Middle East humour: the thoughtful silliness of Karl reMarks

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Karl Sharro, alias Karl reMarks

Growing up in Lebanon during the civil war, Karl Sharro had a happy childhood and, he says, especially enjoyed “the long absences from school because of the fighting”.

He must have learned something, though, because he went on to university and became an architect. But perhaps it was the absences from school that gave him an appetite for mischief: on one occasion, while studying for his MA in London, he presented a fake research paper in class.

His aim, he later explained, was to raise questions about “how we collect knowledge and how we trust the tools of production of knowledge”.

“I thought I’ll finish it and then say it was all a lie and we can discuss that.” But he never got a chance for the discussion. The class ended and everybody left — unaware they had just been presented with a totally fictitious piece of “research”. It did, however, arouse Sharro’s interest in what he calls “this sort of alternative reality”.

He has since achieved fame if not fortune as a satirist on Twitter, posting under the name Karl reMarks.

His venture into social media began, traditionally enough, with blogging. “I used to write on my blog these long pieces,” he told an interviewer. “A lot of it was complaining about how the Middle East gets represented in western media and western policy circles.”

It was mostly serious stuff and “came across as a bit whiny … as if we [Arabs] are begging for attention”, so he started looking for other ways to make his point.

“I used to pretend that I was an anthropologist who came to the west to try to live with the natives and understand them. I did it in a very patronising way, and I think the effectiveness of that style for me is that it allows me to say what I want to say but in a very empowered manner … It sounded less whiny and that’s why I like it.”

But long blog pieces take time to write and he also realised that on social media “sometimes you need to move really fast when people are talking about something.”

Sometimes, he said, “you can have a bigger effect if you just do a quick image or a photoshop or a cartoon. It depends also on what you are trying to say. “This is the multimedia nature of the world we live in, and particularly the nature of satire today. But as with everything you have to be thoughtful about it and think about what is the best way of achieving the impact that you are trying to achieve.”

Sharro’s humour has a sharp edge: many of his jokes are not just funny but seriously funny or, if you prefer, thoughtfully silly. He has posted thousands of them on Twitter but a couple of hundred have now been collected into a book, And Then God Created the Middle East and Said ‘Let There Be Breaking News’.

It is “the only book you’ll need about the Middle East”, he says with a ;-)

The book starts with geography, explaining that the Middle East is “the area between Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Turkey and the British Museum”, and provides some helpful maps:

He takes frequent swipes at media coverage of the region (“The main worry I have about driverless cars is how western journalists would get their stories in the Arab world with no taxi drivers to talk to”) and delves into the region’s politics:

  • Saudi Arabia and Iran set an excellent example of two guys shouting at each other in a bar, but not quite ready to take it outside just yet.
  • An Arab dictator is like a matryoshka doll in reverse. Every time you remove one, you get a bigger one.
  • It took a year to start the Brexit negotiations while Saudi Arabia and sidekicks finished Qatarexit in days. That’s Arab efficiency for you.
  • After the Arab awakening comes the Arab siesta.

He also updates an old Arab proverb:

  • The enemy of my enemy is not my friend, but may be provided with aerial intelligence to support ground operations.

His speciality, though, is bar jokes (he calls them anti-jokes because they don’t have the customary punchline):

  • Three conspiracy theorists walk into a bar. Do you think it’s a coincidence?
  • Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali walk into a bar. After they leave, the Muslim Brotherhood win the elections, ban alcohol and close the bar.
  • Umm Kulthum walks into a bar. Walks into a bar. Walks into a bar. Walks into a baaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
  • So Putin and Erdogan walk into a bar. Sorry, a war.

Originally published at al-bab.com.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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