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Stand up stands up

Stand up stands up

Ashraf Khalil explores how home-grown stand-up comedy could become a big business in Egypt. But will any of the aspiring comics be able to turn it into a career?

August 22, 2010 3:40 by

The scene was the Sawy Cultural Center, a multi-stage performance space tucked underneath a busy bridge in the upscale central Cairo district of Zamalek. The room was badly ventilated and sweltering hot, with blinding stage lights that forced some audience members to don sunglasses. The event was essentially a massive night-long social and comedic experiment.

One after another, with the capacity crowd roaring at almost every line, more than a dozen comedians took what is essentially an Anglo-American art form and gave it a decidedly Egyptian spin.

Tamer Farag, a 35-year-old professional tour guide, riffed cleverly on the bizarre linguistic games Egyptians play – incorporating English words like “coffee shop,” “upgrade,” and “jacket” into Arabic, then randomly applying Arabic grammar rules to them.

“So what’s the plural of jacket?” Farag asked the crowd in Arabic. “No, it’s not ‘jawaacket,’ that’s low-class! All the chic people say ‘jacketaat.’ What’s wrong with you?”

Noha Kato, a young woman who wears the hijab, talked about how hard it is for veiled women to find places to swim. Her options are either to find a pool with women-only hours or opt for the slightly ridiculous “Islamic swimsuit.” “For people who don’t know, it’s like a diving suit with a ballet dress stuck on it. So you end up looking like a Muskateer,” she said, drawing a huge laugh.

Kato, delivering her routine in fluent English, joked that at age 22, her parents are already fretting about her never getting married. “I feel like a yogurt cup with an expiration date stamped on my forehead,” she said.

The year 2010 may just be remembered as the one that homegrown stand-up comedy turned the corner in Egypt. If so, the Feb. 19 comedy showcase known as Hysteria may be the moment that proved Western-style could thrive here. The stand-up scene has been bubbling below the surface for several years. Clubs and coffee shops have started hosting occasional stand-up nights, drawing on a growing pool of locals eager to perform. “It’s going to be very gradual. It will still take time for people to catch up to it,” the manager of the Cairo Jazz Club, Shady Hamza, said.

Hamza started experimenting with stand-up nights earlier this year, bringing in two or three comics to perform brief routines as an opener to the night’s band. To his surprise, he discovered that his nightclub – which normally doesn’t start filling up until 11 p.m., was packed by 8:30. “I’m excited about the idea and I want to be part of its growth,” Hamza said.

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