Laughing in Amman: Arab-American Comedians Look into the Future

Amman, Jordan – Last week, I had the chance to speak to comedians Dean Obeidallah, Maysoon Zayid, Aron Kader, and actor and producer Waleed Zuaiter. We spoke about humanizing the Arab\Muslim “Other” to Western audiences and promoting comedy and self-expression in the Middle East.

The visiting celebrities were eager to talk about their experience at a workshop in Jordan’s SAE Institute, a media technology training institute, pointing out that the country has a lot of local talent just waiting to take off.

One SAE student later told me that he personally wasn’t impressed with the workshop at all, though I immediately wondered how much of the negativity stemmed from simple inertia: the lingering idea that nothing with artistic or entertainment value could possibly be created in Jordan, ever (the same student told me he despises the recent Jordanian film “Captain Abu Raed,” a ground-breaking movie I adored).

I have heard repeated statements that Jordan in particular is an “anti-intellectual” environment, as opposed to, say, Lebanon or Egypt. I asked Waleed Zuaiter, whose parents divide their time between Amman and Ramallah, what he thought about said claims of anti-intellectualism:

Waleed, who co-produces the New York Arab American Comedy Festival besides working as an actor, told me: “I don’t think there is anything “anti-intellectual” about Jordan at all. Amman doesn’t need to “import” culture, it is full of culture and history. When it comes to Comedy, which is an Art form as all the other Arts, I would recommend that Jordan not solely “import” comedy from the West, but to really focus on creating a home-grown practice and following where comedians and audiences can enjoy stand-up comedy in their own native language.”

Born in Sacramento, California, Waleed spent most of his childhood in Kuwait and, as a native Arabic speaker, highlights the importance of understanding a culture from within.

Maysoon Zayid, whose recent role in Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” has garnered much attention, is another native Arabic speaker, despite having grown up in New Jersey. It was refreshing to hear Maysoon speak about working with Adam Sandler at the press conference, because many of my earnest friends had quickly dismissed the film, which aims to poke fun at conflict in the Middle East, as racist clap-trap.

Maysoon, and others, argued that Adam Sandler was in fact very sensitive to the subject matter and wanted to make fun of both Jews and Arabs in a manner that was entertaining. Maysoon is a woman with agency, and then some, and she strikes you as a person you don’t want to piss off under any circumstances. The idea of her taking on a demeaning role seems ludicrous, all pious hand-wringing on the subject be damned.

When I asked Maysoon what’s next for her, she spoke of performing at the upcoming Democratic National Convention and working on another comedy project, “Little American Whore,” as well as translating said project into Arabic. Will the word “whore” be kept in the Arabic title? Of course it will.

And that’s the thing about Maysoon – she’s bawdy and fresh and brash. I’ve corresponded with her for an interview before, but seeing her in the flesh is a rare treat.

Interacting with Maysoon made me think of how many women in the entertainment industry are still expected to be not fully human, with sculpted hairdos and on-call stylists and the cool appeal of sirens. It is comedy, a genre generally overlooked by cultural gate-keepers in the world, which often allows more women to freely act out the livelier, messier sides of their actual lives.

Meanwhile, having remembered that Maysoon once spoke of being accused of anti-Semitism, I wondered if “Axis of Evil” Aron Kader, whom I last saw in Dubai, had ever encountered such accusations in his professional life. Aron said no, but he also mentioned that he knows where the sensitivity comes from.

In the U.S., it is very hard to have a rational debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So hard, in fact, that it seems as though laughing about it may be the only way for all sides to start talking.

Meanwhile, Dean Obeidallah, “Axis of Evil” star and co-founder and co-producer of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival, noted that many people had told him that Jordanians do not laugh. He was pretty emphatic when he said that he didn’t believe this was the case. Jordanians laughed hysterically when Dean and Maysoon gave live comedy performances in Amman, for example.

I have to testify that one could hear said hysterical laughter from blocks away. The cats on the trash-bins perked up their ears, and the neighbourhood, lively by all standards, felt as though it was brimming with fizzy good energy.

It’s no wonder. Like Maysoon, Dean is incredibly funny, with precise timing and an impish smile. He also comes off as incredibly, disarmingly sincere. This was his second time in Amman and he spoke highly of its growth and development, even if the Ammanites’ practice of parking on the sidewalk left him bewildered (growth and development isn’t making those streets any wider).

When the inevitable question along the lines of “aren’t you afraid of becoming too mainstream?” sounded forth at the press conference, Dean grinned widely. On one hand, money for his projects is important, that much ought to be obvious to all, even the most radically anti-establishment among us. On the other hand, he spoke about the notion that there are plenty of generic comedians out there, and being an Arab-American comedian means that one cannot aspire to be generic, lest one loses one’s audience.

Waleed Zuaiter told my fellow journalist that the group’s talent “ does not end with being Arab.” The performances are not gimmicks that will simply lose their flavour once an even greater audience catches on.

Waleed struck me as the youngest of the group. I was shocked when he told me he was thirty-seven. He has an Arab Errol Flynn quality to him, something that Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, has to take a closer look at.

We spoke about racism in the entertainment industry; I recalled the time that actor Kal Penn came to Duke while I was an undergrad, and sparked a pretty sobering discussion on what it means to be “too ethnic” in Hollywood. Waleed told me that he feels fortunate that he hasn’t experienced what Kal Penn spoke about directly. He said he just preferred to focus on the art – “art” is a word that gets bandied about with some ease, but coming from Waleed, you think its invocation to be genuine.

Interacting with this group makes you wonder what it would have been like to see George Carlin young, at the height of his potential. Wandering over to Aron Kader, I asked him to comment on Carlin’s recent passing, since I was aware of Aron being a fan.

“He was the greatest.”

Damn straight. And you may be too.

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  1. Sami A
    Posted August 28, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t say Jordan is an anti-intellectual country either, but it is apparent most segments in society in Jordan do not have the oppurtunities or medium to express themselves as do the bourgeoisie.

    Hence, the reason movies like Captain Abu-Raed, seem like a farce to some, is because it is unimaginable a posh girl from West Amman would befriend a “zabaal”. I also found the movie heart-warming but inevitably i’d have to classify it as “fiction”.

  2. Natalia Antonova
    Posted August 31, 2008 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I like the word “fable” myself. :)