Arab-American Comedy in a Post-9/11 World

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Gary He / AP

Dean Obeidallah performs at the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.

Most ethnic groups get their own month to celebrate their culture. What do Arab-Americans get? "Orange alert," jokes comedian Dean Obeidallah. An American born in New Jersey to a Palestinian father and Italian-American mother, Obeidallah turned to comedy to fight the suspicion and ignorance he encountered in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2003 he co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which runs this week in Manhattan. Obeidallah spoke with TIME about bridging cultures, the fading "siege" against Arab-Americans and taking stand-up to the Middle East. (See pictures of the history of stand-up comedy.)

The festival has grown to include about 50 Arab-American comedians. What was the idea behind it?

We started it in November 2003, just two years after 9/11. We wanted to share something that defined us accurately and didn't have to do with terrorism. My life changed because of 9/11 and the backlash against it. A lot of us had thought we were basically white people; we realized we were really a minority and didn't know it.

How did comedy help you cope with the fallout from Sept. 11?

I started to use comedy to talk about my world and how it had changed. People are at a comedy club to laugh, but at the same time we're trying to teach them something about who we are. In the beginning it was, "We're not all terrorists." Joke after joke was making fun of racial profiling. Now it's evolved, and this year's festival is really a celebration for the first time. It's saying, really unapologetically, "This is who we are, this is our culture," and having a lot more fun with it.

How has the climate for Arab-Americans changed since your first festival?

I really think we're in a post-9/11 world. Our community doesn't feel the same sense of being under siege. President Obama and his election symbolized to us that America no longer wanted it to be "us" versus "them" — it's going to be more inclusive and tolerant. I think right now people are more afraid of a Mexican guy with a cough than an Arab guy. I don't think people love us, but the anger has passed. (Read "Ignoring Arab-Americans in '08?")

Are there other Arab-American comedy festivals in the U.S.?

There's nothing more than one or two nights. But I hope more sprout up.

Since 9/11 you've begun performing all over the Arab world. I was surprised to read that a stand-up festival you helped organize in Amman was the very first in the Middle East.

They definitely have a history of sketch comedy and comedy films, but our form of stand-up comedy — standing on a stage and telling jokes — was something unknown. My dad would always ask, "And they pay you for this?"

I'll be honest, I was tentative the first time to do jokes making fun of them. I didn't know if they'd have a sense of humor about it.


They were great! They love when you make fun of them. They haven't heard jokes about their own culture, no one's held a mirror up to them. Like about how much they smoke cigarettes, or talk in the movie theater. They go, "Yes, you're right!"

There are some limits. In certain places you can't make fun of the leader of the country. The most free is Lebanon. They say, "Make fun of anyone — but if you make fun of Hizballah, you're on your own." The other thing is religion. Not just Muslims, but no making fun of Jews, no making fun of Christians.

With the "siege" lifted against Arab-Americans, do you still want to continue with this kind of comedy?

I would hope to be producing something with a lot of Arab-Americans, or even become the Arab Woody Allen. Finding really good projects that show Arabs and Middle Easterners in a positive, fun light. I think there's a horrible void in that these voices are not on American TV. We're not the first to try to use comedy to raise racial or social issues. Richard Pryor or Chris Rock or even Lenny Bruce — they were challenging people through their comedy, but still they were being funny. We're just following in the footsteps of people who have blazed paths.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.