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French Version

France embraces comics with a Mideastern flavor

Yes, the French have a sense of humor and are laughing to Arab performers

The French sense of humor (or lack of it) is an oft-debated subject. Just a few years ago The Economist published an article entitled "Very Droll," which posed the question: "The French have jokes, but do they have a sense of humor?"

Ask any French teenager what they do with their free time, however, and a large number will say they watch DVDs of one-man shows featuring comedians like Jamel Debbouze or Gad al-Maleh.

Both performers, originally from Morocco, are huge stars in France. Jamel (seen in the films "Asterix and Cleopatra," "Amelie" and Spike Lee's "She Hate Me") is one of the country's best-paid actors.

Maleh, who also has several films under his belt, has become France's Billy Crystal by hosting the Cesar awards ceremony, the Gallic equivalent of the Oscars.

Comedy is big time in France and many of the actors getting the laughs come from the country's North African immigrant community, whether Muslim or Jewish.

Alec Hargreaves, a university professor and expert on France's beurs (French of North African origin) thinks there are two reasons for this:

"France has the largest Muslim and Jewish population in western Europe, both originating mainly in recent immigration from North Africa, so it's hardly surprising if they've become more visible."

And there's a second factor, says Hargreaves. Muslims and Jews have suffered greatly from discrimination in France. When faced with discrimination, minorities often attempt to break down the barriers that keep them out of mainstream society by using humor, as with African Americans in the U.S. and West Indians and Asians in Britain.

A new generation of talented stand-up comics and performers, close on the heels of the now well-established Debbouze and Maleh, express the trials and tribulations of their double culture in different ways.

"I'm, I'm, oh I don't know if I can say it ..." On stage Rachida Khalil is about to reveal a secret to her public. "I'm an, I'm an ..." she says gulping and mouthing the last word: "Arab."

Paris' latest comedic discovery, the 32-year-old Khalil just ended a successful one-woman show called "Fatna's Dream Life." Sponsored and co-written by the politically engaged Guy Bedos, a much-loved comedian who grew up in French-occupied Algeria, "Fatna's Dream Life" is a direct hit aimed at the three subjects: women's oppression, extremism and racism. The character Fatna was inspired by an aunt of Khalil's who remained in her village in Morocco. Fatna's comical French accent "is actually my father's," says Khalil mischievously.

With porcelain skin and dark rippling hair, Khalil is the first actress from the Maghreb to have her own show in France. She arrived in greater Paris from Morocco at age 5, the eldest child of a deeply religious family. Always the family clown, Khalil was nevertheless obliged to leave home at 16 to pursue her acting career. She has since reconciled with her parents, although her father has yet to see her on stage. Khalil worked in theater, turning down roles in film because they were invariably ethnic cliches, before founding her own company. Her lean years have given her a hard edge, which she uses to her advantage by spinning it with humor and zaniness to blow away taboos and cliches. A highlight of Khalil's performance is her snappy fashion show of chadors accompanied by glib descriptions and requisite runway music.

"My show isn't a political rally but I am, in my own small way, trying to get a message through," says Khalil.

"'Fatna' is an homage to everyone living under oppression in the world, whether it's cultural or political. People are so passive these days; we live in an atmosphere of consensus. We need to fight for freedom of expression in order to move forward on so many issues."

On the other end of the spectrum, Farid Bendjafar, alias Cartouche, steers clear of politics. Accompanied by a diminutive Laotian DJ named Mao, Cartouche blends dance, humor and mime into his one-man show, bringing up his origins in a peripheral way.

"Politics are a drag!" says the 30-something performer of Algerian origin. "As an entertainer, I don't think it's my role to get into political and social aspects of life. Rather, I'm interested in being sincere and getting across a more global message of humanity. I use my neighborhood only as a backdrop - people know what rough neighborhoods are like. I don't use an accent when I talk to my father in a skit. My skin color is obvious as is my double culture. People need to stop building differences between one another."

