Tuesday, July 15, 2008

No Comic Relief: Uproar as Yemeni Comedian Jailed for Presidential Imitation

Fahd Al-Qarani faced the judge in the southern Yemeni city of Taiz. The nationally-beloved comedian-singer (dubbed by some the Adam Sandler of Yemen) was being charged by the government for “insulting Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.” To prove their case, prosecutors played a tape of one of his sketches. The entire courtroom burst out laughing – and prosecutors rushed to demand a recess as police intervened.

Clearly, Al-Qarani is a pretty funny guy. Because much of Yemen’s population is illiterate, his recordings reach a much wider audience than opposition newspapers, and his concerts draw thousands of spectators. One of Al-Qarani’s most popular sketches features a taxi driver who, though never named, speaks in a dead-on imitation of President Saleh. The skit is both hilarious and blunt: Yemen is being taken for a ride by a reckless driver.

While Yemeni crowds were laughing – inside and outside of courtrooms – President Saleh was not. After repeated attempts to silence Al-Qarani, the government won its case on July 9, as the comic was sentenced to 18 months in jail plus a $2,500 fine. But Al-Qarani seems to be relishing the notoriety of being sent to jail for being too funny. He called on his fans to come celebrate the verdict, and hundreds poured out into the streets demanding his release and a commitment by the government to protect freedom of expression.

In the showdown between Saleh and Al-Qarani, it remains to be seen who will get the last laugh.

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