In a popular café in the center of Damascus, laughter rises with every joke about rationing electricity, the scarcity of fuel, or the collapse of productive sectors, told by members of the first improvisational comedy team in Syria, where there are no taboos except for politics and religion.
Sherif Homsi opens the weekly show by talking about the advantages of the groom in Syria, which now go beyond his good qualities to extend to his stock of fuel and energy bars.
Some of those present shed tears of excessive laughter when he tells how he is marketing himself to a girl he likes, “Marry me, and my future is guaranteed. I have two hundred liters of gasoline, solar energy to generate electricity, and three gas bottles.”
“The situation in the country is hysterical, and we face it with hysterical laughter (…) in a country full of problems and depression,” Sharif, 31, told AFP.
He added, “Everyone here agrees on their overwhelming desire to laugh and forget problems that they are unable to solve, and they have no choice but to laugh about them.”
Four months ago, Sharif and his friends founded the first stand-up comedy team in Syria. They called it “Steria” to combine the words Syria and Hysteria, and it has 35 members, including a girl.
Before each show, the team meets at the house of one of its members to prepare the content of the show. One of them stands in front of his comrades and tells them, “I thought a lot and found that the most funny thing in my life is my life.” His companions advise him to open his heart and tell them about a girl he loved. And as soon as he starts, they take notes and suggest modifications.
The team takes turns presenting weekly shows inside the dimly lit Café Dez, attended by dozens of diners who can’t stop laughing.
“We draw our jokes from our daily lives full of suffering, and we share them with people who have lived through all kinds of misfortunes over the past 12 years,” said Melki Mardneli, 28.
The audience did not calm down when Melki appeared in front of them and told them jokes in the spoken dialect, such as “We in Syria continue our lives as a kind of curiosity, nothing more, I mean, we just want to know what will happen to us in the end,” and “In Europe, three meters of snow and electricity are coming. About us, she just sings.” Fayrouz, “winter has returned,” and the circuit breaker is on its own,” referring to the power outage in the entire area.
The team mainly deals with the diaries of Syrians with social, living and economic problems after 12 years of a devastating war, which caused the death of more than half a million Syrians, destroyed the economy, its capabilities and infrastructure, and displaced more than half of the population inside and outside the country. They do not hesitate to make jokes about their personal experiences and their families, but they avoid political and religious issues.
Years ago, Amir Dirwan (32 years old) lost his sister and son as a result of a mortar shell falling in Damascus, after which he fell into a state of depression, which was exacerbated by the earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey two months ago, claiming tens of thousands of lives in both countries. He says that he did not get out of depression until after joining the “Styria” team, which provided him with a platform to talk about his experience.
He says that jokes have become a way to “face the fears we store,” pointing at the same time to the difficulties they face “in a society that does not accept talking about what is forbidden, such as politics, religion and sex.”
He added, “We do not approach the political issue in particular, but we sometimes allude to sexual and religious issues within red lines that we know well,” adding, “I hope that a day will come when we can intellectually liberate and discuss all issues without fear.”
Every time she participates in a performance, Mary Obeid, 21, the only girl in the group, gets excited.
He received one joke after another about the transportation crisis, which has worsened in recent years due to the great scarcity of fuel, and many have stopped using their private cars, preferring to use the overcrowded public transportation.
The audience clapped enthusiastically when Marie said, “The internal transport bus is distinguished by the fact that it can accommodate 24 million people (the number of the population of Syria before the war) on a stand… in order to preserve national cohesion.”
And they laugh with her when she tells her experiences with applying makeup when the electricity goes out. “Without problems, there is no comedy, and in Syria we have a lot of it,” Marie told AFP.