Interview with Lebanese-British satirist Karl Sharro

"Politicising Muslim identity is counter-productive"

Lebanese-British satirist Karl Sharro, with his alter ego Karl reMarks, is a fast-rising star of online comedy. Now he has published his first book, "And Then God Created the Middle East and Said ʹLet There be Breaking Newsʹ". Interview by Susannah Tarbush

Mr Sharro, where did you get the idea for the book?  

Karl Sharro: I had been thinking of writing a book for years and many people had suggested that I should do it. A special mention should go to Marcia Lynx Qualey from ArabLit, who was very keen on the idea. It started with me joking once that, after years on Twitter, I could have written a book; and then it occurred to me that I have, in a way. The reason I wanted to collect the tweets in a book was to give them a more permanent home, beyond Twitter, where they would eventually become lost. After I did a talk at the London School of Economics (LSE) Middle East Centre last year, Saqi Books approached me with the proposal for the book and it was the push I needed to finally do it.

You have produced more than 90,000 tweets since 2009. Was it difficult to choose which to include within the bookʹs ten sections, which include "Geography for Dummies", "Extremism: A Study", "Democracy for Realists"  and "Bar Jokes"?

Cover of Karl Sharro's "And Then God Created the Middle East and Said ʹLet There be Breaking Newsʹ" (published by Saqi Books)
A master of instructive satire: "My aim is to push people away from identity rather than becoming entrenched; for me that includes stepping back from the politicisation of the Muslim identity, which I think is a counterproductive social development", says Sharro

Sharro: Over the years I have given many talks that included my tweets, so I kept a running list of the ones I liked, of which there arenʹt that many. Then last year, when I did stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I trawled my tweets to write the routine, which helped prepare for the book. I had already classified the tweets thematically, which made it easier to select the ones for the book, although Saqi and I still had a few arguments – and I confess I didnʹt win all of them.

Interviewing you at the book launch, senior lecturer in International Journalism at City, London University Dr Zahera Harb said you manage to say in 140 characters what takes her hours to explain to her students. It seems the book will be put on her studentsʹ reading lists. Although you told her that your book is not intended to be "paedagogic", do you hope for readers in academia?

Sharro: I'd be delighted were it to be added to university reading lists. I know that several professors do include my blog and tweets on some syllabuses already, so this will make it easier for students to find them. I would be particularly flattered if Zahera Harb adds it. 

You have often satirised the way in which Western journalists and pundits cover the Middle East. Are things improving at all?

Sharro: Today I am more worried about how Western journalists cover the West itself! Back in 2016 I tweeted: "The upside of the U.S. elections is hearing BBC reporters talking to Americans with the patronising tone they normally use in the Middle East." Thereʹs some truth to that joke. Today I see a lot of the same simplistic coverage of Brexit and Trump that I used to see of the Middle East. Then again, maybe itʹs just me trying to stretch my material into new territory.

On a serious note: I have always tried to be clear that my critique was of specific journalists or articles, not an overall critique of Western journalism. I think specifically over the past few years, since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, a new generation of correspondents and journalists has emerged that is doing a great job. They speak the language and they provide more depth. Theyʹre not necessarily always given the opportunity, but standards are improving. Fortunately for me, however, there is still enough cliched Orientalist coverage for me to lampoon.

Simple one sentence explanation for what caused ISIS (source: Karl Sharro; Twitter)
A Twitter turnover to envy Trump: with his alter ego Karl reMarks, Sharro has published more than 90,000 tweets since 2009. In 2016 his video "The Simple One-Sentence Explanation for What Caused Isis" went viral – here, the accompanying tweet

The “Occidentalist” theme of some of your tweets – a sort of reverse mirror image of the Orientalist approach – taps into a rich seam of humour. Were you jesting when you said in your LSE talk that you were tired of Occidentalist humour?

Sharro: I was specifically talking about a particular strand of it which is lazy and complacent. It has become formulaic on Twitter to use this format without any creativity or innovation. For me it remains a rich source of satire: One day I would like to do a travel show about the West, an Occidentalist spoof of the BBC series "Civilisations", if you like, to expand the genre. My friends have already been treated to my ad-libbed versions of the show. Of course, the format itself depends on the writing and the ideas; itʹs not inherently good or bad.

Your Twitter spat with the Lebanese-American author and scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb is legendary. What explains the spat and your references to "neo-Assyrian trolls"?

Sharro: I think this was the result of our disagreement about his theory that Lebanese people donʹt speak Arabic, but a dialect of Aramaic. I waded into the discussion with less than delicate satire and things escalated between us. A group of his adherents are Assyrian nationalists: they take exception to the fact that as a Syriac I would also identify as an Arab.

For me itʹs not a choice of either/or. The people of the Levant have been mixing for centuries – ethnic identities overlap with linguistic identities and we get more layers of identity as a result. The Neo-Assyrian trolls, as I call them, donʹt believe that, believe instead in a distinct Assyrian identity that has a historic continuity with an ancient Assyrian identity, about which I am highly sceptical.

The events of the past few years – the rise of Islamic State and its oppression of Christians among its many victims, for instance – have inevitably provoked a response, which might explain why this identity project is gaining momentum today, but I donʹt think itʹs the right response to such savagery. My aim is to push people away from identity rather than becoming entrenched; for me that includes stepping back from the politicisation of the Muslim identity, which I think is a counterproductive social development.

Interview conducted by Susannah Tarbush

© 2018

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