Cartouche's story is a French version of the fact-based 2000 film, "Billy Elliot," in which a young boy from a militant mining family in northern England surmounts socio-cultural obstacles to become a dancer. Cartouche grew up in housing projects outside of Paris. At the age of 8 he took dance lessons in secret. Working odd jobs to finance his classes, he kept his passion hidden from friends ("I just couldn't see them understanding!") and family for the next 12 years. He spent time at the Marcel Marceau Mime School, danced for the Marseilles Opera Company and for Maurice Bejart. One of the most hilarious moments in Cartouche's autobiographical show is when his father discovers his tights and ballet shoes and Cartouche convinces him that they are new gear for a job on a construction site. "The thought that I could be taking ballet classes was so inconceivable to my father that he actually believed me," says Cartouche. Stand-up comedy as it is known in the United States or Britain is relatively new to France. One of its rising stars is Tomer Sisley. While Sisley, 30, is not North African but an Israeli who grew up in Europe, he's known best for a theme he developed with politically savvy comic writer, Kader Aoun (originally from Algeria), who writes Jamel Debbouze's shows. Sisley presents himself on stage as both an Arab and a Jew.

"Yes, yes, both Jewish and Arab. I don't know if you can imagine the number of enemies I have. ... I think my parents brought me into the world just to be annoying.

"If I had to observe all the prohibitions of my two religions, the only thing I'd have the right to do is to drink water on Wednesdays after sundown."

Then Sisley delivers the one-liner that shows Kader Aoun knew he was on to something when he cast Sisley in this role: "Above all, it's hard to be a Jew and an Arab in France. Every time I spend an evening with friends and they start to tell jokes - damn it, two out of three jokes aren't funny to me - and thank God I'm not a blonde."

The audience never questions Sisley's real background - his Israeli-Yemeni mother provided him with stereotypical dark looks so it's taken for granted that he's Arab. Although Sisley didn't grow up in housing projects and didn't hide his acting ambitions, he has been subjected to racism, which makes it simple for him to slip into his role on stage.

"Arabs have a hard time in France. I can relate to feeling excluded - I've lived and experienced this and it's not easy."

Last month's revelation on the stand-up comedy scene was Mustapha al-Atrassi, simply known as Mustapha. Just 19, he grew up in Tours, France, with his Moroccan family. Mustapha dreamed of doing stand-up comedy ever since he went to an improvization club in London on a school trip. Slight, with a squeaky voice and a lisp, Mustapha, who writes all his material himself, is at ease on stage. It's obvious he loves interacting with the public.

"If only I could be on stage 24 hours a day," he exults after his show.

Like Sisley, when he's performing Mustapha zeroes in on his origins right away. "I'm neither French nor Moroccan. I'm somewhere in between. I'm ... Spanish!" he jokes.

Perhaps because of his age, Mustapha keeps things light. Although he venerates black American stand-up comedians from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock, he doesn't want to get into politics.

"I like the sociological aspect of human relations. Of course there are messages that I'd like to pass along, like getting rid of racism. But I think messages get through to people when they're not hit over the head with them."

"Now take the Teletubbies," Mustapha reflects onstage "Why can't they call one of them Hamid?"

Only a few years older than Mustapha, three young men from the outskirts of Paris are making a name for themselves with a show blending hip-hop and comedy. Called "Les Wesh" (in Moroccan Arabic wesh can mean "what's up"), Jamal Snaibi and Riyad Bassim are of Moroccan origin, while Herve Yapi is from the Ivory Coast.

All three grew up in low-income housing blocks and met while performing hip-hop in the street. Marc Negroni, a record producer, spotted the dancers and recognized their talent. He prodded and encouraged them for two years until a show was ready. After "Les Wesh" opened in Paris in November 2004, it was booked solid through February 2005, performing five nights a week to rave reviews.

Snaibi, who writes and choreographs each sequence, had worked as a lumberjack and a baker to make ends meet, while Yapi is a carpenter by trade. Riyad, who goes by his first name only, taught roller-blading and studied business.

"Before we met Marc (Negroni) we had always used a street attitude and played around with irony and absurdity but dance remained our security blanket," says Snaibi. "Since we developed our show, comedy has become more important than dance."

Now the trio treats what could be interpreted as bad taste with riotous absurdity, as in their skit "Le Metro (The Subway)." An unemployed terrorist begs from passengers while muttering about Bush and the North African slippers called babouches being weapons of mass destruction.

Judging from the success these young comedians are encountering, the French sense of humor, largely devoid of self-deprecation, has developed enough to appreciate them and is perhaps poised to accept the melting pot their country has become.

Beirut,05 23 2005
The Daily Star
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