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Comedic Troupe Targets Rulers, Leaving No Taboo Unstoned

Jordan: Nabil Sawalha has long parodied the powerful. Now he takes on his own countrymen.

July 23, 2001|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMMAN, Jordan — The bald comic strides onto the stage with a large white gauze pad taped over his left ear--and the crowd bursts out laughing.

Nabil Sawalha is up to his old tricks again, poking fun at powerful people. The ear gag is an inside joke--inside Jordan, that is--but everyone here knows about the member of parliament who not too long ago bit another lawmaker's ear.

That's just the opening salvo in Sawalha's not-too-subtle critique of modern Jordanian society. He takes aim at everything from the popularity of the performance enhancing drug Viagra to the all-too-common practice in parts of the Arab world of killing women for perceived violations of honor.

But the main target of the show, with its unambiguous title--"Everything Is for Sale"--is the government. The ministers. The parliament. Even King Abdullah II, though not by name, of course. The show wails about a system that it calls thoroughly bankrupt and corrupt.

"They sold the country, they sold it all up," the cast sings cheerfully as Sawalha, in his mid-50s, bounds onto the stage inside the Rosanna restaurant in one of Amman's tony, tree-lined neighborhoods. "Although we are poor, we do have our mobile phones!"

Jordan is tense these days. This relatively moderate state is caught in a serious economic crisis, a serious water crisis and a serious political crisis fueled by all the other crises. Since King Hussein died in 1999, his son has tried to hold things together. But he's working without the political capital that his father accumulated over a lifetime in power.

People here joke that the Western-educated monarch speaks pidgin Arabic, not exactly a sign of their unyielding respect.

Into the fray steps Sawalha and his small troupe of actors. In a region where biting political satire can be punished by imprisonment, they have made a career of zinging Middle Eastern leaders and exploring taboo subjects.

Now, for the first time, the thespians have focused their barbs on their hometown.

"Usually," Sawalha said after a recent performance, "we are more pan-Arab."

As the show opens, five cast members dance around waving a rainbow of differently colored mobile phones. The number strikes at the government's latest remedy for the ailing economy: a duty-free zone. If there is truth in humor, then smugglers are slipping goods such as phones out of the zone--without paying taxes--and hawking them on the streets of the capital.

A merchant steps onto the stage: "If you want," he says, "I can sell you a ministry. You can be a minister."

"How much?" replies another cast member.

"Two-hundred and fifty JDs," offering a price in Jordanian dinars of about $350.

"That's too much. I only paid 50 JDs for my wife."

"Don't worry," the merchant says. "When they change governments, you get to keep your pension forever and you can make money on the side."

Sawalha is no stranger to controversy: He has taken his brand of humor on the road, even appearing in Israel in 1995. Earlier this year, that visit to the Jewish state landed him on a blacklist.

Although Jordan was the second Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1994, people are upset that peace never brought the economic dividend they were promised.

For a time, Sawalha's audiences started to shrink, and many believe it was a direct result of the blacklist. But on a recent evening, the cafe was packed and no one seemed at all squeamish.

Political scientist Radwan Abdullah saw the play, and laughed. "It is very, very accurate," he said. "I see it as more of a social satire than a political play. . . . We are sinking. We have been sinking for a long time."

This might seem depressing, but Sawalha's audience was still laughing as the cast sang its final message for the night: "No matter what you do to us, we will be patient. This is our country. . . . We are remembering the good old days, because there are no good days to come."

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