Week after week, Jordanians pack the Concorde theater in Amman where they shed their usual reserve to laugh uproariously at the shortcomings of their government and regional politicians still resisting the Arab Spring.
The two-hour play Now I Understand You was inspired by the infamous words of Tunisia’s ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a day before a revolt that forced him to flee his country and triggered uprisings across the region.
The main character, Abu Saqr, played by popular Jordanian comedian Musa Hijazin, portrays an oppressive father of four who rules his household with an iron fist, dismissing the needs of his wife and children and denying them any rights of expression.
With the domestic edicts he imposes on his family, Hijazin parodies the authoritarian regimes that have prevailed across the Arab world.
“The play is a message to Arab regimes that they need to learn lessons from the Arab Spring. Regimes needs to listen to people and their demands before losing control,” scriptwriter Ahmad Zubi said. “It tells the story of Arab people and expresses their feelings. I did not hesitate or fear anything when I wrote the script, but no matter how bold we are, we cannot be bolder than the millions of people who demonstrated for freedom.”
Wearing a traditional red-and-white keffiyeh, or headscarf, and sporting a thick mustache, the stocky government employee Abu Saqr bans his family from doing many things.
“What’s this nonsense talk I keep hearing about dignity and freedom? Where did you hear it? That’s it, no more satellite television channels,” he tells his wife and kids, to eruptions of laughter from the audience.
However, when his brother comes from Canada on a visit, Abu Saqr launches a torrent of complaints about almost everything, from the slow pace of reform and fight against corruption, to the controversial nuclear plans and privatization program.
He uses metaphor to harshly criticize the government and make fun of ministers randomly appointed to please the politicians, regardless of their qualifications.
“Our government should be sent to prison,” he tells his brother.
In one scene, actors playing ministers depict a government reshuffle and the interior minister takes an oath of loyalty to the nation.
“Except Fridays,” Abu Saqr quips at the swearing in ceremony, referring to the deadly use of force often employed against Arab protesters demonstrating on the weekly Muslim holiday.
The play has drawn a diverse audience — even Jordanian King Abdullah II and his wife, Queen Rania, have attended, as well as government officials, who were seen delighting in its satirical humor.
“His majesty attended the play and he burst into laughter. He told us: ‘I support you and I am happy,’” Hijazin said. “Several officials have asked us if we censored the script. We told them that we did not remove one line.”
“We are trying to tell decisionmakers in the Arab world that they need to listen to their people before it’s too late,” said Hijazin, who also sings sad songs during the show and cries about the Arab causes.
Meanwhile, Abu Saqr’s wife calls him to say that their elder son, Saqr, is leading a demonstration inside their house.
“Leave means leave. We want our freedom back,” reads a banner that Abu Saqr’s sons hold as he comes home.
“Where should I go? To Sharm el-Sheikh or Jeddah?” their father asks, referring to the Egyptian resort that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his family moved to after his resignation and the Saudi coastal city where Ben Ali sought refuge.