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La culture pop dans la péninsule Arabique

Nailing it à la Saudi: Satire and the Subject in Times of Crisis

Khadija El Alaoui, Azza Ibrahim Alajlan et Maura A. E. Pilotti


Cet article explore le phénomène des vidéos satiriques saoudiennes diffusées sur la plateforme YouTube depuis 2010, puis se concentre dans un second temps sur la web‑série d’animation à succès Masāmīr (Clous) diffusée sur YouTube. Comme d’autres émissions humoristiques, Masāmīr est non seulement une illustration des usages de la satire par ceux qui la pratiquent et la consomment, mais son analyse permet de comprendre ceux que Janet Roitman et Achille Mbembe décrivent comme les « sujets en temps de crise » (1995). Le rire est ainsi lu comme un moyen d’exprimer une expérience insupportable au croisement de la société saoudienne et d’une communauté virtuelle plus large, toutes deux prises dans un contexte autocratique, comprenant une épistémologie autoritaire internalisée. Les vidéos satiriques montrent une société en crise : pouvoirs de léthargie, connivence et violence sont entremêlés aux aspirations de changement et au désir d’agentivité. Le travail de ces artistes nous permet d’entrevoir une subjectivité ambivalente, alors qu’ils proposent une critique d’eux‑mêmes et de leur société, confessant parfois leur impuissance, tout en restant à d’autres moments en connivence avec la structure actuelle du pouvoir, redorant de cette manière le blason de l’État et réinscrivant leur action dans le récit national du « sauveur ultime ».

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  • 1 Bayat, 2010, pp. 137‑158.

1The Arab proverb sharr al‑baliyya mā yuḍḥik (the worst crisis makes one laugh) presents laughter as a reaction to the unbearable, the inexplicable and probably the unsolvable. In Life as Politics, Asef Bayat observes that laughter’s antistructure disposition can undermine exclusivist authorities that monopolize truth, hence it poses a serious threat to the prevailing paradigm and has the potential to be a vehicle of social reflection and change.1 Being a means of both crude survival and subtle critique capable of transforming one’s consciousness and society, laughter emerges from a chest entangled in many inherited crises, both historical and existential, as well as foreseen and unforeseen contingencies, many of which are of one’s own making, all leading to such exhaustion that one breaks out laughing.

  • 2 See Tang & Bhattacharya, 2011; and Orji, 2018.
  • 3 Orji, 2018, p. 27.
  • 4 See Alharthi, 2014; Kazarian, 2011; and Kishtainy, 2009.

2This paper explores the phenomenon of mushrooming Saudi satire on YouTube since 2010, based on the assumption that laughter offers the analyst access to the quotidian in its thickest moments. Even though satire is an elusive term, it chiefly denotes an art form and a mode of critique which exposes and ridicules an individual’s shortcomings and society’s ills by means of irony, wit, humor, parody, and the appearance of seriousness.2 Ogomide Bamidele’s definition of satire as “the art of laughter with knives” captures its potential to pose a serious challenge to that which constitutes the object of laughter, namely the dominant (dis)order.3 In the Arab literary tradition, poetry has been the most commonly used vehicle of satire, which epitomizes people’s habit of pocking fun and criticizing themselves and others, including those in power.4 The growing presence of satirical YouTube videos in a variety of Arabic vernaculars draws not only on this tradition but also on the American stand‑up performance, in which a comedian delivers improvised or scripted humorous monologues in front of live audiences. In this paper, satire, humor, and comedy will be used interchangeably, as they all intersect in the comedians’ desire to expose individual and social flaws in a manner that elicits laughter in the audience with whom they share the same plights.

  • 5 Mbembe, 2001, Mbembe & Roitman, 1995, pp. 323‑352.

3While the satirical work analyzed in this paper can be read as laughter with knives, it is not always clear at what the knives are directed. In fact, our understanding of the politics of satire and humor, as explained in the first section of this writing, draws on Achille Mbembe’s seminal work On the Postcolony as well as the theorization of the subject in times of crisis put forth by Janet Roitman and Mbembe.5 Their arguments inform this writing in two interconnected ways. First, humor and laughter, as a solid part of everyday life, clue us into practices through which people make sense of their lives in times of uncertainty and abrupt changes. Second, we read laughter, not so much as a means to circumvent societal restrictions or even one’s own self‑censorship, but as a means of reporting unbearable experiences, in which a person is complicit and from which he/she suffers at the same time.

  • 6 See Achcar, 2013.
  • 7 Haykel, Hegghammer & Lacroix, 2015, p. 1.
  • 8 Al‑Butayrī, 2015.

4The second section of the paper focuses on the significance of social media, especially YouTube, as enabling satirical shows, as well as on the timing of the appearance of these shows, i.e., 2010‑2011. The beginning of this decade witnessed what came to be called the Arab Spring. Moḥammad Bū‘azīzī’s self‑immolation in protest of the reality forced upon him to surrender to a life without dignity and justice set Tunisia and many Arab countries into the fire of uprisings.6 The world watched, in both traditional and digital media, Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis, Bahrainis marching arms in arms with poetry, songs, and drawings, all punctuated with a lot of humor, which made these uprisings look more like celebrations until violence transformed them into funerals. In the context of Saudi Arabia, even though the announced “Day of Rage” on Facebook, March 11, 2011, did not materialize, comedians virtually joined the protestors in declaring what “the Saudis want…”7 Specifically, these Saudis represent a segment of young people, who are “well‑educated and well‑travelled,” as described by stand‑up comedian Fahad Albutairi [Fahd al‑Butayrī], whose first performances were in his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.8 Three of the most popular comedy shows that were posted on YouTube in Saudi Arabia during those years are examined, namely Lā yikthar (Enough), produced by Telfaz 11, Ēsh illī? (What’s the …?) and ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir (On the Fly), produced by UTurn. While Ēsh illī? parodies peoples’ immoderate indulgences and lack of purpose, Lā yikthar and ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir include state institutions in their satirical stand‑ups. As the latter have uploaded episodes that deal with the Arab spring, their satirical renderings are selected for analysis.

5The third section zooms in on the animated cartoon Masāmīr (Nails), whose popularity among Arab‑speaking audiences, especially Saudis, made it the ideal choice. In this section, the three first episodes posted on YouTube in June 2011 are introduced and thematized. Then the episode entitled Usūd al‑fulla (Lions of Fun), posted in March 2017, is examined. Usūd al‑fulla satirizes opposite trends: al‑ṣaḥwa al‑islamiyya (Islamic Awakening) which emerged in the late 60s in Saudi Arabia, and the current trend of Americanized forms of entertainment flooding the Saudi culture. This episode was selected as it critiques the ubiquity of real or symbolic violence involved in these trends, constitutive of the crisis delineated in the present study. We argue that even as the cartoon makers expose these trends’ violence and denounce their disregard of Saudi people’s needs and desires, they absolve the state from its lion share of responsibility in enabling both al‑ṣaḥwa and American (cultural) imperialism.

6Even though comedy shows differ from animated cartoons, all stage a society in crisis: forces of lethargy, connivance, and violence are entangled with aspirations for agency and change. We argue that the artists’ work also allows us a glimpse into an ambivalent subjectivity. They are critically looking at themselves and their society, at times confessing their helplessness and other times colluding with the existing power structure, all of which typify being a subject in times of crisis.

