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The Art of Satire: Our interview with Alhudood Editor Isam Uraiqat

Isam Uraiqat is the editor of the hard-hitting political satire publication Alhudood. He co-founded the media platform in 2013, after the failed Arab Spring in Jordan. Since then, Alhudood has grown to cover social and political issues around the whole NAWA region, gained multiple international awards, launched a print magazine last year, and has been running a membership program which is leading the way for Arab independent media around the world. Alhudood also runs the annual Award for Worst Arab Journalism (AAAJ) which has been challenging false, sectarian, and biased media narratives for the last 3 years. Isam had previously worked in film and animation in studios in Jordan, and lectured film production at The Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts and the SAE institute. This month, he met with MERH's Founder Dounia Mahlouly and Editor Hajar Zaki to share his perspectives on the role of humour in channelling new forms of public engagement and the future of independent journalism in the Middle East and North Africa.

How did Al-Hudud evolve?

Back in 2013, I was often with two friends of mine who are both writers. We had been engaged as activists in Jordan and became very demotivated. We felt that there was no place to write what we actually wanted to write. We had limited space to express ourselves which was incredibly frustrating… Before I started Alhudood I was a screenwriter and whatever I would write, it would be stripped down and corrected to a point where it became meaningless. I had written comedy before, and at one point while reading a satirical article I called my friends and said, this is what we should be doing, this is where we can write what we want to write and on our own publishing platform. We met that evening, we decided on a name and two months later the website was launched. We thought ‘we’ll go live and then we’ll figure things out as we go…’ There was no model to follow. Neither in terms of locality, language, or the politics in the region, or even in terms of how it was perceived and funded: we had no idea. But when we launched, it became popular really quickly. We were hoping that we could find a way to get the right advertisers with enough page views, to be able to sustain the platform. But every time we would go to a meeting, we were thrown out of the room being told ’you are insane, no one will ever put money to advertise anywhere near you!’ [laugh]

We started in Jordan to develop the format and then geographically we expanded, because we wanted to look at the region and emphasize similarities between authoritarian approaches across it. We are now developing a Middle Eastern edition of ‘The Prince’ from Machiavelli and will be publishing the chapters on a quarterly basis in a new print magazine, which will be released next year. The plan is to compile all chapters into a book.

We also gathered a community, we have over 400,000 followers on Facebook, where we share ideas on how to cover the news and reach out to readers to discuss certain topics before covering them. Our plan is to move these discussions into our own forum to explore some of these topics at a much deeper level. We want to make sure that those who engage in our community become members and have a more direct channel to reach our editorial team.

Last year we launched the print version, which allows much more flexibility than the website because in print, the reader has a point of reference and we have more leeway to write about certain things. This is unlike the internet, because today, there are concerns about ‘fake news’ so it needs to be clear enough that there is an angle, a twist, and a degree of irony…The print version is more liberating in that sense.

A lot of our work is about critiquing the media itself – and this is why we also have a lot of journalists involved in our community and readership. The media is a tool for authoritarianism in our part of the world, so our critique of the media is part of a critique of authoritarianism. For example, we have also designed an award for worst journalism. This is a full project, which has its own team internally and is dedicated to monitoring the media. It is designed with the aim is of popularising media literacy in the region.

Based on your experience so far, to what extent do you think humour can bring different people together?

It has helped more than I thought it would. We wanted to talk about various issues which hadn’t been talked about in certain ways in the public sphere. It was more about self-expression. We criticised different points of views including our own. It’s about being able to give truly complete coverage of everything and coverage means criticising everything. I think there is something beautiful in doing that and observing how people react. They assumed that the media existed in order to crush the other side. Media was not perceived as a potential channel for unbiased information. But the more we did that, over the years, people started to get on to that wagon, realizing ‘oh, I can criticise my own side and that’s fine’. With time it became more about making society better rather than quashing the other side. In that way, at least among our community and the readership, they have come together around that. A lot of our readers – so many of them - started their relationship with us by being offensive, swearing at us and threatening us… What we have realised is that people are not heavily invested in one side on most issues. They hear something from someone, for example the media, and they repeat it without complete conviction; they find themselves in a position of defense, and hope to be steered in a particular direction. But a lot of people have changed their perspective since and accepted our position, which is to critique all sides.

Were there any other satirical platforms at the time of setting this up?

When we started off there were a few English language ones. They conveyed an orientalist view of the Middle East using topics and approaches similar to the general approach of western media in the region. It contributed to further orientalise the look towards the region but also our own view of ourselves. Humour is a very good way to see yourself in the mirror and, I think seeing it from an outsider’s perspective, and an orientalist one, was not that good. This is also why we did seven years of Alhudood only in Arabic; partly because one of the big challenges we were facing was to develop the language for satire in Arabic, because this did not really exist. There were only very few writers, so we had to further develop the skill ourselves before we were able to master it and then relay it to other aspiring satirical writers.

