Arab-Americans found little to joke about after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But slowly, humor is reasserting itself as a way of dealing with stress, and a way of commenting on the vagaries of being Middle-Eastern in the United States. Today on New American Voices we take you to a comedy club in New York City, where an ethnically diverse group of young people performs as “the Middle-Eastern Bizarre.”
Walking along a New York City street, Dean Obeidallah looks totally anonymous -- a tall, nice-looking young man in jeans and an open-necked shirt. Nobody would guess that this young man is, first, an Arab-American, and secondly, very funny.
“This is what my name translates into: Obedient to Allah. That’s not going to help me, is it, folks? How difficult would it be for me to make airline flight reservations for the rest of my life using that name? ‘Hi, two tickets to Miami. My name? Mr. Obedient to Allah.’ ‘Hang on, let me transfer to you someone who can help you. Hello, FBI?’”
Mr. Obeidallah points out that any time you see an Arab person interviewed on American TV these days, the questions are very serious and the interviewees come across as somber, intense and concerned. Yet Mr. Obeidallah says many of the Arabs that he personally knows are funny, lively people who joke around a lot. He hopes to show this human side to the audiences who visit the stand-up comedy club.
“Are you single, attractive, and want to date someone your parents will never approve of? Call me, I’m Palestinian!”
Mr. Obeidallah’s father was born in Palestine, his mother is Italian-American. He says that the wellspring of his humor is the experience of growing up in an immigrant family.
“Adversity for many comics is the seed of their comedy-push. Some have had personal problems in their lives and they deal with it by going on stage and talking about it. Being the child of an immigrant I think you view America a little differently than people who have been here for generations. And being now Arab-American after 9-11 the adversity is there of living in America. It’s something everybody understands. I don’t look Arabic and my name is Obeidallah which has the word Allah in it and that tends to get attention, evokes some conversations by people, sometimes leads into troubling places, which I try to use humor to help myself – and that’s what I talk about in my act.”
Dean Obeidallah organized The Middle Eastern Bizarre with a group of young comedians of Pakistani, Indian, Arab and Palestinian decent. Among them was Maysoon Zayid. Ms. Zayid has lived all her twenty-some years in a small New Jersey town on America’s East Coast, 12 kilometers from Manhattan, surrounded by a large, extended Palestinian family.
“I’ve had so many people tell me they can’t imagine how I can find any humor in the current situation between Palestine and Israel. How can you find humor in that? Aren’t you frustrated, aren’t you sick of it, aren’t you angry? I feel like we will basically go crazy if we don’t find the humor in the things that anger us.”
Ms. Zayid has traveled to the Middle East and performed comedy there. She finds that even people living in stressful conditions respond to humor, and are, in fact, eager to laugh. Sprinkled through the audience of the comedy club in New York where Ms Zayid performs are quite a few Arab-Americans, including young women in headscarves. It’s clear that they appreciate Miss Zayid’s humor.
“I’m going to Palestine on July 7th. If you want to get married it’s good to go to a place full of Arabs who don’t have passports and want one.”
Comedian Vijay Nathan was born in India and emigrated to the United States with her parents as a young child. Her humor reflects the cultural gap that children of immigrants often feel.
“My dad was always so worried that I was becoming too American. He would say, ‘So, you want to wear pants… eat cows… visit the Easter Bunny? That’s it! You’re going back to India.’”
Vijay Nathan says that she herself was caught between her parents’ view of her as an Indian, and her own desire to be an American. Part of the frustration of this inner conflict has worked itself out in her jokes, particularly about her father.
“When I go home he starts yelling, and it’s like this little dog, like a chihuahua. ‘Vijai, you should quit stand-up comedy because you’re not getting any younger. And you should get married, and yap, yap, yap, yap.”
Much of the humor of the members of the Middle Eastern Bizarre is drawn from their experiences of living in both the immigrant and the American worlds. It is something that resonates with their New York audience -- probably the most ethnically diverse on the planet.
“My older sister is a born again Christian. After my sister converted, my mother was angry. She said, ‘Why does she have to be born again Christian? We are Hindu. We are born again, and again, and again…”
Ms Nathan says that at first she started performing as a comic seeking an outlet to express herself. But then she found that she wanted to get up on stage to break down stereotypes through laughter, to enlighten people, and to prove that she was indeed an American.
English Feature #7-38113 Broadcast December 8, 2003
We are grateful to VOA-TV's Tim Wardner for the video and audio material on which story was based.