Arab-American comedians channel frustrations into success

Following the path blazed by black and Hispanic Americans, Arab Americans find comic way into America's heart.

arafat impersonation (photo credit:
arafat impersonation
(photo credit:
NEW YORK (AP) - Four years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, Arab-American actors and comedians are finding growing success mining personal experiences for material. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than at the 3rd annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival that opens on Sunday. Co-founder Dean Obeidallah says no topic is off limits at the 5-day festival, which features stand-up comedy and theatrical pieces. This year's contributors poke fun at US President George W. Bush and terrorism, as well as 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, a 35-year-old lawyer turned comedian. Co-founder Maysoon Zayid, an actress and stand-up 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, these Arab-American entertainers are following the path blazed by black and Hispanic Americans who have channeled their communities' frustrations into success on stage, said Zayid. A handful of other entertainers of Middle East and South Asian backgrounds, such as Iranian-British comic Omid Djalili, have found similar success. Arab Americans have certainly had no shortage of material since the 2001 attacks, but it wasn't obvious 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. Obeidallah said he once listed the cell phone number of his friend Osama (not that Osama) under "Osama cell" on his own phone. An American friend expressed some 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 stand-up comics are more free and unpredictable than the theatrical performances. "The fact that we are commenting on ourselves is important instead of other people commenting on us," said Waleed Zuaiter, an actor and associate producer in 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." "There's absolutely nothing that I can't say," she added. "Stand-up comedy is the last bastion of free speech in America." While Zayid said she doesn't make fun of Jews, she considers Zionism and Israel legitimate targets. One of her jokes involves Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, boxer Mike Tyson and a pink negligee. And that's all she would give away. The performers come from diverse religious and professional backgrounds, and from various Arab 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, who plays a newly married Arab-American stripper in one skit. "We're here to bring people in and share our culture with them."