Laughing all the way to the West Bank: the blind Palestinian comedian tearing down barriers

'I'm not looking for sympathy’ - comedian Sherihan al-Hadwa (TG)

Bethan McKernan

The Observer  /  September 18, 2022

On a small stage in Tulkarm, a city in the north of the occupied West Bank, Sherihan al-Hadwa emerges from the wings to a Palestinian pop song. Dancing and waving the long white cane she uses to navigate the world, the visually impaired comedian already has her audience laughing and clapping along to the music.

Hadwa did not have an obvious route into standup comedy, and the many difficulties of life as a disabled woman in the Palestinian territories are not a straightforwardly humorous topic.

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But in her mostly autobiographical debut show, No Cherie, Hadwa is challenging lazy narratives about victimhood, and winning fans and accolades all over Palestine in the process.

Jokes and anecdotes mainly focus on the absurdities of getting around Palestinian society as a blind person: everything from the awkwardness of flirting with strangers helping her cross pothole-filled roads, to having to attend a medical evaluation with doctors once a year to “prove that I still can’t see them”.

Paired with a sardonic, almost cynical delivery, Hadwa’s comedy has bite: righteous anger simmers beneath every bit, fueling her act with a compelling power.

“I’m not looking for sympathy. I think sometimes audiences are surprised to encounter a blind woman who is as honest as me. That’s part of the fun,” the 35-year-old said. “I like surprising people and opening their horizons. Laughter has helped me; it helps everyone.”

Hadwa became blind suddenly, at the age of 16, after contracting a virus that damaged the retina and optic nerve. The shock of losing her sight led to a difficult period of re-adjustment, and the comedian said she spent years grieving for a different future.

With what she described as the unwavering support of her family, Hadwa learned braille and enrolled at a 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 house in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, with her sister nearby.

Hadwa got involved with a theatre group in Bethlehem in 2013, but did not branch out into comedy until last year. Writing the show with the help of fellow comedian Manal Awad, she realized that humour was a tool for framing her life experiences in a new way, and exploring a different kind of performing.

Supported by both Bethlehem’s Al-Hara theatre and the Drosos Foundation, a Swiss body funding arts projects around the world, the comedian is currently touring the West Bank, doing a show most weekends. The team is set to travel to Amsterdam this week for the first date of a short European leg.

“My day job is basically the opposite of this, answering phones at a hospital in Bethlehem,” Hadwa said, as she prepared for the show in Tulkarm. “If I’d realized before I was this funny and talented, I definitely wouldn’t still be doing that.”

Standup is a new form of entertainment in the Palestinian territories. In recent years, performers have realized audiences are receptive to comedy mined from the hardships they suffer: Israeli checkpoint searches, restrictions on movement, violence, poverty and politics are all fair game.

In what can be a deeply conservative society, with few creative outlets, even laughing together about everyday things – Palestinian wedding culture, Arab doctors, overbearing parents – is a much-needed release.

The Palestine comedy festival, set up by Palestinian-American Amer Zahr in 2015, has gone from strength to strength and now runs every August. In previous years the line-up has included Palestinian-American Mo Amer, who stars in a new self-titled Netflix show, and Egyptian-American Emmy-nominated comic actor Ramy Youssef. This year, for the first time, all seven comedians featured were Palestinian.

“We thank them so much for bringing a smile to our faces,” Nihaya Ghoul Awdallah told local media after attending a performance in this summer’s sold-out run. “It allows us to release our worries, our sadness, and the difficult circumstances that we are in.”

For Hadwa, the medium is a novel way to engage the public on the challenges that disabled people face, and to normalize their presence in public life.

When No Cherie’s run ends, Hadwa is planning to get back to writing, expanding the scope of her act to include the West Bank’s calcified politics, the quirks of Palestinian identity, and the frustrations of living under occupation. She hopes that social media will help her continue to reach audiences until she gets back on stage late next year.

“I love doing this. It’s nice to make people laugh and bond over what makes us the same and what makes us different,” she said. “I am happy to be an example that disabled people aren’t helpless. We are just as capable as anyone else and we can do things on our own terms.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian