Comic relief at the Edinburgh Festival

Peter A. Carrigan
6 Min Read

An Egyptian Englishmen, Saif Abu Kandil, is staging a stand-up comedy act during the Edinburgh Festival, laced with explicit language and teenage sexual fantasies that makes the audience squirm uncomfortably, whilst attempting to break down Middle Eastern stereotypes dressed as a Catholic nun.

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Middle East began with Saif comparing the nun’s habit to an Islamic women’s Hijab, by pulling the black veil over his face to achieve the classic Ninja appearance, more common in Arabia than in the posh seaside resort of Agami, where Saif’s parents now live.

But this is not how the show went. In the basement room of The Phoenix Bar the small audience, who like me were expecting a deconstruction of Middle Eastern culture, were served up puerile sexual jokes about incest, homosexuality and pornography that may have come straight from the male adolescent’s book on potty humour.

Interestingly enough though, I felt Saif was breaking down Middle Eastern stereotypes by probably stumbling over every western taboo including a couple of clangers about the Jewish race.

He told us about the one-handed bomb maker he knew in Cairo but also quizzed the audience about whether or not they liked farting?

His best work was on the guitar which was a respite from the paedophilia gags. He composed lyrics about the proliferation of deviants in the “west and put them to tunes from the Scottish duo The Proclaimers and Alanis Morissette.

As Saif began to warm to his material, he performed a sign-language routine to a mock telephone conversation in a gay and lesbian call center. He was sure not to leave any sacred cow tethered to societies norms and employed the same sign-language technique to slay British hero’s of World War II with a skit about pornography as propaganda.

When Saif explored the American South with tales of the Ku Klux Klan and bizarre local laws, like the one in Alabama, where it is illegal to chain an alligator to a fire hydrant, the penny started to drop. Saif’s guide to understanding the Middle East was an attempt to point out that maybe it is the “west which is contrary, morally skewed and culturally depraved.

And just to prove that he was comfortable living in the depraved occidental world, he de-robed, as he had threatened, and continued with the one liner s for the last 10 minutes of the show, with only his guitar between the audience and his religion.

The Edinburgh Festival runs for a month in this compact capital that is more like Copenhagen or Stockholm than a British city and the hundreds of comedy shows, plays, and dance and theatre productions take over every conceivable space. In what was once probably a 19th Century store room, a comedian, Bridget Christie, donned the purple royal robes of Charles II and went about explaining how the 1600s was not that much different to our own time.

In a century that saw the English Civil War, righteous religious fundamentalist, terrorists, beauty magazines and cosmetics come into their own; it reminded me that humanity for all its achievements still settles their political and religious disputes in such unimaginative ways. Maybe it was just like Saif Abu Kandil said in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Middle East: “The two most common elements in the Universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

This was also pointed out by the well known American comedian, Jimmy Tingle, who had a stand-up routine based on his candidacy for President. When promising to provide healthcare for all Americans, Tingle pointed out that all Washington politicians were covered by government insurance, though they couldn’t find a way for the world’s richest nation to provide healthcare for the millions of uninsured Americans!

The Edinburgh Festival was all getting a little heavy, so my brother – who was in Scotland for a wedding – and I got along to one of the Festival’s signature events, Fuerzabruta. It was a rave party under the circus big top. The production is from Argentina and the players were running and somersaulting along the walls, running through exploding brick walls, swimming in a 20-meter pool that descended just within reach of the standing crowd.

Fuerzabruta was just sheer unadulterated fun that had no message. Packed with action, a scorching hot DJ and as there was no seating the audience was part of the performance. It would be sensational if a Cairo promoter brought this troupe to Egypt for a show. Everyone loves the circus; it’s just good ol’ fashion fun.

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