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Arab-American Comics Perform Before Sold-Out Crowds in New York City

StoryNovember 16, 2005
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Arab American comics are performing before sold-out crowds at the 2005 New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. The festival, which runs Nov. 13th — 17th, showcases the talents of Arab-American actors, comics, playwrights and filmmakers. We play some of the stand-up performances from the festival and speak with the co-founder Dean Obeidallah as well as Hend Ayoub, a Palestinian actress who stars in the new film “Private”. [includes rush transcript]

From Israel’s separation barrier in the Occupied Territories to the bombing in Jordan to the latest on the war in Iraq, it’s hard to find much humor in the Middle East, but a group of Arab American comics are doing that just, playing to sold-out crowds here in New York City.

Just some of the comedians performing at the third annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which opened on Sunday in Manhattan. The festival runs through to Thursday and showcases the talents of Arab-American actors, comics, playwrights and filmmakers. It was co-founded in 2003 by Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney turned stand-up comic.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: From the wall to the bombings in Jordan to the war in Iraq, it is hard to find much humor in the Middle East. But a group of Arab-American comics is doing just that, and playing to sold out crowds here in New York City.

AHMED AHMED: How many non-Arabs are in here? Non-Muslims, non-Arabs? [applause] Really? Is that right? Welcome to our meeting. 'Cause you saw the cops outside, they're like, “We can’t trust them. There’s 1,400 Arabs and Muslims in there. Something’s going down.”

MAYSOON ZAYID: My name is Maysoon Zayid, and I’m going to tell you a little bit about myself, so that you get the rest of this routine. I am a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey. I’m 30, which in America is like ’You’re okay, it’s okay that you’re single and 30, seriously,’ but in Arab years, I’m 67.

MAZ JOBRANI: Iranians, man, we are officially — I mean, you guys, Arabs, you guys are part of it, but we got named. We’re — I mean, Iraq, too, but Iran officially in the axis of evil, thank you very much. Thank you very much. We officially have a membership card. That’s right. 'Axis of evil, thank you very much, coming through, thank you.' When I go to clubs, 'Axis of evil, yes, yes. North Korea with me, let's go. Come on, let’s go.’ Well, at least they’re breaking stereotypes in commercials. Middle Easterners aren’t breaking stereotypes, not in commercials. You never turn on the TV and see like a United Airlines commercial with a Middle Eastern pilot. Right? You never see me standing, saying like this, 'Come fly the friendly skies. I dare you.'

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the comedians performing at the third annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, opened on Sunday in Manhattan going through Thursday, showcasing the talents of Arab-American actors, comics, playwrights and filmmakers, co-founded by Dean Obeidalla, a former attorney turned standup comic, joins us in our studio along with Hend Ayoub, a Palestinian actress who’s starring in Private, that has just been released. She is making her debut at the comedy festival this year. They joined us in our studio late yesterday and I began by asking Dean, in these dire times in the Middle East, how he manages to be funny.

DEAN OBEIDALLA: You try to use your sense of humor to deal with the topics of the day. I mean, it’s very — it’s a hard life for anybody with an Arab-American heritage or who looks Arab-American or a Muslim last name. So you try to deal with it by trying to make people laugh and a release of tension. And so, you tackle the big issues. That’s what we’re doing in this New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, dealing with issues like racial profiling, even Palestine, Arab dating, President Bush, all through comedy, because you can rant and rave all day, any time you want, but if you make people laugh, you hope you’re entertaining them and making some political points at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: Dean, what is your funniest routine?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: Well, I’ll tell you my jokes about President Bush tend to do well. I performed in Beirut, Dubai, Haifa, and in Ramallah, and my jokes about President Bush have always done well. He has united the world in laughter, I think. And it’s just the littlest things he does, like recently — and I should preface it by saying the word “judiciary” is a difficult word to pronounce. And I swear, he went on TV, he goes, “We’ve got to get better people in the judicia — the judicia — the court system.” I mean, that’s what happened. And look at his approval rating now. America is finally waking up. It’s down to 36% approval rating in America. Statistically, herpes has a higher approval rating right now than President Bush. E. coli is gaining on our president.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a different response between people here and people in other parts of the world, in the Arab world?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: I’ll tell you — I mean, part of it is that they can laugh about things they know about. Everyone knows President Bush, because “the leader of the free world,” in quotes, is there, and they know about him and watch him on TV. So when you do jokes about him, they will laugh just the same. They love laughing at him. Before the election, I had people in America who would argue with me, people — red staters, supporters of Bush. But now, you don’t even have many people defending him in the audiences. I’ve noticed a change in audiences, the willingness to laugh at him, and it just shows the lack of support now among the average person. No one feels the need to defend him any longer.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you joke about Iraq?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: Well, you don’t joke about Iraq, as much as I will talk about the elections, you know, the running for office again in December and how courageous it must be to be a candidate, because it must make you a target. So I’m wondering if the campaign commercials, you turn on the TV, it’s like, 'Hello, my name is Walid, I'm running for president of Iraq. And I just want to say this to my fellow Iraqis: Please do not vote for me. I don’t want to die. Do you know who you should vote for? Samir, he is a much better candidate than I am.’ So you try to use humor to emphasize the point that, obviously, to run for office in Iraq in today’s world has got to be a very courageous act, because your life is on the line.

