Ever since Shaden Fakih first owned the Cliffhangers storytelling stage in May of this year, with what has become her signature mélange of bawdy humor and unapologetic candor, she has had us collectively gasping for breath between raucous fits of laughter. Shaden is belovedly known for improvising characters and comic scenarios which make a mockery of polite society’s cherished ideals, using humor as her foremost weapon in her hilarious war against hypocrisy. Simply being a female storyteller in the male-dominated world of comedy deviates from the script ‒ one that demands that women be seen and not heard. Her music video “7assesne Enne Rkheesa,” which is a parody of Katy Perry’s “E.T.” and, most recently, her tongue-in-cheek rendition of Miss Lebanon 2017 (“The Funniest Miss Lebanon 2017 Parody, Ever” at Beirut.com) were both viral sensations. RR bantered with this emerging talent to gather some of her unfiltered thoughts on what inspires, amuses, and flat-out pisses her off.
TV: Your real name is Shaden Fakih, yet you go by your stage name, Shaden Esperanza. How did that name come into being?
SF: Basically, my family name reveals my sect or the sect that I was born into, but doesn’t represent me, so I decided to replace it with a random manyake name.
TV: What are the types of stories that you like to share when performing?
SF: I usually share my own stories. Most of them funny, but at the same time most of the stories I tell are somehow controversial. For example, female sexuality, homosexuality… These are somehow taboo topics. So a woman talking in front of a crowd about masturbation and sexual life in Lebanon, a patriarchal society, is something. And for me, it’s important. I don’t only focus on those issues though. I also talk about social issues that happen at work, in Lebanese society and its divisions, the notion of weddings and other things. So I use my humor to talk about all that. You know, humor makes it easier for someone to convey a message or even to mock society. You know, Molière used his farce to mock el taba2a el aristokratiye who themselves were his audience. He used to ridicule their behavior. “Byetda7ako 3a halon”. What better way to change society and perceptions than by making people laugh? I also talk about stuff that most Lebanese people relate to. For example, lack of privacy in our society.
TV: You’re very honest about your sexuality. Do you find that it’s difficult to be so in Beirut?
SF: Not at all. At least, not for me because I don’t really care, especially that I have the full support of my parents about my sexuality. So why would I care about what strangers think about it? If they have a problem with my sexuality, well the following sentence says it all: it’s their problem, not mine.
TV: Your latest video was dubbed “the funniest Miss Lebanon 2017 parody ever.” What’s your creative process like in making such videos? Do you have a script that you work from or do you rely on improvisa-tion? Do you collaborate or work solo?
SF: I usually invent a character and improvise. Even when I do my stand ups, I usually have a structure in mind and the rest is improvisation. I love improvisation. Getting in character is something that I do on a daily basis for fun. Improvisation is a game. You take on any character and you play! I am still very much in touch with my little prince. Maybe a bit too much! Especially when you have a friend who tags along and my best friend does that all the time. Next week, I might collaborate with a friend who is pretty funny and I think something cool will come out of it.
TV: When did you start making up various characters and scenarios?
SF: When I started discovering my identity, I started getting into different characters for fun, y3ne around seconde, premiere and terminal. We all start discovering ourselves during our teenage years. Dealing with serious stuff with humor makes these things easier. At school, bel saf na3mil eno ana maghrume be rfi2e w huwe bi7eb wa7de tenye so ba3mil drama bi saf el terikh.
TV: Comedy is a very gendered profession. Why do you think men generally outnumber women in this industry?
SF: It is a very gendered profession. Not just in the Arab world, but even in the West. Okay, ha jarrib 3abbir bi parallelism ta jarrib fassirlik lesh benazare hal shi mawjoud. It’s as simple as el mara kif lezim te23od versus el rijjel kif lezim ye23od. El mara ma lezim tbayin merteha hiyye w e3de lezim tsakkir ejreya lezim tkun bi a body posture rekze, berde, jemde. Eza btekhod raheta bitkoun a3de metel el rjel, which is not accepted. El mara ma helo tkoun merteha ma3 hala especially eddem el rjel. In patriarchal societies, I think it’s intimidating for some men. I emphasize some men, not all of them. And I think comedy requires a certain amount of confidence. When you’re funny, you’re chill or at least that’s how you’re perceived to be. Plus it draws attention. In a patriarchal society, for a woman to be the center of attention manno shi fe3lan shi ‘moustahab’ aw m3awwadin 3ale. M3awwadin aktar 3a shabeb messkeen el jaw, messkeen el wade3. A woman who is as funny as a man is seen as vulgar and loud. Men are intimidated by independent women who don’t need anyone’s approval in general. Being a comedian and having a platform to be one, projects a certain confidence and independence w ma baddik fe3lan approval men hadan. Simone De Beauvoir 3arfe 7ala shu 3am tehke bil introduction of The Second Sex wa2ta te7ke about the huge ovum in the face of millions of tiny sperms w betna22e wa77ad le hiyye badda twafto. The power is in her hands. Or the black widow that mates with her partner then eats his head. This is how strong women are perceived. Of course, I don’t believe that women should be superior, but I love how De Beauvoir talks about the strength of women. Femme fatale.
