Dean Obeidallah co-founder and co-executive producer of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival (NYAACF), a vehicle for Arab-American comedic talent, said: “It’s an uprising – it’s our intifada, comedy style.”
Debuting in 2003 to sold-out New York audiences, the NYAACF has served as a medium to combat negative mainstream stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims which existed after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US.
“If we can make people laugh, it’s always a great thing, because they can’t be mad at you if they are laughing with you,” Obeidallah, a former lawyer, said.
With that in mind, NYAACF organisers decided it was time to strike it big in Hollywood.
The festival opened to good reviews at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre and the World Famous Laugh Factory.
It showcased Arab-American talents in six original one-act plays and was such a hit with Hollywood producers, directors and agents that an unscheduled extra show was added on the final night.
Often bordering on political satire, most of the acts poked fun at Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs in the media and the climate of paranoia and fear associated with most things Muslim.
Palestinian-American comedienne and NYAACF co-founder Maysoon Zayid, 30, finds the political environment, particularly the wiretapping controversy, a source for inspiration for her comedy routine.
During a phone interview with Aljazeera.net, Zayid stopped and said: “We’re not the only one(s) recording this conversation … ‘Maysoon Zayid on the phone with Aljazeera.net’; it’s covered, if you lose your tape just call the FBI.”
Actor Ryan Shrime moved away from politics, focusing on how Arab-Americans struggle to integrate into American culture.
In the play Love in Las Vegas, Shrime plays a Lebanese immigrant from a prominent Lebanese Christian family who marries an Arab-American stripper only to find his not-so virgin bride is five months pregnant with rapper artist 50 Cent’s baby.
“I think people are desperate to see something like this, from the Arab perspective but also from the non-Arab perspective, because if we are all laughing together about topics that can be hard to discuss in a normal discussion, it makes it easy for us to understand one another,” Shrime told Aljazeera.net.
For many of the performers, taking the stage in front of an audience used to seeing nightly news of Muslim women wearing burqas and stories of bombers was a challenge.
During one of her stand-up routines on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zayid was accosted by a woman who told her to keep her mouth shut or get pulled off the stage.
“It’s hard being a female in comedy, because not only am I a female, I’m ethnic, and I’m disabled,” said Zayid, who has cerebral palsy.
“I’m the triple threat of everything they don’t want on television right now. I’m supposed to be a veiled, oppressed Muslim woman”
“I’m the triple threat of everything they don’t want on television right now. I’m supposed to be a veiled, oppressed Muslim woman,” she said.
Then there were family concerns. While Zayid’s parents were supportive, Ahmed Ahmed’s were not.
Egyptian-born Ahmed, 35, was estranged from his father for seven years because he did not approve of his performing goals.
“It is kind of funny though because now my father and I talk and all he does is brag about my career to others,” said Ahmed, who won the first annual Richard Pryor Award for Comedy.
“I never gave up though and I’m so happy I didn’t.”
Ahmed, a regular performer at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, ended the NYAACF last week highlighting his experiences as an Arab-American after the September 11 attacks.
He informed the audience that after September 11, hate crimes against Arabs in the United States went up 1000%.
“Can you believe that?” Ahmed asked the audience. He then complained to the audience that after the statistic, Arabs were still ranked fourth as victims for hate crimes.
“Man, what do we have to do to be number one at something in this country?”
After the attacks in New York and Washington, DC, Ahmed was highlighted in a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. While it felt uncomfortable at first, he embraced the fact that his experiences as an Arab in the United States were great comedy material.
“I got a great response from Arabs and non-Arabs to my material post 9/11 and I felt so librated being able to do that, it was like coming out of the closet,” Ahmed joked.
Middle East comedy
The NYAACF hope to bring the festival to Los Angeles every year, and hope to try to take it out to the Middle East one day.
For Zayid, that would be a dream come true.
Formerly of Deir Debwan, Palestine, a suburban village on the outskirts of Ram Allah Zayid has been performing for Palestinian audiences for the past five years.
Zayid performed at the height of the second intifada at the Ashtar Theatre Group festival in Ram Allah.
She has also performed at the Masrah al Kebt in Nazareth, donating all proceeds towards buying supplies for Palestinian refugees.
Zayid spends three months a year in Palestine where she runs an arts programme for disabled and wounded refugee children.
“You’ve never seen people laugh so hard despite their situation with the curfews and the violence,” she said.
Finding comedy in difficult situations may be the ticket to defeating stereotypes and entering the Hollywood mainstream.
Ahmed advises Arab-Americans to do something positive if they disapprove of the way the media portrays them, instead of just complaining.
“I know there are many more talented and funny Arab-Americans who can make it in this industry and help change our image for the better, they’ve just got to be determined, organised and get out there and do it,” Ahmed said.
For the time being, Obeidallah is happy with the progress the group has made.
“As long as we keep selling out our shows and finding support from the Arab-American community, we can always perform.”