Hijabis and Martinis: A Night at the Arab-American Comedy Festival

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As these young comedians poke fun at their own culture, everything from domineering husbands to the occupation of Palestine is fair game

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Arab-American Comedy Festival

On a rainy Thursday evening in Manhattan, several hundred stylishly dressed young people file into the Gotham Comedy Club. As the room fills to capacity, ubiquitous pop hits by Katy Perry and Cee-Lo blare from the sound system. Waitresses clad in black scurry around taking drinks orders and delivering trays piled high with bottles of Stella Artois and pink cocktails. Stop by a Manhattan comedy club any night of the week and chances are you'd find a similar crowd -- except, that is, for the half-dozen or so women wearing hijabis. That's because this isn't your average night of stand-up in New York City; it's the closing night of the eighth annual Arab-American Comedy Festival.

In 2003, comedians Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid founded the Arab-American Comedy festival with the goal of fostering understanding in the tense climate of post-9/11 America -- and having a laugh in the process. "It was cathartic for the community to hear about the issues they were going through -- racial profiling, hate crimes -- but in a way that was funny," Obeidallah recalls.

Growing up in the Italian-American enclave of Lodi, New Jersey, Obeidallah, the son of a Palestinian father and a Sicilian mother, never really felt like an outsider. It wasn't until 9/11 that Obeidallah truly began to feel part of a minority. "I think most Arabs, including myself, thought we were white, that if you were born here, you were 'white.' And then after 9/11, it was clear, you lost your white," he says.

Originally planned as a one-off event, the festival has expanded considerably since its inception in 2003. It's become not just a mainstay in the Arab-American community, but also a magnet for casting directors looking for diverse talent. Close to 50 performers take part in eight shows spanning five nights. They're mostly Arab, but not exclusively Muslim; there are Christians, atheists, and even an Arab Mormon. The beginning of the festival is dedicated to sketch comedy and storytelling; the second half is stand-up.

Of course, laughter can be a wonderful way to bridge the divide between cultures, and a bigot who attended the festival would be hard-pressed to walk away believing that all Arabs are terrorists in the making. But, in truth, most of the people who attend the Arab-American Comedy Festival aren't here in attempt to understand "the other"; they are "the other." For them, the appeal of the festival is that it provides the rare opportunity to see their community portrayed in a humorous light.

"We provide them with something that they don't see in other media," says Ramy Youssef, the festival's mop-topped 20-year-old artistic director. It's a chance to celebrate, in a lovingly self-deprecating manner, the particular traditions of the Arab-American community. "Making fun or Arab culture, holding a mirror up to Arab culture, Arab American culture gets the biggest laughs by far in the show," Obeidallah says. The festival's sketch night begins with a spoof music video about the mental anguish of fasting during Ramadan. "Why do they call it fasting if the day goes so slow?" croons a singer wearing a crudely drawn beard and a towel on his head.

Youssef, who is currently a student at Rutgers, wrote and starred in what was easily the funniest sketch of the festival. Called "Conversations with an Arab Father," the piece speaks to the tension between contemporary American society and traditional Arab -- and in this case, Muslim -- culture. In the sketch, Youssef plays a teenager who tries to con his father into buying him a car by pretending to be gay. ("No one will know that I'm gay. All you have to do is get me a 2011 Volkswagen GTI with power windows, leather seats and sun roof.") But the father outsmarts his wily son by also pretending to be gay -- ripping off his sweater to reveal a bare chest and leather harness. The son, mortified, promises he'll do any chores his father wants, so long as he remains in the closet. Mission accomplished.

Youssef, who is a commited Muslim active with his campus mosque, says the sketch represented "a very heightened version" of his relationship with his first-generation Egyptian father. "My dad told me if [studying Islam] is not what you want to do, then you don't have to do it. But that made me want to do it even more. I think my dad's a genius.

There's plenty of blue material throughout the performances, but nothing quite compares to the hotly anticipated "Haram Night," an "R-rated, 'Dirty Arab' comedy show" dedicated to taboo subjects. The event kicks off with a video about a repressed Arab housewife, dressed in a full burqa, who turns to her foul-mouthed black friend for help fighting back against her domineering husband. Her friend's advice? "You are the fucking princess. You ain't gotta put up with that shit!" Comedian Mike Batayeh scores big laughs with his fleeting memories of a rare Arab porn film he saw as an adolescent ("It was like a unicorn"). Later, when he uses his microphone to impersonate a white girl performing oral sex, the room explodes.

Of course, politics also inform much of the comedy. Antic Palestinian comic Adi Khalefa traveled from his home in Nazareth to perform stand-up in English -- something he's done only a handful of times before. In spite of the language barrier, the diminutive comedian was a standout at the festival. Khalefa's sense of humor is intensely self-deprecating and neurotic; he's what you might call a Palestinian schlemiel. He jokes that on his latest trip to the U.S. he spent "three days and four nights" at the airport. On the plan ride over, he went to the bathroom but a sign indicated it was occupied. "Not just only Palestine occupied, also the bathroom? Sixty-three years you pee in our bathroom!?"

But this year, there was something new alongside the jokes about airport security and the Gaza Strip: a sense of hope. In the past year, revolutions have swept across Middle East, challenging Western ideas about the Arab world. "It's an exciting time. It sort of undermines that whole thing that they hate Americans for our freedoms," Obeidallah says. It's only natural that Arab-American comedians respond to what's the biggest news to our community in my lifetime." The sketch comedy night, for instance, included a bit about an Egyptian named "Fazebooq," a nod to the role of social media in the uprisings.

This new sense of openness is a boon for Obeidallah, who has become something of a cultural ambassador for American-style stand-up comedy. He has traveled extensively through the Arab world leading comedy workshops, and he also helped create the Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival in Jordan. Obeidallah likes to think of himself as a "comedy missionary." "You're teaching comedy, not giving them blankets filled with small pox," he says. While there's a rich tradition of storytelling in the Arab world, stand-up comedy is more of a novelty. But, according to Obeidallah, it's rapidly catching on -- especially in Saudi Arabia. The revolution will not be televised, but it might just come with a two-drink minimum.

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Meredith Blake is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She is  a contributor to The L.A. Times and The Book Bench, The New Yorker's literary blog

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