The Predicament of Ṭafra Culture

  • 9 Mbembe, 2001, p. 16.

7The discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and the subsequent oil boom of the 70s led to dramatic changes that catapulted the society from one way of being in the world into another. Till today, people still view their lives as belonging to two time periods, namely the pre‑oil boom and post‑oil boom era, since every aspect of their lives was changed by the sudden transition to an economy driven by fossil fuels. Interestingly, neither the English expression of oil boom, nor the Saudi official discourse of tanmiya (development) is present in the word ṭafra, commonly used to describe the transition. Ṭafra, which means “abrupt leap” and “mutation,” probably captures the feeling that one was leaping into the unknown and that one’s community was about to change beyond self‑recognition. Till now, it is common to speak of pre‑afra and post‑ṭafra, with the conversion set in the year of 1969. The fact that this specific understanding of temporality still resonates with Saudi people, the majority of whom were born around the turn of the millennium, clearly reveals that ṭafra does not constitute a linear sequence of time but rather a time of entanglement (Mbembe’s expression), that is time as an interlocking of past, present, and future configurations.9 Ṭafra situates people’s lived experience in the context of displacement and entanglement: a leap that is relentlessly happening between a “traditional” culture, which is often the result of a recent imaginative construction, and a “modern” world in which Saudis are invited to participate with or without assent.

  • 10 Al‑Quṣaybī, 1989, p. 43.
  • 11 Al‑Quṣaybī, 1989, p. 48 (authors’ translation).
  • 12 Al‑Ghadhdhāmī, 2014, p. 154‑155.

8Ṭafra is generally the story of the rather fast emergence of the gigantic infrastructure that made industrial cities with their modern transportation systems part of the Saudi cityscape. Yet, critics point to a dark side. Ghāzī al‑Quṣaybī, a novelist, poet, and politician writes that ṭafra made many people entertain the illusion that money was plentiful and could realize all desires as well as solve all problems immediately.10 He forewarns, “What I fear most is that in moving from scarcity to abundance, we lost some virtues of our parents’ generation, namely: vigor, strength, patience and persistence.”11 Cultural critic Abdullah al‑Ghadhdhāmī recounts several ṭafra stories that reflect radical changes in peoples’ habits, tastes, and expectations. For instance, he recalls that as a student in the UK, it was his habit to spend the summer at his family’s home in Saudi Arabia. Yet, in 1976, he was surprised by the remarks of a Saudi airline representative who was horrified at his coming home to the unbearable heat of Saudi Arabia while the norm had become to seek the coolness of England.12 What stunned al‑Ghadhdhāmī was not so much the suggestion of spending the summer in Europe, for there was always a tiny affluent class in his country that could afford these holidays, but the representative’s framing of this choice as the norm.

  • 13 Al‑Quṣaybī, 1989, p. 46.

9Al‑Ghadhdhāmī also narrates a meeting with one of his fellow townsmen, whom he did not immediately recognize. This man, al‑Ghadhdhāmī learns, would come to represent a new type of Saudis, wearing mishlaḥ (formal men’s cloak) and dark glasses, carrying a black briefcase, speaking mostly about business deals, and dreaming of quick fortunes. He came to constitute the type of new Saudi men whom al‑Quṣaybī describes as swiftly losing interest if a project is seen to require a couple of years for its completion, just too much time for men who desire immediate returns.13 Al‑Ghadhdhāmī also notices how men did not only change their appearance but also their values. The shift from a society based on brotherhood to a mode of interacting with others as if they were customers was palpable. Saudi men seemed to be suddenly in a haste, likely to display impatience towards the alleged shortcomings of others, and happy to market themselves while earlier they would shun even talking about themselves. Ṭafra reached the privacy of one's house, wherein (foreign) domestic help was another marker of status and affluence. To expose the radical change happening with these markers, al‑Ghadhdhāmī notes the cognitive dissonance experienced by Saudis when the first wave of domestic helpers reached Saudi Arabia. Women, as members of a society that offers hospitality to the stranger, were keen on serving their employees, who sometimes received invitations from neighbors. al‑Ghadhdhāmī points out,

  • 14 Al‑Ghadhdhāmī, 2014, p. 158‑159 (authors’ translation).

10It was our habit to treat the foreigner as a guest, who enjoyed the right to hospitality, service, and support. Yet, now we deal with a different sort of foreigners: they are here to serve us and they are wage‑receivers and not guests. More than that, we have become people who expect others to work for us, instead of shouldering our responsibilities ourselves.14

  • 15 ijāzī, 2008.
  • 16 Ménoret, 2009, p. 131.

11Both al‑Quṣaybī’s and al‑Ghadhdhāmī’s observations describe the beginning of radical changes in the Saudi social structures and cultural imaginations in the 70s and 80s. Decades later, one should not be surprised if many of these observations have come to constitute a mindset. In a 2008 study on the Gulf youth, Mustapha Ḥijāzī points out that the elders increasingly accuse the youth of indifference, irresponsibility, apathy, and violence. Yet, what is omitted in these accusations leveled at the youth is a culture that not only excludes them from a serious contribution to the making of their future, but also has bequeathed to them all the problematic characteristics mentioned above.15 In fact, one of the main expressions used by young people when speaking about their feelings is ṭufūsh, rightly identified by Pascal Ménoret, as a more social rather than a psychological disorder. According to Tāj al‑‘Arūs, an 18th century dictionary, the verb ṭafasha means “to err in the world because of mistreatment. Ménoret explains that this feeling does not lead to numbness and emptiness, as many scholars note, but to desperate attempts to overcome the state of disappointment and disgust by any means, including deviant behavior.16

  • 17 Ibid, p. 8.
  • 18 Munif, 1989, p. 164.
  • 19 Ménoret, 2009, p. 169.

12In a critical ethnographic study that tells the story of Riyadh after the 1973 oil boom, Ménoret argues that the state’s implementation of what it calls modernization and development, in reality, ushered its citizens into an internal exile since the concrete and asphalt, main ingredients of the new infrastructure, were poured not only on roads but on a way of being and a collective memory.17 His analysis echoes the warning of the healer character in ‘Abd al‑Raḥmān Munīf’s Cities of Salt, who foresaw urbanization as unleashing “roads [that] will be as hard as hearts, feeling and knowing nothing.”18 Ménoret then reads the phenomenon of joyriding or drifting as a reaction to the socio‑economic and political conditions, overseen by a state, concerned more about compliance with imperial and neocolonial expectations than equality of opportunities for its own citizens. This reading allows us to see joyriders noisily slamming their stolen cars and alienated selves against the categories and norms imposed by the state. Ménoret writes: “drifting was a rebellion of the body against the spatial, moral, and political normativity of mainstream Saudi society.”19

  • 20 Ibid, p. 205.
  • 21 ijāzī, 2013.

