Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, some Arab-Americans in the United States have been victims of harassment or violence. Others say non-Arabs view them more suspiciously. In short, there is not much that is funny about being an Arab-American these days. But some Arab-American comedians think there might be.
At the Chicago comedy club, Zanies, a recent Thursday night audience got a dose of humor from an Arab-American perspective.
Ray Hanania is a former newspaper reporter who now works as a columnist and communications consultant. A few years ago he wrote a book about being an Arab-American, titled, "I'm Glad I look Like a Terrorist." Now he has taken stereotypes about Arab-Americans and turned them into a comedy act. He says he knew he was different from other kids at school when they all sat down to lunch on day. "You open it up, and my friends look in their lunchboxes and my friends say, 'bologna sandwich, peanut butter and jelly,' neatly wrapped in aluminum. I open my lunchbox and it is filled with Baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, lamb and rice, hummus, fatoush," he says.
Hanania calls himself the guy you do not want sitting next to you on a passenger jet. Airport humor is a big part of his act. "You've heard some of these questions: "Did you pack your bag?" You say yes, they let you on the plane. I say yes, they arrest me," he says.
Hanania says he does not mean to minimize what some Arab-Americans have gone through since September. But he hopes his humor will be somewhat therapeutic for Arabs, while helping soften Arab-Americans' image among other Americans. Speaking in the alley outside the club afterward, Hanania said he developed his act after reading about Jewish comedians. "When you start reading, you see that Jewish comedians were one way that the Jewish community dealt with anti-Semitism and growing bigotry and hatred. That comedy helped soften people and it really does help tear down some stereotypes," he says.
Speaking of Jews, Hanania points out in his act that he married one.
"I know that I have a good [act] going because I do not know too many Arabs who are comedians who are married to Jewish wives. I can tell Americans that Jews and Arabs do get along, we do live together, and we can make fun of each other without killing each other," he says.
Hanania also jokes about the stereotypes of Arabs driving taxis for a living, or working in convenience stores. For the most part, the conflict in the Middle East is off-limits, and he does not make fun of his or any religion. "People need to understand, especially in my community, that we need to speak to Americans the way they want to be spoken to," he says. "Americans respect humor. If it is done the way, it opens up doors to Americans. You can publish all the books you want about the history of Palestine, but you can never connect with an American the way that you can when you show that you can make fun of yourself. That is something I think that Americans respect."