Palestinian-American Comedian Amer Zahr Turns Pain Into Laughter
By Dale Sprusansky
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
One thing all Palestinians share—be they in Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Diaspora—is pain. The pain of statelessness, dehumanization and injustice is inescapable and at times all-encompassing.
Palestinian-American comedian Amer Zahr acknowledges there is no ignoring or hiding this pain. He does believe, however, that Palestinians can choose how to process and express their suffering.
“Laughing and crying are not that different,” Zahr told an audience at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC on June 3. “We’ve all seen someone laugh so much that he starts crying. But sometimes you might even see somebody cry so much that he starts laughing….They come from the same place.”
The absurdity of everyday life in Palestine, Zahr believes, often leaves no option but laughter. “It’s living in a completely alternate universe where things happen there [in Palestine] that don’t happen anywhere else in the world, and where normal things don’t happen,” Zahr explained. “You may cry at the ridiculous, but we Palestinians laugh at the ridiculous.”
With this guiding principle, Zahr is able to do something few others are capable of: generating boisterous laughter at the mention of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israeli settlements, or the decimated enclave of Gaza.
Zahr admits that his comedic routine—which also touches on his life as an Arab American—is a form of therapy. “When I’m on stage, it’s therapeutic for me to talk about these things,” he said. “I think if I didn’t have that, I’d be much angrier than I am.”
At the same time, Zahr realizes his routine is a constructive way to highlight the Palestinian experience. “If you can make people laugh, they listen to you. You can only tell so many stories [that begin with] ‘in 1948…’ until people stop listening.”
Zahr is not sure if his routine has ever changed the opinions of an audience member. At the vey least, though, he knows his comedy has given people an opportunity to see and hear an Arab for the first time.
“A few times, people have told me ‘you’re the first Arab or the first Muslim that I’ve ever met,’” Zahr told the Washington Report. “When comedy is involved, sometimes people get a whole fresh encounter with someone who they might have otherwise had no encounter with.”
Some may be pleasantly surprised to learn that Zahr has never faced stiff criticism for the pro-Palestine/Muslim/Arab orientation of his material.
The key to addressing touchy topics is honesty, Zahr believes: “Honesty, transparency, vulnerability—these things are paramount. And when you’re doing that, how can someone be mad at you? They may think you’re not funny, but they won’t be angry.”
The Dearborn, Michigan resident believes no topic should be untouchable onstage. “A comedian, if he’s good at what he does, he can talk about anything. All that matters is that it’s funny,” he said. “If you’re going to touch on touchy subjects like sex or religion, that just means you better be a lot funnier talking about that than you were talking about something that’s a little more innocuous…otherwise you’re going to come away as dirty or inappropriate.”
When it comes to generating material, Zahr reports having very few difficulties. “No matter who you are and no matter what sort of situation you are in, there’s probably at least 5 to 10 funny things that happen to you every day,” he observed. “And for Palestinians, it’s probably more like 50 or 100 funny things that happen, just because of the alternate universe, the weird things we see and have to go through.”
Zahr, who has performed across the U.S. and the Middle East (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Haifa, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv), said he doesn’t change his act for non-American audiences.
The key to a successful performance, he explained, is selecting quality material—not editing jokes. “If I think there’s a certain joke that is too much for a certain crowd, I just won’t tell it,” he said. “I won’t try to change it too much and then tell it, because then it comes out in a way that it’s not supposed to come out and then it seems dishonest.”
Zahr’s favorite place to perform is Palestine—because, he explained, “they’re aware of the stereotypes that others have of them…so laughter to them is really precious.”
He returns to Palestine two or three times a year, but Israel has never granted him permission to enter Gaza. Zahr hopes to one day do a show for the residents of the besieged strip.
While making people laugh is Zahr’s full-time profession, he also dabbles in several serious fields. He runs a blog, <civilarab.com>, where he shares his views on domestic and international issues; authored a book, Being Palestinian Makes Me Smile (available from AET’s Middle East Books and More); produced a documentary, “We’re Not White”; and is an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
Zahr’s students likely enjoy a few laughs during lectures, but they also are being instructed by an eminently qualified professor who has earned three degrees from the University of Michigan: a BA in history, an MA in modern Middle East and North African Studies, and a JD.
Indeed, Zahr was on track to become a lawyer until he randomly began his life as a comedian 12 years ago.
Attending a stand-up act as a university student, Zahr volunteered to take the stage in order to fill time. He was a hit. “It was fun and everybody loved it,” he recalled, “so I just kind of caught the bug, I guess, and kept doing it more and more and more.” Five years later, he received his first paid gig.
Zahr is glad his plans for being a lawyer fell through (although his proud Arab mom still tells people he’s a lawyer).
Now instead of teetering on the line between the truth and the “whole truth,” he is able to delicately substitute laughter for tears. ❑
Dale Sprusansky is assistant editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.