The lawyers in the trial with Saddam Hussein, they lost their lives. So, it’s — you try to deal with that, like the PATRIOT Act, about the ability to find out any book we take out in the library. You could talk about that seriously all day, but we try to make light of it and say, well, honestly, do you think the guys in al-Qaeda are that short on money, they’re going to public libraries? Are they sitting around going, “Okay, we need a book, but we’re like $20 short. Omar, go to the library and try not to look suspicious.” And are there books out there that give them away, like “I’m al-Qaeda, You’re al-Qaeda” or “Chicken Soup for the al-Qaeda Soul”? No, clearly the government want to know what we’re reading, and that’s a very scary time. This war on terrorism has become a war on freedom of thought. And so, you try to make jokes about it so people can laugh, and hopefully they talk about it afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s most surprising is, perhaps not you as an Arab-American being funny, but you as a lawyer being funny.

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: Well, really, I have turned in my lawyer shield. It’s been several years now since I have really practiced law. I’m much happier and a better human being for it on every level. So I’m much happier as a comedian.

AMY GOODMAN: Palestine, you can joke about that?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: You do. I mean, you don’t joke about suicide bombers, of course. I mean, my father is from Palestine. But you talk about, like, I went to Palestine and I did a show in Ramallah. A true story, we were at the airport — and this shows, I think, the sense of humor of the Palestinians — we’re at the airport, and we’re cordoned off because of our race. I’m a Palestinian American, and I go in the line with the Arabs, that’s how they put me on. And there’s a Palestinian man in front of me surrounded by Israeli security. The Palestinian man goes, “Hey, can you watch my luggage, I have to go to the bathroom.” And I said, “Do you think they’d really steal your luggage?” He looks at me and goes, “They stole my land.” You know, and he was being funny. And I love the sense of humor and the resilience of the Palestinian people, showing just from living under occupation, still being able to laugh and joke around is great.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dean Obeidallah, one of the founders of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. We’re also joined by Hend Ayoub, who is a Palestinian actor who is in the festival, but also is one of the stars of a new film that has just been released. Can you talk about Private? What’s it about?

HEND AYOUB: Well, first of all, it’s based on a true story that really happened. It’s about a Palestinian family’s home being occupied by the Israeli army.


HEND AYOUB: Well, the true — the house itself is in Razeh, Gaza, but this is not only one story. It happens in every house that is located between Palestinian villages and Israeli settlement. So, any house that is in between, the Israelis find that it’s a good viewing point, so they just take over the house. And the only reason, I think, that this movie — this story reached media is because the family refused to leave the house. What happens in most cases, the family just leave, and that’s it. No one hears about it. And we only hear about the cases that the family refuse to leave.

AMY GOODMAN: What was it like working — Palestinian and Israeli actors together telling a true story?

HEND AYOUB: Well, when we filmed the movie, when we accepted to be in this movie, we all accepted on what’s in the script. So we went there, and everything was fine working with my other actors, Israelis, but, you know, the whole relationship was great, until we start shooting, and then all of the political problem, I think, started to pop up to the surface.


