The “Saturday Night Live” of the West Bank

A hit satire show on the West Bank wrings laughs from the Occupation -- and gets canceled for humor that hits home

Topics: Middle East, 2000 Elections,

The "Saturday Night Live" of the West Bank(Credit: Joel)

The hit Palestinian TV satire show “Watan ala Watar” began its Aug. 14 episode with a sketch featuring Palestinian Attorney General Ahmad Mughani getting besieged by Palestinians filing lawsuits over “Watan ala Watar” making fun of them. One woman says in Arabic that the TV show hadn’t parodied her yet, but she’s sure it’s going to, so she wants to file suit preemptively. In the middle of the commotion, the frazzled Mughani, played by “Watan ala Watar” co-creator Imad Farajin, gets a phone call: “Watan ala Watar,” it turns out, just made fun of him, too.

The sketch ends by showing Farajin and his “Watan ala Watar” colleagues one year later, silently clowning around, suggesting that even if Mughani and his government cohorts muzzle them, that won’t stop the comedy crew’s high jinks.

Those high jinks have been a runaway success since “Watan ala Watar,” aka “Homeland on a String,” hit the airwaves in 2009, the first political satire show ever broadcast on Palestinian TV. The weekly 15-minute show’s three creators became local celebrities in the West Bank capitol of Ramallah, where they live and work, and episodes became a must-watch phenomenon, especially during Ramadan, when the show ratchets up to a nightly schedule. The holy month is akin to a U.S. “sweeps” period, with everybody at home by the TV. Last year, a local polling organization found that 60 percent of those in the West Bank and Gaza who’d seen “Watan ala Watar” actively approved of it — far higher approval ratings than those of either Fatah or Hamas, the two major political parties.

From the start, the show enjoyed a surprising amount of editorial freedom, considering that it aired on state-run television in the Middle East. “We told officials there would be one condition: no censorship,” says the show’s 30-something co-creator Manal Awad, who dresses in stylish, modern clothes and speaks English with a heavy British accent, courtesy of her time in London where she got a master’s degree in theater directing.

Palestinian officialdom agreed, allowing the show to air a sketch in which progress on an Israeli peace deal is announced by Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — that is, Mahmoud Abbas the 13th, at a time 500 years in the future. Hamas, the Islamist party governing the Gaza Strip, received its share of knocks, too. One skit featured an Islamist judge making eyes at a male courtroom reporter. While Hamas’ Ministry of Information has called “Watan ala Watar” “an example of black propaganda,” the show has long enjoyed the blessing of the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Abed Rabbo, one of President Abbas’ closest advisors and head of Palestine TV, even played himself on the show.

Most promising of all, during this year’s Ramadan, “Watan ala Watar” had competition: “EscotChat,” a new sketch comedy show that aired 20 minutes later. “Five years from now, you will find comedy clubs and comedy series here, and not just ‘EscotChat’ and ‘Watan ala Watar,’”says Ihab Al-Jarere, “EscotChat’s” creator.

“Watan ala Watar,” it seemed, was helping Palestinians ascend the Middle Eastern comedy ladder, the unofficial scale in which Egyptians are considered to be the funniest of the funny and the Jordanians the exact opposite. (As one Palestinian joke goes, “Have you heard the one about the Jordanian businessman? Every morning before work he puts on his shirt, tie and angry face.”)

But then, two days after “Watan ala Watar’s” skit about the attorney general sketch aired, Palestine dropped a few comedy rungs closer to Jordan. Mughani, in a move reminiscent of the skit itself, pulled the show off the air.

It had told one controversial joke too many — and Mughani and his cronies weren’t the only ones not laughing. Recently, the show had diversified its subject matter, turning its satirical gaze upon Palestinian society itself. “We criticize all the governments, Hamas and Fatah, but they haven’t changed since we started,”says Awad. “We needed new figures to criticize.”

That’s why in one recent sketch, the show took on the local medical industry’s outdated practice of settling malpractice issues outside of court with informal payoffs, depicting a doctor and a grieving mother bargaining over a dead baby as if haggling over prices at the market. Another episode satirized the shabbiness of Palestinian Authority police. In the skit, officers on the lookout for drunk drivers couldn’t afford breathalyzers, so they’re forced to smell the scofflaws’ breath — and get drunk themselves off the fumes.