13While al‑Ghadhdhāmī and al‑Quṣaybī argue that the culture of ṭafra has established excess and disproportion as fundamental markers of an emerging Saudi way of life, Ménoret invites us to see drifting, itself exhibiting excess, as a (probably convivial) counterculture to a political order designed to deny parity to its own youth. Yet, as he concedes, even though drifting, as “politics of fun” challenges the state’s political and moral authority, it is doomed because joyriders, as “super‑consumers and destroyers,” ironically summon the state to reinstitute order, the very one that led to the rise of joyriding.20 There is also an international dimension to the crisis, besides these domestic competing forms of excesses, which position the state in the paradoxical role of being the gate opener to the very forces largely responsible for extremist behaviors as well as the ultimate savior. In al‑‘insān al‑mahdūr (The Expendable Human), Ḥijāzī describes the current Arab political realities as hostages of multiple sieges, including authoritarianism, terrorism, market tyranny, and foreign interventions.21 Combined, they produce what Ḥijāzī calls the “expendable human”, who deepens his/her suffering through the adoption of aggressive models of relating to fellow expendables.

  • 22 Mbembe & Roitman, 1995, p. 351.

14The satirical videos analyzed in this paper all address in one way or another this critical context: excess and the obscene are the very modes in which power is exercised, by both oppressors and oppressed despite the significant difference in the amount of power each category wields, all of which leads to mutual brutalization. The videos can be read as a confession of an imagination in crisis in front of which one is not too clear about what to do, if the option of doing something is even possible in the first place. Drawing on the theorization of the subject in times of crisis put forth by Mbembe and Roitman, we read the uses of satire and humor in everyday life as well as in artistic representations of the quotidian as tools that capture one’s experience of suffering the unbearable discrepancies between ideals and realities to which one contributes willy‑nilly. The particular subjectivity that lives the crisis can “turn violence, the absurd and even terror itself into a source of derision… Fear, and the laughter it provokes, are often an effect of the ambiguity of lived experience: one is subject to this violence and yet, often in spite of oneself, one participates in its very production.”22

  • 23 Mbembe, 2001, p. 128.
  • 24 Ibid, p. 129. We find Mbembe’s theorization extremely useful, as it expands our understanding of th (...)
  • 25 Mbembe’s analysis recalls ‘Abd al‑Raḥmān al‑Kawākibī’s discussion in 1902 of the general conditions (...)
  • 26 Shūshān recited his poem in the show Let’s Talk, aired by Hannibal Television, based in Tunisia, on (...)

15In his later work, Mbembe rethinks what he calls “the logic of conviviality,” to include the ways in which ordinary people obey, yet laugh at and play with power and, at times, reproduce their own subjugation in their daily lives.23 These shifting scenes of subjugation, that constitute the pragmatics of subjection, blur the boundaries between reality and pretense, on the one hand, and between suffering and desire on the other. Mbembe explains that “…the public affirmation of the ‘postcolonized subject’ is not necessarily found in acts of ‘opposition’ or ‘resistance’ to the commandment. What defines the postcolonized subject is the ability to engage in baroque practices fundamentally ambiguous, fluid, and modifiable even where there are clear, written, and precise rules.”24 According to Mbembe, authoritarian epistemology structures everyday life, since people, who have internalized it, reproduce it themselves in their daily activities.25 Or, as poet Anīs Shūshān aptly puts it in “Salamun ‘alaykum” (Peace Be Upon You), a poem that went viral in the Arab world: “…we became a lethal poison to each other.”26

  • 27 Mbembe, 2001, p. 147.

16In the coming sections, we will focus not only on the content presented by the YouTubers, which does address the poison denounced by Shūshān, but also their convivial moves to please their audience and appease the authorities: for instance, claiming that their shows are for laughter only and joining the very institutions that were critiqued (Omar Hussein’s case). Others hasten to state their regrets if they mistakenly satirize issues endorsed by the political establishment (UTurn staff’s statement). Of course, one can argue that these are camouflage tactics to pretend obedience. The keyword for us here is pretense, which, we think, constitutes the dominant modality of the bargain within an authoritarian space. Under these conditions, in which things do not seem to be what they are, the analyst needs a different set of conceptual tools, for instance, the logic of conviviality, to figure the stories behind the signs created by people through living their everyday lives.27 The defining features of the realities that Mbembe identifies include excess, urban driving habits, the mentality of fixing, the unexpected as the norm, obliquity, orgiastic enjoyment of power, mutual brutalization, and spread of rumors. All these features, abundant in the representations of Saudi realities in the shows under study, expose a society in convivial relation with the commandment. The authors add al‑abāṭa (foolishness/stupidity), al‑faḍāwa (emptiness/idleness), ma‘lēsh (Oh, well, never mind), the mentality of walking beside the wall, and the clichéd expression “leave it to God,” as the ultimate surrender to the crisis, including washing one’s hands from simple responsibilities. But first, we will discuss the impact of the YouTube phenomenon as well as the significance of the years 2010 and 2011.

Walking on the World Wide Web

17The number of Internet users in Saudi Arabia is staggering. Internet World Stats (2017) reports that in 2000, there were 200,000 Internet users (.9% of the population). In 2017, the number increased to 20,813,695, representing a 63.6 percent coverage of the country’s residents (i.e., 32,742,664). The current number of internet users as of March 2019 is 30,257,715, that is 88.6% of a total population of 34,140,662.28 A 2015 survey conducted by the Dubai School of Government ranked YouTube among the social media platforms that are most used on a daily basis in Saudi Arabia (70%), just below WhatsApp (97%), Facebook (81%), and Instagram (81%).29 Out of the 4 billion views of the YouTube site per day, approximately 167 million have been found to originate in the Middle East Region, and 90 million specifically in Saudi Arabia.30 This massive presence of social media platforms, called by its users the “new media” or the “alternative media,” is seen as capable of becoming a powerful tool to create its own “truth” in a system that is not known to favor other truths.

  • 31 Al‑Sharif, 16 September, 2018.
  • 32 Ramsay & Fatani, 2016, p. 200.

18Yet, social media has been perceived as both an enabler and disabler of peoples’ demands for social and political reforms. Saudi women’s rights activist Manal al‑Sharif, points out: “Digital activism… comes at a high price: The very tools we use for our cause can be –and have been– used to undermine us.”31 The e‑repressive practices she and other activists have suffered could explain why the content of the Saudi new media produced on YouTube has not pursued a serious political critique of the establishment. Indeed, Gilbert Ramsay and Sumayah Fatani argue that the new Saudi media tends to display a “unified agenda, which amounts to a technocratic and to some extent individualist, but also very much a nationalist vision for the future of their country.”32

  • 33 Ibid, 2016, 189.

19This paper addresses not so much the possibility of political dissent in Saudi digital platforms, but rather reads the youth satirical production as expressing unbearable experiences in the nexus of the Saudi society and a larger virtual community, all embedded in an autocratic context, including an internalized authoritarian epistemology. Such a context is ideal for laughter as expressive of an ambivalent subjectivity. Probably it is no coincidence that the ten most popular Saudi channels on YouTube as of 2015 opted for the comedy genre.33

20One emblematic case of the phenomenon of online satirical videos is Uturn, an entertainment company based in Jeddah. The company, whose name clearly expresses the desire for change, was founded in 2010 by young men and women, who thought that YouTube could be used for personal development and discussion of locally relevant issues. Abdullah Mando, co‑founder of Uturn entertainment told Wamda, a Dubai based business channel:

  • 34 Al Majid, 2012.

