(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dean Obeidallah didn't know he was Arab until he was 32. That was how old he was when September 11 became a day of national mourning and his last name became a reason to be pulled out of airport security lines.
"On September 10, I went to bed as an American. On September 11, I woke up an Arab," relates the half-Italian, half-Palestinian, Muslim-Catholic from New Jersey. That realization, imposed on him by outside forces, awakened in him an internal call to action.
"It brought something out in me, in my desire to defend it," he explains.
If Obeidallah hadn't known what it meant to be Arab before 9/11, it was even more so for the rest of America, which was now getting bombarded with messages about Middle Eastern men blowing up airplanes and themselves. He needed to "tell my fellow Americans that we're Americans like them, good and bad, [so] don't judge us by the worst in our group."
Since Obeidallah had already had an awakening about being a comedian - he had started out as a lawyer - he decided to use humor to do it.
His efforts have grown into The Watch List, a mix of standup and skits performed by Arab and Persian American comedians. It's currently viewable on Comedy Central's Web site (http://www.comedycentral.com/motherload) and occasionally featured as part of Web Shows, which runs on the cable channel on Tuesdays at 2 a.m. Ahead of the first such broadcast early last month, Obeidallah hosted a special screening in Washington co-sponsored by the Arab American Institute.
In the Obeidallah Watch List sketch screened that night, he details how the racial profiling Arab Americans were experiencing after September 11 prompted some to describe Arabs as the new blacks. "When I heard that," he says in the clip, "I was excited. We're cool!"
A dramatization of his routine, shown that night, featured images of white suburban teens playing basketball in Middle Eastern garb and souping up their cars to look like taxis.
Some of Obeidallah's funniest lines at the screening, however, were no flights of fancy. To kick off the event, he read out comments he had genuinely received when people learned he was Arab, highlighting their ignorance - remarks such as, "Oh you're Arab - I love Indian food!" and "Oh you're Arab - but you look so nice!"
The exercise underscored the sober side of the jokes the Arab comedians make. And, indeed, Obeidallah sees his business as a serious one. "My comedy combines making people laugh [with] activism and trying to show Arab Americans in a more positive light in America," says the affable Obeidallah, whose boyish good looks and charm make him an apt poster boy for the cause.
Pointing to black and Jewish comedians before him, he adds, "I'm not inventing the use of comedy to try to effect social change."
HE DOESN'T need to look far to come up with a contemporary example, either: Watch List co-producer Max Brooks. Obeidallah tells the largely Arab audience at the Washington gathering that Brooks frequently says that "he could be doing nothing more Jewish than helping out Middle Eastern Americans who are being portrayed so negatively in the media."
Brooks, son of comedian Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft, says watching his friend Obeidallah's experience after September 11 reminded him of what Jews encountered at the beginning of the Nazi regime (though Bancroft wasn't Jewish, Brooks identifies as one).
"He suddenly went from valued citizen to enemy alien," Brooks recalls. "German Jews thought they were German first and then their fellow Germans taught them otherwise."
A friend of Obeidallah's from their days at Saturday Night Live, Brooks wanted to help do something to reverse that feeling, both for the sake of his friend and for the sake of his country. Brooks says he doesn't want Arab Americans to become alienated and radicalized as they have in France.
If that happens, he warns wryly, the end result for America could be that "We might not bathe any more. We might have a four-day work week. We might not go to the dentist any more."
So he wanted to do something to help his fellow Americans - and specifically, the kind of Americans for whom "the only Arab they've ever seen is Aladdin" - think differently. Ideally, he says, "They'll turn on the TV, laugh, walk away and think, wow, I never knew that... maybe we'll touch something in their own ethnicity."
To do that, he and Obeidallah collected a group of professional Arab and Persian comedians to perform jokes about their cultural quandaries. They had to be full-blooded Americans who could draw on the "shared American experience." In other words, Brooks explains, people who know "the difference between Mr. Roper and Mr. Farley" (two characters on the 1970s sitcom Three's Company).
Brooks notes that before 9/11, the comedians couldn't have focused on their heritage because the broader American audience wouldn't have gotten the punch lines. Now there's a great appetite for such themes - as evidenced by the interest of the likes of Comedy Central.
They also have the interest of their natural fan base, as the Washington crowd howled at the skits and raved about the performances afterward.
One favorite was comedian Nasry Malik's divulgence of his family's plan for seeming more patriotic post 9/11. "We want to be more patriotic, more American than Americans," Malik declares. "So my family and I have been discussing it and we're actually thinking about turning in my father. It's not because he did anything wrong; it would just make us look so patriotic."
The female performers tended to focus more on cultural issues, also to big laughs.
Maysoon Zayid recounts that she's "a virgin by choice, and that's my father's choice."
And Helen Maalik ruminates on the issues that arise from wearing full Islamic face and body coverings. "What if an Arab kid gets lost in the mall?" she asks. "How does he describe his mother to security?" Imitating such a child, she cries: "I don't know! She has eyes!"
Members of the Washington audience acknowledge that the subjects can be touchy, but say that's why they're worth laughing at.
"When you're most comfortable about who you are and how people perceive you, you can laugh at yourself in front of others," maintains Ruba El-Hage, 22, president of the Arab Student Association at George Washington University, who was at the screening. She adds that a strong sense of identity as well as a lighter perspective on her community will help redefine attitudes for the next generation.
Abdel Ibrihim, 25, thinks that the comedy will lighten up the broader American attitude towards Arabs and Muslims. "As the general American public sees it, they'll be able to laugh at it and not patronize the Arabs in the US," he says. "They'll understand that Arabs are Americans like everybody else."
Laughter can also help make it easier to deal with the very difficult issues that divide different groups, both Obeidallah and Brooks say.
AND DIFFER they do, especially when it comes to Israel. Obeidallah's perspective has been shaped by his father, who grew up just outside Bethlehem. He also has an Israeli girlfriend, Hend Ayoub, who plays the Arab character on Israel's version of Sesame Street, and has performed in her hometown of Haifa as well as Ramallah.
Brooks, on the other hand, hasn't been to Israel but is a staunch supporter of the Jewish state. He says he plans to give part of the proceeds from The Watch List to Friends of the IDF ("Israel exploded a lot of bombs in the last year - somebody has to buy them some new ones.")
Brooks and Obeidallah do agree, however, on the need for a peaceful, two-state solution. Obeidallah even puts his microphone where his mouth is and tours with Jewish comedian Scott Blakeman in a show called Standup for Peace, aimed at bringing Jews and Arabs together.
They have an upcoming show planned at a college in Mississippi. Obeidallah quips, "We're going to a place where Arabs and Jews are looked at exactly the same."
But for all the rude glances he's received in recent years, Obeidallah says he remains proud of his heritage and proud of his country. "This country is a nation of immigrants and that's what makes this country great," he says. "I'm so grateful that my father could come to America."
It certainly gave him a lot of material to work with.
[Jerusalem Post Correspondent]