On the face of it the Middle East’s civil wars, sectarian strife, displacement on an unprecedented scale, political upheaval and terrorism do not lend themselves easily to comedy.
Then again, the absurdities of a region governed by hereditary republics and tinpot police states, where clerics condemn Pokémon as idolatrous, have long fuelled nihilistic jokes and a tradition of political humour that goes back centuries.
So when Isam Uraiqat launched an Arabic satirical news site in 2013 called al-Hudood (The Limits), with deadpan headlines reminiscent of the US publication The Onion, it could have gone either way. The site mocked political leaders, Middle Eastern social habits and clerics. Its tagline, “towards some sort of future”, neatly encapsulated a region that seemed perpetually in flux.
“When we started it, it was like: ‘Why the hell is there no Onion for the Middle East?’” Uraiqat, a 33-year-old Jordanian-Palestinian, said. “Everybody thinks what goes on in their countries is stupid but our patch of the world is still a bit more insane than everywhere else.
“I mean, you could have an entire website just on [Abdel Fatah] al-Sisi,” he said, referring to the Egyptian president.
“Rights groups urge Sisi to stop destroying competitors and try forging election results instead,” blared a recent headline above a piece on Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections, which Sisi is running in largely unopposed. Another article nodding to the region’s brutal security services was headlined: “Intelligence directorate changes mind of man who thought he only feared God.”
As a policy, the website does not mock religion, but does take aim at clerics who use their power to foment rage. One article that caused controversy was titled: “Lucky child born to parents of correct religion”, without specifying their faith.
The most popular articles on the website, which now averages 1 million unique visitors a month, employ black humour in the service of covering the region’s many conflicts.
One recent article on Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen said the kingdom would offer the option of euthanasia for any Yemenis who had not already died of cholera, which has spread under a blockade of humanitarian supplies.
Another took aim at the perfunctory coverage of the seemingly endless terrorist attacks in Iraq with the headline: “Routine bombing in Baghdad fulfils daily death quota in one go.” Another said: “Syrian man succeeds in dying of natural causes.”
“The jokes have to say something,” said Uraiqat, who launched the website in Jordan before moving to London with his partner, who is English. “We wanted to say all those things, but the number one rule from day one is we can’t publish anything that isn’t actually funny. No matter how dark it is, and how black the comedy is, it has to be funny.”
That desire to say or do “something” was a consequence of the Arab spring uprisings in 2011. Uraiqat and his friends quickly realised a mass movement of people akin to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt was unlikely in Jordan. The genesis of the idea to create a satirical news website emerged then, but took two years to reach fruition.
Five years later, their focus has expanded from Jordan to cover the whole region. From Uraiqat and two screenwriter friends, the team has expanded to include editors, a designer and social media manager, a content developer and 10 regular freelancers, along with a closed Facebook group of fans who propose story ideas. Most of the website’s funding comes from grants from the European Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundations.
Uraiqat describes himself as a “joke engineer” working with his team to wring stories for maximum satirical impact. Some headlines will go through 50 iterations, he said, a process that has resulted in a hybrid of deadpan and absurdist comedy not wholly familiar in the region, but largely successful nevertheless.
Part of al-Hudood’s success can be attributed to the fact that the jokes do not seek to preach to the website’s readership. But Uraiqat has no idea if his work will contribute towards more free speech or democratic values in the region.
“A lot of the time we get asked about what kind of impact we are having, but it’s so immeasurable,” he said. “When we started off, we thought maybe we can change people’s minds, and it’s the dumbest thing that anyone’s ever thought. You can’t change anyone’s mind.”
However, he added: “Most people aren’t nasty; they’re on the edge, without strong thoughts about things. You get the right sheikh and he sways them in one direction,” he said. “So we’re swaying people a little bit towards this direction.”