Sweden’s Beloved Syrian Comic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes you’ve got to make the sounds of home yourself.
Mahmoud Bitar, bearded, earnest and twinkling, stares at the camera in one of his rare English-language videos. He’s here to tell you about Syria and why everything you think about it is wrong. And he’s gonna make you laugh. The video — simply titled “I’m Syrian!” — makes light of the people who asked Bitar if he can work a smartphone (yes) and drives the point home: Refugees aren’t here for your money or food; they just want to live somewhere that isn’t exploding.
The 22-year-old mohawked Syrian comedian’s brand can be summarized as “wry outsider.” He appears on Talk Show Arabic, the first Arabic -language show for Sveriges Radio, the Swedish public broadcaster, and the first on the channel that isn’t straight news. Bitar is a crucial element of a new public sphere for refugees, says Daniel Ahadi, a lecturer at Simon Fraser University who’s studied ethnic media in Sweden. “There’s a difference between watching satellite television from Syria or Iran and listening to something local, because local radio creates a sense of community.” For an immigrant navigating a new landscape, listening to Arabic spoken about Sweden, their new home, is powerful. Which is why Bitar, a YouTube star and Instagram presence, has a small but devoted group of fans — 84,336 subscribers on YouTube and 191,000 on Instagram. Like him, many of the commenters and likers of his work are Syrian refugees who haven’t seen home since 2012.
Bitar’s route to Sweden was a long one. A once-aspiring actor in Aleppo, he went to Turkey after war broke out, spending a month in Egypt, where he found the language barrier difficult. (The dialect of Arabic in Egypt is distinct from Syria’s.) Bitar was able to return to Turkey for two years, where he acted on a Syrian serial in Dubai, and then lit out for Greece in 2015, flying on from there to Sweden. The whole time, he recorded his journey on social media. Stockholm, known for its hospitality, was the goal. But the current crisis has stunted Sweden’s warm welcomes a bit: In January, it instituted unprecedented identification checks on the bridge border with Denmark in order to keep more people from walking in cold. Now Bitar’s brother is in Lebanon, his mother in Turkey, his father in Germany and his sister in Egypt. His hope is that they can all reunite here soon. “We can get a house,” he tells me, “and all be together.”
For now, he has Ibrahim Basha Nurulez, an editor and producer for the show who makes rap videos with Bitar. Nurulez, also Syrian, sits with us throughout the interview, helping to translate and telling me about their rap projects — which are “not silly,” he explains, showing me a video with upward of 150,000 views on YouTube in which he and Mahmoud rap in Arabic about the dizzying, upsetting dislocation of being a refugee. The two met in Greece and became friends online.
Nurulez and Bitar’s familiarity with each other translates to a kind of colloquial sensibility in their work. That’s crucial, says Ahadi, an immigrant himself: “It’s all war and destruction and tanks on the street.” But any sense of normalcy in relation to one’s identity, language or homeland can go a long way. Media aimed at immigrant communities keeps migrants updated on things that don’t make it on international news: bus drivers’ strikes, celebrity gossip, legislative maneuvering. It can make an immigrant’s homeland less imagined and more quotidian.
But Bitar and his copresenter, Syrian journalist Rowa Alkhatib, are focused not on the homeland but the new home. Émigrés can listen to Bitar and Alkhatib hold forth on networking and how goddamn difficult it is to get a driver’s license in Sweden. The show “is not political,” stresses producer Helen Almqvist. Bitar was a controversial choice for the program after he got famous for a YouTube video in which he warned would-be migrants that Sweden isn’t all that great. It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek — he literally picks Euros off a money tree — but he got flak after uploading it. “All my videos were in Arabic, but that one was in English,” Bitar says. “It was a joke! But new people who didn’t know me, they got shocked.” Almqvist, however, was into the vibe and the “drastic and fun” way Bitar had documented his journey from Syria via social media, and she decided to put him on the Arabic-language comedy talk show Sveriges had outsourced to Massa Media, her company. Though Almqvist declined to share figures on the number of listeners the show has gotten since its April 1 debut, Sveriges as a whole says 75 percent of the Swedish population tunes in to the network at least once a week.
“Public radio has been a very white space and a very Swedish space,” Ahadi says. “It’s quite an achievement, not just for the Arabic or Syrian community, but for the immigrant community in general.” Bitar’s made a lot of unexpected milestones since leaving Syria, including an appearance at this year’s Cannes film festival at an event highlighting refugee-created media. Next up? He wants to tackle Sweden’s most beloved cultural stronghold … and write a song for Eurovision.