Sanaa , Yemen – Tired of months of war, air raids and shortages of food and fuel, some Yemenis are turning to comedy to take their minds off the turmoil in their country.
For two nights last week, a group of young Yemenis organised an event called “Comedy of War” in Sanaa in which amateur comedians took to the stage to perform stand-up routines, sketches and songs.
Among the favourite jokes were punchlines about electricity outages and petrol queues.
About 600 people turned up on the first night, packing the tiny venue and forcing the organisers to move to a large hall in central Sanaa for the second show on Friday. That evening, the comedians and actors played to an audience of more than 1,000.
Fuad Al Ga’adi, one of the organisers, said the purpose of the event was to provide pure enjoyment to those attending.
“We want to bring the smile back to the faces of the audience, to say that even if this is during a war, there are still positive things,” said the 27-year-old photographer.
“Conditions became so bad in Yemen, and Sanaa’s residents felt nothing optimistic about what is happening, so we decided to create an event, which can create a new atmosphere.”
As the performance got under way, the audience started to laugh about their predicament, and the mood around the venue immediately lifted, Mr Al Ga’adi said.
As the Arab world’s poorest nation and the centre of an Al Qaeda insurgency, Yemen was already deeply unstable when Houthi rebels from the country’s north took over the capital in September before surging southwards to Aden and driving the president and his government into exile.
A Saudi-led campaign of airstrikes against the rebels began in March, to drive the militants from power.
The conflict has killed more than 1,600 people and displaced close to half a million. Yemenis are also facing chronic shortages of food, fuel and medicine and widespread power outages.
Despite the suffering, those attending the event in Sanaa on Friday left with their spirits lifted.
“The performers were perfect and they make us laugh, but it was just for two days and not all of the people could come to the event,” said Manaf Thiab, a 28-year-old marketing executive who was in the audience with friends.
He said he wished the event could be held every week.
Elsewhere in Yemen, others have similarly turned to performance as an escape from the suffering.
In Al Mukalla in Hadramawt province in the south, residents organised performances of plays and posted them on YouTube with the title “Restoring Hope”, after the Arab military campaign against the Houthis.
The performances were particularly surprising as Al Mukalla has been under the control of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since the start of last month.
Abdullah Babakili, a journalist based in Al Mukalla, said the residents in Hadramawt he had spoken to people who liked these plays and followed them on YouTube.
“We cannot change this bad situation in Yemen, that is why in the last resort we try to smile, we need to forget the bad conditions in which we live,” Babakili said.
However, the event in Sanaa did not please everyone, with some complaining that with scores of Yemenis dying, holding a comedy event was not appropriate.
The well known Yemeni comedy actor, Abdulaziz Al Ba’adani, said he did not feel happy to perform during the war.
“I have heart, I feel with other people. Hundreds of Yemeni people are sad nowadays, some lost their friends and others were killed by airstrikes or by random shelling, so it is difficult to laugh while others cry,” Al Ba’adani said.
The actor said he was not against the content of the performances, rather he was against the timing of when they were being held.
On Yemen’s TV channels, there are no comedy shows currently showing, with broadcasts mostly related to the conflict.
Mazen Adel, 25, a Sanaa resident, agreed with Al Ba’adani, that now is not the right time to laugh. “It is anti-social if you are going to laugh in war; we should have the morals of human being and appreciate others.”
Al Ga’adi, however, considers this opposition a healthy response to his group’s efforts.
“For any successful work there should be opponents, and it does not mean that we did a bad thing.”
He said people would begin to accept the idea and start to come to such shows in larger numbers. He is already planning the next one.
“We are determined to bring a smile to the faces of all residents in Sanaa.”