Jordanian Comics Getting Big Laughs - Even In Israel

Posted: December 26, 1995

TEL AVIV — It was a sudden, historic appearance that PLO chairman Yasir Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein made in Tel Aviv recently.

Well, it wasn't really the two Arab leaders at all - it was two of Jordan's most acclaimed impersonators, but, in its way, their satirical cabaret act, Peace, Oh Peace, was no less significant.

In the first theatrical production ever staged in Israel by a troupe from an Arab country, Nabil Sawalha and Hisham Yanis delivered a comic history course in peace - from Cain and Abel to Sadat and Gadhafi - laughing at the fights caused by "unproven myths." "In the name of peace, we kill each other," said Sawalha. "In the name of religion, we kill each other. So we decided to laugh at that."

No one was immune from the spoof, which had played for more than a year to packed houses in Amman, Jordan. The team poked fun at Jordanian officials, including the tourism minister who ogles Israeli girls on the beach, and at Palestinians, who splinter into rival factions after they are first ousted

from Jericho by Joshua more than 2,000 years ago.

The troupe takes on the myth of Arab unity, the niggardly negotiating tactics of the Israelis, and the striking similarity between Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims. It even fires a salvo at the United States for its often uncritical backing of Israel.

"Where is Washington?" asks an Arab negotiator in a skit about peace talks in the American capital.

"It's in Tel Aviv" comes the answer.

Although Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty more than 15 years ago, it was this Jordanian troupe that first broke the Arab world's taboo on staging a show in Israel. Their parody, performed in English, drew its share of celebrities to Tel Aviv's Cameri Theatre, including members of parliament, the city's mayor and the ambassadors from Jordan and the United States.

"When the audience stood and applauded, I was nearly in tears," Yanis said. "It was a very touching moment."

This isn't the first time Sawalha and Yanis have made history. After riots swept Jordan six years ago, King Hussein introduced democratic reforms, including broader freedom of expression. Sawalha and Yanis, a pair of writers and television comedians, were among the first to test the waters with a satire, Welcome to the New World Order.

Gingerly, they began to parody Jordanian notables, including impersonations of the king himself. They knew they had succeeded when they gazed into the audience one night and spotted His Highness laughing in the front row. Since then, the team has staged three more shows, including the most recent production, Welcome Normalization, which takes the new Israeli-Jordanian relations as fodder.

For the last year, the prospect of an Israeli tour had been a matter of high-level negotiations, engaging some of the top officials in Israel's foreign ministry. Many Jordanian intellectuals have resisted closer ties with Israel, fearing the prospect of Israeli economic and cultural dominance over the region.

The two comedians knew that performing in Israel would incur the wrath of their fellow Jordanian artists. Last year, a member of a Jordanian pop band that performed here was suspended by the artists union. The union is one of 12 associations that have threatened to expel any of their 80,000 members who establish contacts with Israel.

Sure enough, Yanis was expelled from the Jordanian Writers Union last month for violating the boycott. Sawalha wasn't a member.

The troupe's visit to Israel has not been greeted with unanimous enthusiasm here. Sawalha and Yanis have given 14 performances in Arabic in Israel and the occupied territories, attracting primarily Arabs from Israel and the West Bank.

But plans to stage three performances in English for Israeli Jews were scaled back to one show when the theater failed to sell enough tickets for even a single night. The audience's reception in Tel Aviv was polite but hardly the raucous response that Sawalha and Yanis have come to expect.

"Normal audiences giggle more," Sawalha said. "In Arabic, audiences laugh until they get pains in the stomach. . . . These watched us like hawks."

The Israeli Jews seemed less comfortable laughing at barbs aimed at themselves, such as those portraying Joshua - who wears an eye-patch like that of Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan - and Samson as boorish bullies beating up on the ancient Philistines.

Sawalha said that he and Yanis had considered tailoring the performance to suit an Israeli audience. In the end, they decided to leave the show unchanged, with one exception: the character of Yitzhak Rabin was replaced with Peres, out of deference to feelings after Rabin's assassination last month.

"We wanted to do it from our point of view," said Sawalha. "An intelligent audience realizes it was from our point of view."

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