May Saudi stand-up comedy bring down the nation’s brutes

Amazing New York Times feature on the US backed dictatorship of Saudi Arabia and the brave souls challenging one of the most bigoted and oppressive regimes on earth:

You know you are attending a Saudi Arabian comedy night when the sprawling performance tent is pitched 50 miles out into the desert to avoid the morals police and, astonishingly, the ushers are women, even if they remain shrouded by the standard-issue black garments.

Then the swirling disco lights and giant speakers thumping out “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas go still for evening prayer. And sex determines the seating — bachelors on the right, families including women on the left.

“I love Riyadh!” the master of ceremonies starts in Arabic, eliciting a tepid response from the audience of about 1,000 people with his next line: “When you walk on the streets, you don’t see any women!”

Stand-up comedy in Saudi Arabia remains a somewhat clandestine affair, emerging from the raw local performers hired as warm-up acts for the mostly Arab-Americans who began touring the Middle East a few years ago. But Saudi comics are now coming into their own.

Two have established wildly popular shows on YouTube — not least because the Web has emerged as the one public space in the kingdom where it is O.K. to endorse the Arab uprisings. Comedy nights have just switched to Arabic from English, broadening their appeal, and comedians have even been asked to entertain at Koran conferences.

“It is really convenient for Saudi society because it is one person on stage; there is no acting, no women on stage, no men dressed as women,” said Ahmad Fathaldin, a 25-year-old medical student and one of six twentysomethings who write and perform the hit series “On the Fly” on YouTube. “Socially it is accepted.”