Dispatch

Will Iceland’s Absurdist Comic Mayor Run for a Staid Second Term?

A visit with Jon Gnarr, the 'best' politician in Reykjavik.

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Jon Gnarr has to make a decision. The former punk rocker, former stand-up comedian, former joke protest candidate, and current mayor of Reykjavik is approaching the end of his first term in office. Recent polls put his party, the ironically named Best Party, at 37 percent, making him the likely winner. In August, he posted a question on his Facebook page, "Elections next spring. What do you think?" and linked to a video of The Clash classic "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

On Thursday, Oct. 31, he will announce whether he'll stand again. "I have been thinking about how I would run again," he says. "Would I promise two polar bears? And Legoland? And free everything for everybody? Because that's what we ran on, just promise: Tell us what you want and we'll promise."

The first thing you notice upon stepping into Gnarr's office, located in a modernist concrete building overlooking a pond in downtown Reykjavik, is a painting of Banksy's "Flower Chucker" -- a gift from the famous graffiti artist on the condition that it hangs above the mayor's desk. On the day I visited, Gnarr was wearing a pale tan suit and combat boots. On one finger he wore a skull ring.

Gnarr first threw his hat into the political ring in November 2009, just over a year after the collapse of Iceland's three biggest banks -- the backbone, heart, and lungs of the island nation's economy -- had turned the country's political scene upside down. He had been noodling on a proposal for a television comedy, about a "psycho naive politician, always confident, happy, smiling, stupid" and the next logical step seemed to be put his name on the ballot for the upcoming municipal elections.

For voters fed up with politics, Gnarr offered an attractive protest vote, a charismatic alternative to the parties they blamed for the crisis. He formed the Best Party as a joke and larded his campaign platform with proposals he literally promised he wouldn't keep: a polar bear display for the city zoo, a drug-free parliament by 2020, free towels in the municipal swimming pools. The results of the elections, in May 2010, stunned the Icelandic political establishment. The Best Party took 34.7 percent of the vote, more than any other party, giving it six out of Reykjavik's 15 council seats and, after a coalition with the Social Democrats, control of city hall. Gnarr had basically riffed his way into the mayor's chair, putting him in charge of a city of 120,000 -- roughly a third of the island nation's population.

Gnarr has punctuated his term with moments of comedy, dressing up in drag to lead a gay pride parade and donning Jedi robes to cast his vote in Iceland's 2013 elections. But he says the stunt lost its humor for him the day before the 2009 elections, when he saw the polls and knew he was going to win. "I realized the responsibility and the seriousness of it," he says. "The financial situation wasn't good." In the early weeks of his administration, he became uncomfortably aware of how little he knew about how Reykjavik actually functioned. "I didn't realize how many people work for the city," he says. "8,000 people work for it. I didn't know. I thought it was, like, some hundred people. I didn't know the first thing about it."

To listen to Gnarr talk, it's a wonder he still wants the job. He and the councilmen from the Best Party talk about their terms as "doing time in politics" and Gnarr describes politics as "violent," a "hostile, manipulative atmosphere." Asked what he finds hardest about being mayor, he doesn't hesitate: "Angry lobbyists," he says. "That's what gives me headaches. At times you have to deal with a lot of anger, and demanding angry people.... I've been in meetings where people are shouting and screaming and banging their fists." 

Gnarr has approached his term partly as an administrator and partly as performance art, a constant critique of how politicians carry themselves. "People are still very surprised when I admit I don't know things," he says. "Many people find that very amazing, not the fact that I don't know, but that I have the guts to admit I don't know."

One of the bigger urban planning issues facing Reykjavik is whether to relocate a domestic airport that lies just outside the city center.

"I was asked about this," says Gnarr, recounting a conversation between himself and an imaginary questioner.

"In your opinion, what should we do with the airport?"

"I don't know."

"How come you don't know?"

"'I've never moved an airport! I don't know what it means to move an airport. But I'm willing to look into it."

He later decided it should be moved. "It's valuable property to build on," he told me. "We can find a better place for the airport."

By most measures, Gnarr's term has been a success: He has cut the budget -- a necessity in cash-strapped Iceland -- and saved the city's energy company from bankruptcy. But what he lists as his biggest accomplishment as mayor is bringing stability to Reykjavik's political scene. In the seven years before Gnarr took office, the city burned through seven mayors as coalitions rose and fell and battled for control. None of them survived their second year. The shortest term lasted just over three months. "I was overwhelmed how this political nonsense had done so much damage," says Gnarr. "We'll never really know what it has cost us. Because if you have a political majority in a city, they start sponsoring projects and work. And when that majority falls, and a new majority enters, they cancel a lot of that work. You're always starting from scratch."

I asked what he would like to accomplish if he decides to run again and voters gave him another four years. Not the purposefully empty promises he'd offered on the campaign trail, but what he actually would want to get done. He answered that he'd like to overhaul the city's transportation system. Reykjavik, in its layout, has more the feel of an American city than a European one; its small center quickly yields to arterial roadways leading out to sprawling suburbs. "There's too much emphasis on the private car," he says. "We have to increase alternatives in transportation.... If you look at old photos from Reykjavik, you can see that the roads are quite narrow. And the pathways are wide. But that has changed. The roads have taken more and more."

Elections are expected to be held in May, and even if Gnarr does decide to run, there's of course no guarantee that he would win. In a national election last spring, voters returned to power the two parties that had governed before the 2008 crash. I asked him what he would do if next year he was no longer mayor, and he deflected the question with an attempt at humor. "Well, I have this business plan: a bingo bar," he said. "If you buy a large beer, you get a bingo card. And if you get bingo, you get a free beer. It's a brilliant idea." For the first time in Gnarr's life, it's life outside of politics that seems like the bigger joke.

HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

How Far Can Egypt's Jon Stewart Go Without Being Thrown In Jail?

As the new season of his show premieres, Bassem Youssef tries to find humor in military rule.

CAIRO — Red lights flood Bassem Youssef's stage and silver glitter pours from the ceiling upon his circular, futuristic news desk. An array of dancers wearing gigantic rainbow-colored bowties file in behind Youssef, Egypt's most famous satirist. With broad smiles, they dance happily as they sing about Egypt's bloody summer. They describe how the Muslim Brotherhood won at the ballot box, but then betrayed the people's trust, and the people returned to the streets to boot them out.

"Sissi fought terrorism, and so he made a coup!" concludes one of the dancers.

The song screeches to a halt. Youssef, dapperly attired in a suit, slaps his hand over the man's mouth, while two other dancers pin his arms behind his back. "Are you a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?" Youssef asks the man. "What, dude? I'm Christian," he responds.

You idiot, the joke went. You're not supposed to call it a coup at all -- it's a popular revolution.

Youssef returned on Oct. 25 with the premiere of his third season of al-Bernameg ("The Show"), a political satire program akin to an Egyptian version of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. And his job is more difficult than ever: Since Youssef's last episode aired in June, the military deposed former President Mohamed Morsy and Egypt suffered its worst internal violence in modern history. Now, Youssef's return may answer a lingering question about the country's emerging political reality: Are you allowed to laugh at Egypt's new rulers?

The early signs are not good. Even before Youssef's new episode premiered on Oct. 25, the State Commissioner's Authority released a report criticizing a prior court ruling that dismissed charges against Youssef for insulting the presidency. The report recommended re-prosecuting Youssef, arguing that it was unacceptable to insult the president because he is a "symbol of the state."

Before an audience of roughly 200 people in downtown Cairo's Radio Theatre, Youssef did his best to walk this political tightrope. In the front row of the audience sat businessman Mohammed el-Amin -- the owner of the channel that airs Youssef's show and an antagonist of the Muslim Brotherhood. And while Youssef skewered top political officials and media supporters of the new military-backed government, he did not lay a satirical glove on its central figure -- army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Youssef made light of the difficulty of his task. A running gag at the beginning of the episode centered on his inability to develop a script -- one of his writers merely spends his time daydreaming about the ubiquitous pro-army song "Teslam al-ayady." With political passions still running high, Youssef appeared to be asking, is there anything funny to say about Egyptian politics?

But it's precisely this fevered political rhetoric that Youssef turns into the punch line. In one segment, he played clips of television anchors delivering increasingly stupendous estimates for the crowd sizes of the anti-Morsy protests: 25 million, 40 million -- all the way up to 70 million. He cut to an interview with former Brotherhood parliamentarian Azza el-Garf, who triumphantly announced that 45 million people had taken to the streets in support of Morsy.

Looking perturbed, Youssef pulled out a calculator and began theatrically banging away; Egypt's population, after all, is only roughly 80 million. "This means one of two things," he said. "Either Egypt's population has expanded, or we have pimps who play both sides!" 

  

Perhaps to the chagrin of the State Commissioner's Authority, he didn't spare President Adly Mansour, describing him as a political nonentity. "With Adly Mansour, you can close your eyes quickly," read one banner.

Mansour, however, is a sideshow -- it's Sisi, the current defense minister, who sits at the center of political power in Egypt. And here, Youssef was much more careful: It's the fervent masses of Sisi supporters who come in for grief -- not the general himself. He aired one video that showed a caller praising Sisi, followed by the anchor, at a loss for words, simply responding with a blissful aaah. "Are you all right?" Youssef asks, with a half-smile.

Youssef also pokes fun at the dark things that may happen if one inadvertently crosses the country's powers that be.  In one segment, he took aim at the new fad of plastering Sisi's face on sweets. A baker comes out bearing a Sisi cake and Sisi cupcakes -- he also sells a plain loaf of "Rabaa" bread, named after the pro-Morsy sit-in outside Cairo's Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque.

"I'll take a half kilo," Youssef says, suitable impressed with the cupcakes. The baker's eyes narrow in suspicion at the small size of the order. Do you really like Sisi, he asks?

Youssef, suitably chastened, gives in. "OK, OK, I'll take all of it."

Such jokes may make government officials squirm, but they're more polite than the broadsides that Youssef launched at the Morsy government. This may also be affected by his audience, which is more sympathetic to the country's current rulers. In a question and answer session during a break in filming, for instance, one woman stood up to express her love for "Teslam al-ayady," and therefore the Egyptian military.

"That is your right, and it is my right to be sarcastic about it. But that doesn't mean I don't respect the people who like it," Youssef replied. "Just as I could be sarcastic about Morsy, but that doesn't mean I didn't respect the people who supported him. Now we can make fun of the authorities, but we still respect its supporters." The parallel, however, was incomplete -- he didn't mention Sisi's name.

After the lights went up on the final segment of the show, Youssef aired a clip of Sisi that was leaked by an Islamist website, showing the general speaking to a group of his fellow officers. One officer urged Sisi to pressure the media to not criticize the army -- Sissi counseled patience, saying, "it takes a very long time until you possess an appropriate share of influence over the media."

"We would never accept having a [government] arm here," Bassem says, outraged. "The time when someone will control us is over!"

An arm suddenly pops up from below his desk, trying to warn him to temper his remarks. When Youssef keeps on speaking, the arm steals his script, and tries to replace it with another one. "No," Youssef says, throwing aside the doctored script. "We will not be controlled!"

The arm then tries a more direct approach -- it moves away from Youssef's face, diving under the table to grab his crotch. Youssef mimes intense pain, and stops his tirade. Fade to black.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images