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Arab Comedians are Working to Change Minds

posted on: Sep 27, 2011

Have you heard the one about the Palestinian-Sicilian lawyer who gave up his day job to convince the world Arabs can be funny?

Dean Obeidallah believes in comedy with an underlying message. As the co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which kicks off today with more than 50 performers from around the world, including Dubai, he thinks jokes can be used to break down stereotypes.

“Comedy has a long tradition of raising political and racial issues in America,” he says. “Jewish-American and African-American communities have been doing it for years.

“There are more Arab and Jewish comedians and actors than there were 20 years ago, whether it’s filmmaking, directing or working in the entertainment business.

“That is important in the bigger picture of creating our own narrative that will tell a different story about Arabs today.”

The festival was organised as a one-off in 2003 with his fellow comic Maysoon Zayid in response to the negative backlash against the Arab community after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“My life changed because of 9/11,” says Obeidallah, 41. “We wanted to share something that defined us accurately and didn’t have to do with terrorism.”

It was a surprise success. They played three shows over three nights to packed audiences and the event quickly snowballed into an annual one.

“We don’t get a month that celebrates our heritage in America like a Black History Month,” Obeidallah quips. “We get orange alert.”

The five-night extravaganza spread over nine shows now plays to thousands and includes stand-up, sketch comedy, a “rising stars” slot for new faces and the “haram show” featuring bawdy Arab adult humour.

The collective includes comics from across the US, Canada and the Middle East, including the Emirates’ own home-grown comedian, Ali Al Sayed, the founder of the Dubomedy comedy school.

Also on the line-up are Abbas Nouri-Abbood from Iraq, Adi Khalefa, a stand-up comedian from Nazareth, the actor Al Nazemian and Aron Kader, a founding member of the Axis of Evil comedy troupe, which takes its name from the George Bush speech.

The festival has won high praise, including a Wall Street Journal review that read: “The laughs come so thick and fast there’s no chance to breathe for minutes at a time… a splendid, merciless anatomy of the Arab-American experience.”

Obeidallah says this is what audiences are drawn to. Arab actors and performers have long complained they are typecast as extremists and terrorists by film and TV producers; now they can tap into their personal experiences to make people laugh. It works, he adds, because Arabs are naturally very funny.

“Arabs have a tradition of storytelling,” says Obeidallah, who is the director of the Amman Stand-up Comedy Festival and often performs in the Middle East. “They have a great sense of humour. It is almost cathartic and a way of dealing with difficult situations, whether it is personal or the Palestinian struggle.

“I have toured from Oman to Saudi Arabia and they all understand what funny is – there is a great sense of humour that connects the Arab world and they have no problem making fun of themselves.”

One of his favourite jokes is sending up the Arab addiction to smoking – by describing how he walked into the gym in his hotel in Jordan and found an ashtray on a treadmill. A common thread running through many of the performances at the festival is that the stories based on the absurdity of growing up as an Arab in America are rooted in reality.

Obeidallah himself grew up with a backdrop of mixed cultural experiences. His father Abdul Musa was born in the West Bank and first left in 1956 to go to Amman as a chef at the US embassy. That job led to a move to New Jersey, where he met his Sicilian wife Camille.

The pair opened a restaurant called Derby Diner near a racetrack, where a teenage Obeidallah often worked as a waiter. His fondest memories are of his father, who died 12 years ago, holding court with comical stories about his homeland: “I get my sense of humour from him. He could sit and tell stories all day.”

Obeidallah studied law but found working in litigation “painfully boring”. When his colleagues suggested he enter a funniest lawyer competition staged by the Bar Association, he found he enjoyed getting up to tell jokes before a crowd. He began to perform regularly at open-mike events and stand-up shows and finally left law in 1998 to join a year-long training programme with NBC.

His dream was to work on Saturday Night Live and he ended up doing a seven-year stint there, working behind the scenes in production and sketch-writing while continuing stand-up in his spare time.

He finally left the popular TV show four years ago to pursue a career performing live. “It was going well enough to make a living,” he says.

He loves discovering new talent in the Middle East and performing in the region because the industry is so nascent here.

“Shows in the Middle East have been one of the highlights of my career,” he says. “It has been great to see the beginning of a comedy movement.

“Here in the US, they are a little more jaded. In the Middle East, you get bigger laughs and they are more appreciative than American audiences.”

Obeidallah, who has been a guest on Axis of Evil, performed stand-up in Dubai in December last year and taught workshops at Al Sayed’s school. He says he would love to bring his Arabs Gone Wild show, which he has taken around the US with Zayid and Kader, to the UAE.

“There is a chance of performing in Abu Dhabi,” he adds. “It is a question of finance and finding a promoter. There are some really active young people in the Emirates who are passionate about comedy and the scene is developing quickly.”

Their biggest challenge is not having America’s proliferation of comedy clubs where they can hone their craft and see other performers: “You really have to be a pioneer of stand-up.”

The latest project from Obeidallah, who co-created the touring show Stand Up for Peace with the Jewish comedian Scott Blakeman, has more of a serious undertone. He is working on a documentary called The Muslims Are Coming, which involves him visiting the most conservative pockets of the American Deep South and performing for free.

“I wanted people who would never go to see a Muslim comedian perform to come. Most have never met a Muslim so when they hear something about Muslims, they believe it,” he says.

“One even asked me if it was true there was a terrorist training camp in Michigan.”

The documentary was prompted by a growing mistrust of Muslims across the US, which expressed itself in demonstrations against the proposed mosque at ground zero in New York, false rumours that President Barack Obama was a Muslim and in a non-constitutional attempt to ban sharia from US legislation.

Obeidallah says: “In the last year there has been growing anti-Muslim sentiment from people on the right, which is having an impact on mainstream Americans. It is completely irresponsible. I want to show what Muslims are about.”

At this week’s comedy festival, three-quarters of the audience are expected to be Arabs in their 20s and 30s but the shows will be performed in English. Obeidallah hopes it will counteract the growing sway of anti-Islamic sentiment.

“It takes more than just one comedy festival,” he admits. “There need to be more alliances between Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities in America.

“This is about more than just comedy. I would not be a comedian if I was just telling jokes. I am using comedy to effectuate change.”

Tahira Yaqoob
The National