“Apologies. To all the immigrant communities in the Gulf. I apologise for the behaviour of some, for the abuse. They do not represent us in any…” The speaker shifts tone and yells at the cameraman: “HEY YOU! WHERE ARE YOU GOING? HOLD THE CAMERA PROPERLY OR YOU WON’T GET PAID!”
This is how the first 3al6ayer (translating to “As it goes”) episode from September 2010 starts, setting the tone of the series which has become a huge success in Saudi Arabia. The country has been the scene of a mini revolution of YouTube comedy shows gathering millions of viewers. 3al6ayer, with its 16 million viewers, is one of the most popular of them.
What is 3al6ayer?
3al6ayer is, first of all, Omar Hussein, the show’s charismatic 25 years old presenter. Omar started as a young stand-up comedian a few years back, touring with others all over the country doing several shows. He then started this YouTube show, aiming at doing something new. The Saudi online community is pretty considerable and very active. Therefore, there was a lot of room for newer concepts on the net.
What better than comedy to convey social criticism and make people think, without necessarily upsetting them? This is what Hussein decided to do with his show. With it, the way was opened to talk about all topics imaginable, since nothing like that had been done before. In addition to that, 3al6ayer had more freedom than programs on the radio, TV or written articles, since it is harder to censor independent online shows.
The latest 3al6ayer episode
Omar is backed up by a team of writers who work on finding the right topics and the best scenarios for the show. Lama Sabri and Dima Mohammad are two of those who were there from the first episodes. Thanks to the research of the whole team —which got bigger with time — the show is able to present many news that otherwise would have passed by unheard of by the audience.
News that don’t make it
The 3al6ayer team has always been clear on its intentions and the aim of the program. The fifth episode, for example, starts with a written statement read by Omar: “To all 3al6ayer lovers, we would like to stress that this program is a comedy aimed at constructive criticism. We will never allow it to be politicised in any way.”
Season 1 – 3al6ayer 5
3al6ayer is organised like an American late night talk show: it is mostly Omar discussing pieces of information or incidents that usually go unnoticed. It can be about an event like using freezers, usually employed for stocking vegetables, as morgues because of the lack of space; or shedding light on the lack of respect of basic rules of hygiene in a hospital. Omar jokes around, plays with words and adds witty comments at the right moments.
Other than these performances, there are also guest appearances. Like Dr. Hady AbdelHalim who never seems to know when to stop talking, or the random Saudi citizen that passes by to disturb the program. Also, there are small clips that can be about anything: promoting a weird but useful invention, the birth of president Bashar al-Assad followed by a gamepad saying “The device to go backwards – Because some things do not deserve to exist”, or a game show asking questions to the viewers. Small ads or still images, like the old test card, make clear cuts between each clip.
Season 2 – 3al6ayer Alif
Dark humour for social change
Why did 3al6ayer become a success in so little time? The use of smart sarcasm to talk about topics that concern and worry everyone must be one of the keys to this accomplishment. Topics vary from politics, economics, society, human rights, gender issues, the environment or even sports.
It can be general news or the prevailing preference of foreigners over nationals for jobs in the country. Omar sometimes makes fun of those who stay out in the streets on national days. “Did you get your degree? Did you get a job? So, what are you celebrating?”
An episode rarely goes by without dealing with the issue of women’s rights. In the eighth episode, Omar interviews women demanding the right to drive. When he observes that this right would give them the possibility to be more independent in taking care of the household, one of the women answers with: “Do I look like maid or a chauffeur?” In other words, he makes fun of women who want to drive just for the sake of driving, while still having maids, drivers and all the personnel needed for not working.
Unlike other shows, 3al6ayer openly talks about corruption. It also took on the floods that made a mess out of the city of Jeddah in 2010. There are always small remarks referring to people who have been accused of corruption, or others. Censorship and hospitals also make their headlines pretty often. And the topics are not only about Saudi Arabia: the Arab Spring, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the hypocrisy around these issues are dealt with on a regular basis. Random topics could be that of the national football team, or even Kate and William tying the knot.
The pieces of information are sometimes read out the way they are, like newspaper headlines or statements, which leaves the audience trying to make sense out of its nonsense. Indeed, silence and eloquent looks become even stronger than commenting about them. The message surely goes through more easily when it is a Saudi talking about these topics, rather than mainstream international media with an outsider’s point of view.
This insider’s outlook allows 3al6ayer to keep a variety in the topics dealt with, and to have more impact on the viewers. With time, the show has become an influential tool that the team has learned how to use. Omar has over 100,000 followers on Twitter, and the 3al6ayer Facebook page has even more members.
Last December, the team took part in an awareness campaign about AIDS, issuing a video where the crew exposed the basic facts of this illness and the situation in the Arab world. They also encouraged the viewers to test themselves, as well as explained how the Saudi health support works for those who need it.
The campaign about AIDS
The latest example of their involvement in social issues is the fourth episode of the second season, where Omar made public an incident that happened in Itechia, a computer store in Jeddah. The place refused a disabled child from entering the shop, asking the mother to make her purchase while leaving her kid outside. Having heard of the story, Omar encouraged the viewers to talk about it on twitter using the #itechia hashtag, and to pressure the store to issue a public apology. He also required Itechia to spend money on making their shop handicapped friendly, as well as donate money to an organisation of its choice. In the end, there were 1,042 tweets with the word #itechia in them.
A few weeks ago, Omar unfollowed everyone except for one person through his Twitter account. This led 1,625 people to tweet #omarhussfollowme in only four days. The show has made Omar a public figure, very accessible to anyone, who people can identify themselves to. He is the face of a vibrant online and underground Saudi community — one that the world should start meeting.