Absurdist Engagement: Syrian Sketch Comedy as Antidote to Despair

By Stephen E. Tamari
Submitted to Session P5215 (Crisis and Catastrophe: Conceptualizing Engaged Arab Film and Literature through a Syrian Lens, 2018 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
19th-21st Centuries; Arab Studies; Cinema/Film; Current Events; Pop Culture; Theater;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Not long into the Syrian civil war, amateur Syrian actors and videographers from around the country began to produce short satirical sketches uploaded to YouTube to wider and wider audiences and recognition. This paper explores the character of this creative engagement for understanding popular responses to the catastrophes of civil war that has followed the 2011 popular uprising in Syria. I am inspired by anthropologist Asef Bayat’s observation that disenchantment in the wake of an unfinished revolution does not mean disengagement. Rather, it may open new opportunities for imagining alternative futures.

Two sketch comedy troupes are at the heart of this exploration: the Saraqib Youth Group based in northwestern Syria near Idlib and the Sketch Junubi Troupe based in the Ghouta suburbs south of Damascus. Both groups are equal opportunity satirists skewering the regime and the opposition(s). Their work is not, however, ideological or even political. It is absurdist and surreal (involving, for example, time travel and troops marching to the Pink Panther theme). As such, these artists are inheritors of a well-established surrealist strain in Syrian literature, fine arts, and cinema. They have charted new directions as a function of enduring years of civil war and meeting both the opportunities and challenges afforded by new technologies and limited resources.

Today’s war generation of creative artists still in Syria is firmly grounded in the immediacy of ongoing catastrophe. Their comedy is rooted in local contexts and regional vernaculars but its absurdist premises defy cynicism and suggest the possibility, if not the hope, in a better future.

For scholars of contemporary Syria—looking from the outside in—sketch comedy provides a window on the agency of Syrians who have remained at home and refused to succumb to despair. This paper will focus on how these performers and filmmakers navigate the extremes of on-going civil war. How do they negotiate the terrain between the political and the nonsensical; between the vernacular and the universal; between hope and despair? It is the author’s aspiration that answers to these questions will highlight the potential and power of the Syrian artists who have remained in Syria to shape the contours of a post-war revolutionary future for their country.