TV: Do you identify as a feminist?
SF: Unfortunately, people perceive feminism as something negative. If you ask a “modern” women now if they are feminists, they deny it immediately although they consider themselves “progressive” because somehow someone shaped feminism as being anti-men… which is ridiculous, especially when they say, “I am a humanist not a feminist”. Bikuno rej3o we23o bil patriarchal narrative. It’s exactly like when people say “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.” Being a feminist is believing in the complete equality between men and women, and genders in general. Defying gender stereotypes and gender roles. So to answer your question: Fuck yeah, I’m a feminist!
TV: Do you integrate feminism into your performances, or do you prefer to keep the two separate?
SF: Of course, indirectly and directly. I am a woman who talks about everything in front of a crowd. No censors. I talk about my work, my sexuality, my daily life. This is feminism.
TV: Do you use Tinder? If so, have you had any ridiculous, awkward or funny encounters?
SF: If you’ve been to one of the Cliffhanger storytelling nights where I was a speaker, I actually mentioned Tinder. I told the crowd that I am recently single and I asked, “Who is on Tinder?” I then waited for them to show their hands then told them khedo minne my Tinder. It was absurd for me, deciding who you are going to talk to by looking at their pictures. Then arraret men jarrib hal 3akrout fa 3melet account bass akid description manyake. I wrote things like, “my hips don’t lie unless it’s the first of April” w ballashna swipe left, left left only swiping right for my friends la 7adeet ma la2et wa7de amar, I swiped right. Tul3et Israiliyye. Akalna hawa. El 3ushk el mamnu3.
TV: Your video 7assesne Enne Rkheesa (Make Me Feel Cheap), garnered over two-hundred thousand views! Were you expecting such a large viewership?
SF: Well, to be honest, 7assesne Enne Rkheesa wasn’t supposed to go public. It was a joke between me and my university friends and then someone uploaded it on YouTube and the whole public went crazy. So we had to actually make a music video that is purely sarcastic so they can understand that it’s a fucking parody. As for it going viral, well of course. Arabs think sex is wrong but it’s the thing we talk and think about the most. So yeah, of course it’s going to go viral.
TV: The internet is flooded with entertaining content. What is the key to getting people to notice your work in this “attention” economy where people are so easily distracted?
SF: Humor! Humor! Humor! Everything that they identify with, whether it’s their relationship with their parents, their hysterical mothers, their love stories and encounters… Everything that they identify with. We are a small country with many similarities yet we focus on our differences. But we all go through the same shit every day. With our families, jobs, relationships… so yeah, the things that we all identify with. AND controversial topics. Religion, gender, sexuality, politics… Basically the differences. So ya badna nattif ba3ed online ya badna netda77ak sawa. Hayda el content.
TV: What makes you laugh?
SF: Characters! Shakhsiyyet! My favorite game le betda77ekne hiyye ‘tkheyyale al ana hek’. There’s this actress who plays secondary roles in movies. Kathryn Han. Secondary characters make me laugh the most. I think they are more important than the main characters, especially in comedies. There is something about secondary characters. They stand out! The fact that they have their complexities and yet they are not the center of attention. I think this is what makes it funny. One more thing: characters that are mentioned but never appear on screen - I love them. They make me laugh so much. When they mention a character which we don’t know or see and we just know what is being told about him or her. I love that. Non-present yet mentioned characters are awesome because we automatically imagine this character based on people we know, maybe, or we imagine them the way we want. Which is what makes it funny! It’s like reading a book. They give you the chance to create your own image of the character and the situation.
TV: Do you have a quote that you live by?
SF: Yes, several. Ha ykuno cliché bass hole bi nazare bya3mluke a genuinely good human being. Akeed ma 7an fout bi a definition of a genuinely good human being.
- There is no ultimate truth. If you believe in that you will tolerate everyone, you wouldn’t be in conflict with anyone nor alienate anyone.
- When they go low, we go high.
- And finally, 3amel el nes metel ma badak y3amlouk.
TV: What project are you involved in or working on now?
SF: I am currently acting in a major LAU production. We’re still in rehearsals. I can’t really talk about it, but it’s an interactive immersive play.
TV: OK, now for a few eccentric questions since we have gotten the serious questions out of the way. If we came to your house for dinner, what would you prepare for us?
SF: My famous chicken strips. Chicken wings and something I call honey curcur, which is chicken with honey and curry. Salad and fries.
TV: What is your least favorite thing about humanity?
SF: Violence, selfishness, wars, power, and money. The usual.
TV: If you had to choose one, what song best describes your life?
SF: I’m not going to tell you what song describes me but I will tell you that Oum Kalthoum’s songs are the ones that make me feel the most w bekhdune 3a 3alam tene.
TV: How would you describe the color red to a blind person?
SF: I would say, it’s the first thing that you see or notice. Bisheddim awal shi. It’s warm. Flame. It tempts you. The closer you get, the more you feel like going in the opposite direction. I love red. Plus, scientifically, it will make your heart beat faster. Breathe faster.