If you're not already following him on Twitter, it's time to start.
Karl Sharro (aka Karl reMarks) adds the perfect dose of satire to your Twitter feed. Focusing mainly on the Middle East and how it relates to the West, his hilarious and sometimes stinging wit doesn't hold back. Originally from Lebanon but now residing in London, Sharro was an architect before he became the Arab world's favorite satirist.
We talked with him about his satire, how he got started, what he misses about his home in Lebanon and how his "nightmare" is not being productive.
You've become quite the Twitter sensation in the Arab world and in the West. How did an architect become the Arab world's favorite satirist?
I guess it's kind of two different things. One, I've always wanted to write comedy because I grew up being very interested in comedy. So, I was interested in that kind of humor and I didn't really have an outlet for it as an architect. You know I have a full time job, so I couldn't kind of go and try and do it more professionally.
And on the other hand, when I got on social media, I was kind of more interested in architecture, but that has a very narrow audience. Somehow, it's the medium itself that takes you in a certain direction. When I started talking more about politics and trying to do it satirically or humorously, it had a bigger audience, a more enthusiastic audience.
One thing led to the other, and I found myself where I am now.
My blog went into a more political, satirical direction [as did] my Twitter feed. I [also] started using some of my skills as an architect, doing fake charts and memes, and things like that. So there is kind of a convergence, but not in any kind of professional sense.
Your tweets often target Orientalism and Western media discourse around Arab issues. And there are a lot of other prominent voices like you doing the same. Do you feel that the misconceptions and stereotypes are getting better or worse?
The way I sort of got into comedy, got into satire, is because I felt that, especially with the Arab uprisings, that there was quite a lot of misunderstanding about what was really happening. It was quite frustrating to read.
Some journalists, some who had spent a long time in the region, they were still not willing ... they didn't speak Arabic and they weren't conveying the right picture. So, it was that anger that drove me to try and write about it. And then I discovered that spoofing it is actually much more effective than writing a 5,000 word article trying to criticize it on a serious level.
But its not kind of a general [rule] … it's not that Westerners can never understand the Middle East and I'm not into that way of thinking. It was just basically specific publications and journalists and pundits. Because there are a lot of others who, you know they learn Arabic, they study the region very well. Some of the best books, and more intellectual production about the region has come from Westerners.
I'm not a fan of trying to portray this as a clash of civilizations, and "we're so mysterious you'll never be able to get us." It's not like that. It's basically kind of going after particularly superficial interpretations of what's happening in the Middle East and the Arab World in more general terms.
Some people think of themselves as activists, I'm not really an activist. I'm not really interested in changing the tone of the overall conversation, because you'll always have different voices that talk about it. On one level I like to exploit it for humorous potential, because it's quite rich in that sense. And on another level, it works as a counter.
I don't like the way some people try to use this form of critique as a way of constraining what can be said, and to try to say that there should be one narrative. It's like, no, we can all have our own different opinions and that creates space for us to express ourselves in different ways. This is why I use that kind of device.
You know with Brexit and Trump, I used this, I call it the Occidentalist vs. the Orientalist approach, trying to say that now things are happening in the West, I'm going to cover them like the way things are covered normally in the Middle East, which a) kind of makes a point and b) it's actually quite funny. I find it quite funny, I mean, I'm not sure everybody finds it funny, but I find it quite, quite funny.
When you look at the current situation in the region and the world, with Brexit and Trump, do you think things are getting better? Getting worse? Staying about the same?
I think that before we look at the impact on the Middle East, or on the world, we need to see what the impact is within the West. And I think that there are lots of problems, because people tend to think about all these things as the same thing, which is not really true. Because Brexit is quite different than Trump, even though when I'm writing satire I might be quite superficial about it.
I used to think that a lot of pundits and commentators are superficial about the Middle East, and what I found is that they are also superficial about what is happening in the West. There was no attempt to try and understand the complex reasons for why these things are happening in the world and in the West. And I think that's actually much more dangerous than, not necessarily these phenomena themselves, but the kind of immediate implications. Because if you can't begin to understand why people are voting in a certain direction, why that shift is happening in Western society, you won't be able to create an alternative.
A lot of my work since has been kind of trying to show that. For example, with Brexit, I did this diagram that allegedly was a simple diagram to explain why Brexit happened, but it was [actually] quite a complex diagram that spanned over decades. It's a funny image, but at the same time, these things happen for a variety of complex reason.
Now, with regards to the second aspect of it, yes it will have an impact on the Middle East, but I don't see it necessarily as a disruption from what was happening before. I think it's important to not kind of lose sight of that in trying to counter some of the bad things that the West does in the Middle East, and to realize that there's a continuity there. In order to try and change it, we need to focus on the root causes and how the continuity of this policy has been happening over decades.
How do you personally maintain a light attitude despite all the problems?
I get asked that a lot and some people think I'm flippant. But I think just growing up in a civil war, it kind of gives you that automatically. You know I grew up for 15 years in the Lebanese civil war and we were just kind of joking about it all the time. It just kind of becomes a coping mechanism. And then whenever I took a break from Lebanon and went to visit my relatives in Syria and Iraq, they had a very similar situation in trying to deal with the dictatorships over there and how oppressive the system was and tried to develop this subversive humor to counter it.
So, I was surrounded by that growing up and this is why I think my most common process is kind of irritating to a lot of people, who feel very personally frustrated and angered by things like Brexit and Trump and the emergence of Le Pen in France.
