Four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a cadre of Arab-American actors and comedians is finding growing success mining personal experiences for material.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in New York, where the third annual Arab-American Comedy Festival begins this week.
The show, which runs through Thursday, consists primarily of separate nights of standup comedy and theatrical pieces.
Co-founder Dean Obeidallah says no topic is off limits, certainly not President Bush or terrorism. But contributors this year are more willing to make fun of the Arab-American community and how it has been treated by others.
“In the past, we may have been resistant to mock ourselves a little,” said Obeidallah, 35, a lawyer-turned-comedian.
Co-founder Maysoon Zayid, an actress and comedian, said the show essentially uses stereotypes to shatter them. “We’re not scary, we’re not the enemy,” she said. “We’re really funny.”
In many ways, Zayid said, the Arab-American entertainers are following the path blazed by black and Hispanic Americans who have channeled their communities’ frustrations into success on stage.
Arab Americans have certainly had no shortage of material since Sept. 11, even though it wasn’t obvious to them at first.
“Immediately after, I was concerned about talking about being Arab on stage in New York City,” said Obeidallah, who is half-Sicilian, half-Palestinian. “The first time I went on stage I didn’t even use my last name. A club owner said, ‘Don’t talk about being Arab for a while.’ That evolved over time to where I talk about it much, much more.”
Sometimes it’s just too easy, especially now that the heightened sense of alert among Arab Americans has become an almost normal, often absurd state, he said.
Blending the political and the personalObeidallah said he once listed the cell phone number of his friend Osama (not bin Laden) under “Osama cell” on his own phone. A friend expressed concern when he saw the reference.
“I was like, are you kidding?” Obeidallah said.
The festival attempts to carefully blend the political and the personal. References to Palestinian suicide bombers are in, as are jabs at nosy, matchmaking mothers. There are jokes about Arabs worrying about Arab terrorists, and even a musical.
“The fact that we are commenting on ourselves is important instead of other people commenting on us,” said actor Waleed Zuaiter, an associate producer for the festival.
Zayid, for instance, bills herself as “a 30-year-old Palestinian Muslim virgin from New Jersey with cerebral palsy.”
“I’m a virgin by choice,” Zayid often says. “My father’s choice.”
Zayid said she doesn’t make fun of Jews, but she considers Zionism and Israel legitimate targets. One of her jokes involves Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, boxer Mike Tyson and a pink negligee. That’s all she’ll reveal.
The performers come from a variety of religious and professional backgrounds, and many different countries. Organizers hope the show attracts an audience well beyond Arab Americans.
“We respect where we live, we respect our community at large,” said actress Jana Zenadeen. “We’re here to bring people in and share our culture with them.”