An interview with The Pan-Arabia Enquirer
An exclusive interview with the mysterious man behind the Gulf's satirical website.December 29, 2014
Ater batting several emails back and forth, agreeing to certain off-limit topics and a digital handshake, to ensure his closely guarded anonymity is retained, everything is finally in place.
The brains behind popular satirical news website, The Pan-Arabia Enquirer (PAE), let’s call him Mr. A, tells me this will be the very last interview he plans to give. His claim doesn’t sound like a wind up, but how sure can you really be, when the mystery man in question has built a loyal band of followers through artful satire masquerading as comical regional news?
“Part of the fun of the website is that people don’t know who is behind it, and that’s why I’m determined to keep it a secret,” confesses Mr. A. “So the more stories and interviews that come out, it kind of tarnishes that.”
The likes of CNN, Vice, The Wall Street Journal, Dazed and The Guardian have all come calling in the past 12 months; some out of curiosity over this unlikely pairing of satire and the Middle East, others, fascinated by the gaffes made by ‘real’ journalists and media organisations who have embarrassingly reported the PAE’s stories as fact. Mr. A allows himself a chuckle when asked about those infamous hook, line and sinker moments: “It’s like all my Christmases have come at once.”
Karma and social media humiliation paid a visit to Pakistan’s biggest-selling English broadsheet when they flat out plagiarised a PAE story that was wildly claiming Qatar, in response to very real rising political tensions among GCC member states, was banning Saudis, Bahrainis and Emiratis from Harrods. Other hall of shame entries include Al Arabiya TV running a segment on a Dubai man who had supposedly paid $200,000 for the privilege of reserving the region’s first iPhone5, and several newspapers fell for the brilliant - almost plausible - ruse of Emirates introducing onboard shisha lounges on their fleet of A380s. The shisha send-up crashed the website through sheer volume of traffic, and remains the PAE’s most-read story.
“There’s always that worry that you’re just going to run out of jokes and material, but it generally seems to come thick and fast,” reflects the Enquirer’s chief illusionist. A quick scan of the site’s headlines reveals the nature of this so-far bottomless pool of inspiration: "Stunned Gulf motorists line up to see ‘indicator’ device at Luxury Car Show"; "Man lost in Dubai Mall for 13 months describes ordeal"; "New luxury cinema service allows guests to sleep through film and have someone tell them what happens after".
Mr. A, who was raised on a diet of popular British comic Viz, enjoys tomfoolery but is no fool. “I think from living here for enough time you know what you can, and cannot, do.” Despite the cloak and daggers to arrange the interview, our conversation, when it happens, isn’t exactly a secretive Edward Snowden meeting in a questionable three-star Dubai hotel room. We connect over Skype (sans video) 9pm on a Saturday night, and Mr. A is breezily slicing and dicing ingredients in preparation for a dinner party while we speak. His girlfriend interrupts us mid-interview with a call from the supermarket to confirm what kind of curry paste he needs. They settle on masala.
The PAE story began back over Christmas in 2005, when Mr. A and a couple of like-minded pals mocked up a satirical front page of UAE news to alleviate a case of the festive season bores. The Dubai Enquirer, as it was first known, was born. It was circulated via email amongst friends, and slowly began to enjoy a fledgling, cult-like following. “This was when Dubai was in silly season, building all these ludicrous projects and towers,” remembers Mr. A. “So this was our way of not taking the place as seriously as it took itself.” One year later, and with a mailing list of around 2,000 readers, the pin was pulled.
“Sometimes we just couldn’t compete with Dubai, and reality beat satire on so many occasions. There was one particular announcement, for a tower in the shape of a man in a kandura, and I just thought: ‘Oh, you win, I couldn’t even have come up with that one.’”
It lay dormant until three years ago, when it was reincarnated as The Pan-Arabia Enquirer, resplendent with a mischief-making, news-style website and the nuisance-enhancing tools of Facebook and Twitter for Mr. A to amplify the fun and games.
Today, the website records 400,000 monthly page views, according to the PAE’s media pack. And if you think its audience is primarily a bunch of expats having a giggle at everybody else, then you’d be mistaken, says Mr. A. More than 50 per cent of readers are Arab, he says, who also regularly email in ideas for him to fix his crosshairs on.
Positioned next to the site’s traffic statistics is a screen grab showing clothing brand Diesel’s online ad campaign on the Enquirer. And while potential advertisers do come knocking, seduced by the viral nature of its content, Mr. A reckons the PAE is a bridge too far for most marketing departments, who struggle with the uncertainty of jumping into bed with the playful Enquirer. “By and large, the Enquirer has been very well received, which has been hugely rewarding,” he says. “But I couldn’t say that everyone loves it.” He pauses, and breaks into a laugh. “A lot of my traffic – certainly for the bigger stories – comes from people who just don’t get it. They see a headline and the red mist rises and they are absolutely outraged at whatever ludicrous suggestion I have put across.”
The sound of background chopping stops, Mr. A lays the knife down and explains: “I don’t go out there to upset people. That is absolutely not what it’s about. I’m not doing stuff so that people get outraged. If people are outraged, it’s simply because they haven’t read the big thing at the top that says ‘this is a joke’.
"I think this is one of the things about social media. You just see a headline, a few words, and you’re instantly outraged and want to tell all your friends how outraged you are. But you just can’t be arsed to take 10 seconds and have a proper look at it, and realise that it’s a joke. It’s not my intention to piss people off at all - but it is quite funny when it happens.”
Mr. A’s speech and delivery throughout the interview is lively. At times he drops into almost character-type voice roles, and deadpans, well-timed sarcastic one-liners, to magnify the humour. It’s easy to believe him when he says the intention all along was to just make a small circle of friends laugh. “There was no grand plan for social change or millions of dollars.”
Political satire in the Middle East is not a pastime to be taken lightly. “Somewhat awkward bedfellows,” is how Mr. A diplomatically describes it. The Enquirer isn’t afraid to get political, but it is very careful to not defecate in its own backyard. Revolutions in Egypt, uprisings in Bahrain, Syria’s civil war, Israel’s blockading and bombing of Gaza and Barack Obama’s White House administration have all been picked up in one way or another. “I have to say some of our stories that cover Gaza or Syria, they’re not always particularly funny. Satire doesn’t have to be funny all the time.” Our time is drawing to a close, and dinner guests will soon be arriving. I ask Mr. A if he considers the Enquirer to be a success. “I think part of the Enquirer’s success is down to the fact that satire is quite new over here, and people don’t really understand it or they haven’t really got to grips with it,” he says.
“Has it been a financial success? No. Has it made me laugh? Absolutely. Has it made other people laugh? It seems to. So, yeah, I would say it has been a success. It’s difficult maintaining it, and it is hard work. And I have to admit that there are times when it does feel like a job. But it’s a job that I very much enjoy.”
Details: visit panarabiaenquirer.com