21We consume a lot of Western content, whether it is films [or] TV shows. There is nothing wrong in that. It is just there is one major problem for me, personally, … I never related to the content I loved most. I never related to the American film where the hero is always American and the bad guy is always Russian, German, or … Arab... We decided we want to make films, and these types of films would be different. It will be as amazing and mesmerizing as popular Western films, but as local and cultural as possible.34

22What is omitted in Mando’s remark is his difficulty to relate to the traditional Saudi media, which certainly speaks Mando’s language but has been oblivious to his generation’s concerns.

  • 35 āliḥ, 8 March 2011.
  • 36 āliḥ, 26 April 2011 and 19 December 2011.

23Undoubtedly, the most popular show produced by Uturn is Ēsh illī? (What’s the …?), hosted by Badr Ṣāliḥ from March 2011 to February 2017. In its first episode, Ṣāliḥ explains to his viewers that the expression “ēsh illī” is currently used by young people to indicate either surprise or anger.35 He then promises that whenever he has an “ēsh illī” reaction to videos posted to YouTube, he would share them with his audience and ridicule their lack of quality. The main goal of the show, he admits, is to expose a culture he perceives as wallowing in the appreciation of worthless content. The first episodes display scenes of people filming themselves making faces, sharing silly how‑to‑do things (e.g., how to hold a PlayStation), or engaging in annoying behavior coupled with maddening expressions (e.g., double parking while there is plenty of space and then addressing the aggrieved person with ma‘lēsh, an apology equivalent to “Oh, well, never mind.” Later shows include Ṣāliḥ performing short scenes that showcase discriminatory practices (e.g. yelling at the non‑Saudi waiter and making outlandish requests). In each episode, we see Sāliḥ beating his head and slapping his face at what he calls “māhiyyat al‑abāṭa: hiya ‘ibāra ‘an faḍāwa”(The essence of foolishness/stupidity is the state of emptiness/idleness).36

24Do these videos reflect the existence of people who are acting beyond the pale and therefore demand the pedagogical style assumed by Sāliḥ? Alternatively, do they constitute signs of the underlying structural crises that define people’s subjectivity? Sāliḥ’s shows raise an important question: ēsh illī wrong with us? Namely, why have we made al‑abāṭa, which ranges from small annoyances to mutual brutalization, a meaningful way of relating to each other? Yet, his critique reinforces the normative standards that perceive disturbing behavior as an individual deviance, instead of exposing the structural layers that led to the crisis. His repeated advice “Do something useful!” mimics the very behavior he ridicules, since he prescribes a band‑aid to festering wounds. A deeper look would require delving into the conditions that create the disposition to immoderate behavioral excesses, which could be related to lack of political agency. The local idiom “al‑fāḍī ya’mal qāḍī” (the idle person stands as a judge) hints towards what idleness does to people. If a particular environment traps people into al‑faḍāwa (idleness), then their behavior, disturbing as it is to themselves and others, exposes the dark face of that environment that has stripped them from any meaningful contribution to their society. By avoiding this critical context, Sāliḥ’s comedy directs satire’s knives at the very people it seeks to save from al‑abāṭa and al‑faḍāwa, instead of targeting the multiple layers behind the crisis.

  • 37 usayn, 8 February 2011. ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir, except episode 11, is no longer available on YouTube.

25‘Alā l‑ṭāyir (On the Fly) is another Uturn produced comedy show, hosted by Omar Hussein [‘Umar Ḥusayn] with Aḥmad Fatḥ al‑Dīn from September 2010 to July 2013. Hussein’s popular show offers a parody of national television news, in which both the contents and the techniques of events’ coverage are satirized. For instance, Hussein congratulates MBC, owned by Saudi capitals, for airing Arabs Got Talent on the very night the Tunisian people made history by removing Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from the power he exercised for more than 23 years. From behind his desk, Hussein informs his audience that “For the first time in history, an Arab president abdicates his position without the direct intervention of ‘Azrā’īl [the Angel of death].”37 He adds that during such a consequential day, in which “all of us, Arab people, were mesmerized by the events, MBC decided to air Arabs Got Talent… Well‑done!”

  • 38 Al‑ Butayrī, 3 March 2011.

26Fahad Albutairi [Fahd al‑Butayrī]’s Lā yikthar (Enough), another popular YouTube show, dramatizes the so‑called Arab Spring on the stage of “Leaders’ [sic] Got Talent,” a pun on the Arab reality television show that MBC decided to air instead of the Tunisians’ uprisings. Lā yikthar's fourth episode, uploaded on March 3, 2011, shows an animated segment featuring former Arab presidents and Albutairi playing himself as candidates of “Leaders’ Got Talent.”38 In it, Ben Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi perform but fail to impress the judges. Yet, while former leaders are given a chance to show their talents, even though their actual performance is substandard, Albutairi, as the fourth candidate, is allowed to neither introduce himself nor perform.

27Albutairi’s inserting himself in the scene can be an appeasing gesture, since after all he moves away from the burning topics of the time to the benign issue of a comedian eager to showcase his talent. Yet, the fact that he is prevented from performing by a Saudi judge (played by the crocodile puppet character) may signify one of the glaring wounds which the comedians satirically expose: being excluded from putting ones’ talents and energy in the scripting of one’s future. Unlike Ṣāliḥ who zooms in on individuals’ “maddening” behaviors, Hussein and Albutairi, obliquely direct their criticism at the power structure that disallows processes fundamental to human agency. While Hussein’s scoffing at MBC suggests that Saudi people can now inform themselves through alternative media, Albutairi imagines a move towards central stage to show one’s potential, even as he scripts the immediate and strict denial by the decision makers.

  • 39 Al‑mir, 18 February 2015.
  • 40 Hooks, 1992, p. 378.

28‘Alā l‑ṭāyir also addresses a large number of socio‑political problems, such as racism, incompetence, corruption, hyper‑consumerism, unemployment, prison conditions etc. Its first episode shows racism as a pervasive practice in the Saudi society. Masāmīr screenwriter Fayṣal al‑‘Ᾱmir, whose work will be discussed below, characterizes racism “as one of the dishes Saudi people enjoy.”39 This metaphor captures another disturbing reality: degrading other fellow human beings surfaces as a craving that bell hooks rightly names “eating the Other” to affirm power and privilege.40 In ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir’s context, this particular dish is not for Saudi peoples’ consumption alone, since they themselves are fed to the ever‑hungry imperial machine that treat them as eternally in need of guidance (see infra).

  • 41 usayn, 8 September 2010.

29Racism, ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir shows, is a much deeper problem, from which even Saudi people suffer through a so‑called khawāja complex, a form of internalization of Eurocentrism. To illustrate this complex and its pervasiveness, Hussein stages two scenes: in the first one we see him playing a Saudi young man whose job application was turned down because “he does not have a language,” which is synonymous to lack of English in the employment market parlance.41 The following scene shows Hussein playing a French young man who is hastily given a job, even though his Western background is the only aspect that clearly impresses the interviewer. The employer’s decision cuts to a shot displaying a stamp with the inscription “Al‑Khawāja complex, imported since 1969.”

30‘Alā l‑ṭāyir situates the import of the khawāja complex by Saudi people not so much in the period of European colonialism, as it was the case of most countries in the Middle East, but in 1969, the year that ushered in the ṭafra. The two interview scenes (with the young Saudi man and the French one) as well as the pre‑credit sequence (the overt discrimination towards non‑Saudi Muslim fellows) point to a pervasive pattern of discrimination that cuts through Saudi society in two contradictory ways. While many Saudi people treat the expatriates coming from the global south as lesser human beings, they suffer their share in race discrimination through their own internalized khawāja complex, lavishly acquired with their own petro‑dollars!

