Wednesday night, Istanbul. Omar Mohammad, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee and stand-up comedian, is stood on the stage in front of a gaggle of excited fans. He’s alternating between telling jokes about his mum’s particularly harsh discipline at home and trying to get girls in Turkey to fancy him.
“Romantic comedies are my favourite type of movies. My favourite scene in every romantic comedy movie is the airport scene – you know, where she leaves him, and he goes and gets in a plane right away and follows her?
“That’s so romantic. I saw that scene and I thought: ‘What if that guy was Syrian?’ You’re not going anywhere buddy! Like 30 percent of the movie will be in the visa office, right? Running from place to place, getting stamps. At the end, you get the final stamp: Rejected.”
Mohammad puts on this regular event – Halalarious Stand-Up Comedy – which usually attracts around 100 people. Amateur comedians, from all types of backgrounds including Syrian refugees, use it as a platform to try out their material and polish their acts.
Finding amusement in sombre subjects, he’s been injecting his specific blend of black humour on the Istanbul comedy circuit for two years now – since he fled the perpetual danger of the Syrian civil war. “I want people to know Syrians away from the news,” he explains. The dangers of boarding a small vessel packed with refugees; integrating into a brand-new culture; trying to circumnavigate a whole new way of life – nothing is off the cards when it comes to Mohammad’s material.
He’s pretty sure that these experiences have acted as a catalyst when it comes to harnessing the creativity needed to take to the stage. “If it wasn’t for my refugee background, if it wasn’t for all the experiences that happened to me … I would have never had material to get on stage,” he insists.
Once him and his family had arrived in Istanbul, Mohammad managed to secure an apartment – meaning that they were essentially safe – but he struggled to make friends as he didn’t speak the language well at first. That was when he became inspired to try stand-up comedy, after watching his favourite YouTube comedians become popular and successful.
Then, in August 2016, he took the daunting step of taking to the stage at an open-mic night. But, like anyone who is putting any type of content out there, he had to learn to grow thick skin quickly. “I talk about being a refugee. I joke about it a lot and a lot of Syrian people get angry at me because I’m joking about Syrian refugees,” he says.
“[But] I’m always just showing the different point of view of a Syrian refugee. People who were, let’s say, disagreeing with me or didn’t like it, slowly started to like it because they were also laughing.”
Mohammad started to encourage other Syrian refugees to get involved. There is now a small team of refugees that enjoy expressing themselves, reflecting upon their experiences and – most importantly – breaking down negative stereotypes that are often created and perpetuated by the mainstream press.
Featured image credit: @JaredWall01 via Twitter