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Jamil Abu-Wardeh on Comedy & Life in Dubai

The producer and media strategist who helped bring stand-up to the Middle East talks about why he loves living in Dubai and the state of comedy there.

We can’t believe AFAR Experiences Dubai is just over a week away, and are stoked we’ll have the chance to learn more about this fascinating—and often misunderstood—city.

One of our speakers on the trip is Jamil Abu-Wardeh, a media strategist, consultant, and producer at the forefront of the intersection between technology and media. Much of Jamil’s work has focused on the need to change the stories told about the Middle East. As a producer at Showtime Arabia in Dubai in 2007, he brought the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour to the region, a process that helped fan the flames of stand-up throughout the Middle East. He tells this story during his 2010 TED Talk in Oxford, UK, which is well worth watching.

We caught up with Jamil to talk about comedy in Dubai and to learn what he finds so inspiring about living there.

What's the comedy scene like in Dubai?

"It's great, but it's a double-edged sword. It's brilliant, because Dubai is so multicultural. It’s a welcoming environment, and so many people are trying comedy out. But it’s hard for local comedians to get traction. Dubai isn't that big compared to, say, Saudi Arabia. A Saudi comic might be talking to an audience of 10 million Saudis. But if you come to Dubai and try your act on stage, you speak to an Indian, a Filipino, an Arab, a Brit, and other expats, and you're trying to give them humor that's universal that they will all find funny. Not the easiest.

"There's somewhere called The Laughter Factory, which is affiliated with the UK. They have these comedians coming out from the UK and you can have a pint and watch them. It feels like you're in London. So that's great because the comedians know who the audience is going to be and the audience know what they are getting."

Dubai isn't just a plastic city with a for-sale sign on everything. It's about going to places where people go rather than places where you can buy stuff.

Are there many female stand-up comics?

"Here is the same, maybe even better, than the West. So in the West one in every 10 comedians is female, and here it’s probably the same. But it's still very difficult to have female comedians come up and be part of the scene."

In your TED talk you said, "Dubai to me is like a hand that supports anyone who wants to make things happen." That certainly sounds true of comedy. What else is that the case with?

"Well the first thing I have to clarify is that was a setup for my punch line, which was that Burj Khalifa is the middle finger they point at those who spread fallacious stories about Dubai. The other point is that it is true. You have inspiration all around you. All these nationalities are living in harmony, effectively. Whatever methods they use, work, overall. 

"And you know Dubai itself has very little in terms of natural resources, yet they’ve built the biggest tower in the world and all this stuff, and it’s very smart marketing and PR to get attention, but also to inspire you. If you want to do it, do it! It's an attitude that you can choose to take part in. There are difficulties here as well as anywhere else. It's not all rosy, but they show you that they've done it, so why can't you?"

The spice market will teach you we still live in an old world with very new, shiny fronts

You’re trying to change the stereotypical way in which people view the Middle East and its people—that it’s not just "bombers, billionaires, and belly dancers." I think to this day people are still pretty ignorant about the region, and I suspect people—and I include myself here—have a lot misconceptions about Dubai itself. So what's the biggest misconception you think people have about Dubai?

"That everybody is rich! That's the first thing that's not true. That it's a plastic city. That's totally untrue as well, and I think it’s a reflection of the person visiting, not of the place. You can’t expect to be shown everything, you have to scratch beneath the surface—by which I mean, get off your tour bus and take a walk. And don't go to the one or two malls and think that's life.

"A lot of people do move here and find it a lonely city, but again, that's a reflection of their circles. There is a community, it isn't just a plastic city with a for-sale sign on everything. It's about going to places where people go rather than places where you can buy stuff."

So what’s something a visitor to Dubai really must do?

"You should go to Kite Beach, where they’ve put together a brilliant bunch of restaurants and cafes with really nice food, and there are free sports and children’s activities right by the beach. It’s where people are going and you’ll find they really love it there.

"And second is to go to the old side of Dubai, to the spice market. You can see that's how Dubai has been since it began, and still is. You'll find wooden dhows from India and China offloading tires, washing machines, boxes of goods, even industrial stuff. It's guys that live on boats—I’m talking Iranians, Indians, Chinese, Sri Lankans, you know. Old-school sailors, on the same trade routes that have always been there; they just go bring their cargo, and go back. Just look at where the dhows dock over in the old side of Dubai. For me that is something to get people's head around, the fact that we still live in an old world with very new, shiny fronts. And they all have mobiles!"

Learn more about AFAR Experiences Dubai here, and plan your own trip using our Dubai Destination Guide.

>>Next: Dubai: A Community of Artists Is Making Waves