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PerformanceComedyHow to tell a joke in Palestine: Arab American...

How to tell a joke in Palestine: Arab American Comedy Fest brings essential connection

Co-founders Maysoon Zayid and Dean Obeidallah talk about 20 years of using laughs to transcend hatred.

Maysoon Zayid—co-founder of the Arab American Comedy Festival (Sat/10 at the Palace of Fine Arts, SF), disabled Palestinian American activist, author of upcoming children’s graphic novel Shiny Misfits, Princeton Arts Fellow and Lecturer—was watching her favorite show the Hallmark Channel. “I love it, it’s called ‘The Way Home’ and it stars Andy MacDowell,” the vivacious comedian said from her home in New York City. “I’m an insanely busy person, and it’s a perfect guilty pleasure.”

You can’t blame her for turning to Hallmark, just after an extended stint teaching comedy in Haifa, Ramallah, and other parts of the Palestinian Territories, including living in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem in the West Bank. “I spend so much time over there performing and leading comedy workshops, I always say I’m bi-coastal: Jersey and Jerusalem.” the Cliffside Park, New Jersey native says.

“Honestly, it’s kind of whiplash right now. This last time I went to Bethlehem for a Christmas show, as one does, and it was cancelled. Instead, I ended up in a hospital ward, visiting kids who’ve had half their skull blown off.”

Zayid is one of comedy’s most prominent disabled comics—a 2014 Ted talk detailing her unfiltered experience with cerebral palsy broke viewership records—and she uses her own background as a lens through which she views the current invasion of Palestine. “What’s going on over there right now is a mass disabling event. You have the death and the destruction—but you have thousands and thousands of people who are also now disabled. And I know how to talk about that.

“I know this probably isn’t what you expected to talk about in an interview about a comedy festival! I promise you we are funny! But it’s all connected to the work I do.”

While Zayid takes her healing laugher to the region overseas, her festival co-founder, Dean Obeidallah, holds down the political fort over here. As an outspoken progressive—with an incredible on-air voice—he’s a recognizable face from MSNBC and CNN, and daily “The Dean Obeidallah Show” on SiriusXM is a big deal for the latest takes on politics. (Right after speaking with me, he was interviewing Bernie Sanders on the loss of human life in Gaza.)

“But that’s the serious part of me,” Obeidallah said from his home in Manhattan. “I love nothing more than to get up in front of a crowd and make people laugh and share stories. I love that we can get out into the country again at this time when representation and community is really important, and have fun together.

“In fact, all 20 years of the festival has been building up to this San Francisco show—we’re coming to insure that the 49ers win the next day. I just want to put that out there: There’s no way to get better prepared for winning than to come see our show!”

Zayid and Obeidallah decided to start the New York Arab American Comedy Festival 20 years ago, in the wake of 9/11 and the Invasion of Iraq, when Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment was rampant, echoing our own moment. “A group here in New York called the Network of Arab-American Professionals wanted to do a show with Arab American comedians,” said Obeidallah. “And I said, I’m a comedian! So I helped put that show together, and Maysoon performed in it. It’s funny because even thought we’re both of Palestinian descent and from New Jersey, I didn’t know Maysoon or her family until comedy, until that show.

“Maysoon and I talked about how there were these people we never met coming out to these shows. It was a cathartic relief. There was so much open demonization of Arab Americans at that time that was more than anything many of us had lived through. Before 9/11, I thought I was basically a white guy. Maybe a little ethnic, but basically a white guy. It was a real wake up call for me to see such vitriol so plainly expressed in regards to my community.

“So we said, let’s do something to use our art to tell our stories Let’s try a comedy festival! We didn’t mean it to be annual. We really just wanted a counter-narrative to all the negative things that were being said about our community,” said Obeidallah, who has also been part of the Axis of Evil tour and The Muslims are Coming comedy documentary. “We wanted to show that ‘Hey, we’re Arab and we’re American, we’re proud of both, we can laugh about ourselves and what’s going on—while also really talking about ourselves and what’s going on. The other thing we wanted to do was to inspire others like us to get up on stage.”

Zayid says, “There was no Arab American comedy scene to speak of when we started. It’s been incredible to see how things have evolved over the years, there are so many young people now who say, We grew up watching you and wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. That’s so amazing. As we’ve toured the festival around the country over the past two decades, we’re really connected with people from so many different communities, and see such a diverse set of comics come up. This show on Saturday has Atheer Yacoub in it, who talks about growing up as a young Palestinian Muslim woman in Alabama. In Alabama! Can you just imagine?”

She added, “Even my own comedy has evolved. I used to be a jerk. I worshipped Andrew Dice Clay, with all the misogyny and slurs. But I expunged all that because they were easy laughs. I wanted to make people laugh as a comedian, not a jerk. Working with my community has brought that out of me. What hasn’t evolved are the death threats, and the hate that is still thrown at us.”

So how does Zayid teach people in devastated Palestinian communities to tell jokes? “I started doing comedy in the Arab world, in Arabic, in 2002—in Amman, in Bethlehem, in Beirut—before standup was a genre there. People couldn’t believe that I got paid to tell jokes, and I would say, ‘Well, let me tell you a joke!’ People wanted me to tell them how to do it, too.

“The first lesson I teach everyone, everywhere, is: What makes great comedy? Pain plus time. When someone falls down, the first thing a decent person will do is rush over to ask, Are you OK?. But the second you know they’re OK, you start laughing. That’s the time. You need a little time between when the pain happens and when you can laugh.”

“When I’m talking to Palestinians, I challenge them the same way I challenge my students at Princeton. For my Princeton students, you’re not allowed to make a joke about college. Your whole identity is Princeton right now, you must tell me a joke about something else. I do the same thing with Palestinians. You have to tell me a joke that’s not connected to war or torture or death. And they’re like, ‘Well, what do we talk about?’ And I say food, your pets, love, dating, driving. Showering! Whatever you want.

“All of a sudden comedy becomes a universal language. Once you get people to stop taking about what they’ve been defined as, when they go back and make those jokes, it’s less of a trauma dump and actually funny, and self-defining, and empowering.

That’s what I do with disability. I don’t sit there and go, ‘Har-dee-har, look at me, I can’t hold a knife.’ I’m like, you’re looking at me. You think I’m drunk. You think maybe I’m having a stroke. Let me fix this for you and let’s move on. In my case, I’m talking about Beyonce, I’m talking about Palestine, I’m talking about Biden being the worst break-up I’ve ever had in my entire life! And everybody’s laughing. That’s the power and the freedom of comedy.”

20TH ANNIVERSARY NEW YORK ARAB AMERICAN COMEDY FEST CELEBRATION TOUR Sat/10, 8pm, Palace of Fine Arts, SF. More info here.

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Marke B.
Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.

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