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Arab-American Comedians Counter Stereotypes With Comedy

A group of Arab-American performers in New York is using comedy to raise awareness about stereotyping and help change attitudes toward Arab-Americans.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many Arab-Americans reported they were subjected to harassment, discrimination and suspicion.

Four years ago, in an effort to dispel stereotypes and negative attitudes provoked by the attacks, comedians Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.

Obeidallah says comedy is a way to create a broader understanding of different ethnic groups.

"The Arab-American Comedy Festival began four years ago. It was three nights long, it was never intended to be annual. It was just a way of trying to showcase artists and do something that gives a positive image of Arab-Americans in America at the time," he said. "So, we did shows that foster understanding, dispel stereotypes, make people understand who we are a little, and define us in a much more accurate way."

The festival has expanded to a six-day blend of standup performance comedy, situation comedy and film, selling out to diverse audiences over the past two years.

Cofounder Maysoon Zayid says the festival is pan-Arab with 50 Arab-American comics, artists and performers with roots in 22 countries.

Although the featured performers are all Arab-Americans, Obeidallah says the shows are for everyone.

"It's just been a growing interest by non-Middle Eastern Americans to our shows. And, we are so happy about that, because we don't need to tell fellow Arab-Americans that we're not all terrorists, we're not all bad people, but we need to tell the average American. And, that's what the shows are about," she said.

Zayid says portions of the show that have been performed in the Middle East have received positive responses.

"Not only has the reception been unbelievably supportive, but there has been a lot of curiosity, because standup [comedy] is not an Arab thing," explained Zayid. "People never saw standup before we started doing standup. Once we started doing standup comedy, people got really, really excited about it."

"So, I've seen two things happen," she continued. "One is that when we do go the Middle East, the shows are insanely popular. And, the second thing is, there is a new generation of standup comics growing up in the Middle East, because now they've seen someone do it."

Zayid says the content of the show has evolved over the years from defending Arab-Americans in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, to mocking themselves and society.

Zayid draws on personal experiences for her comedy. She says she often talks about undergoing additional security checks at airports, as part of what officials call random screening.

"I am always 'random,' so I actually do a joke about that in my routine, because I also have cerebral palsy," she said. "And I talk about how, when I walk in, airport security just goes ballistic, because I'm not only an Arab, but I'm a shaking Arab, and they think I'm guilty."

Obeidallah says comedy is the best way to reach the masses with a positive message.

"People laughing in an audience, it makes it more difficult for them to be angry at you. I also believe that, if they are laughing, they are agreeing with you. I may be delusional, but I feel, if they can laugh with you, why can't we get along," he aded.

Obeidallah says the comedy festival has achieved its goal of garnering positive attention for the Arab-American community, and increasing the visibility of talented Arab-American artists.