  • 42 abrī, 20 December 2011.
  • 43 In Al‑Dakhīl,19 May 2012.

31Seemingly overwhelmed by the multitude and messiness of the everyday grievances the show tackles, Hussein decides to create a segment he calls shamangaḥabash, a rare Ḥijāzī expression that the show puts back into fashion and that denotes a juice of incompatible elements (i.e. melon/shammām, mango/manga and corn/ḥabash) and connotes a situation that is obscenely and needlessly complicated. This segment focuses on the Kafkaesque dimension of the Saudi bureaucracy. “Unclarity engulfs everything, including [simple] regulations and laws,” ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir’s writer Lamā Ṣabrī expresses a much shared sentiment.42 Since this particular bureaucracy requires unheard creativity and unimaginable amounts of patience from its subjects, Hussein decides to award a prize bearing the same name to the most “heroic” exploits. For instance, tapping rapidly his desk with both index fingers, Hussein sings the plight of a young woman who, upon her father’s death, went through a decade‑long odyssey of attempts to renew her ID all over Saudi Arabia, to no avail, and declares her winner of the shamangaḥabash prize.43

  • 44 Ramsay & Fatani, 2016, p. 195.

32The uncertainty and murkiness of life typically touch the very nature of topics the comedy teams feel safe to approach and the way the selected topics could be satirized, since all the artists discussed in this paper live in and disseminate their work from Saudi Arabia. Many YouTubers from both sides of the camera admit their frustration with the absence of written rules and the many blurred lines even within perceived non‑taboo topics. For instance, when Firās Baqna, the host of YouTube series Malūb alaynā (We are being cheated), and two crew members were arrested in 2011, presumably, the reason was not the content of the show, since it had been running online undisturbed for five months. Rather, the London‑based al‑Iṣlāḥ TV channel, banned in Saudi Arabia, aired one of its episodes.44 Yet, confusion can be enabling, since comedians can always evoke the absence of the written rules, once they cross the lines. According to Ramsay and Fatani, a Uturn insider confesses that:

  • 45 Ramsay & Fatani, 2016, p. 193.

33Now one thing you’ve got to recognize is that with the Arab Spring we gave an opinion that was not in line with the opinion of the Saudi government which was very weird… We didn’t recognize it. We figured it out afterwards… The government were [sic] with Hosni Mubarak. In our episode, we actually bashed on Hosni Mubarak.45

  • 46 Maktabi, 7 March 2012.
  • 47 Al‑Dakhīl, 19 May 2012.

34This apologetic pose mirrors Hussein’s confession or provocation when he told journalist Rima Maktabi, the host of CNN’s program Inside the Middle East: “If you self‑censor yourself, it is the best way to do this media that is accepted by society, because our society … like[s] to be entertained… they don’t want to cross any barriers. They don’t want you to use some … taboos.46” Hussein’s statement acknowledges that the pressure comes not only from the government that banned one of ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir’s episodes, but also from society. Hussein admits that his own family feels embarrassed by his boldness because the dominant culture requires one to “walk beside the wall,” an Arabic expression that signifies behaving in a self‑effacing way in order to keep out of trouble. Indeed, the then journalist Turkī al‑Dakhīl, who is now Saudi Ambassador to the UAE, interrupts his guest Hussein, as the latter explains the older generation’s tendency to walk beside the wall, by disapprovingly saying “and you are walking on top of it!”47

  • 48 See Al‑Ghadhdhāmī, 2012.
  • 49 usayn, 5 August 2015.

35Whether young Saudi YouTubers, like Hussein and Albutairi, have managed to walk “on top of the wall” is debatable. Yet, clearly, during the height of the Arab uprisings, young comedians have skillfully negotiated their moves under the watches of both official and populistic authorities, suspicious of non‑conformist tongues (online content) and hands (the work of keyboard behind). Suspicion, as al‑Ghadhdhāmī reminds us, can easily turn into an outright accusation of treason and blasphemy.48 Consistent with the pragmatics of subjection in times of crisis, Hussein, who satirized official media then joined for a period Al Arabiya, a pan‑Arab satellite TV station also owned by Saudi capitals, while ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir series disappeared from the net. In his show al‑Jāmi‘a (the University) on Al Arabiya, Hussein states: “YouTube programs are a form of letting off steam and do not lead to change. Stand‑up comedy in Saudi Arabia is only for laughing, and nothing else.”49 Hussein’s remark, illustrating the pragmatics of subjection, removes the knives from laughter and dismisses the reception of his work as an attempt at shaking the walk‑beside‑the‑wall mentality. Surely, Hussein knows the decoding of his work is a matter not in his hands, but in his audience’s. His viewers might use their hands to climb on top of the wall.

Reel Life has one Soundtrack

  • 50 See “Dubai Cinema Operator Inks Deal with Saudi YouTube Hit Masameer,” 7 March 2018.
  • 51 Al‑mir, 15 March 2015.

36Masāmīr (Nails), a series that relies on an animated cartoon format, uses both standard Arabic and Saudi dialect and invokes references to cultural norms and values that are unique to Saudi Arabia, especially the Najd region, including Riyadh and Qassim. According to the weekly Arabian Business of March 7, 2018, Masāmīr has reached more than 700 million views across social media and has fans from all over the Arab world.50 In fact, when asked on Sky News Arabia about the appeal of the cartoon to people throughout the Arab world despite its Saudi specificity, screenwriter al‑‘Ᾱmir points out that Arabs largely share the same plights, hence they recognize themselves in a critical work like Masāmīr.51

  • 52 Nejer, 3 June 2011a.

37The first episode posted on YouTube on June 3, 2011, entitled “Turned into a Football Addict” tackles the phenomenon of football fanaticism permeating Saudi culture and exposes the thirst of young people for the very shows discussed in this paper. This episode narrated by ‘Aqīl, one of Masāmīr's main characters, recounts the calamities experienced while attending a local football match: “traffic jams, human chimneys, and an orgy of curses and [throwing things].”52 Yet, the narrator admits that despite the senseless violence, he ends up going to the only available form of entertainment: football games. Artistic and intellectual events, ‘Aqīl narrates while he is watching a mediocre comedy, are soporific.

  • 53 Mbembe, 2001, p. 102‑141.
  • 54 Nejer, 3 June 2011b. This episode is no longer available on YouTube.

