Sharief Homsi looks out at his audience in a dimly lit Damascus cafe as he describes the ideal man in a war-battered Syria: an eligible bachelor with attractive supplies of fuel and electricity.
“Marry me,” he beseeches in a mock proposal, “I have a bright future: 100 litres of petrol, solar panels to generate electricity and three gas canisters,” he says as the audience howls.
Homsi is a member of Styria, Syria’s first stand-up comedy troupe whose members perform every week, telling jokes about daily struggles like power cuts and fuel shortages to lighten the mood for Damascenes despondent after 12 years of war.
The audience prefers “to laugh and forget the problems they cannot solve”, Homsi, 31, tells AFP news agency. “There is nothing else to do but laugh.”
He and some of his friends founded Styria (a mash-up of Syria and hysteria) four months ago and put out a call on social media for others to join, now they are 35 members and regularly draw crowds at the capital’s Deez Cafe.
“The country’s situation is hysterical,” Homsi says, “We must face it with hysterical laughter.”
The war in Syria, which broke out in 2011, has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced millions and battered infrastructure and industry.
Before performances, the comedians meet at a troupe member’s home to brainstorm and try out new lines.
“They told me to draw in the crowds with funny stories,” said one comedian during a rehearsal, as the power dropped in and out.
“I thought long and hard and found that the funniest thing in my life is … my life.”
Talk soon moved to his love life.
“He now has so many exes, his life is an equation,” one quipped.
In government-held Damascus, religion and politics are off-limits for the comedians, deemed too risky to broach.
Comedian Amir Dayrawan, 32, says doing stand-up helped him “face the fears locked inside” and shake off loss and despair, despite having to self-censor.
Depression set in after he lost his sister and nephew in the conflict, and worsened after a deadly earthquake struck Syria and Turkey on February 6, killing thousands.
“We don’t mention politics, though we sometimes hint at sexual and religious issues – within the red lines,” he said.
“One day, I hope we can free ourselves intellectually and discuss any topics without fear.”
At Deez Cafe, comedian Malke Mardinali, 28, said the troupe’s inspiration came from the struggles in their daily lives.
“In Europe, even under three metres of snow, the electricity still works,” he told the crowd.
“Here, when we hear Fairuz sing ‘Winter Is Back’ the power cuts out automatically,” he said, drawing chuckles with the reference to a famous Lebanese tune.
Mary Obaid, 21, the only woman in Styria, jokes about Syria’s public transport, badly overcrowded as petrol shortages push people to abandon their cars.
“Syrian buses can accommodate 24 million people,” she jokes, referring to Syria’s pre-war population.
“In the end, without misery, there is no comedy,” she tells AFP.