A groundbreaking Arabic satirical news site that skewers the Middle East’s politicians and pieties – dodging the ire of hostile governments and their online supporters – has launched an English language edition.
Al-Hudood (the Limits), with deadpan headlines reminiscent of the US publication the Onion, has rankled authorities in the Arab world since launching in 2013. It gives new audiences a taste of groundbreaking humour that ranges from dry (“Students at local school memorise lesson in independent thinking”) to dark (“Intelligence service corrects beliefs of man who thought he only feared God”) to pitch-black (“Syrian dies of natural causes”).
“People have gone numb to all the horrors that are around us, and we are trying to get them to look at things from a new angle,” said Isam Uraiqat, the website’s London-based editor-in-chief.
His team of about 15 people, most working from the Jordanian capital, Amman, hold an editorial meeting every weekday to discuss new stories. They decide the message of the article before the jokes, he says. “Once that angle is there, we ask, how can we make this funny? What’s the irony?”
Their job is getting harder – and not just because of increased attention from security services. “We used to be able to get away with exaggeration,” Uraiqat says. In the era of Trump, as well as shirtless Egyptian military parades and the UAE awarding gender equality prizes only to men, it is difficult to stay ahead of reality.
Writing outlandish columns for a made-up rightwing Israeli commentator proved especially difficult, Uraiqat says. “There was nothing we could say or phrase in a way that hadn’t already been said,” he recalls.
Satire is a rich tradition in the Middle East, although Uraiqat says comedy about the news tends either to push a state line or spoon-feed its audience. “In terms of the deadpan news satire that was popularised by the Onion, that style didn’t really exist,” he says.
At first, the website was popular among leftists and liberals. But when the articles started satirising them, too, Uraiqat said its audience widened to include anyone “who isn’t set in their ways and completely closed to what they believe”.
It is primarily funded by an EU endowment and private foundations but is experimenting with different models for self-sufficiency. Digital advertising has been hard to come by – brands have balked at funding initiatives such as its annual award night for the Arab world’s worst journalism, with prizes including for “most blatant bias”, “most obvious lie” and “most sycophantic writer”.
The logistics of writing satirical news in a region where local reporting is state-controlled, censored or otherwise curtailed can be complex. There are no bylines, diffusing responsibility for any particular piece, Uraiqat said. And the sheer novelty of the product – sly, roundabout criticism delivered as po-faced fact – also confused authorities for the first few years.
At some point, intelligence services caught on; after several incidents he prefers not to discuss, Uraiqat has stopped commuting to the region and bases himself exclusively in the UK.
Religious hardliners are not the source of the most serious threats – that would be regime loyalists – but the team are careful not to trample on the content of people’s beliefs. “It’s divisive,” he said.
Religious practices, on the other hand – such as the propensity of some worshippers to stop their cars in front of other people’s garages to pray – are fair game.
As with the Onion, al-Hudood articles are occasionally shared as real news. A piece about the Jordanian government banning dried yoghurt balls, as part of a wider drive against illicit white powders, was widely republished. “It was copied by almost every newspaper,” Uraiqat said. “It went absolutely insane.”
Another piece claiming Jordanian police had arrested Santa Claus sparked such a response that it prompted an official denial from the country’s security services.
“There’s a certain amount of stupidity you can’t protect people from,” Uraiqat said. “If it’s satirical enough and the media organisations are still buying it, the region needs to take a look at itself.”