38The second and third episodes also tackle other forms of violence in Saudi society, namely state corruption and people’s irresponsible behavior. The second episode, entitled “His Excellency,” tells a running joke popular among Arab people that compares corruptive state practices between Europe and the Arab world. The episode starts with his Excellency giving a news conference, a scene that invokes many of the features that Mbembe identifies as “the aesthetics of vulgarity.”53 The episode opens up with sounds of clapping and cheering while his Excellency, in center stage behind a podium that bears his title, is gesticulating with his hands and coughing to demand attention.54 His Excellency’s power is produced and projected in an embodied form: dark sunglasses, reptilian‑like mouth, large teeth, and protruded belly, which are signs of lack of transparency, abuse, excess, and insatiability, respectively. His Excellency then proceeds to make his declaration, punctuated with dismissive hand gestures: “Gentlemen, journalists, applauders, and those who do it all, I am pleased and honored to announce to you from this platform that I am going to travel.” This piece of news is received with a warm applause, as expected. Not only are his Excellency’s actions beyond questioning, but also his powers coopt idiomatic expressions through which people regularly pray for the well‑being of their interlocutors in every‑day conversation. For instance, instead of using the common expression that intersperses everyday speech, such as “may God keep you safe,” his Excellency obscenely turns it into “may God keep me safe!” His Excellency’s “press conference” shows an important manifestation of domination in authoritarian spaces: state officials treat their announcements to journalists as favors and blessings. The latter show their immense gratitude towards these magnanimous gestures by embellishing and amplifying the received news/favors. His Excellency’s subversion of local idioms stretches the technology of domination to the obscene point of flaunting not only his being beyond accountability but also his shameless self‑adoration.

  • 55 ‘Umar, 2014, p. 140‑148.

39In response to a European official’s confession that he has embezzled one million Euro out of the 44 million allocated to state infrastructure projects, his Excellency boasts, while fingering his rosary, that he has made off with the whole sum of 5 billion Saudi Riyal (SAR), he received to build his city’s infrastructure. The episode ends with the camera zooming in on a window, through which we can see his city under the water. The obscenity of power that seems to find pleasure in flaunting its disproportionality and impunity literally embodies the expression “After me, the flood!” To a Saudi audience, especially Jeddah inhabitants, who suffered immense losses in the inundations of 2006, 2009 and 2011, the grotesqueness of his Excellency, in this episode aired in 2011, cannot evoke only laughter.55 If it does, then that is the proverbial laughter emanating from insufferable knowledge of the worth of one’s life.

  • 56 Nejer, 3 June 2011c.
  • 57 See Ménoret, 2009, p. 123‑137.

40While the second episode jokingly showcases power’s loss of limits, the third one entitled “Leave it to God…and Trust me,” tells the story of Abū Muḥsin, a retired, poor and sick man, who despite his scarce means practices his own version of excess. Abū Muḥsin, we are told by the narrator ‘Aqīl, produces an army of kids, through his polygamous marriages, without thinking about their basic needs. We see ‘Aqīl formulating in his head questions to Abū Muḥsin but then uttering instead “Leave it to God!” to which the elderly man retorts “Yes, you are right, leave it to God and trust me!”56 ‘Aqīl is indignant at the elderly man’s use of God to exonerate himself from any sense of responsibility, even though he himself can only express his outrage as an internal monologue. When he speaks up, all he can say is the very expression the neighbor uses to explain his misery. Despite their differences, ‘Aqīl’s silence mirrors Abū Muḥsin’s ignorance, since both shun moral responsibilities. ‘Aqīl shirks the urgent task of speaking truth to ignorance, while Abū Muḥsin resorts to his understanding of religion to zealously contribute to the making of another generation that suffers ṭufūsh.57

  • 58 See Al‑‘mir, 2011; al‑‘Ᾱmir’s experience with the censor is in Al‑Barzakh, author’s website, 28 De (...)

41Masāmīr’s first episodes use subjective narration which offers viewers access to ‘Aqil’s internal thoughts. Accordingly, these episodes operate with the devices that convey the first narrator’s thoughts, such as voiceover narration, stream of consciousness and flashbacks. These techniques allow the cartoon to remain close to the original texts published by Masāmīr’s screenwriter, Fayṣal al‑‘Ᾱmir. In fact, the first and third episodes discussed above are almost literal renderings of his essays compiled in a volume entitled Shaghab (Fuss), banned by the Ministry of Culture and Information because of its content as well as its title considered insensitive in times of the Arab uprisings.58

  • 59 Suwaykat never complains despite his being denied basic human needs; see Nejer, 29 May 2011.
  • 60 See Nejer, 26 October 2016.

42In later episodes, Masāmīr opts for a third narrative structure, which allows more dialogue, a larger ensemble of figures, different characters’ points of view and multiple plotlines. The main characters are the mute Suwaykat bin Raḍī, (literally “the little silent son of the satisfied”), who represents the generation that “walks beside the wall.”59 At the other end of the spectrum, there are the corrupt Dr. ‘Adel, who holds a Ph.D. in many subjects and uses his connections to increase his powers, and Rāshid from the tribe of al‑Shukūkiyya (addicted to suspicion), who is entangled in dilemmas of sexuality and identity.60 The series’ other leading characters are Saltūḥ Bin Dakhīl Allāh, Sa‘d Ghannām, and the dog, Richard Kalb al‑Asad (a pun on Lionheart, Qalb al‑Asad). Saltūḥ, whose name in Najdī Arabic means vagrant and worthless, represents the young generation suffering ṭufūsh. The dog, a British whose nationality is rarely mentioned, is the know‑it‑all type, whose bombastic speech claims authority irrespective of content. The MIT Graduate Ghannām suffers loss of speech, since his return to his country. The three friends constitute the type that was ridiculed by the comedian Ṣāliḥ in Ēsh illī: they drive recklessly, spend time loitering and harassing everyone, including each other. When these characters are around, car shrieking sounds, collisions, crumbling objects, and flying body parts constitute a diegetic leitmotif that stages a society almost addicted to self‑inflicted violence.

  • 61 Lacroix, 2015, p. 170.

43It is these very characters who become zealot in spreading their newly‑found calling in an episode that satirizes al‑ṣaḥwa (the Awakening). Stéphane Lacroix defines alṣaḥwa as a trend that emerged under the auspices of the Muslim Brotherhood with the blessing of the Saudi establishment in the ṭafra period and whose ideology mixes the extreme conservatism that typifies the religious culture in Saudi Arabia with the Brotherhood’s political views. Al‑jamā‘āt al‑islāmiyya (Islamic groups), according to Lacroix, represent the most organized and structured part of alṣaḥwa through its domination of education as well as a variety of extracurricular activities for self‑improvement and recruiting purposes.61 Yet, not all Saudi Islamist movements are unified in their worldviews. For instance, aljamāʿa al‑salafiyya al‑muḥtasiba (JSM), whose founder Juhaymān al‑‘Utaybī led the armed takeover of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979, represents a completely distinct trend that arose from a non‑Muslim Brotherhood influence. JSM, rooted in the Saudi salafī discourse, rejects the state and its institutions. Ménoret explains that :

  • 62 Ménoret, 2005, p. 119‑120.

As a movement of cultural preservation and political opposition, Saudi Islamism sets itself the aim of ending the cultural ‘schizophrenia’ of the bourgeoisie and the regime, the impossible attempt […] to combine Western references with an Islamic cultural and ideological framework. [A]lthough Saudi Islamism has emerged in an already Islamized social space, its oppositional challenge relates to a political space monopolized by the royal family and the Najd bourgeoisie –a space which makes only superficial reference to religion.62

  • 63 Nejer, 29 March 2017.
  • 64 Thābit, 2006, p. 193.