You know Westerners, they're kind of like "how can you joke about it?" It's like something I've been doing my entire life. So it kind of comes as second nature to me. I just think of it as a way of criticizing the situation you're in. It's a form of critical thinking in its own right, even if it's done in a black comedy type of way or dark humor. It's still making a point at the end of the day. So why have many limitations?
What positive signs are you seeing coming out of Lebanon or other Arab countries?
There's a big difference, if you would have asked me a few years ago about Lebanon, I would have probably been more pessimistic. But I think I'm very optimistic about Lebanon.
I'm encouraged by a lot of the things that have happened there and continue to happen. If you had said to me, I don't know 20-30 years ago, that Lebanon at one point would be relatively, let's not over exaggerate, but relatively stable, whereas Syria and Iraq have completely collapsed, I wouldn't have believed it. But it's kind of somehow, Lebanon has acquired this sense of resilience.
At the same time, there's a lot of new movements, new sensitivities, new sensibilities, new ways of organization -- societies might really transform these days. People kind of forget that, because it happened quite slowly, but compare now to right after the end of the war, in terms of where the situation of women in society broadly was, how people looked at homosexuality for example, how people thought about freedom of speech and how to express themselves, we've really advanced a lot.
Now obviously the political system is not catching up with that, it's very slow in responding to that, but there's a very active --it's a cliche-- civil society, although it doesn't have formal political manifestations yet, but it's getting there. And that is very reassuring. Now more broadly, if you look at the other Arab countries, it's almost as if there's a lag, look at Syria and Iraq, they are maybe where we were 20-25 years ago, depending on the outcome of all these civil wars and all the external intervention.
But again it's happening at a time when people are much more connected to the outside world. There are different forms of awareness. So, it's probably just a matter of time, but it's going to be very painful and you can say similar things about other Arab countries. I'm not pessimistic in the sense that nothing will ever happen, but I think there is a push for change. But it will just take a long time to find its proper manifestation.
What are your thoughts about Lebanese movements like You Stink and Beirut Madinati?
Any organized push to challenge the failures of the state and the ruling class is good. I may have my own critiques in terms of organization and political aims and things like that, but I always say, because I don't live there, that it is no longer my fight. I'm interested in the outcome but I can't pontificate from afar and say "you should do this and do that."
When I was there, I was participating and I was trying to find a way to do it my way, or the way that I believed was the right way. But now that I'm not there, I believe that this is an important lesson, because a lot of what's happening, not only in Lebanon, but also in the other countries around, is that diasporas have a lot of say. Because they are much closer to the international media and because they speak English and other kinds of things, they can have a very negative effect.
When you're trying to influence a certain reality that you're not actually experiencing directly, it could be quite a bad thing. So I'm kind of really reluctant to criticize, other than to say that it's not necessarily the way that I would like to shape it if I was involved, but nevertheless it's quite healthy and it's quite positive.
Off of Twitter, what do you like to do to relax and enjoy your time? Who is Karl Sharro in his private life?
I guess when you have a family, and two small daughters you don't really have a private life anymore. It may sound like an exaggeration, but I have two daughters that are now five and seven, and they kind of take a lot of my time. It's a real joy just to be with children and see things from their point of view.
I think I have this persona on social media of being quite infantile, and it's not something that bothers me about myself. It's actually that sometimes, I look at children and see how they see the world. It's actually quite refreshing and interesting. A lot of my energy goes into that now.
The other thing is, the work relaxes. My nightmare is, some people can go to the beach and lie there in the sun, I can't do that. All the time, I have to be doing something. There's this buzz that I need to be doing something. I'm either getting on social media trying to say something or planning the next thing I'm going to do. So I find it very hard to relax ... unless I'm drinking.
Besides Lebanon, do you spend much time in the Arab world? What are some of your favorite places in the region?
I haven't been traveling much in Arab countries as I used [to]. I grew up traveling in between Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan because we had family all over. And that's something I kind of miss. You could just get in a car and drive. I mean, it sounds like a different world now. You know the joys of just traveling by car in the Arab world are just brilliant, and in the service you meet all these people, it's great. I love it and I miss it.
I mean I could tell you stories about things that used to happen to me. You know, a Jordanian taxi driver trying to smuggle stuff from Lebanon into Jordan and trying to cross, I don't know how many different borders. That's quite fun to observe in its own right.
What do you miss from living in Lebanon?
The good thing here [in London] is that the Lebanese food is as good as it is in Lebanon.
But what I really miss is, there's a certain anarchy in Lebanon. In a way you can find it in London more than any other European city, which generally tend to be much more structured and controlled. But there's a sense of kind of anarchic context that in a way, gives you a lot of freedom [in Lebanon]. I might kind of sound perverse, you know the West is supposed to be much more free, but you know I miss that.
In Lebanon you can just go: "I don't want to work this afternoon, the weather is so nice." You can just get in your car and drive for an hour and you're in the middle of beautiful mountains, where there's nobody else. I come from the Bekaa, there's a forgotten Roman castle about 20 minutes away from my house that nobody ever goes to. And if it was in Europe, I think there would be queues waiting to go into it. It's just things like that, being able to go somewhere on your own, with nobody else with like 2,000 years of history and then from there on, within like 20 minutes you're in a city. It's just fantastic and I really miss that.
Is there something new you'd like to try in 2017?
I've been saying for a couple years now that I'd like to get more into videos. I've done a couple here and there and I've never really gotten around to do it. I just keep pushing it, and I'm hoping this year it would happen.
This profile is part of StepFeed's Personality of the Week series, featuring Arabs you should know. Read last week's here.