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Meet the first female Emirati stand-up act

When one of Shaima Al Sayed's favourite comedians came to town, she decided to tap into her funny genes. Now well-known on the UAE's comedy circuit as the first female Emirati stand-up act, she tells Louisa Wilkins her story

Shaima Al Sayed
Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
"Being on stage in the shayla and the abaya is a good opportunity to clear stereotypes about Arab nationals," says Shaima Al Sayed.

Before… “My brother, Ali, set up Dubomedy three years ago with his wife, Mina Liccione. They are both stand-up comics and I have always enjoyed their shows. They used to hint to me that I should try it but, even though I enjoy watching comedy and we all laugh and joke within the family, I never thought I would do stand-up on stage myself. I used to watch people and think, ‘How do they come up with these jokes?’

It all changed when… “Every year in December, Dubomedy holds a celebrity comedy workshop. Last year they had Dean Obeidallah from the Axis of Evil comedy tour come over to do a four-day intensive workshop. I’m a really big fan of his, so I signed up. It was awesome. There were about 25 people, so it took courage to relax and just be yourself.

Mina did some preparation with us and she is so hyper and passionate that your fears fade away. The second and third days were with Dean. He gave us tips and feedback on our own material. On the final day, we had a student show. Afterwards everyone said
I had done well and that I hadn’t seemed nervous at all. I said to them, “Are you joking? You should have a chat with my knees. They were rattling all the way through.”

Doing stand-up is not like theatre, where you hear your reviews after your performance – when you’re doing stand-up, it is instant. The audience either laughs, or you flop. It really adds adrenaline to the situation.

As a result… “After that first performance, I caught the bug and signed up for Dubomedy’s eight-week programme. There was a lot of improvisation work, which prepares you for heckling and for interaction with the audience. They teach you how to deliver your material with things like timing and body language.

I was surprised by the amount of technical work involved. I never knew that being funny was such hard work.

“Doing the workshop hit me on a personal level. You spend your whole life avoiding looking silly and suddenly, the sillier you are, the better. The experience boosted my confidence, not just on stage doing stand-up, but in my everyday life too.

“I was lucky that, by the end of the eight weeks, I had a good set and Mina invited me to join their troupe of comediennes, called Funny Girls, on the next tour.

I agreed straight away. I was really excited, but nervous, too. I knew how important Funny Girls is to Dubomedy and I thought, ‘Will I live up to their expectations?’

“Before my first show I was pacing up and down and saying, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ Three minutes may not sound like a long time, but believe me it is a long time when you’re up there. I went through with it and when I finished, I felt like I hadn’t breathed for the full set.

“Doing stand-up is a good chance to address serious matters without offending people – Mina always says that we have ‘halal jokes’. But being on stage in the shayla and the abaya is a good opportunity to clear stereotypes about Arab nationals, and particularly about Arab women. I like it when my performance encourages people to come over and start a conversation. When we did the Funny Girls show in Al Ain, an American woman came over and told me that she worked with a lot of local girls. She said, ‘They’re so shy that people think they are rude – but they are lovely. I’m so glad you’re showing the other side of local girls.’ It was very touching and encouraged me to continue. My friends and family have also been really supportive and come to see me perform.

Since then… “I performed in five shows of the Funny Girls’ second season tour of the UAE. Honestly, I’m nervous every time I go on stage. Wearing the shayla and abaya is good because people always look when I come on stage, so at least I have their attention. I only have a short set, but I’m building on it. Every venue seems to give you a new joke – like when the bouncer at Double Decker in Al Murooj Rotana gave me a hard time for wearing national dress in a bar, it gave me some great material for my next set.

Moving on… “I’m writing some new material now, so we’ll see if I’m asked to join the next Funny Girls line up. There are lots of male Arab comedians on the circuits now; hopefully we’ll see more female Arab nationals, too. We had many more veiled women signing up for the last Dubomedy workshop, which is brilliant. It’s a chance for us Arab women to show Westerners that the veil isn’t a hurdle we must overcome, or part of some struggle. It’s simply the way we dress.”

For details of the next Funny Girls’ tour visit

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