Remembering Atrocities through Comedy: Maghrebi Comedians on European Stages
You can read the French version of this text here.
By Yousra Sbaihi
Not many Maghrebis have the chance to perform on some of Europe’s most prestigious comedy shows. However, the few who have successfully climbed their way up to the stage, I advance, are disrupting the theatrics of white francophone stand-up shows. This paper examines the politics of resorting to comedy to recollect past tragedies, which might, at first sight, seem disconcerted with humor. Whether the show evokes colonialism, terrorist attacks or Maghrebi immigrants paving French roads right after independence, these standup shows subvert the traditional meaning of comedy as entertainment only. This paper is chiefly interested in the way reference to past precarities is mediated through the aesthetics of European show(wo)manship. By reviewing a few standup shows of renewed Maghrebi comedians such as Malik Bentalha (Morocco-Algeria), Nawell Madani (Algeria) and Samia Orosemane (Tunisia), I argue that these comedians playfully tamper with the tension-laden history binding the Mashriq and the Maghrib together, along with broaching polemical themes that blur the line between the secular and the sacred, the taboo and the normative, the ex-colonizer and the ex-colonized. Such link between comedy and tragedy is successfully mediated through the adoption and strategic adaptation of the tradition of standup comedy; indeed, reciprocity of the gaze, clever repartee and the repertoire of bodily gestures are synchronized with a Maghrebi accent, African accoutrements and Maghrebi jokes. By imbricating humor and past tragedies, I am not suggesting that Maghrebi comedians in Europe are poking fun at colonialism and precarity; I am arguing that these comedians, in their capacity as hailing from the Mashriq and the Maghrib, refuse the pauperization of current day entertainment industry from the memory of past calamities.
Nawell Madani, Malik Bentalha and Samia Orosemane rank among the most renowned French comedians of Maghrebi descent who are regularly present on European stages. To avoid the confusion between Maghrebi and Maghrib, note that Maghrebi refers to people who hail from the Maghreb which includes, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania, but al-gharb is the Arabic word for the Occident. Humor is indeed a correlate of laughter, leisure and amusement, yet on stand-up shows, the stage morphs into a platform on which identities, rights and values are debated and that becomes an escape hatch for minorities to highlight the biased politics of inclusion and exclusion in their everyday life. Under the limelight is sketched a European identity through a clever use of humor, thus, contributing to the argument that nullifies the existence of a pure identity. It is not my intention in this essay to provide a comparative study of Maghrebi diaspora comedians and their white counterparts, for such face-to-face positioning undermines the intricate histories and identities that bind the people of the Mashriq and the Maghrib. In this regard, instead of accounting for culture in its singular form, Rddad prefers to think of “cultures, histories, nations and ethnicities, which are often coercively camouflaged in and excluded by a hegemonic supposedly monolithic culture”. By way of example, Rddad offers that it is “impossible to understand Moroccan culture outside the Arabo-Islamic heritage, especially in the relatively recent forms of pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism together with the Franco-Spanish colonial impact, neo-colonialism and the Black African impress”. Therefore, putting one identity against the other only defrays their communal histories, trajectories and identities and dismisses the two-fold origins of the artists on stage.
In synchrony, the comedians we will be dealing with are keen on introducing themselves as European as well as Maghrebi. Such open declaration of belonging to different places is a fitting testament to the constricted approach of placing the east against the west. This combination of identities rejects the traditional understanding of the west as ‘gharib’ (strange/ stranger) and as eventually instigating fear and suspicion.
Unlike literature or painting, where the author revels in their corporeal covertness and their discontinuity vis-à-vis the final piece, stand-up shows entirely rely on the artist’s presence on stage. This type of immediacy allows a recuperation of a physical level of intimacy between the artist and the spectators, thus, intensifying the unease that accompanies the broaching of sensitive topics. The reciprocity of the gaze is one salient feature of stand-up shows. This is not the case of the artist being the subject of the gaze, but rather both parties are performing what Christine Poggi, following Acconci’s terminology, calls the “looking at looking” (1999, 238), wherein the stage becomes a geography for investigating a shared history through the authors’ personal narratives. The supposed ‘natural’ positioning of the performer as standing on a pedestal and before an audience, this face-to-face meeting, upsets the dominant politics of the gaze as has been widely described in postcolonial theory. The gaze has most often been tooled to express dominance over the performer posing as the subject of the gaze. However, the performers under study shift this one-way direction of looking to make of the gaze a mutual tactic. The ‘looking at looking’ is also indicative of the shared history scrutinized from the perspective of the Global South this time, embodied in migrants whose roots are often marginalized in the European community.
