Thursday, August 30, 2018

Karl Sharro tweets and maps his unique brand of Middle Eastern satire in debut book

Since this blogpost first appeared, it has been announced that Karl Sharro will be appearing in a panel discussion on Satire In Surreal Times as part of the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre at 3pm on Sunday 28 October. Tickets can be booked here
On 4 October he appears at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in London.

The Lebanese-British satirist and architect Karl Sharro’s debut book And Then God Created the Middle East and said ‘Let There be Breaking News', published recently in London by Saqi Books, defies categorisation. It is primarily a book of humour, but it arguably also deserves a place in other sections of a bookstore or library, such as the Middle East, politics or media studies.

The book is authored in the name of Karl reMarks, Sharro’s “Middle East political and cultural online commentary, with frequent forays into satire.” Sharro founded his blog in 2007 and the @KarlreMarks Twitter account two years later. His trademark avatar, a bearded figure with a conical hat against a red background, is taken from his cartoon series “The Phoenicians Invented Everything". The figure also appears on the cover of Sharro's small format book, which is in a striking palette of bright blue, mustard and white. "My own colour scheme is red, so the blue was a change, but we wanted a nod to Twitter" Sharro says in the Q & As below.

Sharro is a master of the Twitter form, with his pithy one-liners and tweeted diagrams. The book provides many examples of both (the Karl reMarks Twitter self-description includes "Director of the Institute of Internet Diagrams"). The @KarlreMarks Twitter account has 135,000 followers and its witticisms and sharp commentary are essential daily reading for many.

As noted in a recent interview with Sharro was in conversation at the launch of his book with senior lecturer in International Journalism at City, London University Dr Zahera Harb She said  he manages to say in 140 characters what may take hours to explain to her students. It seems the book will be put on her students╩╣ reading lists and it looks a safe bet that other academics will do the same.

Sharro told "I know that several professors do include my blog and tweets on some syllabuses already, and having the tweets in book form will "make it easier for students to find them." He wanted to collect the tweets into a book "so as to give them a more permanent home, beyond Twitter where they eventually get lost".

Asked by an audience member at the launch whether he welcomed and felt "liberated" by last year's doubling of the permitted length of a tweet from 140 to 280 characters, Sharro said: "I think 280 characters is really awful. Seriously, the greatest thing about Twitter is learning to express yourself in a very short medium. If anything, they should have introduced 'Twitter extreme' with only 70 characters!"

                                                               Karl Sharro   Photo credit James Berry 

Sharro's book is divided into 10 sections, such as Geography for Dummies, War and Peace, Extremism: A Study and Democracy for Realists, and ending with a selection of his Bar Jokes. His best-known bar joke is probably the one about Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian diva: Umm Kulthum walks into a bar. Walks into a bar. Walks into a bar. Walks into a baaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. On Fairouz, the famous Lebanese singer, we have Fairouz walks into a bar. The moon caresses the olive tree."

Sharro often lampoons Western journalists and analysts: in fact the full Tweet from which the title of his book is taken is "And Then God Created the Middle East and said 'Let There be Breaking News and Analysis'." The final two words had to be dropped from the title for reasons of space.

One tweet runs: “A telling Western phrase about the Middle East is ‘borders were drawn without regard to ethnicity’, as if it’s a bad thing. I mean, if they had divided states by ethnicity, my grandmother’s old neighbourhood in Baghdad would have been four different countries.” Also,"I'm deeply grateful to Westerners who, despite being in the midst of a historic crisis of their own, still take the time to lecture us."

Tweets in the "Geography for Dummies" section include: “People often ask me ‘where is the Middle East?’ It’s the area between Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Turkey and the British Museum." The "Sykes and Picot Go Out for a Pizza" diagram shows a pizza hacked into a crude jigsaw with the characteristic straight lines of imperial borders.

The book would have been incomplete without Sharro's classic "Simple One-Sentence Explanation for What Caused ISIS" - which extends over two pages. In 2006 his video of the endlessly convoluted sentence went viral and had 1.6 million views on Facebook alone. He recently posted on YouTube this new video of the "Simple One-Sentence ..." recorded on the banks of the River Thames:

"You want the Simple One-Sentence Explanation for What Caused ISIS? Here goes...." 

Western journalists covering the Middle East may well identify with the following tweet: “We Arabs are like, ‘You can’t report on Arab countries without learning Arabic.” Learns Arabic. ‘Why do you know Arabic? You must be a spy'.”

Sharro's satirical eye often focuses on Arab politics. "After the Arab awakening comes the Arab siesta", "An Arab dictator is like a matryoshka doll in reverse, Every time you remove one, you get a bigger one" and "Many people are asking me why I'm not commenting on the Arab Summit. Not into them anymore, I preferred their early work." The section on "Extremism: A Study" pokes fun at ISIS, through tweets such as "I personally don't think we should worry about ISIS. Launching a magazine was a fatal mistake. It will bankrupt them within years" "I love statistics like 'bees have killed more people than ISIS'. True, but bees aren't a death cult" and "How many ISIS jihadis does it take to change a lightbulb? ... What's wrong with eternal darkness?" 

The pages of Sharro's book are liberally sprinkled with diagrams. His endearing Phoenician characters Abdeshmun and Hanno appear in two cartoon strips  - "The Phoenicians Invent Speech Bubbles" and "The Phoenicians Invent Polytheism".

