Amnesiac’s doctor had prescribed jokes instead of cefixime trihydrate to clear up his gastroenteritis, I might have viewed the situation differently.)

SUCQ it and see
Take three times daily with food. Do not operate heavy machinery

I’ll admit it: my hopes weren’t high.

A sober crowd? Little chance of heckling? PG-rated language? Zero chance of jokes about politics, the royal family, religion or sex?

This was going to be unlike any other comedy show I’d ever been to. And so it was; but in a great way.

Stand Up Comedy Qatar (SUCQ, pronounced ‘suck’) has been up and running for a couple of years but this week’s Comedy Showdown was by far its most ambitious gig.

I haven’t managed to make it to any previous shows, but the format for those seems to have been multiple performers doing shorter sets.

The Showdown went large, pitting two local comedians (Team Qatar) against comics from Palestine and Lebanon (Team Expat) in a huge hall at the jaw-dropping extravaganza that is Carnegie Mellon University (if my University had such inspiring architecture, I must have missed it, but then I was focused on other things at the time…)

On their website, SUCQ’s founder Halal Bilal, a leading light in Qatar’s Twitterati, describes himself as ‘the unofficial godfather of comedy in Qatar’.

I think he’s tapped into something else, though.

It’s a grass roots attempt – albeit one proudly sponsored by Mini – to use comedy to break down barriers between cultures and nations, and instead highlight the things that unite us. In this respect, he’s more like UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with a mic.

Bilal is South African and has seen at first hand the healing effects that a nation learning to laugh at itself can bring. This may sound like a lofty claim, but shows like this will go further, faster, than any government initiative to bring people together here in Qatar.

This was a strong bill, packed full of quality. The show was opened by Issa El-Fahoum, already a veteran performer at just 16. When I was his age, I barely had the confidence to talk to my own shadow, but he got the show off to a flying start.

Hamad Al-Amari taught us that some be-thobed Qataris speak with a broad Dublin accent. (Having gone with some Irish friends I had already been tipped off to this, but it didn’t lose any of its impact when he did his reveal.)

Ousama Itani took a little time to find his feet, but when he did, he had the crowd hanging off every word. He also has a nice line in physical comedy which reminded me of Jim Carrey when he was still funny. I will see his impression of a victorious Land Cruiser driver reversing into a parking spot everywhere I go from now on.

And to end, the Neil Armstrong of Qatari comedy, Mohammed Fahad Kamal. Back to perform in the very institution (“Watermelon University”) from which he graduated, he had a very nice line in observational humour with the best of his material drawing on his parents. They should be very proud of him.

Through it all, Bilal kept the show ticking over nicely. He told us of his encounter with an Israeli soldier at the Palestinian border. (“What are you doing here?” “I could ask you the same question.”)

He worried about precisely which joke was going to get him into the most trouble. (He decided it would be for asking a Saudi: “Do they have comedy there?”)

To my western ears, some of the jokes misfired, but I suspect that’s down to my cross-cultural radar not being finely tuned to life here yet.

But across the show, it turns out that there are some things we can all laugh at, whether we’re German, Taiwanese or Lebanese: the news on QBS radio. Immigration. Land Cruisers. The visa cancellation threat.

All subjects ripe for the mocking, and mocked they well and truly were.

The local comedians were as keen as everyone else to make fun of themselves. We learned what it would be like if a Qatari were in the White House; what the Qatari version of The Office would be like, and why that Qatari woman is flashing her lights at you so vigorously (“Out of my way, I have shoes to buy!”)

This isn’t to say that every element of the experience worked.

Someone would make a killing selling water. An interval would be helpful. You could make the time for one by knocking five minutes off everyone’s set; if anything, it would raise the quality levels.

A tighter ending would give a bigger finish (a venue where you have greater control of the lighting would solve this at a stroke.)

But these are minor quibbles.

I kept having to remind myself that this was, at its heart, despite the slick ticketing, impressive venue and multi-camera crew, an amateur show. Your evening’s entertainment was brought to you by a schoolboy and three guys with day jobs.

A twenty-minute set each is a big, big ask, but they all carried it off effortlessly. Even the occasional memory lapse was skilfully managed.

It takes amazing courage to stand up on stage anywhere and try and make people laugh. I know: I’ve tried it, and it was easily one of most terrifying but exhilarating experiences of my life (and I’m including cage-diving with Great White sharks and my wedding day in that album). The rush of hearing a crowd laugh at something you said is like nothing else.

All of which makes finding a common thread of humour even harder when the crowd contains citizens of dozens of nations.

But this was a funny show, period. You don’t need to qualify it with ‘…for amateurs’ or ‘…for Qatar’. No one was laughing out of sympathy for the ‘brave’ guys giving it a go on stage.

They’re laughing because it turns out Palestinian mums interrupt their teenage sons in their bedrooms at exactly the same worst-moment as mums from any other country.

Humour is not a complete stranger in the Gulf. As Halal Bilal said, there are many funny people in Qatar. Most of them, however, don’t realise they’re funny.

This is a country doing its growing up in public. In many ways our experience with getting treatment for our son at the start of the week was no different from the comedy show at the end of it.

Life here might be different, but it’s improving all the time.

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