Saudi Comic's "No Woman, No Drive" Video Goes Viral, But He's "Not a Social Activist"

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 5:27 PM EDT

The video has racked up over 3.5 million views since it was posted to YouTube on Saturday. It has received positive attention from everybody from CNN to Twitchy. And it's drawing even more attention to the latest efforts of women in the immensely conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who are protesting the country's prohibition on women drivers. On Saturday, dozens of Saudi women defied the ban, many of them posting web videos of themselves sitting in the driver's seat. This type of protest has happened before, but this is reportedly the largest of its kind to occur in the Kingdom.

"No Woman, No Drive" is an obvious parody of "No Woman, No Cry," the popular reggae song by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The song is a satirical a cappella performance, with lyrics such as, "your feet is your only carriage, but only inside the house—and when I say it I mean it."

The video was shot at the C3 Films/Telfaz11 studios in Riyadh, and was created by Hisham Fageeh, Fahad Albutairi, and Alaa Wardi, who belong to the Saudi entertainment collective Telfaz11. The group has been on the front lines of Saudi Arabia's recent YouTube-abetted "comedic revolution," and supports the successful Saudi YouTube sketch series La Yekthar.

"We just wanted to do something relevant and funny," Fageeh, the 26-year-old, Riyadh-based comedian/actor, tells Mother Jones. "The lyrics happened a while back in New York City while I was taking a shower, just playing on words. And the real, materialized idea came while shooting Telfaz11 projects in London and perusing Twitter hashtags in Saudi Arabia. I had discussed the idea with Alaa Wardi a long time ago, and he was all about it. So Fahad Albutairi and I stayed up and wrote it in our London hotel room."

Fageeh, who studied religion and the Middle East at Florida State University and worked in educational development in Rwanda, started doing stand-up comedy while living and working in Washington, DC. Fageeh then attended Columbia University, which allowed him to try out his act in New York. He lists Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Andy Kaufman, Zach Galifianakis, Eric Andre, and Hannibal Buress as some of his top comic influences. And for all the attention his new video is receiving as a piece of social commentary and satire, Fageeh insists that this project was not politically motivated.

"I'm not an artist or social activist, I'm a comedian," he says. At the start of "No Woman, No Drive," Fageeh identifies himself as a "social activist" who doesn't "really listen to music," which led to many news outlets referring to him as such after the video posted online. Fageeh, however, clarifies that that was just a "character bit" he was doing. "It was satirizing the valorization of titles that happen in media (and general human) interactions," he says. When I ask Fageeh if he is passionate about issues of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, he simply responds, "I'm passionate about comedy."

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"[My] political influences? [Politicians are] all clowns. I'm sorry," Fageeh adds. "And I'm not a fan of clown comedy."

It's no mystery that the government in Saudi Arabia imposes a repressive and strictly (often brutally) religious society. Social liberalism and political reform aren't words generally associated with the Arab state, and conditions for women have long been a human-rights catastrophe. However (along with the other signs of some potential liberalization down the road), the young and hungry comedy scene in Saudi Arabia offers up a different side of the Kingdom. And it helps that their population is largely very young, with over 60 percent of Saudis under the age of 30.

"The arts scene here is gorgeous and blossoming," Fageeh says. "People are starving, and there are some real cool people up and coming. Not to mention that there are already international stars. The digital age has made it easier for us to connect, collaborate, and share—so that is coming together beautifully."

Here is footage of Fageeh on stage at Manhattan's Gotham Comedy Club during the 2012 New York Arab-American Comedy Festival:

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