GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — As they shouted “I want to commit suicide, I want to set myself ablaze,” two young men set fire to themselves in central Gaza City June 6, in protest against the poor living conditions and economic hardship they face. They immediately drew the attention of passers-by who rushed to the scene to extinguish the fire.
In an incident on June 1, 2014, the same young men were severely beaten by citizens after they wore the uniform of electricity bill collectors and switched off the power to homes whose occupants they said had failed to settle their electricity bills.
The two incidents were part of sketches by comedians Momen Shwaikh from the Shajaiya refugee camp and Thaer Abu Zubaydah from Bureij camp filmed with a hidden camera for a TV show called “Tawel Balak” ("Take It Easy").
Over the last five years, thousands of Gazans have been watching the TV show, which is written and presented by Shwaikh and produced by Palestinian TV channel Alkitab. The show aims to address many of the issues and problems facing the Palestinian community in Gaza through satire.
Shwaikh not only makes the viewers laugh, but he is also able to play on people's emotions by stressing the importance to help the poor, bring joy to children and focus on the sense of belonging to the nation and the Palestinian flag. He skillfully delivers humanitarian messages from a city that has witnessed three wars in a short period of time (2008, 2012 and 2014).
“I am an artist with a clear artistic message; I have experienced many artistic paths. I possess artistic skills and my innate talent has been complemented by experience and life lessons rather than through study. I’ve trod a troubled path to convey the Palestinian people’s messages and issues to the world through satire and comedy,” Shwaikh told Al-Monitor.
He said, “I opted for the channel that I felt would embrace my talent. I presented four seasons of my famous comedy program 'Tawel Balak,' and season five is currently running during Ramadan. The reason I chose this kind of art is Gaza’s need for joy and topical comedy.”
For his part, Abu Zubaydah told Al-Monitor, “The program aims to embody the reality of the Palestinian people and present their concerns and problems through comedy, away from the political complexities that citizens are sick of.” He added, “The most important reason that contributed to the development of the idea was finding a new and unfamiliar kind of comedy that brings joy to the hearts of the Palestinian citizens while highlighting the issues and problems they face.”
The deputy director general of Alkitab based in al-Rimal area in Gaza City, Samer Eshtewi, told Al-Monitor, “The channel wants to deliver the message of the Palestinian people in an unprecedented way on Palestinian TV, similarly to the Arab satellite channels. The show — which has been running for five consecutive years — is evolving every year and the Palestinians are starting to embrace it. The episodes of 'Tawel Balak' are going up in the ratings and some of them have reached more than 4 million views [at present].”
Many citizens Al-Monitor met in Gaza said they liked the show because it uses comedy and a creative style to discuss sensitive and topical issues affecting the Palestinians.
A university student from the Beach camp in Gaza City, Fadi al-Shanti, told Al-Monitor, “I watch the show and wait for it impatiently every day. It reflects the Palestinian society’s preoccupations in a unique, catchy and emotional way.”
Khaled al-Sayed, an employee at the Ministry of Social Affairs from Khan Yunis, told Al-Monitor, “The show has managed to change our perception of the pain, suffering, sorrow and misery we face in Palestine. It brings joy to our hearts as it makes us laugh and forget our worries — albeit briefly.”
Palestinian journalist and content producer at Alkitab Ashraf Abu Khasiwan told Al-Monitor, “The hidden camera shows in Palestine are special because of the exceptional circumstances plaguing the Palestinian people who never watched such shows and refused the idea in the beginning.”
He suggested that “comedy in Palestine is suffering because the community wants to laugh and smile, but behind closed doors. Palestinians do not want their image to be affected and do not want people to say that they are laughing despite their suffering.”
Gazan media critic and content producer at Al-Aqsa TV channel, Saber Abu al-Kas, from Jabaliya refugee camp, told Al-Monitor, “The Palestinian reality — which is reeling under the brunt of the Israeli occupation practices and ongoing violations — has imposed a special approach when dealing with things, and this results in the seriousness that many situations are dealt with. Facing this reality, the atmosphere of war and the destruction, a hidden camera has come to alleviate the injustice and suffering experienced by Palestinians who live under occupation.”
He said, “I believe that despite the serious approach the Palestinians adopt, they often resort to comedy and jokes to escape the occupation’s disturbances. Such programs are important as they relieve the Palestinians’ burden. They, however, should not pose any risks and should stay away from pranks in order to be well received [by the public].”
TV director and owner of Maimas for Media Production Mahmoud Madi, who hails from the Nasser district in Gaza City, told Al-Monitor, “The 'Tawel Balak' show is among the new entertainment shows that took by storm the TV world in Gaza as it was developed and directed in a professional and convincing way that addresses important and sensitive issues through satire and comedy without getting too complex.”
He added, “The Palestinian people — who are accustomed to seriousness and cruelty — have not watched such programs before, which is why those who are being pranked get sometimes violent and put actors at a significant risk."
Palestinian TV shows using hidden cameras and actors are becoming more popular among citizens, despite the destruction and blockade of the Gaza Strip. This type of entertainment makes people forget the harsh living conditions, even if it is just for the duration of the broadcast.