CAIRO — Guffaws from the third floor of a large building echo along Adly Street in downtown Cairo on a cool March evening. The main hall at 9 Adly Street, a comedy club that takes its name from its address, is packed with people of all ages, sitting at tables or standing, laughing and chuckling at the familiar picture of daily life painted by the young stand-up comedian on stage.
From the stage, Islam Amin laments the obligation and paradox of Egyptian grooms having to buy expensive gifts for his fiancee and her entire family, a hot topic these days in Egypt.
“If I buy all the gifts, then I won't have enough money for a wedding,” he said. “If I don't buy the gifts, there will not be a wedding.” As the audience laughs or clucks in agreement, Amin leaves the stage, turning it over to a comedian who launches into an animated description of fat people using the crowded public transport system.
The sets are part of 9 Adly Street's first Cairo Comedy Festival, which presents three two-hour sessions a week featuring different comedians, from Feb. 15 to March 16. More than 50 comedians have performed at the club since it opened in July 2018, including some making regular appearances. The club is typically open two hours a week and also schedules a number of open mic events so amateur performers can take the stage.
The stand-up comedians Ahmed Hossam and Ahmed Abdel Fattah own and operate 9 Adly Street. Hossam, a graduate of the Faculty of Law at Ain Shams University, has been performing stand-up across the country since 2015. Renting venues for an evening ate up a lot of the money he earned, so he decided to open a club in a permanent venue. “We also envisioned other stand-up comedians performing there,” Hossam told Al-Monitor.
While acknowledging that anything and everything can inspire a performance, Hossam said that Egyptian comedians thread carefully when it comes to sex, politics and religion.
“These topics are too sensitive to be tackled openly,” he remarked. “If we present skits on sex, for example, we will lose the audience of old people, mothers and girls. We want to attract not only young people, but people of all ages, and irrespective of their religion or political views, and reach as large an audience as we can.”
Hossam quips from the stage, “A common sight you see in the streets is bus drivers speeding along, with the doors of the bus wide open and passengers crammed standing inside and on the steps. I think they are playing some sort of game: the one who can toss the most passengers onto the street wins and gets a taxi to drive.”
Food is another favorite subject, especially certain fare from Egyptian cuisine, such as mish, a salty cheese fermented for several months or even years. “You can prepare it at home using rotten ingredients, some old cheese and a piece of trousers you haven’t worn in years,” he tells the audience.
Studies have traced the roots of Egyptian humor to the Pharaonic era. Some of the writing deciphered on papyri and limestone include social satire, slapstick humor and riddles.
Egyptians throughout the ages have been fond of ridiculing those who lead them. The Romans were absurd and mentally feeble, the Ottomans arrogant and obese, and the French pompous and ridiculous. Egyptians are also known for their political humor. One popular joke from the 2011 revolution was about how the transition of power has changed over the years: Jamal Abdel Nasser was killed by poison, Anwar Sadat by a bullet and Hosni Mubarak by Facebook. Last year’s presidential elections proved to be a feast for cartoonists, despite political pressure and attempts of restriction.
“When Egyptians start to lose their sense of humor, this represents a big crisis,” Abdellatif El-Menawy, a commentator, wrote in Arab News. Most audience members at 9 Adly Street arrive ready to yuk it up.
“I came here to have a laugh,” Reham Mohamed, a young divorced woman who lives with her parents, told Al-Monitor. Mohamed, an accountant, attends shows regularly, with friends or alone. “Sitting here, where funny scenes from daily life are drawn, and grim situations are turned into light-hearted jokes, improves my mood,” she said.
A woman accompanying her teenage son is not so easily amused. “I only like the shows that have a useful message,” Mona Moustafa, a housewife, told Al-Monitor. She said a recent joke she had heard about parents teaching children not to fart in enclosed spaces had disgusted, not amused, her. She added, “I am astonished that my son’s laughter at this rocked the hall.”
A group of six middle-aged men sat together, cackling after every joke. One of them, Ihab Hosny, an engineer, told Al-Monitor that he admired the comedians' efforts at satirizing situations. Hosny, a fan of old, black-and-white television comedies, remarked that comedy has not changed all that much.
“The past has its veteran comedians and today has its stand-up comedy stars too,” Hosny said, “but the essential purpose remains the same — to let people laugh and temporarily forget their problems.”