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Ibrahem Al Hajjaj: From Riyadh to Edinburgh

By | Published on Thursday 10 August 2023

Saudi stand-up Ibrahem Al Hajjaj is bringing his show ‘From Riyadh To Edinburgh’ for a short run at the Fringe this year.

Having started out as a musician, he took part in a National Youth Theatre programme in 2014, beginning an acting career that has since included roles in films like 2022’s ‘Sattar’.

Alongside that, he began performing comedy, as well as co-founding one of Saudi Arabia’s first comedy clubs. As he arrived in Edinburgh this week, I asked Ibrahem a few questions.

CC: What can we expect from your show?
IAH: I explore the similarities and differences between the UK and Saudi Arabia. And as much as you’d think we are totally different, there are some surprising similarities between the people of these two countries.

It’s in the day-to-day, mundane aspects of daily life that you realise we are not, in fact, that widely different.

CC: Tell us about your journey into stand-up – when and where did you first start performing comedy?
IAH: I have taken a little bit of a detour to becoming a comedian. I started as a musician but became interested in branching out into something different in 2014. This is when I took my first acting programme and that, in turn, got me interested in comedy courses. And I’ve never looked back since.

The first stand-up show I did was for a private audience in 2015. I’ve always loved making people laugh, so it is not a big surprise – to me at least – that I ended up a stand-up comedian!

CC: You co-founded one of Saudi Arabia’s first comedy clubs, how did that come about? How has it gone?
IAH: I had the idea to open House Of Comedy in 2016 and it then became a reality in 2018 with the help of my partners Talal Alenizi, Faisal Adoukhi and Faisal Alenizi.

We’ve held over 200 shows in the club to date and travelled round Saudi doing performances. It feels great to be providing the opportunity for emerging performers in Saudi to do something they may not have thought was an option before.

In comparison to London and Edinburgh, where there are a huge number of comedy spaces, it’s great to be a part of the expansion of the comedy scene in Saudi, giving young comedians a place to hone their skills and build confidence. There’s so much exciting new talent and I hope that Saudi will soon gain more of an international profile in the industry.

CC: In terms of the performers who play the club, how many are from Saudi Arabia and how many are international?
IAH: The majority of the comedians we support are Saudi men and women, but we do have some non-Saudi residents and comedians.

However, we have also brought over international stand-up comedians, from the likes of the States and UK, to the Saudi circuit for Jeddah Season and Riyadh Season.

CC: What about the audience – is it mainly Saudi nationals or do you get an international audience too?
IAH: We have quite a mixed audience. Our monthly shows, as well as our Riyadh and Jeddah Season shows, are always sold out, which I’m very proud of. While the audience is mostly Saudis, we do also have an international audience that come to our shows and enjoy the vibes.

When I see international audience members I always try to throw in a few jokes in English before returning to Arabic.

CC: What is it like performing comedy in a country like Saudi Arabia?
IAH: The stand-up comedy scene is very new, of course, so it’s been great seeing first-hand the development of new audiences of all ages.

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of love from all generations, especially after my Ramadan show – which was a family comedy show. I get approached by people of all ages – six to 60 – and it’s really fun.

That’s not to say that – when I first started trying to make it in this field – there weren’t a few raised eyebrows amongst my uncles and elders in the family. There were quite a few questions about why I wouldn’t make better use of my marketing degree for instance.

But looking at what I have done so far, I think I made the right decision! I’ve made it to Fringe. Nowadays I get plenty of support from all my friends, family and the people in the Middle East, and I really appreciate them for that.

CC: What made you want to bring a show to the Edinburgh Festival?
IAH: The Edinburgh Festival is known worldwide for the quality of its comedy scene. It is such an honour to be able to perform here and experience it for the first time! It does feel a little like starting all over again – but with the advantage of a decade of experience and hard work on my craft.

I had such a fantastic welcome when I came to London for the premiere of my film ‘Sattar’ a few months ago and, although bringing my stand-up directly to a UK audience is a little nerve-wracking, I think Fringe is the best place for it, following in the footsteps of so many comedians I admire.

CC: How have you been preparing for the Festival?
IAH: I have friends from the UK who I speak to and see regularly, so I had a good idea of a few differences between their ways and our ways.

I am also very aware that cultural differences in terms of sense of humour are an important thing to bear in mind when meeting an international audience – especially for the first time.

But rather than looking at these differences as an obstacle, they became the basis of my show, ie what are the weird and wonderful differences between our two cultures?

I also was lucky enough to be able to collaborate with a fantastic British comedian for this show. He became my guide on how to navigate this new audience – collaboration is a powerful tool when it comes to comedy.

CC: What are you expecting from the Festival?
IAH: I’m not expecting anything tangible, but I do hope that I’m gaining more reach in the UK. I’ve already met so many lovely comedians I’d like to collaborate with in the future. I’m having a blast honestly, we just had the first show which was amazing.

This will definitely not be the last time I come to the Fringe, I’m planning on doing this every year and hope to expand, and perhaps even do a few shows in London soon! I’m loving the UK audience, the experience has been heart-warming, honestly.

As I said, the crux of my set is pointing out the hilarious differences and similarities between people in the UK and Saudi Arabia, so opening people’s eyes to these comparisons is the main aim!

Hopefully the audience will relate to what I’ve said. And if the people who come to see me enjoy the show, I hope they will be want to discover more Saudi comedy.

CC: How does performing comedy compare to your acting and music work?
IAH: I think my experience in acting and being a musician has given me a solid foundation for performing comedy. Starting off in theatre definitely helped with stage fright, because there’s nowhere to hide in front of a live audience!

First and foremost, whether in my acting or stand-up, I am a storyteller; so the National Youth Theatre programme was so important in helping me hone this craft.

I really thrive off the relationship between audience and performer – be it as a comedian, an actor or a musician – judging the room and understanding how my performance can affect those watching, and vice versa.

While I love acting in front of a camera, there’s nothing quite like the immediacy of being on stage – that exchange of energy with a live audience is so special.

CC: What are your plans for after the Festival – what projects do you have coming up?
IAH: Straight after the Festival I am flying to London where I may do a comedy show, but I’m still working on it. When I’m back in Saudi I will be filming a feature film which should be in cinemas next February.

I’m also planning on a stand-up comedy special which should see the light hopefully next year – you’re the first people I’ve told, so ThreeWeeks have the exclusive!

Ibrahem Al Hajjaj performed ‘From Riyadh To Edinburgh’ at theSpace on the Mile at Edinburgh Festival 2023.

LINKS: instagram.com/barmz_alhajjaj