“SAUDI ARABIA’s response to the Arab spring might be described as allergic. The tiniest whiff of protest last March prompted the government to outlaw demonstrations. Even as women, in effect, continue to be banned from driving, and dissidents jailed or banned from travelling, a new media law has clamped tighter restrictions on the press. Echoing events in tiny Bahrain, where the ruling family crushed Shia protests, Saudi security forces have responded to rising unrest in their country’s east, among the kingdom’s own 10% Shia minority, with blunt measures, including live gunfire that killed five protesters in recent months. Instead, the immediate beneficiaries of the Arab spring in Saudi Arabia may be a new generation of comedians and artists. They certainly stole the limelight on 19th January, at the opening of “We Need to Talk”.…..…” The Economist
I think they need to smile and laugh more than they need to talk. I will believe that Saudi comedy (an oxymoron?) has arrived if they start some joke with “Prince Nayef and the Mufti walked into this bar and…………” or “The Mufti stumbled into a Hussainiyah thinking it was the mosque and…………”
More seriously, I am not familiar with Saudi humor. I have known Saudis, mostly in business, but none of them ever cracked a joke within my earshot. Or maybe they did and I didn’t recognize it as a joke. I had thought joking was frowned upon over there: sort of like women driving, laughing in public, smiling in public, dressing different, thinking different from everyone else, thongs, tank-tops, mentioning the words ‘freedom’ or ‘protest’ or ‘Shi’a’, among other things.
Actually once in a shopping mall in Riyadh I tried smiling (in the United States I got used to the nasty habit of smiling at people in public, except in NYC subways). It was close to the noon prayer time, and the shaggy religious cops (Commission for the Propagation of Vice) were waving their (khaizaran) bamboo sticks ominously. They were coming toward me as they scowled at shoppers, hinting that soon all men should be inside a mosque and all women at home awaiting their pleasure. I flashed a smile at the nearest hairy one. His scowl deepened as he got closer. I decided that I had made a mistake and focused on a shop window: unfortunately it was a women’s lingerie shop with an Asian salesman behind the counter. I will write more about that later.
Back to the humor: Yet the Mufti of Saudi Arabia is often smiling in his photos. Shaikh Al Al Shaikh almost smiles as often as Ahmadinejad, and both smile much more than either crown prince Nayef or Ayatollah Khamenei (not that hard). It is possible that Saudi humor is a bit more ‘discernible’ than, say, Jordanian humor. I have never seen or heard any of the latter. I think they ought to openly outlaw humor in both countries: that way everyone, especially visitors, will know where they stand. In some Gulf places like the UAE, it is not illegal to laugh or even smile in public, especially if one is a man. Yet if you look directly at someone they would quickly scowl. Once you look at them, the face loses that ‘neutral’ inexpressive vacant look and a scowling (also vacant) mask covers everything. I suspect it is an attempt at showing some gravitas under scrutiny: it is a common Gulf issue.
I bet Obama could never get elected shaikh of Abu Dhabi or crown prince of Saudi Arabia (or Gauleiter of Jordan): he smiles too much in public.