Recollecting terrorist attacks and colonial exploitation
Nawell Madani and Samia Orosemane both show an interest in reappropriating narratives of terrorist attacks. Their outward form of expression aims at satirizing the link between these terrorist attacks and the aftermath in the Arabo-Muslim community in Europe. Rather than giving the media the complete freedom of spewing information about the sequels of terrorist attacks on these minoritized communities, these comedians are furbishing their jokes to serve wider societal needs, namely the lack of homegrown individuals to protest against the quick link made between such attacks and the Arabo-Muslim community. The possibility of humor to accommodate such transgressions presupposes first the shared story between the artist and the spectators, hence, making possible the smooth transmission of an otherwise provocative message.
These jokes examine the shared history of the Maghrib and the Mashriq and exploit these theatrics to provoke thought on present-day politics that regiment representation and visibility. Without giving primacy to the scripts themselves, so as not to disregard the workings of stand-up shows as a performance art in inventing new manners through which Maghrebi identity can be re-imagined, it is expedient not to remain confined to the traditional and non-analytical notion of discourse as language per se, but stretch the definition to include acts and performances.
Nawell Madani in a stand-up show on Montreux stage in Switzerland does not shy away from recalling to mind the Boston Marathon Attack, saying:
Je viens de la Belgique, mais je suis d’origine arabe. Dès qu’il y a un attentat ou un fait divers, je prie pour que ça ne soit pas un Arabe. Ben oui, parce qu’on nous bassine pendant des semaines dans les médias …
I come from Belgium, but I am originally Arab. Just as an attack or an incident takes place, I pray that it’s not an Arab behind it. Well of course, because we would be roasted for weeks on the media. [author’s trans.]
Madani, then, simulates a phone conversation between an FBI agent and Hafid, a member of Al-Qaida:
Le FBI savait que c’était pas Al-Qaida … ouais, ils les avaient contactés, ça veut dire qu’il y a un mec du FBI … dans son contact, il a le numéro de téléphone d’Al-Qaida [holding the phone in her hand]… Albert … Alban … Al-Qaida … « Allo, Al-Qaida ? Yes, it’s John du FBI. Est-ce que je peux avoir Hafid du service événementiels? »
The FBI knew that it was not Al-Qaida … Yeah, they had already contacted them … meaning that there is a guy from the FBI … who has Al-Qaida’s phone number … Albert … Alban … Al-Qaida … “Allo, Al-Qaida? Yes, It’s John from the FBI. Can I speak to Hafid from the event services?” [author’s trans.]
In line with Madani, Samia Orosemane, whose main accoutrements on stage include her turban and her patterned wax, describes her reaction after realizing that the man behind the hit-an-run terrorist attack in Ottawa in 2014 is a Canadian convert: “Pourquoi même quand c’est pas nous, c’est nous quand même?” / “Why is it that even when it is not us, it’s still us anyway?”
Malik Bentalha, in refering to his childhood, prefers to introduce first his Algerian father, an immigrant in France upon national independence in the 1960s:
Mon père est un immigré algérien qui est arrivé en France dans les années 60, et en venant en France, il pensait vraiment trouver un Eldorado. Pour lui, la France c’était un pays où les rues étaient pavées d’or. Et quand il est arrivé en France, il s’est rendu compte de trois choses. La première chose c’était que les rues n’étaient pas pavées d’or. La deuxième chose c’était que les rues n’étaient pas pavées du tout. Et la troisième chose c’était qu’on comptait sur lui pour paver.
My father is an Algerian migrant who arrived to France in the 1960s, and he used to think that he would find the Eldorado. For him, France is a country where the roads are paved with gold. When he made it to France, he realized three things. The first thing was that the roads were not paved with gold. The second thing was that the roads were not paved at all. And the third thing is that they [the French] counted on him to do the paving. [author’s trans.]
