Peering out into the darkened audience of a Dubai bar, comedian Imah Dumagay leaned into the microphone and addressed the mistaken perception that many people have across the Middle East when they see a Filipina at a nightclub.
“I am from the Philippines but I am not taking any orders tonight,” she said, drawing chuckles as her countrymen served beers and bar food at this rooftop bar in sight of Dubai’s sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab luxury hotel. “Where is that guy asking for water earlier? Sir, we are not all waitresses.”
She waited a beat and added: “But if you’re looking for a maid, I’m available on Saturdays. I’m very good at cleaning; I clean from the ceiling down to your jewelry box.”
Tucked within her slightly risqué set, Dumagay’s rapid-fire punchlines offer an unfiltered glimpse into the life, sly triumphs and slights faced by her 2.2 million compatriots. They care for children, wait tables and otherwise power economies across the wider Middle East. Those Filipinos provide billions of dollars in remittances back to their families still living in the Philippines, but face abuse and isolation in countries that often treat them as a disposable, low-paid workforce.
“I want to kind of be a voice for them,” Dumagay told The Associated Press before her recent set. “When you use your platform, you send a message to people. Comedy is a great method to send your message across.”
Dumagay, 38, of Mindanao, Philippines, worked in Dubai for years before deciding to leave her job to pursue comedy full time. That’s not an easy task in this skyscraper-studded tourist destination where most bars and nightclubs focus more on drinks and music than variety shows.
The city-state also focuses more on importing A-list American, British and Indian comedy acts given the city’s vast foreign workforce. Some topics remain taboo in this hereditarily ruled country of seven sheikhdoms, where speech is strictly governed.
But there is a burgeoning local scene here, as seen on Sunday at the Hi Five Restaurant & Lounge. A United Nations of amateur comedians took the stage to varying degrees of success in sets touching on the scatological to the societal. An Emirati with dyed blonde hair even had 10 minutes, referring to his tight ripped jeans and tattoos instead of the traditional robes and ghutra headdress as the rebellious “Emirati starter kit.”
Dumagay’s comedy springs from her experiences working across Dubai, from advertising to banking to being an executive secretary. That earlier crack about not being a waitress? It’s a real experience she had before taking the stage at one of her 200-odd appearances.
Sunday’s open-mic appearance comes as Dubai slowly revives its live entertainment scene amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. When venues largely shut down over the virus, Dumagay turned to social media, offering performances such as a never-flustered Filipina answering emergency services calls, telling someone reporting a murder that they only “need four cleaners” for the mess.
But there’s a darker side to the Filipino experience in the Gulf Arab states. Many maids face physical, sexual and psychological abuse from their employers, who in some cases seize their passports and force them to work nonstop. In Kuwait in 2018, authorities discovered the corpse of a Filipina maid killed and left in a refrigerator for over a year.
Stories like those have Dumagay wanting to incorporate more serious topics into her new sets.
“My fellow Filipinos sacrifice their time to be spent with their family back home,” she said. “They are here struggling to just provide for them.”
But Dumagay, like others working overseas, displays that one Filipino trait even she notes she can’t mock: relentless optimism and hope for the future despite the many challenges they face.
“Just keep going and just trust yourself and experiment and then do something outside your comfort zone. Don’t be scared,” she said. “I mean, what’s the worst thing could happen? You fail and then you try again.”