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Gaza comedy troupe seeks laughs without getting arrested by Hamas

First Published      Last Updated Feb 18 2014 06:51 pm

Gaza City • In the outside world — heck, even here — two words that rarely appear in the same sentence are "funny" and "Gaza."

But several troupes of young cutups in the coastal enclave are changing this — very, very carefully.

In the United States, those who run TV shows have to deal with network suits and in-house censors. Say a dirty word on the "The Daily Show," you get a bleep.

Try sneaking something past the militant Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. They hang traitors here.

"We live in the kind of place that could use a little humor," said Thaer Munir, 23, of the skit comedy team "Tashwesh Productions," whose members have managed to stay out of trouble.

Tashwesh, which means static in Arabic, puts its bits up on YouTube and recently began to air a weekly show on the Palestinian Authority's state TV channel. A video the group made spoofing Jean-Claude Van Damme's epic split feat for a Volvo Trucks advertisement went viral and got more than 550,000 views. (The visual punch line is that the cars in Gaza are being pushed, not driven, because of fuel shortages.)

They're not the only ones trying out a joke. There's a dance group here that posted a YouTube video with a Gaza version of "Gangnam Style," in which the guys ride donkeys, wear black-checkered kaffiyeh scarfs and dance in a shawarma joint. In the routine, they visit an ATM (busted), go to the Rafah border crossing to Egypt (closed) and take their soccer balls to Palestine Stadium (bombed).

The Israelis, whose jets attacked the sports complex during an eight-day war in November 2012, said it was being used by Gaza militants to launch rockets into Israel.

The five-man troupe responsible for the Van Damme spoof operates out of a fifth-floor apartment in Gaza City. On a recent morning, guests staggered up the five flights because one of Gaza's daily blackouts had paralyzed the elevator.

Inside the apartment, there was a small table covered with laptops, a bedroom piled with pillows and mats, and a studio with lights, a white canvas background sheet and a small video camera. Sometimes the Tashwesh team crashes here for days, working round-the-clock.

The members produce a mix of stand-up comedy, skits and man-on-the-street interviews, a Gaza version of Jay Leno walking around Burbank in L.A. and asking the locals about current events.

"We try to touch some dangerous ideas," said Mahmoud Zuiter, 28, the on-camera ringleader. "But they're social topics, not political ones."

Why not?

"It's a little different here," he said.

How so?

"You can be arrested."

Zuiter said the group may someday wade into political humor, but not just yet.

Over the years, Hamas has exasperated Gaza youth with government-sponsored campaigns against hair gel, skinny jeans and long hair on men. The movement also has sought to ban women from riding motorcycles, smoking water pipes in public and running in a now-defunct United Nations-sponsored annual marathon.

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