44While the story of alṣaḥwa is a complicated one, as the readings of Lacroix and Ménoret indicate, Masāmīr focuses on a dogmatic aspect of this trend, namely, the da‘wa’s (Islamic call) extreme view of promoting virtue and preventing vice. The episode entitled Usūd al‑fulla (Lions of Fun) parodies its members who proclaim themselves as representative of the true Islam which they seek to impress on their communities whether the latter want it or not. Lions of Fun starts with the announcement that the story is true and it takes place in Riyadh in 1997.63 Then we see Saltūḥ, the dog and Ghannām leaving a movie theater, while claiming to have been inspired by a musical show that has gifted them with true moments of fulfillment, except for the fact that it has emptied their pockets. Saltūḥ, the dog and even the traumatized Ghannām feel so energized that they find it their duty to convert others to their newly‑acquired enlightened state. The Saudi audience knows that in the 90s, there were no movie theatres. It was not musicians who engendered such feelings in their fans, but members of Islamist groups who recruited young people through preaching and various educational activities. ‘Abdallah Thābit’s semi‑autobiographical account, The Terrorist No 20, recounts in details the recruitment and radicalization tactics followed by the Islamists, whom he describes as besieged in 1979, in a reference to the armed occupation of the Mecca Grand Mosque by Juhaymān al‑‘Utaybī and his Salafi group. Yet, soon after, their ideas were given the freedom to operate in the whole country.64 Thābit’s remark unravels one important aspect of a state that crushed the rebels but endorsed their ideas.

  • 65 Nejer, 29 March 2017.

45Back to the trio: we see them first paying a visit to a graveyard, where they tell a joke to an elderly man sitting next to a grave. Even though Saltūḥ’s joke‑telling talent is rusty, he is able after a failed attempt, and under the direction of the dog, to tell a joke which makes the elderly man happy and grateful. The latter’s encouraging statement: “Go ahead and don’t let critique deter you, for you are on a frontline,”65 invokes the language of the Islamists who cast themselves as representatives and defenders of the pure Islam.

  • 66 See Thābit, 2006.

46Later, the trio resorts to embezzlement, uses loudspeakers in the streets and even pressure people to laugh, all counterintuitive tactics pursued by Islamists, especially the branch known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, for the sake of creating a virtuous (i.e. “happy” in the episode’s plot) Muslim community. For instance, like the Committee who used to force people to have the appropriate haircuts, the trio drags the conservative Khalaf, whose divorce constitutes the subplot of the episode, to a hairdresser in order to give him a colorful haircut. The determination of Saltūḥ, the Dog and Ghannām to force people to laugh ironically reminds the audience of the decades in which people were pulled from their cars because they were caught listening to music or had the wrong haircut, dress or attitude.66

  • 67 Ménoret, 2005, p. 118.
  • 68 See Otterbeck, 2008, p. 214.

47Another scene shows an artist, who looks like the popular singer Miz‘al Farḥān, playing the oud and singing a popular song. In principle, the trio should not have any issue with the singer, since the mission to spread happiness and fun includes forcing people to listen to music. Yet, the scene can be read as a satirical rendering of what Ménoret calls “the re‑Islamization of an already Islamized space.”67 The trio, led by the dog, rushes towards the singer and in a move that recalls a familiar scene of the Committee destroying musical instruments, the dog snatches the oud from the stunned singer and smashes it.68 He explains that the tune is sad and evokes grief which is no longer acceptable. The oud is then promptly replaced by an electric guitar. The scene ends with the confused singer pressing a guitar button that ushers in the diegetic tune of “Let it go,” a song from Disney’s 2013 animated feature film Frozen. This scene captures the mindset that has dominated the Saudi public space for decades and has relentlessly pursued the imposition of its particular understanding of what is “good” for all.

48Once the trio’s work has been so successful in their region, they think of expanding their mission of spreading “happiness” to other areas beyond Riyadh. We see them driving to the Eastern region, where they pay a visit to a Shi‘a gathering. The scene shows a group of men mourning, which recalls an important feature in Shi‘a religious practices, namely, remembering Imam Ḥusayn, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. The scene foregrounds a Sayyid mourning the death of a martyr. Behind him, there is a black cloth with embroidered gold and green, similar to the one used to cover the Ka‘ba. Yet, instead of the typical Quranic verses stitched in gold thread, “Real Madrid ‑ Barcelona” is inscribed in white. When the Sayyid proceeds to tell his congregation about the suffering of the remembered martyr, heavy fists start knocking on the door threatening to take it off its hinges. The Sayyid screams at his companions in Arabic and then in English to “hold the door” in a call evocative of the heart‑wrenching final scene of the sixth season of the series Game of Thrones (2016). In fact, the man who hurries to hold the door resembles the white haired and giant Hodor character in the US series. Ghannām in the meantime bores a hole in the wall to insert a hose that let out a laughter gas. The scene ends with the mourners cracking a series of jokes that they almost die laughing. This scene impressively visualizes the Sunni‑Shi‘a divide, by the mere fact of pitting the Shi‘a mourners against the Sunni zealots, obsessed with laughter.

  • 69 Al‑Sharif, 8 May 2014.

49Referencing the Real Madrid‑Barcelona football rivalry and especially the Game of Thrones as emblematic of the long struggle between the two religious communities is the closest indicator in the whole episode of the political underpinnings of the state’s religious exclusionary practices. Surely, the reference to football in this context reminds the audience of the online attacks on the Saudi national football team Captain, Taysīr Al‑Jāsim, on account of his Shi‘a background, which led him to abandon the use of twitter altogether in 2012.69 These sectarian assaults found their culmination in October 2013 when Sheikh Ghāzī al‑Qarīfa expressed his shock on the Saudi channel al‑Wiṣāl that a Shi‘a player was a leader of the Ahly (football club based in Jeddah) and was cheered by a multitude of Sunni fans.

50The episode ends with the government announcing a prize for the capture of the three extremists, whom we see videoing themselves making statements with an array of laughter bombs in the background. The government pledges to pay the one who helps to capture the suspects the sum of six million tickets for a comedy club. Hence, “comedy” — read religion, will go on but without extremism. When the State enters the episode, it is to put an end to the disorder unleashed by the “lions of fun.” What this sequence of events omits is that al‑ṣaḥwa could not have been able to monitor public spaces and impose its views on ordinary citizens if it were not protected and subsidized by the state. Since the state’s role in enabling al‑ṣaḥwa has been elided, Lions of Fun reinforces the narrative of the state as the savior.

  • 70 See Mittell, 2010, p. 441‑42. See Nejer, 18 July 2012.

51On a different level, the ending of Lions of Fun in a theatre, where a stand‑up comedian makes fun of his wife’s looks, as well as the foreign cultural references, such as the electric guitar, Disney, and the US TV series, suggests that the episode, uploaded in June 2017, critiques not only the extremism of al‑ṣaḥwa, but also the very alternatives that have sought to replace it. Let’s recall that the first episode uploaded by the cartoon makers in June 2011 decried the absence of arts and the scarcity of entertainment in their society. A couple of years later, they realized that the entertainment that is increasingly dominating the Saudi cultural space is not homegrown but a US import, all of which lead to what the screenwriter al‑‘Ᾱmir calls a “crippled project” that deepens the unbearable conditions of people suffering them.70

  • 71 See Nejer, 26 October 2016.