HEND AYOUB: Well, it happened — it started happening when the Israelis — the actors refused to act as in the script. Like, in the script, they were supposed to say, “Shut up or I’ll kill you.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is the Israeli —


AMY GOODMAN: Military?

HEND AYOUB: Yes. That was in the script. And they said, 'No, we want it — it's too violent for us. We don’t want it this way,’ because they don’t want the Israelis to be shown in a movie this way. And this is where the problems started. It’s in the script.

AMY GOODMAN: How was it resolved?

HEND AYOUB: Well, the director had to interfere and say, “It’s in the script, and you approved to be in this movie, and you read the script, so you have to do it.” So, this is where the problems started. They wanted — all the violent scenes, they wanted to make it more kind and understanding.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the family that you portray, and who you portray in the film?

HEND AYOUB: I’m the daughter in this family. The real family can be seen on a documentary that the director made. He first made the documentary and then decided to make the feature.

AMY GOODMAN: Thought maybe audiences could accept it more if it was fictional? A dramatization, as opposed to the documentary itself.

HEND AYOUB: Exactly, and it’s a good chance to see a Palestinian family on screen, because you don’t get to see that. You just get to hear about us in, you know, some lines in the newspaper, and people don’t get to see what Palestinian — how they look like, how they talk, how they — you know, they have feelings. They can cry, and they smile, and they can be nice.

AMY GOODMAN: Your father is Mohammed Bakri, who is a famous actor?

HEND AYOUB: In the movie. Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Most people wouldn’t know him here.

HEND AYOUB: Ah, I don’t know about that. I mean, I think he’s famous. His last movie was Jenin, Jenin. It was on the news all over the world, but —

AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised by in the making of this film?

HEND AYOUB: I was surprised to have the political problems that usually as Palestinians living in Israel, we just try to ignore so that we can live together — because we live in the Israelis, and these political problems, we try — they’re always in the background, but we try to forget or ignore or not joke about it, because they are our neighbors, and I have friends that are Israeli.

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in Haifa?

HEND AYOUB: Yes, in Haifa. Yes. And I have friends that are Israelis and my neighbors are Israelis, so we try not to talk about it. But when we went there to film this movie, it all came back, and we just had to deal with it, because it’s always there. And, if we can’t — I mean, it’s a problem that has to be resolved, and if we can’t do that, then it’s going to always be there.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have hope?

HEND AYOUB: Well, I’m an actress, and I think actors always have hope and always believe in — I personally believe in kindness of people. I believe in peace, and all of the pink things and nice things, so I do have hope. I hope, but unfortunately, it’s not happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Dean, as an Arab-American comic here in the United States, what is that like for you?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: Well, interestingly, the media, the news media, especially, has been very, very supportive, curious. We have become, in a way, and I even joke about it, but, you know, Arabs and Muslims have replaced the Soviet Union as the enemy of America. President Bush has talked about it clearly in recent speeches. Communism is replaced by radical Islam. Some people don’t use the word “radical,” they just have it “a war on Islam.” So if you are Arab or Muslim, you are seen as the enemy. So there’s a great deal of curiosity by the media, but yet still not embraced by the entertainment industry, although I must say for this festival, we have had the most entertainment industry come out to see us, casting people, agents and managers. Because it’s interesting what happened with Hend and her movie, where the Israeli soldiers — the Israeli actors wanted to change some of the script. Well, if we have more Arabs in movies as actors and behind the scene as producers and directors and screenwriters, then we can have an impact. It’s human dynamics. That’s why we need more people in the entertainment field. So we’re struggling, we’re trying to get involved, and, you know, you are trying to show through our art that we have a culture, other — you know, there’s Black history month, there’s Asian awareness month, Hispanic awareness month. We don’t have that as Arabs. We get orange alert. You know, we want to have more than that to define who we are. We don’t want to be defined by simply terrorism or response to terrorism. We have a culture.

AMY GOODMAN: Dean Obeidallah and Hend Ayoub, of the Arab Comedy Festival. It’s playing through tomorrow night.

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