  The Phoenicians Invent Speech Bubbles © Karl Sharro

He uses maps to make powerful points. The "Map of Western Invasions of the Middle East vs The Other Way Round" shows numerous coloured arrows pointing from Europe and America towards the Middle East and North Africa - contrasted with a few arrows the other way round. The maps in "Six New Ways to Divide the Middle East and North Africa" use different colours to divide the region in terms of eg "Jeans / Traditional" "Olive oil / Oil" "Kings / Generals / Other", reminiscent in style of maps of the Middle East in Western publications.

Western Invasions of the Middle East vs The Other Way Round
© Karl Sharro

Q&As with Karl Sharro

Karl Sharro was born in Zahle, Lebanon, in 1971 to a Lebanese father and Iraqi mother, and is from a Syriac Christian background.  According to his blogpost "I Wrote My Own Wikipedia Biography" while at school he used to pass short funny messages to his schoolmates, “acquiring a skill that would be useful later in life on Twitter.” He moved in 2002 from Beirut to London, where he still lives and works as an architect.

In addition to his blog posts and tweets, Sharro's work has been featured in many print and online publications, from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian and POLITICO, as well as on broadcast media such as the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Channel 4.  He sometimes gives lectures and TedX Talks. Earlier this year he presented the BBC radio documentary "Skiing Mount Lebanon."

The book's design is very appealing. Did you always envisage a small format book that could be slipped into a pocket (and that could make a good, affordable present), and how was the colour scheme decided? 

Sharro: Yes, the idea from the beginning was for a small format book which would be practical and affordable. I am grateful to Saqi’s team for the great work on the design. It was particularly challenging to get all of the title on the cover and I think it looks brilliant. My own colour scheme is red, so the blue was a change, but we wanted a nod to Twitter.

Did you think of including some of your blog posts and articles in the book, in addition to the tweets?

Sharro: In the beginning I considered including some of the blog posts but ultimately they didn’t fit the format of the book and its small size. I also considered adding one or two of my Lebanese recipes as a bonus but that didn’t make it in the book either. However, I will offer to send the recipes to anyone who buys the book. Perhaps there will be another book in the future which will include the blog posts.

Many of your fans first got to know your satire and analysis through your blog as well as Twitter. You made a peak of 106 blogposts in 2013. But by 2017, the number had dwindled to just one post – on the first anniversary of the EU Referendum – and so far this year to zero. After initially embracing the blog form, why have you abandoned it so decisively? After all, you do still write longer pieces for a variety of media outlets and you contributed a substantial piece "The Joys of Applying for a US Visa" to the book Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic (Saqi).

Sharro: I decided in 2016 to stop writing on the blog, and the few posts written after that were one-offs. I had gotten to the point where the blog wasn’t receiving the same number of readers and the same level of interest. I think it was a combination of blogs suffering overall - I blame podcasts - and my writing becoming a bit repetitive. There were two factors that led to my decision. Firstly, it was getting harder to sustain the energy for writing so frequently - I have only my lunch break to write in - and after years it was exhausting. Secondly, I was considering other formats. I was doing a pilot for a TV show at the time and was thinking of other ways of doing satire. Two years later, I am still thinking.

The launch of your book at The Book Club in Shoreditch, East London, at which you were in conversation with Dr Zahera Harb, went down very well with the audience. You are due to appear at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in London on 4 October. Are other events in the offing?

Sharro: I am planning one other event so far, at Oxford University’s Middle East Centre in November, but hopefully there will be others.

Which humorists in the UK, US or elsewhere do you particularly rate, and perhaps see as influences?

Sharro: I think my first comedic influence was Woody Allen, particularly in his writing and stand-up comedy. I learned a lot from that. Technically I think Stewart Lee is one of the best, and I love Jack Dee’s early work in particular. Jerry Sadowitz is another influence, his comedy work was amazing for me. And in terms of style, I’ve always liked Mark Steel. I will probably be criticised for not including any women on this list. And the eternal wit of Dorothy Parker.

CNN interview with Karl Sharro shows  his "Diagram of Political Relationships in the Middle East" - one of the illustration in And Then God Created the Middle East and Said 'Let There be Breaking News' 

These days we often hear about the rise of Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim comedy  in the UK and elsewhere.  Do you feel comfortable with such categorisations?

Sharro: A lot of my stuff is about the Arab angle, so that I don’t mind so much but I find it strange when it goes into religion, partially because in Lebanon this is just not done. It would be very strange for someone to describe themselves as a Muslim comedian or Christian comedian there. But ultimately I don’t want to be known just for that, if I ever decide to take up comedy I wouldn’t want to be known as the Arab comedian. My ideal stand-up routine is actually about the etiquette of space travel, nothing to do with the Middle East.

Your first stand-up performance, at Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, seems to have given you a taste for stand-up. Are you planning further performances?

Sharro: I enjoyed that a lot, although people thought I was crazy to do a 45 minute routine for my standup debut. I should do more, particularly that I took the trouble to memorise the routine, but I haven’t yet decided on the venue and the timing.

Given the variety of comedy genres in which you have been involved, what lies ahead for Karl reMarks?

Sharro:  I have for a few years been  thinking of doing podcasts or vlogging, but I seem to never find the energy or the time. Perhaps after my children grow up -  if the Middle East is still in the news by then.

report and interview by Susannah Tarbush

a clip from Karl Sharro's stand-up at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2017