By exploiting the incongruity theory in this essay, we can deduce the anti-thesis between Eldorado and what awaited Bentalha’s father in France. If Eldorado represents the legendary land rife with gold and whose dwellers bask in extraordinary prosperity, the poor working father takes part in a transition from work migration to populating migration characterized by “l’idée d’insalubrité et de segregation” (Cohen, 2017, 31). While the dire social and economic itinerary of Algerian migrants to France is fraught with tensions and inequalities, Bantalha’s re-telling of his father’s story grants him a round of applause and marks one of the show’s highlights. As his sketch swerves into political parties and bullying at schools, Bentalha mentions “Franprix”, a French grocery store chain, the equivalent of which in Switzerland would be, he guesses, “Micro”. Bentalha feigns hearing the word “negro” from the audience, and his script picks up ethnic appellations as another point of debate. He incarnates the role of a father: “des magazins qui s’appellent Negro! venez les enfants, on va chez Negro. Si vous êtes sages, on ira chez bougnoule tout à l’heure”. “Stores which are called Negro! Come on children, we’re going to Negro. If you behave yourselves, we’ll go to Bougnoule later.” Bougnoule is a derogatory term for North Africans, similar to Negro.
The above is an excerpt from Bentalha’s show in Switzerland where he masters the art of inhabiting the stereotype. The disreputable term of bougnoule, given the artist’s dual origins, loses its offensive undertones but successfully calls attention to the racism it perpetuates.
We should think of these stand-up shows not as merely a speech recited onto an audience, but rather as a dialogue between the performer, the audience, and history. An interesting feature of these jokes is their fleetingness, a sort of “small story” within a larger speech (Bamberg & Georgakopoulou, 2008, 379). These subtle references to the above excerpts occupy less than the tenth of the artist’s entire performance. Crammed within stories of family feuds, childhood memories, romantic upheavals and witty impersonations, the en passant introductions of previous tragedies are evoked through unpredicted transitions which the authors seem to have forced onto their scripts. Their inclusion within the script is anything but a coincidence. Moving away from the conversation between the FBI and Al-Qaida about the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, the spectators are then enjoined to dive into Madani’s commentaries on Beyonce’s latest music video. Through the comic prism, the sensitivity and seriousness of the message are downplayed. References to groups like bougnoules, Maghrebi, ‘French’, ‘Muslims’, and historical events and processes, such as colonialism, migration and terrorist attacks that are dealing with “sociological truths” (Oring, 2003, 64), create tension insofar as these historical facts caused not only a verbal impact but a physical one. In this performance, Malik Bentalha is resuscitating historically marginal groups who continue to face discrimination. The emphasis on origins is so present in their lives that Orosemane ironically calls the French natives ‘les Franco-Français’, the French whose roots are in France. However, such topics are not delegitimatized by dint of packaging them in comic acts.
Standup shows and the chance to subvert
Making use of the “mechanism of inversion” (Bergson, 1913, 94), these comedians depend on incongruity between past tragedies and the current context of re-telling them on stage to question the contemporary reconciliation with suppressed yet unsettled historical episodes. Arousing anxious laughter from the spectators who, one can surmise, feel uneasy in the presence of an emotionally-charged history, but are simultaneously amazed at the performer’s dexterity with such delicate topics in the presumably ill-suited context of comedy clubs, “[h]umor, rather, calls upon individuals to invoke an extant body of tacit, everyday knowledge in order to recognize and make sense of an incongruity” (Oring, 2003, 56). Comedy clubs are generally an entertainment outlet that is intended to elicit laughter from the audience and provide them with a pleasant experience. Therefore, broaching issues like colonialism and terrorism might seem in disconcert with comedy’s purpose.
