Yamen Nour in a 2017 sketch by the Watar group. Photo via Youtube.
In the early days, there was precious little equipment. Handheld camcorders, just a few props. Reflective headlights removed from cars served as light reflectors. And filming would usually take place on the bombed-out East Aleppo streets outside.
“Sometimes people would get killed in the same street [where we were working], and we’d have to delay filming for several days,” says Syrian actor and comedy producer Yamen Nour.
The 42-year-old co-founded the comedy show Watar, meaning “thread” in Arabic, in 2014—already years into a war that was devastating his home country.
While dark at times, Watar’s homemade beginnings reflect the “down-to-earth” sense of humor native to Aleppo, where Nour says the city’s uniquely heavy accent already comes with its own personality.
That personality—and a few overexaggerated Aleppo accents—seeped into the show, as East Aleppo’s cratered and bullet-ridden streets became the backdrop for darkly humorous sketches about food prices and rebel militias.
Nour left those streets behind in 2016 in hopes of finding relative safety. Just a few months later, a punishing siege and military campaign saw his neighborhood come under renewed government control. Nevertheless, he is keeping his distinctively Aleppan comedy alive in exile.
Now based in Turkey, Watar produces comedy sketches and series from its Syrian-led studio, which received an official business license late last year. The team is also working on a film, about the psychological aftermath of detention, that they hope to submit to upcoming festivals.
Humor, Nour says, has been a lifeline in the midst of war and exile.
“The pain that drowns people—there’s enough of it already,” he tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.
“But comedy can ease that pain.”
Q: Tell me about how you got started working in Aleppo. How did you first get the idea? Did you have any prior experience in acting or directing?
We were still back in Aleppo. There were many citizen journalists and activists who were covering Assad’s crimes in Syria, even at the beginning of the protests. We tried to cover this, but we didn’t see ourselves in this same realm. And we weren’t able to carry a weapon. We weren’t even able to use our cameras to cover the blood and carnage.
So we turned towards art instead.
We began by putting together a small team. They were all guys who hadn’t specialized before in this field.
I had already had a number of small acting experiences in theater—performances here and there for children before the revolution. I graduated with a degree in applied arts.
I wasn’t normally found in front of the camera before, though—always behind it.
Q: What made you choose comedy sketches as a medium?
We weren’t going around telling people: ‘Come, look at [the bad things] that are happening to us!’ Why would we do that? So that we could go back and live out the tragedy all over again?
Comedy was an easier choice for us. And we had an audience from both sides: people loyal [to the Syrian government] as well as the opposition. Both of them watch us because we talk about people’s pain.
The country was no longer able to handle art that talked about this pain. The pain that drowns people—there’s enough of it already. But creating comedy can ease that [pain]. A three-minute comedy sketch can lighten the pain of, let’s say, being a refugee.
We talk about any type of suffering from during the Syrian revolution and inside Syria, and maybe someone in two or three minutes, maximum 10, can do this, whereas drama needs a lot of funding, it needs photography and a huge team.
A 2017 Watar sketch about bribery: “Your key to getting help.” Photo via Youtube.
Q: What difficulties did you face in your work during your time in Aleppo?
At first, the technical quality of our work was poor. We had a trick for lighting: we used reflectors that you put in front of a car to reflect the sunlight.
In the beginning, we got supplies by borrowing them. We had a small handycam, but then we ran into difficulties when a scene had to be repeated one or two times, so we were forced to borrow some cameras from friends who believed in our project.
After that we were able to secure supplies—light reflectors, professional cameras—that we got into Syria from Turkey, and we were able to continue filming.
[Our work] was still sensitive, though, because you couldn’t just walk around and do comedy in the street, where people were being killed. All around the clock there were warplanes and bombings. All day there were people going to the frontlines to fight, and coming home dead.
The hardest thing was to try and do comedic work, to act out comedy in the midst of all these difficult conditions.
There was a street that we used to film on that served as the location for something like 70 percent of our scenes. Sometimes people would get killed on this same street, and we’d have to delay filming for several days before we could finish filming there.
Q: What are the topics you focus on the most in your sketches? Do those topics differ greatly from what you focused on while filming under siege in Aleppo?
There’s a big difference between what we cover now, compared with the things we covered during our time back in Aleppo.
In Aleppo, for example, we talked about the corruption of some rebel factions, we talked about the crimes of the regime, about the interests of the citizens. Everyday people were [thinking about] these things.
A promo video for the 2015 season of Watar’s “Banned in Syria” program, filmed in East Aleppo.
But now, things are very different. Today, the biggest focus is on Syrians living in neighboring countries [such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan]. So, for example, we talk about residency papers, and the issues facing Syrians in these countries.
There are some serious topics that we talk about, such as detainees. We’re producing a film that we are submitting to festivals, which is as far removed as you can get from comedy.
As for the comedy sketches we’re filming right now, we can say they are about things that concern Syrian citizens. We are trying to shed light on the central issues that affect Syrians in the countries where they sought refuge.
Q: You mentioned that Aleppo has its own sense of humor that differs from that of Damascus. How so?
Of course, there is a huge difference—even in the accent. The Aleppo accent has its own personality. It has a lot of words and phrases borrowed from Turkish because Aleppo is so close to the Turkish border.
I think Aleppo has the most down-to-earth sense of humor [in Syria]. As for the ‘Damascus comedy’ that you see [on Syrian TV], it is actually ‘standard comedy’ and not the actual local Damascene sense of humor. ‘Standard comedy’ is the comedy that the Syrian regime produces and it is understood not just among Syrians, but in all Arab countries.
As for the Aleppo sense of humor, or the vocabulary we use to produce a comedy sketch, I think that’s spread more during these past eight years since the revolution. We’ve gotten many questions from people on social media who ask us about some words [from the Aleppo dialect].
It’s the regime that made this idea of there being being a ‘standard comedy.’ So when the Aleppo-style comedy first started coming out, unfortunately, there were some people taking advantage of the Aleppo accent to laugh at the expense of people there. That’s despite the fact that Aleppo is a birthplace of culture. It’s given rise to many big names in the art sphere, even names that carry weight in the wider Arab world.
We wanted to show people that Aleppan humor isn’t just curse words and bad language. Aleppo has an art and culture to it. We’ve been able to communicate this idea to people.
Q: How do comedy programs like yours help Syrians in the diaspora cope with life away from home?
I don’t believe the topics in our sketches are necessarily related to being a refugee, or how refugees cope with life away from Syria. They speak more to a new generation. When they see that there are still people producing [comedy], that there are still people working even outside Syria, this can give them energy.
There has been a huge amount of destruction and bloodshed in Syria. And still, people are happy that we have stuck with comedy, that we are discussing our issues with a sense of humor.
After the revolutions that happened in the Arab world, there are many young Arabs discussing these events using sarcasm. As long as people are oppressed, comedy will remain. As long as there are tasteless comments from Arab leaders, there will definitely be comedy.