Those jokes didn’t go over so well. While local politicians had been fair game (maybe because in territories still controlled by Israel, the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have much authority at all), the Palestinian elite apparently was not. The local police and the physicians’ union filed grievances, and “Watan ala Watar’s” creators say that for the first time ever, officials censored them. Meanwhile, newspaper opinion pieces called the show a disgrace, and somebody hacked the TV show’s Facebook page, causing it to lose 40,000-plus fans.

Then, on Aug. 16, the attorney general, noting the complaints, pulled the plug. “Watan ala Watar” hasn’t been on since, with “EscotChat” moving into its time slot. “I thought this season was going to be a really, really huge success,” sighs Awad between puffs of an ever-present cigarette. “I didn’t expect this really aggressive reaction against us.”

This wasn’t the only recent aggressive reaction to artistic rabble rousing in Palestine. In April, a masked gunman shot and killed Juliano Mer-Khamis, founder of the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank, a murder that’s still unsolved. While Palestinians mourned his death as a national tragedy, some weren’t surprised: Mer-Khamis was a half-Jewish artist and activist who was always pushing the cultural envelope, staging versions of Animal Farm that featured boys and girls onstage together, wearing pig masks and criticizing the revolution. As Awad says of Mer-Khamis’ murder, “You can’t force new thoughts on people. Bit by bit, you have to work with them.” Maybe Awad and her colleagues had been guilty of the same mistake.

Do such developments suggest the people here aren’t yet ready to laugh at themselves? Is comedy in Palestine as stagnant as the peace process?

Far from it, in fact. There has always been humor in Palestine,” says Sharif Kanaana, a Palestinian folklore professor who’s been collecting local jokes since 1989, from the jubilant highs of the two intifadas (where many zingers involved street kids getting the better of Israeli soldiers) to the disillusioned lows in between. (A typical post-intifada joke goes, “Several heads of state meet with God and make requests for their people. To each, God says, “Not in your lifetime.” Then Yasser Arafat asks for his people’s freedom and God says, “Not in my lifetime.”) “It’s not just fun and entertainment,”says Kanaana. “It is a pan-human way of people expressing themselves.”

And in a place defined by absurdity — where the beach is a few miles away but people in the West Bank have to hopscotch though Jordan and Cyprus to get there — if Palestinians aren’t allowed to express themselves through laughter, what else do they have left?

That’s why the people haven’t taken “Watan ala Watar’s” shutdown lightly. Hundreds have signed on to Facebook campaigns such as “People against the decision to stop broadcasting Watan ala Watar,”and “People want Watan ala Watar,” and in Bethlehem, protesters marched against the decision.

Many officials agree with them. “This decision of the attorney general is bad news and, in my opinion, is wrong,” says Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib. “I think I speak for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as well.” Politicians such as Fayyad are savvy enough to know that in a period where Middle Eastern dictators are falling left and right, now is not the time to crack down on free speech.

While “Watan ala Watar’s” shutdown could be bad news for the Palestinian Authority, it could end up being good news for the comedians behind the show. Headline-grabbing controversies, after all, are a comedian’s bread and butter. Awad hints that Watan ala Watar is already fielding offers from other media outlets, and the hubbub may even score the show attention in Israel. “I haven’t heard of them, but it’s a shame that they were shut down,” says David Kilimnick, an Israeli comic who owns the Off the Wall Comedy Basement club in Jerusalem. “I wouldn’t be against giving them a stage here.”

In the meantime, Palestinians can catch a glimpse of “Watan ala Watar” at the three comedians’ weekly live show at an upscale open-air restaurant in Ramallah. Two days after being pulled off the air, the trio took the stage there armed with timely material. As television news cameras rolled, the three apologized for being late. They said they had been detained at Attorney General Mughani’s house. “Watan ala Watar” may be muzzled by the authorities, but that’s not going to stop them from clowning around.

Joel Warner, who blogs for and Psychology Today, is co-authoring a book about traveling around the world with a humor professor in search of what makes things funny. Find out more at and on Twitter @HumorCode. 

Joel Warner, who blogs for and Psychology Today, is co-authoring a book about traveling around the world with a humor professor in search of what makes things funny. Find out more at and on Twitter @HumorCode

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>