Bentalha utilizes what Spivak calls “strategic essentialism” (2012, 204). To avoid the reductive use of such concept as a collective act of embodying the stereotype only, we should examine Bentalha’s calculated use of this strategy. Needless to say, he is aware of the pejorative condition of descriptors in the lines of bougnoule and negro that hark back to decades of French colonialism in Africa, the sequels of which continue to nurse racist discourses. Not only does Bentalha collate upon himself such derogatory terms, but he also satirizes the white man, who, as we are shown by the everydayness allure of the scene, does not mind the racist connotations behind his words. Such tactic convolutes the essentialism he is acting out. On an important note, I should mention that there is a deliberate use of “the white man” and ‘he’ instead of a more gender-inclusive pronoun; considering the male-dominated colonial project, it can hardly be argued that women -whether part of the colonial camp or the colonized- have impacted or have been impacted by colonialism on an equal footing as men. Therefore, to highlight the patriarchal extent of colonialism, the pronoun ‘he’ does justice to this discrepancy. Though we are given the illusion that the performer is shirking his Maghrebi origins through impersonating the white man, Bentalha’s binationality allows him to safely assail, under the aegis of humor, colonial stereotypes and bend the rules governing neutral identities to question the ‘unrepresentationality’ of male whiteness. In Butler’s words, Bentalha is investing himself in a “corporeal project” that converses with historical traditions and current predicaments to construct an identity that transgresses the confines of the either-or (1988, 522). Had such scene been played by, to use Orosemane’s term, a ‘Franco-Français’, its echoes would have been radically different. This reminder testifies to humor’s power to “disrupt order” on political, moral and aesthetic grounds.
The bulk of controversial jokes that pepper Maghrebi comedians’ shows in Europe is indeed larger than the limits of this essay. However, they univocally concur on the refusal to forget bygone tragedies under the guise of comedy. The privilege of having the right to speak and for the audience to listen is a luxury that Maghrebi comedy is seizing to prove the relentless aftermath of a calamitous history of colonial occupation, terrorist attacks and the subsequent identity crises. Humor serves the purpose of advancing such controversies whilst deflecting the outrage that they provoke on political television debates.
 Sadik Rddad, “Nationalism and Moroccan Cultural Identity”, Moroccan Cultural Studies Journal, 8, 2019, 67–84.
 Ibid., 70.
 Fatima Mernissi, “La Peur-Modernité: Conflit Islam Démocratie”, Casablanca: Le Fennec, 1992.
 Christine Poggi, “Following Acconci/ Targeting Vision”, in Amelia Jones and Andrew Stevenson, eds., Performing the Body: Performing the Text, New York: Routledge, 1999, 237, 254.
 Montreux Comedy, “Nawell Madani sur la scène du Montreux Comedy Festival”, YouTube video, 5 August 2015.
 Samia Orosemane, “Samia Orosemane aux Open du rire de Rire & Chansons”, YouTube video, 15 June 2017.
 Muriel Cohen, “L’immigration Algérienne Post-indépendance : l’Enracinement à l’Epreuve de l’Exclusion”, Le Mouvement Social, 1/278, 2017, 29–48.
 Michael Bamberg and Alexandra Georgakopoulou, “Small Stories as a New Perspective in Narrative and Identity Analysis”, Text and Talk, 28/3, 2008, 377–396.
 Eliot Oring, Engaging Humor, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
 Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on The Meaning of The Comic, trans. C. Brereton and F. Rothwell, Elisstown: The Norwood Press, 1913.
 Oring, Engaging Humor, 56.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Spivak Reader: Selected Works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, New York: Psychology Press, 1996.
 Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, Theatre Journal, 40/4, 1988, 519–531.
Yousra Sbaihi is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah-Fez, Morocco, working within the laboratory of “Discours, Créativité, Société et Religions”. Her dissertation is entitled “The Cultural and Social Hermeneutics of Death and Dying in Morocco” and aims to examine physical death as an agent in social organization in Morocco. She has earned her Masters from the Moroccan Cultural Studies Center at USMBA with a thesis on death and COVID-19. Her research interests also include postcolonial literature, gender studies and diaspora studies. Sbaihi is also a member of the executive board of the debate club at the Faculty of Letters-Saïs, USMBA.
Further articles in the #Aesthetics&CulturalPractice thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
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Farouk El Maarouf, Coming to Terms with Marginal Art(ists) in Morocco, 17 February 2022
Teresa Pepe, Science Fiction and the Anticipation of the Future: On a Public Talk by Kawthar Ayyed, 1 March 2022
Rasha Chatta, Comics as Witness and Testimony: An Interview with Jennifer Howell, 31 March 2022
Alena Strohmaier, Future | Cinema | Archive: On Appropriation Processes of Protest Videos, 12 April 2022
Katarzyna Falęcka, Women and a Multiplicity of Life Forms in El Meya’s Paintings: An Interview, 26 April 2022
Citation: Yousra Sbaihi, Remembering Atrocities through Comedy: Maghrebi Comedians on European Stages, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.09.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/40874