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Arab-American Comedy in New York: Routing Suspicions, Prejudice with Humor


Comedians from around the United States came to New York recently [Nov. 14-19] for the fourth annual Arab-American Comedy Festival. The event featured six nights of stand-up comedy, films and theater pieces satirizing everything from U.S. homeland security and President Bush, to sex and religion, to Arab politics and family life.

Dean Obeidallah, a lawyer from New Jersey who's half-Lebanese, and Maysoon Zayid, a Muslim Palestinian-American from California, founded the Arab-American comedy festival in 2003. "We know that comedy is a very American invention, so we're drawn to it,” Obadeillah told a group of international reporters. “Stand-up is truly an American invention. So, as Americans, and we're certainly proud of our heritage as Arabs, we want to use what can relate to other Americans. And certainly people laughing in an audience makes it more difficult for them to be angry with you, I think. I always feel if they're laughing, they're agreeing with you. I may be delusional, but that's what I feel."

Obeidallah said that after the 9/11 attacks, he felt it was important to assert his heritage -- especially when he heard prejudiced remarks from people who did not realize he was Arab-American. He's made those reactions part of his routine:

“‘Oh, you're Arab -- I love hummus.' 'Oh, you're Arab -- well, that sucks for you.' 'Oh, you're Arab -- but you look so nice!' 'Oh, you're Arab, what a coincidence, I love Indian food.' I have no idea what that means. 'Oh, you're Arab, no, really, what are you?' Like people can't believe, like you don't look like an Arab. 'Oh, you're Arab, hey, don't take this the wrong way, but if you hear of any terrorist attacks coming up, will you warn me?' Then they go, 'I'm just kidding -- but seriously, if you do hear of something, you will let me know, right?'"

The stand-up comedy nights, before mostly Arab-American audiences, took on discrimination, religion, sex, and women's status in the Arab world. "You know, I'm 30 years old and I'm single, right?” Maysoon Ziyad told the audience. ”Which is not a big deal, because like I said, it's like Sex and the City, I'm so cool. Here's the problem: In Arab years, I am actually 67."

"In some Middle East countries, the women cover up from head to toe,” said comic Helen Maalik, who lives in New York. “You have to feel bad for the Arab men over there because how do they check out the women? 'Oh, Ahmed, look at the one over there, so hot -- the one all dressed in black.' Or if you're an Arab kid and you get lost in the mall, how do you describe your mother to security? 'She has eyes!' “

In his routine, Palestinian-American Amer Zahr disputed that Arab women are oppressed. "Like, in my house when we were growing up, the woman, my mother, was not oppressed,” he said. “She was the oppressor. You know what I'm talking about. In the [Arab] household, the mother never just sits back and listens to whatever the father says. The father might every now and then put his foot down and yell and scream, and then that night, he's like, "Habibti [sweetheart], what do you think, is it okay?"

Joe DeRosa, who’s half-Egyptian, had the bitterest humor about Iraq. "Why are people my age going over there to get killed? We haven't done anything yet. I want to see two 90-year-old armies going onto the battlefield. That's fair. And if anybody did die, you'd finally have a good story about your grandparents dying. Aren't you tired of everybody's same old boring-ass stories? It's always the same. 'What's the matter, man?' 'Oh, well, we lost Nana (Grandma) last night. She went in her sleep, it was peaceful, but it was her time to go.' 'Yeah? Well, we lost Nana in Iraq! Top that!”

"Everybody thinks they're the chosen people: Christians, Jews, Muslims,” said Aron Kader, a half-Palestinian comic whose mother is an American Mormon. “I've got Muslim cousins who say, 'Aron, you don't understand. God chose us. He gave us this land, he promised it to us.' All right, God's not a licensed real estate agent."

Amanda Baramki, whose Egyptian-Palestinian family is from Virginia, talked about anti-Arab prejudice. "I saw this poll the other day on TV. I'm not exaggerating: It said that half of Americans think Arab-Americans should have to wear ID badges identifying ourselves as Arabs. Can you believe that? I say, let's make it fun. I say, ID badges and…eye patches! Because nobody hates pirates. Nobody. We could be walking down the street: 'Hi, matey, I'm Ahhrrr-ab.' “

President Bush's alleged lack of intelligence, and his homeland security policies also came in for jabs. "He does a thing right now, and I'm not exaggerating,” Dean Obeidallah said, “when he's making a big speech, when there's some important point, he will literally s-l-o-w down his speech pattern, speaking to us like we are the dumb ones. Like, for example, 'We've got to start developing alternative fuel sources, so we are no long-er de-pen-dent on for-eign oi-all." And I'm thinking why does he do that? And then it occurred to me, that was probably the way it was explained to him."

Helen Maalik took on ethnic profiling. "We were crossing the border from Canada a couple of months ago. Yep, you guessed it. Homeland Security pulled us over, took away our passports, made us go into the building. And as soon as we walked into the homeland security building, there's a portrait of George Bush looking right at you. And it was really creepy, because wherever you moved, his eyes followed you. It reminded me a lot of the post office here in New York, because there were four agents behind the counter, and only one was working."

The comics poked mostly affectionate fun at Arabs and their fellow Arab-Americans. "For a long time, Arabs didn't come to see comedy,” Aron Kader said. “We've been getting it going in the last few years, but traditionally, if Arabs came to see comedy, they'd come and sit in the back in the dark, and be like—“ The comic took on a gloomy Arabic accent: ‘Yeah, that was funny. You can almost hear me laugh, it's that funny. And anyone who says Arabs don't have a sense of humor -- I will kill you, and burn your flag.' "

Most shows in this year's New York Arab-American Comedy Festival sold out. The founders say they hope to take the festival to cities in the Middle East eventually, too -- where they say young native comics are also beginning to introduce stand-up.

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