'Get Your Arab On': Comedians chip away at ethnic fears

Arab-Americans are using humor to show the futility of vilifying others because of their culture, creed, or color.

Meet Dean Obeidallah. At a stand-up comedy open-mike night, he's quick to tell his audience that he was always "just a white guy in a white guy's life" from New Jersey. Then 9/11 happened and suddenly, he became ... "an Arab."

"And people would say, 'Hey, hey, hey, don't take this the wrong way, but if you hear of any terrorist attacks coming up, will you warn me?' And then they'd say, 'Only kidding! But, ah, seriously, will you warn me?' "

Born and raised in Jersey by a Sicilian mother and a Palestinian father, this lawyer-turned-comic is on the cutting edge of a quiet social revolution. Its weapon of choice is the joke. Just like vaudeville's Jewish comedians at the turn of the century and the stand-up rebels from the civil rights era, Arab-Americans are using humor to help remind people of the futility of vilifying others because of their culture, creed, or color. Mr. Obeidallah is part of a vanguard of young Arab-American comics who are determined to show America they are just like everybody else, one laugh at a time.

"Historically, humor has always been used to put people at ease and sort of open themselves up to receiving messages that make them aware of their prejudices without offending them," says Jack Shaheen, professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University and the author of "Reel Bad Arabs." "It's a wonderful way to help shatter stereotypes because with true laughter, particularly in open-minded people, comes real renewal and enlightenment."

Tuesday, the fourth Arab-American Comedy Festival opens in New York. It was started by Obeidallah and a friend in 2003 as a way to showcase Arab-American talent and deal with the sudden sense, in Obeidallah's words, "of being under siege."

Since then, it's grown and spawned other ventures. In December, Comedy Central will première on its Internet site "Watch List," a night of Arab-American stand-up humor. Hollywood, which has historically vilified Arab-Americans, according to Dr. Shaheen, is also taking note. Albert Brooks's "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" debuted in 2005.

Obeidallah and his cohorts hope these are indications that more Americans are ready to "Get Your Arab On," as the motto to the festival says. Just listen to the producer of Comedy Central's "Watch List."

"Obviously our foremost consideration is, is it funny? And the answer is yes. And secondly, there was this loud, very clear, and cool idea that was politically relevant," says Daniel Powell, manager of original programming and development at Comedy Central in New York.

If it hadn't been for the terrorist attacks, many of these comedians would never have known one another. Before that, they were just like hundreds of other young stand-up comics doing the rounds of open-mike nights around Manhattan. But the climate after 9/11 gave them unique shared experiences – such as always being "randomly" searched at the airport.

Maria Shehata says her audiences tend to respond, regardless of heritage, because the experience of being singled out is universal. At an open-mike night in Greenwich Village last week, she introduced herself as an "Egyptian from Ohio."

"Usually, they laugh at that because, it's like, absurd – an Egyptian from the Midwest," she says. "People do want to reach out and understand the different cultures and laugh at their own fears."

The joke that got the biggest laugh in her set was about sitting on a bus with a friend. Two guys were speaking in Arabic. "My friend said, 'What are they saying? Do they have a bomb?' I told her, 'Look, it doesn't matter. Just get off the bus, now. Don't make eye contact.' "

Right after 9/11, that would have fallen flat, says Ms. Shehata. And it still does around the anniversary of the attacks. But this audience's reaction, and the joke itself, are indications of how Arab-American humor has evolved over the past five years.

"The humor in the beginning was, and now I'm paraphrasing: 'Don't beat us up, don't hurt us, we're not terrorists," says Obeidallah. "That's still there, but on a lesser note. Now we're much more challenging and confident."

In other words, they're much more likely to challenge stereotypes than just defensively explain themselves. One of Obeidallah's bits is about his name, and how people suggested he Anglicize it after 9/11 so others wouldn't know he was Arab.

"Literally, my name Obeidallah translates into Servant of Allah. So how easy would it be for me to get airplane tickets for the rest of my life?" he asks the crowd at Y Improv, a club in midtown Manhattan. "'Two tickets to Miami, please.' 'Name?' 'Oh, Mr. Servant-of-Allah....' 'Let me check with the right department.... FBI?' "

Part of the irony is unstated. Obeidallah, like the majority of Arabs in the United States, was raised a Christian.

"These stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims are as solid as prehistoric rocks, and humor is gently chipping away at those prehistoric boulders, ever so gently," says Shaheen. "I don't think while watching you suddenly think differently. But when you leave, later on when news stories break ... some of what transpired in that audience carries over, and people will think twice."

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