AMMAN (AFP) – “I am actually really proud that my best friend in the whole world is Jewish,” Palestinian-Canadian Eman Husseini told a captivated audience at a stand-up comedy festival in Amman, only the second of its kind in the Middle East.
“We grew up together. It was very cute, instead of playing cowboys and Indians, it was Israelis and Palestinians.
“She would come over and kick me out of my house.”
Bringing humour to a part of the world better known for political tension and conservative social and religious mores is the “mission” of Husseini and other young Arab comedians of hyphenated background — be it American, Canadian, European.
And they don’t shy away from conflict or stereotypes. Instead, they tweak them for laughs.
“What we know as stand-up comedy — standing on a stage and telling jokes — is a new phenomenon in the Arab world,” said Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-American-Italian.
“There are no full-time stand-up comedy clubs in the Arab world. They haven’t heard jokes about their own culture like this before — no one’s held a mirror up to them.”
Obeidallah is part of a group that, provocatively, co-opted the Bush presidency’s name for so-called rogue states intent on creating trouble, the Axis of Evil.
In 2003 — two years after the September 11 terror attacks when many Arab-American comedians struggled to dispel suspicion and outright racism — he and Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayid co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. The aim was to showcase Arab talent, an antidote to post-9/11 fallout that proved a hit and has been held every year since.
Last December they took the idea to Jordan for what organisers and Amman city officials said was the first event of its kind in the Middle East.
A success, it returned this December with the blessing of Mayor Omar Maani, who said “it paves the way for talented youth with aspirations to become stand-up comedians … to make their dream a reality.”
Amman city officials said they hope to make it an annual event.
“We’re comedy missionaries,” said Obeidallah, who wants to organise workshops to help Arab youths break into the trade.
“In a way it’s like globalisation through comedy. We are bringing the world together one laugh at a time.”
Some two dozen comics performed here this year, including Obeidallah’s Axis of Evil cohort Aron Kader.
“I am a Palestinian from the US, but being a Palestinian in the US is politically incorrect,” he joked to the crowd in this desert kingdom where a majority of the six million residents are Palestinian.
“Because when somebody asks you what you are and you say you are Palestinian, they just kind of look at you… ‘Oh, Palestinian?’ No follow up question.”
New Jersey-born Zayid, the first woman stand-up comedian to perform in Jordan and the Palestinian territories, spared no topic in Amman — poking fun at Arab and Muslim society, her family and even her own disability, cerebral palsy.
“What’s up, Amman? My name is Maysoon Zayid and I’m a Palestinian fallaha (peasant), born and raised in Amreeka (America),” she told cheering fans.
“My father is very conservative… I am the daughter of hajj (Muslim pilgrim) Musa Zayid. My mum looks like (Lebanese singer and sex symbol) Haifa Wehbe and my dad looks like Saddam Hussein,” she told the audience.
“It’s time for me to find a husband … and where better than Gaza because they’ve got no place to run?”
The 33-year-old, who delivers her routine sitting on a stool, is unfazed by her disability.
“But I see a couple of you looking at me, like ‘what’s going on with her? I think maybe she is drunk’,” the 33-year-old said of the body spasms caused by her condition.
“I do wanna assure you that I am not drunk because that would be haram,” or forbidden under Islam.
“I have something called cerebral palsy, which means I shake all the time, like I am a little bit Shakira, Shakira, and I am also a little bit Yasser Arafat,” she said, triggering peals of laughter as she compared herself to the gyrating Colombian pop singer and the late Palestinian leader whose hands used to tremble.
Zayid, who regularly visits the Israeli-occupied West Bank where she runs a charity for disabled and wounded refugee children, has toured extensively in the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Her 2006 one-woman show, “Little American Whore”, was chosen last year by the prestigious Sundance Institute for its Middle Eastern Screenwriters Lab, a workshop to support emerging filmmakers.
And she and Obeidallah kick off a new tour in the US and the Gulf States in January called “Arabs Gone Wild”.
“My reception in the Arab world is even better than my reception outside the Arab world,” she said. And her father “is very proud of the fact that I give a strong voice to the Palestinians, who are otherwise unheard.”
A few home-grown comedians also performed in Amman, including Jordanian Nabil Sawalha.
“Stand-up comedy is new in the Arab world,” he conceded, “but Arabs definitely know how to laugh and joke. They have always laughed at themselves and their problems.”
Jordanian cartoonist Imad Hajjaj agreed.
“Arabs in the region are still not used to the idea of stand-up comedy,” he said. “But comedy has always been part of our culture, although some people do not know sometimes how to get the laughs out.”