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“We All Want a Chortle”: 20 Years of the Arab American Comedy Pageant

Comic Maysoon Zayid will not be desirous about proving her humanity to others. “I don’t imagine in humanization,” she quips. “If you happen to don’t suppose I’m human, I can’t even begin that dialog with you, as a result of I’d a lot quite be a cat.” A Jersey-born comedian of Palestinian descent with cerebral palsy, Zayid is filled with one-liners as we discuss within the weeks main as much as the Arab American American Comedy Pageant, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary on Sunday, November 19, at City Corridor in New York.

Zayid cofounded the fest in 2003 with comic, lawyer, and SiriusXM host Dean Obeidallah, who’s additionally from New Jersey and of Palestinian descent. “We’re most likely the one comedy competition within the nation—if not the world—that began in response to a terrorist assault,” Obeidallah tells me in a separate dialog. “However that’s the blunt actuality of why this competition began.” Within the aftermath of 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq struggle, “the negativity about Arab Individuals on mainstream media, it was off the charts.”

So, Zayid and Obeidallah determined to do one thing about it. “Since day one, we’ve got been combating the unfavourable photos of Arabs and Muslims within the media,” Zayid says. They usually’ve stayed the course in unsure instances. “We began this vessel within the run-up to the Iraq struggle. After which [in 2012] we had it after Hurricane Sandy, once we didn’t know if we’d even have electrical energy. We had it in 2021 when omicron was hitting and we didn’t know if they might shut the golf equipment. We had one on Zoom. We’ve had them throughout the Yemen genocides, the Arab Springs, we’ve had them on days that mass shootings have occurred.”

Now, after all, the competition comes within the wake of the October 7 Hamas assault on Israel, in addition to the following monthlong struggle in Gaza. “We’re within the shadow of a second in historical past the place I believed I had seen all of it,” Zayid says. “The present should go on, however I’ve by no means been in an environment like this.”

“If you happen to watch the media, there’s little or no humanity of the Palestinians, the harmless people who find themselves dying,” says Obeidallah. “A lot of the tales are about Hamas and that one way or the other all Palestinians are Hamas, which is vile to say; Hamas is a terrorist group. The result’s the ache that so many in our group are feeling.”

That group is banding collectively this Sunday. Zayid and Obeidallah might be joined by a bevy of comics of Arab descent, together with Mohanad Elshieky and Dave Merheje, in addition to Tony and Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub, who will sit for “a fireplace chat.”

Born in Windsor, Canada, to Lebanese dad and mom, Merheje performs Ahmed on Ramy Youssef’s Emmy-nominated FX collection, Ramy. Over the telephone, he tells me he’s discovering it onerous to inspire himself to inform jokes at a time like this. “Some days, truthfully, I simply don’t actually really feel like going up, like, I’m not as super-motivated,” he says. “It’s simply so heartbreaking. ”

Nonetheless, Merheje plans to carry out new materials this Sunday. “I went to the Center East for the primary time over the past two years,” he says. “I went to Lebanon, the place my dad and mom had been born, final 12 months, after which I went to Egypt and Dubai.” Merheje says he was enamored by the area’s magnificence. “I simply felt this factor I by no means felt earlier than. I’ve been attempting to share that have, as a result of it was very lovely. The individuals had been nice. The individuals had been so welcoming, and there was such care and love and empathy that I noticed there that I’ll always remember.”

Elshieky, who served as a digital producer on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and has appeared on Conan and Comedy Central, was born and raised in Libya, however has not been in a position to return residence since coming to the US in 2014 for what was presupposed to be only a six-week alternate program. “I used to do plenty of translation work for journalists and whatnot who got here to Libya to cowl the civil struggle that was occurring,” Elshieky says. “Due to my go to to the States—particularly that it was sponsored by the US Division of State—I feel a number of the teams again residence that had been in management on the time assumed that I used to be one way or the other concerned with the US authorities.”

“I can’t return to Libya as a result of I utilized for political asylum and all of that stuff,” he provides. “I don’t suppose it’s secure for me, personally, to return. Hopefully, sooner or later, issues change. Who is aware of?”

Like Merheje, Elshieky is having a tough time motivating himself to inform jokes proper now. However he additionally believes that in doing so, he’ll discover the energy he must persist in attempting instances. “I’m doing it so I can have some power, as a result of I really feel like every thing has been simply completely fucking horrible,” he tells me. “Numerous the individuals who attend the competition are Arabs, Muslims, and brown individuals. Everybody has been having a nasty time, however particularly people who find themselves in that group. That is good for me and good for them as properly—simply to be in an area with individuals who appear like them, and possibly assist take their thoughts away from simply how horrible every thing is.”