52In its close portrayal of different types of the Saudi society, Masāmīr has unraveled what it means to be a subject in a context of crisis: ‘Aqīl is unable to assume his role as a reformist, Saltūḥ and his clique are easy preys to extreme forces, which the likes of Dr. ‘Adel are happy to serve, while the likes of Suwaykat watch and endure it all in silence. The series stages a society where the good characters resort to monologues while the corrupt ones are zealously wreaking havoc in their communities and diligently accumulating the spoils. Between the two camps, the idle and the lost characters seem to root for the corrupt. Yet, the cartoon’s glaring blind spot is its oblivion to the voices of women. Even in the episode that tells a woman’s story, the woman in question remains loudly absent from the screen and is reduced to a pawn in males’ eyes that either prescribe bondage or liberation.71 This way, Masāmīr remains a largely crippled project by its own criteria, since it voices an exclusively male society.


53All the selected shows creatively and humorously stage a society in deep crisis: people find meaning in baroque practices (Sāliḥ), the state’s institutions fail the people (Hussein), the decision makers marginalize the talents (Albutairi), real or symbolic violence is the order of the day (Masāmīr). Al‑‘abāṭa, which pervades peoples’ everyday life through mutual brutalization punctuated with expressions such as ma‘lēsh and “leave it to God”, constitutes the nexus of conviviality and ambivalent subjectivity. Al‑‘abāṭa allows its practitioners the fluidity, the ambiguity and even the fun to appreciate, reject and negotiate one’s way in an authoritarian space. In this way, the YouTubers have also practiced their own ‘abāṭa: they expose aspects of the crisis and enlist their critical work not so much in resisting it but rather in deepening it. For several years, Sāliḥ produced videos mocking people mocking themselves or others. Even the daring Hussein climbed down the wall on top of which he challenged the authorities and told his viewers that he was never serious about the urgency of change. It was all just a joke. Probably to drive his point home, he removed all ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir’s episodes from the net. Masāmīr zoomed its lens on individuals’ shortcomings and forgot to zoom out so that the autocratic context comes into view. As shown in Lions of Fun, the lions who sow havoc in society are the trio who embodies al‑‘abāta and al‑faḍāwa, whereas the lion’s share played by the state remains off‑screen until order needs to be reinstituted. The state is then reinscribed within the national narrative of ultimate savior. The subject in times of crisis recognizes the depth of the predicament he/she is facing. It is overwhelming and unbearable. As such, it is laughter and all the baroque practices it merges with that allow one to inhabit the ambivalent position of both critiquing and endorsing human relations as defined by power and control.

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1 Bayat, 2010, pp. 137‑158.

2 See Tang & Bhattacharya, 2011; and Orji, 2018.

3 Orji, 2018, p. 27.

4 See Alharthi, 2014; Kazarian, 2011; and Kishtainy, 2009.

5 Mbembe, 2001, Mbembe & Roitman, 1995, pp. 323‑352.

6 See Achcar, 2013.

7 Haykel, Hegghammer & Lacroix, 2015, p. 1.

8 Al‑Butayrī, 2015.

9 Mbembe, 2001, p. 16.

10 Al‑Quṣaybī, 1989, p. 43.

11 Al‑Quṣaybī, 1989, p. 48 (authors’ translation).

12 Al‑Ghadhdhāmī, 2014, p. 154‑155.

13 Al‑Quṣaybī, 1989, p. 46.

14 Al‑Ghadhdhāmī, 2014, p. 158‑159 (authors’ translation).

15 ijāzī, 2008.

16 Ménoret, 2009, p. 131.

17 Ibid, p. 8.

18 Munif, 1989, p. 164.

19 Ménoret, 2009, p. 169.

20 Ibid, p. 205.

21 ijāzī, 2013.

22 Mbembe & Roitman, 1995, p. 351.

23 Mbembe, 2001, p. 128.

24 Ibid, p. 129. We find Mbembe’s theorization extremely useful, as it expands our understanding of the postcolonial beyond the critique of Western colonial and imperial legacies by providing a dissection of current formations of political and cultural power. We are especially interested in Mbembe’s theorization of the vulgarity of power in the figure of the autocrat as well as what he calls the logic of conviviality, which exceeds the Bakhtinian model of reading the grotesque and the obscene as forms of resistance against oppression.

25 Mbembe’s analysis recalls ‘Abd al‑Raḥmān al‑Kawākibī’s discussion in 1902 of the general conditions and characteristics of political oppression, which he argues, constitutes the root cause for all ills cutting cross a number of social and political spheres. See Al‑Kawākibī, 2009, p. 181.

26 Shūshān recited his poem in the show Let’s Talk, aired by Hannibal Television, based in Tunisia, on April 22, 2015. Translation of the poem is available at [‑anis‑shoshan‑the‑artist‑of‑peace/].

27 Mbembe, 2001, p. 147.

28 These statistics are available on

29 See Salem, 2017.

30 See Khan & Vong, 2014, pp. 629‑647.

31 Al‑Sharif, 16 September, 2018.

32 Ramsay & Fatani, 2016, p. 200.

33 Ibid, 2016, 189.

34 Al Majid, 2012.

35 āliḥ, 8 March 2011.

36 āliḥ, 26 April 2011 and 19 December 2011.

37 usayn, 8 February 2011. ‘Alā l‑ṭāyir, except episode 11, is no longer available on YouTube.

38 Al‑ Butayrī, 3 March 2011.

39 Al‑mir, 18 February 2015.

40 Hooks, 1992, p. 378.

41 usayn, 8 September 2010.

42 abrī, 20 December 2011.

43 In Al‑Dakhīl,19 May 2012.

44 Ramsay & Fatani, 2016, p. 195.

45 Ramsay & Fatani, 2016, p. 193.

46 Maktabi, 7 March 2012.

47 Al‑Dakhīl, 19 May 2012.

48 See Al‑Ghadhdhāmī, 2012.

49 usayn, 5 August 2015.

50 See “Dubai Cinema Operator Inks Deal with Saudi YouTube Hit Masameer,” 7 March 2018.

51 Al‑mir, 15 March 2015.

52 Nejer, 3 June 2011a.

53 Mbembe, 2001, p. 102‑141.

54 Nejer, 3 June 2011b. This episode is no longer available on YouTube.

55 ‘Umar, 2014, p. 140‑148.

56 Nejer, 3 June 2011c.

57 See Ménoret, 2009, p. 123‑137.

58 See Al‑‘mir, 2011; al‑‘Ᾱmir’s experience with the censor is in Al‑Barzakh, author’s website, 28 December 2012.

59 Suwaykat never complains despite his being denied basic human needs; see Nejer, 29 May 2011.

60 See Nejer, 26 October 2016.

61 Lacroix, 2015, p. 170.

62 Ménoret, 2005, p. 119‑120.

63 Nejer, 29 March 2017.

64 Thābit, 2006, p. 193.

65 Nejer, 29 March 2017.

66 See Thābit, 2006.

67 Ménoret, 2005, p. 118.

68 See Otterbeck, 2008, p. 214.

69 Al‑Sharif, 8 May 2014.

70 See Mittell, 2010, p. 441‑42. See Nejer, 18 July 2012.

71 See Nejer, 26 October 2016.

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Khadija El Alaoui, Azza Ibrahim Alajlan et Maura A. E. Pilotti, « Nailing it à la Saudi: Satire and the Subject in Times of Crisis », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 14 | 2020, mis en ligne le 07 février 2021, consulté le 13 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Khadija El Alaoui

The American University of Iraq Sulaimani

Azza Ibrahim Alajlan

King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals

Maura A. E. Pilotti

Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University

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