Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Arab comedians

Great article in today's Sydney Morning Herald!

THE comedian Maysoon Zayid introduces her act by declaring she is a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy, adding: "I just want you guys to know I am a virgin by choice … and that is my father's choice.

"My father has spent the majority of my life terrified that I will accidentally lose my virginity so there's a list of activities I am not allowed to do: there is to be no horseback riding, not even on a carousel."
Like much minority humour, Arab comedians are intent on challenging stereotypes.

Aron Kaydar, another Arab comedian on the festival bill, jokes that he will name his first-born son Al, as in Al Kaydar.

Zayid and a fellow comic, Dean Obeidallah, started the festival in 2003 when the Arab community was "under siege" and any news coverage that did not portray Arabs as terrorists was a reason for rejoicing.

Obeidallah, a native of New Jersey raised by Sicilian and Palestinian parents, said the terrorist attacks transformed how he was seen in his own country.

"Before 9/11, I am just a white guy living a typical white-guy life. I go to bed September 10th white. I wake up September 11th, I'm an Arab."

Initially, Arab-American comedians were wary of mocking themselves because their community was so widely criticised. Their humour had now evolved from pleas for understanding to a more mainstream comedy reflective of minority, immigrant humour, Obeidallah said.

The title of the festival - Arabs Gone Wild - would have been inappropriate and unthinkable several years ago, Obeidallah said, but the Arab-American community has become more assertive and confident. The festival of stand-up and sketch comedy will run over six nights off Broadway.

One festival sketch suggests that if Fox News gave itself free rein, Arabs could be blamed for all misfortune in America, including extreme weather events. And hurricanes would be given exclusively Arabic names, as in "Look out, here comes Mustafa. Run for your life."

Before the 2001 attacks many Arab comedians worked in ignorance of one another, but America's response to the attacks gave them a sense of a shared cultural experience.

Zayid said the war in Iraq had intensified the pressure on Arabs. "When you're vilified, you need a voice and the most vilified people in the media right now are the Arabs," she said.

She does not joke about September 11 nor about the 72 virgins some extremists believe are the reward in the afterlife to those martyred in the cause of Islam.

"I'll push the envelope as far as I can, but if I am going to get someone killed I am not going to joke about it," she said.

An example of the more mainstream humour that has evolved over recent years is Obeidallah's routine where he relates the discomfortof other Americans on learning he is an Arab. "Oh, you're an Arab," one said. "I love hummus."

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