Do you feel humour has helped in addressing certain controversial and sensitive topics?

Yes. One example is the issues surrounding religion. Whatever one writes about it immediately appears as an attack against religion. Our approach early on was incredibly surgical, and we were very careful to criticize what people did in the name of religion, or negative things religious people did... Readers were still offended, but slowly as they saw that faith was not what we are criticizing but the actions themselves, people started noticing our intention, and started to really listen, and discuss it amongst themselves. This is really what made the experience interesting, because it is not about what we say as an organization but it is about people speaking to each other.

How do you deal with the harsh criticism you receive as an organisation and a team?

We initially looked down with condescension at those who did not understand our approach. My personal reaction is to look closely at what has been said, see if there is a point behind it… Anything that can be misunderstood. To create good satire, you have to consider every angle and think about how something could be perceived. On the internet if you don’t explicitly indicate you are joking, people will take it seriously. It happens a lot when you see people commenting on the internet, they would say something supposedly sarcastically but there is no clear indication and there really is no way if you aren’t clear enough about it that the reader will understand the tone – it’s called Poe’s law. For us, we need to ensure that what we are trying to get across is coming across correctly. And at the end, partly as a humour device and partly for transparency, we publish some of the hate mail we receive for our audience as our ‘fan mail’. We publish about three pieces a week of those and it’s just very funny [laugh]…

There are now a number of increasingly popular independent platforms in the region. What is your perspective on the future of independent journalism in the region? Considering the challenges when trying to secure funding and resources, what are you most concerned and most hopeful about?

In some ways I’m hopeful because as a result of the disasters in the world people are motivated to do more. Megaphone in Lebanon and other media organisations that have sprung up, and Metras in Palestine for example, might not have happened if the situation wasn’t getting so bad. In some ways I am hopeful when I see these initiatives, even though it may not be enough to counter the quantity of deteriorating media content around the world. But for media itself, I think it’s about having more people experimenting with independent journalism, believing in it and pushing for it until the existence of many local powerful independent media outlets is normalised.

In terms of my biggest concern, that would most likely be funding. For us we have the membership programme which has benefitted us but the purchasing power in the region is not high enough for people to support what they believe in. We have a Diaspora audience, which works for us but this certainly does not work in every country. I know we will be getting a significant part of funding from our members over the next few years, but we are regional and a large part of our audience is from the diaspora. The only viable model I see, within the next decade, is if wealthier benefactors can support access to a larger audience in specific countries. Of course, there are always the ‘usual suspects’ like the OSF that fund some initiatives, and at the end of the day there may be some tens of thousands per year allocated to every organisation, but this is really not much… It is not enough to build an actual force for change. I mean you need some 30 journalists working full time to be able to push for change. If you have seven, you are covering a few local issues here and there…And it’s great but it is not going to steer a country in a direction.

Would you say that it has helped young people to feel proactively engaged and look beyond the depressing aspects of the news?

Yes. I think any independent media should be showing the problem and the solution, and it is something we have always been struggling with ourselves. Because in the media our place as an institution is often to point to what is wrong instead of discussing how things should be. Recently we have been working on a new format. Every couple of weeks we post an article that has been published in the mainstream media, incorporating our own edits and corrections for readers. I really love this format…I think our readers refer to [AlHudood] as their main source of information, because it is too depressing to just receive the news as it is. Humour helps. Of course, some people think that this is a bad idea, because in their opinion, the audience should be able to receive the news as it is to understand it, but I think a lot of people have gone numb and can no longer take it as it is.

What would you say to those who argue that humour and sarcasm cannot produce any form of serious journalism? What would you respond to that?

I don’t remember ever hearing this argument. A significant number of our audience is composed of journalists themselves. I would say that satire is like opinion writing on speed. Our editorial meetings happen in the morning, there is an hour to an hour and a half during which we discuss our main topics, we have a long discussion about it ‘Why does this matter? What is the problem with that?’ We really dissect an issue before to decide what our angle is going to be. And then from this process, we frame it as satire after forming a clear opinion on an issue, but this is the very last step. Questioning the validity of satire would be like saying that there is no place for opinion in news. Of course, there is, you need that in order to frame certain issues, understand them and absorb them better.

Would you say that humour can be liberating when addressing sensitive issues?

It takes an enormous amount of effort before reaching the point when one is able to understand an issue and articulate it through satire. Once all of that happens, it is a bit liberating but I would not say that humour is simply an outlet, it’s not just about letting it out and putting it out there. It actually takes a serious amount of effort until we get to a point where it finally becomes liberating.

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