"One night, Mohammed Kamal and I had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant in a shiny strip mall with a parking lot full of Land Cruisers and Ferraris. At the time, Kamal was a senior at Carnegie Mellon, one of six American universities that have opened a Doha branch at the hypermodern complex called Education City. He told me that he likes the Canadian-Indian comic Russell Peters, but he has the makings of an Adam Sandler — clownish, physical, self-deprecating. Onstage, he moves a lot. He’s good at alternately conveying respect for and parodying his father, who figures prominently in his routine. As a Qatari, he can say things — about Qatari girls, Qatari drivers or Qataris who are being too Qatari — that other comedians avoid. “My classic joke is ‘I cancel your visa,’ and it basically makes fun of locals who think that they can put foreigners in trouble by getting them out of the country,” he said. (Non-Qataris fret constantly about having their papers seized and being forced to return to their homelands; Qataris do little to assuage these fears.) Abdulla Al-Ghanim, the other Qatari in SUCQ, has a joke about the Criminal Investigation Department, which the comedians say sometimes sends plainclothes agents to comedy shows to make sure nobody says anything too racy. “I’m C.I.D.,” the joke goes. “I want to see I.D.” People love this.
Kamal, like the other members of SUCQ, at first performed only in English. “In Arabic, the grammar is different, so it’s very difficult to have a setup and a punch line,” Kamal said. “You have to tell the punch line while you’re still doing the set up — they get mixed up.” But there’s another reason too. The comedians say they want to perform in front of bigger audiences — their monthly shows usually draw at least 70 people — but many still perform in English, partly because they remain worried about who might be attending and how their material will be interpreted. “You can say the wrong thing here and get in so much trouble,” Kamal said. “You don’t want to be talking about the people who are running the country. There’s no freedom of speech.” (Kamal later denied making this claim.)
And whom you can make fun of is complicated. It’s O.K. to talk about the uprisings in Libya or Egypt because nobody, the comedians said, liked Hosni Mubarak. But it’s not acceptable to talk about, say, Yemen or the U.A.E. or Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. (“It’ll be a problem if I say, ‘Why aren’t we helping Syria?’ ” Kamal said.) Because the violence in Libya and Egypt is over, any jokes about those countries are academic. A biting riff on the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a little too close to home, given its proximity to Qatar.
Kamal said he’s good at pushing boundaries while staying inside them. He has performed a few times in Saudi Arabia, where stand-up is spreading. But Saudi Arabia being what it is, he still worries about what might happen if he says the wrong thing there. “I don’t know what they do to comedians in Saudi if they get caught. That’s one of my jokes. ‘What do you do to comedians if they get caught — cut off their tongue?’ ” People love this too."