Laughing Away Cultural Barriers

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Dean Obeidallah hosted the 9th Annual Arab American Comedy Festival. Photo: Valerie Prassl.

Said Durrah entered the a stage wearing a Keffiyeh, a scarf symbolizing Palestinian solidarity. “I come from a time-share location called Gaza strip,” said the Palestinian comedian, who was the first performer at Chelsea’s Gotham City Comedy Club for the 9th Annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival in late October.

Seven Arab stand-up comedians performed for the Headline Show, each giving a ten-minute performance, addressing every common cliché and stereotype of Arab culture in the western world, to a primarily American Arab audience.

Festival co-founder Dean Obeidallah, a well-known Palestinian-American comedian, has appeared on ABC, PBS and CNN, and also created the comedy show Stand up for Peace, where he performs with Scott Blakeman, a liberal Jew. The aim of their performance is to bring together Arabs, Muslims and Jews, and to encourage dialogue between the communities. Obeidallah and Blakeman performed throughout the United States and at various colleges including Yale, Harvard and UCLA.

Arab communities in the United States often face prejudice. According to a poll released by the Arab American Institute in Washington D.C. last August, surveying American attitudes towards Arabs, Muslims and eleven other groups and religions, “Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans, and American Muslims have the lowest favorable/highest unfavorable ratings among the groups covered.”

Mohamed Aljelub attended the festival for the first time. “I checked out most of the performers on YouTube,” said the 23-year old City University student, who is originally from Yemen. “This comedy is really important for the Arab community, but might be better perceived by the liberal ones,” said Aljelub, whose family are conservative Muslims. “I like that all the performers are Arabs. I think it would be inappropriate if the same jokes came from Americans.”

Through comedy, the performers believe, they can tackle negative perceptions of Americans and Arabs. “It is extremely important to have Arab comedy, in terms of breaking down barriers,” said Durrah, who performed at the festival for the third time. “Someone who has this ability is an ambassador.”

Performers targeted many inflammatory issues including religious fundamentalism, terrorism, Muslim women’s rights, arranged marriages and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They also addressed the Presidential election, and jokes targeting Mitt Romney got some of the biggest laughs.

“Mitt Romney, you have $250 million on your bank account. Go buy your own f—–g country! Everything in this country has always been in your favor, how are things not working out for you that you think you need to change as a president? Go f–k yourself, Romney,” shouted Aron Kader, another performer of Palestinian-American origin.

“This festival is important for Arabs, especially during these times, where there are tensions in regards to our culture,” said Fatimah Elsayed, from Egypt, who attended the show for the first time together with her siblings and parents.

Performers came from different countries including Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

Durrah was born in Detroit, Michigan to a Palestinian mother and a Jordanian father and worked in corporate marketing and travel, before he focused entirely on comedy three years ago.

“Arabs generally love to sit around and tell stories. We always have to impersonate the person we are talking about,” he said. For him, comedy is an easy way of connecting with one another. “If you make people laugh, they’ll like you. If you reach peoples hearts – that’s really great.”

Comedy from and about Arabs is received positively not only in America but also in Middle Eastern countries. Durrah said he would be able to tell the same stories in Palestine. “People in Palestine know our comedy. They watch our videos through social media.” He doesn’t adjust his performance to certain audiences. “I don’t want to stereotype the crowd.”

Many of the comedians of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival performed in Arab countries. Mo Amer, another Palestinian comedian at the festival, has also entertained U.S. troops overseas.

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