AGSIW spoke with the team behind Sheno Ya3ni, or so what? – a YouTube channel run by a group of Kuwaiti comedians – to learn how they have benefitted from using an online platform and how YouTube and social media affect cultural criticism in the region.
Since the early 2000s there has been a proliferation of comedy videos produced in the Gulf countries and distributed on YouTube. These videos have contributed to public dialogue and argument, concretely illustrating the role of satire and humor in engaging with social and cultural concerns. Sheno Ya3ni, or so what?, is a YouTube channel run by a group of Kuwaiti comedians. They started the show in 2011 and it has become famous due to its daring engagement with social issues animating Gulf and Arab communities. AGSIW spoke with the team of the Sheno Ya3ni show – Muhammad Affana, Bashar al-Jazzaf, and Ahmad al-Shamiri – to learn how they have benefitted from using an online platform and how YouTube and social media affect cultural criticism in the region.
AGSIW: How did you come up with the idea of Sheno Ya3ni? And why did you choose this name for your show?
Muhammad: The Sheno Ya3ni show, since its beginning in 2011, was teamwork. And the idea came from the whole team as well. So, I was sitting in my house drinking coffee and I called my friends Ahmad al-Shammary and Bashar al-Jazzar and told them that I had an idea of creating a YouTube channel and making a show where we could express our thoughts and ideas. Then we met together with Nizar al-Qandi, the show director, to write down our idea. We decided to call the show Sheno Ya3ni, which means something like so what?, which represents the careless reaction of some people toward facts. We believed that this sarcastic title would fit our sarcastic and comedic content that we have chosen for the show.
Sheno Ya3ni! – Episode: Suppressed Customs
AGSIW: Art performance has a long history in Kuwait. There are several platforms that you could have used as an outlet for your show like theater, cinema, or even television. Why did you choose YouTube for your platform?
Bashar: We chose YouTube because it is a free platform in which we can post our ideas without having to deal with censorship or regulations. We only apply self-censorship. YouTube is not bureaucratic like the mainstream media, and besides we are not restricted by time slots or anything like that. We simply created a channel and upload our content on it. We are a team who want to address the reality of the life we are living to our viewers. Some of the topics that we have discussed in our show were never tackled by any other show before or at least not in the same way that we touched upon them in Sheno Ya3ni. When we discuss an idea in a comedic way, we do not want people to just laugh; we want them to reflect on their reality and realize it. Some people think that our sketches are very bold, but we think that we should not be afraid of facing our reality and our mistakes. Our YouTube channel is not a mere entertainment channel; it is a channel to present our culture and heritage, which we are proud of, in addition to some faults and mistakes that we have to admit and fix.
For instance, in one episode we criticized the embarrassment some men feel in saying their mother’s name. Those men should recall how our grandfathers were called by the name of their mothers and sisters out of pride. So, showing this type of thinking in an episode is not boldness, rather it is our way to ask the people to rethink their behaviors and beliefs. We want to discuss the social faults that the khaleeji and Arab societies do not discuss in public. We believe that we should bring their faults to the surface and face them.
AGSIW: And were you influenced by the emergence of other YouTube shows in the Gulf in 2011?
Ahmad: When we started, the Arabic comedy content on YouTube was mainly talk shows and standup comedy. So, we introduced our content in short sketches produced in a semicinematic way that was new back then, thanks to our director Nizar, who has a very unique cinematic view.
AGSIW: With such bold and controversial content, how do you evaluate the popularity of Sheno Ya3ni among Kuwaitis and khaleejis, seven years after the start of your program?
Ahmad: When we started the show, we were expecting that it would be well-received among khaleeji viewers as it was still a new idea. But we were expecting some criticism as well. That is why we usually close up our episodes with a scene of one of our team criticizing the episode with a comment that we anticipate to receive from the viewers. However, we noticed from the comments that we receive on our YouTube page that some of the accounts that used to criticize us in the beginning of the show are now praising our work. We have to keep in mind that khaleeji and Arab viewers also follow hundreds of comedy channels on YouTube, streaming from all around the world. This normalized watching self-criticism and sarcasm. As a result, the viewer nowadays appreciates our mockery more than before. We never cared about the number of followers or likes and we never asked viewers to subscribe to our YouTube channel. Despite that our number of followers is increasing because we care about the quality of our content and nothing else.
Our families were not very happy with our work when we started, and they believed that the content was controversial. We asked them to wait and see. Today, with the heavy usage of social media among khaleeji youth, they are discussing bolder topics on their accounts. Furthermore, they are recirculating our old videos and episodes in which we discussed these topics long ago. What I mean is that we were closely observing the society since we started seven years ago and thus we were able to create content that preceded what is now circulating on social media. It is as if we were ahead of our time. Our “bold” content is now very normal. Thus, our families today appreciate our work.
AGSIW: Are you professional actors or amateur?
Bashar: We have different backgrounds and some of us have worked previously in media. Nizar and I acted in TV shows before we joined YouTube. Bashar used to act in theater. But we left the traditional media outlets because we wanted to create a show that addresses our own ideas and concerns in our own way. Also, now we are training numerous youth who joined our team and are acting in the show.
AGSIW: The episodes of your program take place in a fictional city that you called Tulaitelah, or Toledo, which is the name of the famous city in Al-Andalus (the Muslim territory that is now Spain and Portugal). Why did you choose a fictional place and why did you choose this historical name?
Bashar: When we want to address an issue in an episode we do not want to point at Kuwait or any other city or state. Using a historical city like Toledo and choosing the cupcake as a logo for its flag makes it a fictional place where we can talk freely and criticize social issues in an objective way.
AGSIW: Why did you choose the comedy genre?
Ahmad: Comedy is closer to the people and criticism can be easily digested when you introduce it in a funny way.
Bashar: Moreover, we have enough drama in our lives and people deserve some happiness and joy.
AGSIW: You also post content on other social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. How do you see the future of YouTube as a platform, especially with the advent of these easy and fast applications?
Ahmad: We have different video content like short sketches or improvised comments with different lengths. We upload each of these videos on the application that better suits it. We use Snapchat because it is easy and allows us to record 60-second-long Snap videos with no edits needed. For Instagram, we mainly post teasers for our YouTube episodes as this application allows longer videos.
Bashar: I think that Snapchat is becoming less popular, but YouTube is still heavily used not only in the Gulf region but worldwide. Most of our views are from YouTube.
AGSIW: What are the struggles that you still face?
Muhammad: Sheno Ya3ni is self-funded by the team. We do not have advertisers like some other YouTube channels and this is not easy, but we have been able to keep the show running for seven years and maintain the quality of both the production and content. We might receive funds in the future, but it is important to us that this funding would not affect our content in any way.
To learn more about Sheno Ya3ni’s work, check out the YouTube channel and follow Sheno Ya3ni on Instagram and Twitter.
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