On a small stage in Tulkarm, a city in the north of the occupied West Bank, Sherihan El Hadwa steps out of the wings listening to a Palestinian pop song. Dancing and waving the long white stick he uses to navigate the world, the visually impaired comedian already has his audience laughing and clapping to the beat of the music.
Hadwa did not have an obvious route to cabaret and the many hardships of life as a disabled woman in the Palestinian territories are not merely a humorous subject.
But in his mostly autobiographical debut show, No CherieHadwa is defying lazy victimhood narratives while winning fans and accolades across Palestine.
Jokes and anecdotes mostly focus on the absurdities of bypassing Palestinian society blindly: everything from the embarrassment of flirting with strangers who help her cross potholed streets, to having to undergo a medical check-up with doctors once a year. to “prove it I still can’t see them”.
Along with a sardonic, almost cynical play, Hadwa’s play has a bite: the right anger simmers in every respect, feeding his act with irresistible power.
“I’m not looking for sympathy. I think sometimes the public is surprised to meet a blind woman who is as honest as I am. That’s part of the fun, “said the 35-year-old.” I like to surprise people and open their horizons. Laughter helped me; it helps everyone. “
Hadwa went blind suddenly at the age of 16 after contracting a virus that damaged his retina and optic nerve. The shock of losing her sight led to a difficult readjustment period, and the comedian said she spent years crying for a different future.
With what she described as her family’s unwavering support, Hadwa learned Braille and enrolled in high school, where she successfully passed her exams and then trained to become a medical secretary.
Her parents both died a few years ago and she now lives alone in the family home in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, with her sister nearby.
Hadwa was involved in a theater group in Bethlehem in 2013, but it didn’t extend to comedy until last year. Writing the show with the help of fellow comedian Manal Awad, he realized that humor was a tool to frame his life experiences in a new way and explore a different kind of performance.
Supported by both the Al-Hara Theater in Bethlehem and the Drosos Foundation, a Swiss body that funds art projects around the world, the comedian is currently touring the West Bank, doing a show most weekends. The team will travel to Amsterdam this week for the first round of a short European leg.
“My daily work is basically the opposite of this, answering phones in a Bethlehem hospital,” Hadwa said, as she prepared for the show in Tulkarm. “If I had realized before that I was so funny and talented, I definitely wouldn’t do it again.”
Standup is a new form of entertainment in the Palestinian territories. In recent years, artists have come to realize that audiences are receptive to comedy extracted from the hardships they endure: Israeli checkpoint searches, movement restrictions, violence, poverty and politics are all fair game.
In what can be a deeply conservative society with few creative outlets, even laughing together at everyday things – Palestinian marriage culture, Arab doctors, bullying parents – is a much needed liberation.
The Palestinian Comedy Festival, established by the Palestinian-American Amer Zahr in 2015, has grown steadily stronger and now runs every August. In previous years, the lineup included Palestinian-American Mo Amer, who stars in a new Netflix show of the same name, and Emmy-nominated Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef. This year, for the first time, all seven comedians in attendance were Palestinians.
Related: Comedian Jamie MacDonald on being creative and blind: “It’s triumph with – not over – adversity”
“We thank them so much for giving us a smile,” Nihaya Ghoul Awdallah told local media after watching a performance during this summer’s sell-out. “It allows us to release our worries, our sadness and the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves.”
For Hadwa, the medium is a new way to engage the public on the challenges that disabled people face and to normalize their presence in public life.
when No CherieThe race ends, Hadwa plans to return to writing, expanding the scope of his act to include the calcified politics of the West Bank, the quirks of Palestinian identity and the frustrations of living under occupation. She hopes social media will help her continue reaching audiences until she returns to the stage at the end of next year.
“I love doing it. It’s nice to make people laugh and bond about what makes us the same and what makes us different, ”she said. “I am happy to be an example of the fact that disabled people are not helpless. We are as capable as anyone else and we can do things on our terms ”.