Nabil Sawalha - laughter for the ages | Editor's Choice | Ammon News

Nabil Sawalha - laughter for the ages

[2/12/2010 10:13:29 AM]

AMMAN - For Nabil Sawalha, laughter is the defining voice for a generation of Arabs.

Sawalha, who is currently performing at the second annual Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival, is relishing the latest in a decades-long career intertwined with major regional political events that would make his work poignant and unforgettable.

Sawalha, who was born in Madaba and raised in Amman, began his theatre career by acting in BBC radio plays while studying engineering in the UK.

In 1962, he returned to Jordan and joined the Jordanian National Theatre Group, asserting himself in a sector in the Kingdom traditionally dominated by Britons and Americans.

“I came in, then the Jordanians took over,” Sawalha said with his now-trademark laugh.

In 1968, after several years of helming several local productions of classics ranging from Henrik Ibsen to William Shakespeare, Sawalha took the plunge from the stage to the small screen, the first of many transformations that would define his career.

“Theatre is theatre, but TV pays. It was the next step,” he said.

He formed his own production company, Urdon Co., and began producing series for local and regional Arab networks, such as “Tamara”.

During production of a series in Lebanon in 1975, Sawalha’s vehicle was shot at, prompting him to take a u-turn “all the way to Amman”.

Some of his best drama series became the first of many victims of the Lebanese civil war, as the studio was burnt down in Beirut, destroying “months of hard work”.

After returning to England in 1975 for a year to refresh his skills at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, he became director of the Princess Haya Cultural Centre for Children in 1976 at the request of Her Majesty the late Queen Alia.

Sawalha’s major breakthrough came in 1980 with his own television series.

The show, “Beinee oo Beinak” (Between me and you), showcased two popular characters, Sudqi Beek, a dour Jordanian government clerk, and Samih Abu Jazarah, a “slippery” plumber who is originally from Jaffa.

“The two characters were with me for a long time. They were very rough, good-hearted characters who failed to understand the art of life. After a while, you start following their logic.”

Through the two characters, Sawalha addressed hot-button issues in Jordanian society, starting what became a career-defining use of comedy to address social ills.

Despite its success, Sawalha decided to leave the characters behind after a few dozen episodes, afraid of being typecast.

Regional events shaped Sawalha’s fortunes yet again when tensions flared in Iraq in 1990.

Hisham Yanis, a former colleague from the Jordanian National Theatre Group, returned to Jordan from Kuwait and the two were urged to collaborate.

Rather than stick to regular characters, the two actors committed themselves to a newer brand of comedy for the region, a series of sketches addressing current regional and global events.

With the stroke of a pen, the comedy pairing “Nabil and Hisham” was born.

The duo was formed in an era of democratisation and liberalisation in the Kingdom, allowing them to push boundaries beyond previous limits, Sawalha noted.

The International Monetary Fund, Islamists, leftists, the cabinet - all were fodder for their packed performances at the Rainbow Theatre in Jabal Amman.

“We had to work hard for every script,” he noted.

Their first television programme, “Ahlan Nabil and Hisham”, was aired in the winter of 1991, and the pair began the annual tradition of launching a new play every Ramadan.

After attending a performance, HRH Prince Raad encouraged them to include His Majesty the late King Hussein in their sketches, Sawalha said.

With Yanis playing the late King and Sawalha playing the prime minister, one of the lines went: “Sir, I think those two men on stage are impersonating you.”

Sawalha still recalls King Hussein’s thunderous laugh throughout the performance.

The late King later awarded them the Medal of Independence First Class for contributions to the Arts, and received, in return, an award from Sawalha and Yanis, “the cup of democracy”.

In 1992, the pair staged their most daring play: “Hello Arab Summits.”

The premise of the play was a family gathered around a radio awaiting news from the Arab summit announcing the liberation of Palestine.

As the family listens to the radio intently believing that Arab leaders are brokering deals over the decades, the leaders themselves are squabbling and posturing over minute details and personal vendettas.

All modern Arab leaders were lampooned in the wide-ranging piece, which covered periods between 1964 and the 1991 Gulf War.

“We spoke from the point of view of artists, without personal allegiances or agendas. And that is what the public was hungry for,” he noted.

Another turning point in Jordan’s history became yet another milestone in Sawalha’s career when the Kingdom signed the 1994 Wadi Araba Peace Treaty.

That year the comedy duo came out with “Peace oh Peace,” a play satirising wars in the region, starting with Cain and Abel and Joshua’s destruction of Jericho.

“In our history as humans we have been focused on two things, the business of war and the business of peace,” he noted.

The show moved on to perform across the US and Canada with rave reviews. Upon the duo’s return to Jordan in late 1995, they were urged to perform in Israel and the occupied territories.

Sawalha said he was at first hesitant, but later agreed to the trip.

The night they were scheduled to travel to the west bank of the River Jordan, word came that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated.

After much deliberation, Sawalha and Yanis decided to continue with the tour, performing in Arab villages and Tel Aviv. As one of the villages lacked a theatre, they even held a performance in an Israeli settlement, which was packed with both Palestinians and Israelis.

With the stalling of the peace process, however, the visit became controversial back in the Kingdom and they were targeted by the Anti-Normalisation Committee.

“We arrived in Palestine as heroes. We returned to Jordan as normalisers,” he noted.

In 1997, after six years with seven successful plays and several television series, Sawalha said he knew it was time to move on.

Once again he retreated to England for four years, during which he produced two plays focusing on Arab-Americans in UK: “Hello Arabs of London" and "Divided Hearts," before returning to Amman, because “it was too damn cold”.

In addition to frequent television appearances and work with MBC, Sawalha has kept up the tradition of Ramadan iftar theatre.

Although the days of “Nabil and Hisham” are long gone, comedy can still place the spotlight on current political issues and economic hardships in Jordan, he stressed.

“Laughter is the language we can all agree on,” he said. (Taylor Luck/ Jordan Times)

  • 1 samir Khzouz 8/15/2010 7:29:42 AM

    We wish you all the best, we love you.RegardsSamir Khzouz and my family.

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