USA: Muslim Comics in a Mordant Act of ‘Resistance’

The Muslim stand-up performer, one of several on the bill that night, looked both jubilant and deeply satisfied as he continued to eye the sold-out audience of 200.

“This room, ” he said, “is Donald Trump’s worst nightmare.”

Mr. Obeidallah, who is half-Palestinian and half-Italian, created the recurring show, “The Big Brown Comedy Hour,” in 2009 as a way of giving stage time to comedians of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, among others. But on Sunday, the jokes took on a different, more urgent tone than usual. With President-elect Donald J. Trump preparing to take the oath of office on Friday and having threatened tough new policies affecting Muslim immigrants, Mr. Obeidallah told the crowd it was time for “comedy resistance.”

Sunday’s show, advertised with the tagline, “the last laugh before Trump deports us,” was one of a rapidly growing number of political protests by artists using their platforms to speak out against Mr. Trump. More than 130 artists have signed a letter calling on cultural institutions to shut their doors on Inauguration Day. Stage actors, directors and others will gather outside theaters nationwide on Thursday night to champion “the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion.” And Meryl Streep used a speech at the Golden Globes to deconstruct Mr. Trump as a performer and rebuke him for what she saw as a lack of humanity.


Maysoon Zayid performing at the Comic Strip Live. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

Many Muslim artists say they have particular cause for concern. In December 2015, after a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., killed 14 people and seriously injured others, Mr. Trump proposed barring Muslims from entering the United States. His remarks drew a standing ovation from his audience at a rally on the Yorktown aircraft carrier in Mount Pleasant, S.C., but were also criticized by many Democrats and Republicans. He has since shifted his focus to limiting or aggressively vetting those from predominantly Muslim nations and other countries that have been linked to terrorist groups.

No one knows exactly what Mr. Trump will do as president, but vigilance is intense among many artists and progressives nationwide.

“We’re going to be feisty,” Mr. Obeidallah, 47, said during his set. “We’re going to fight. We’re never giving up. Right?”

Many audience members at the Comic Strip Live nodded approvingly, seemingly as one.

The comedy show has always been rooted in solidarity. Mr. Obeidallah said that he created it so those facing discrimination in a post-Sept. 11 world could find solace and laughter.


From left, the comedians Hisham Fageeh, Eman Morgan, Eman El-Husseini and Mr. Obeidallah backstage at Comic Strip Live. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

“I said: ‘Why don’t we do a comedy show? Sort of a celebration of being brown in America?’” Mr. Obeidallah said in an interview. “And also with a little political undertone. You know, we’re going to have fun and make fun of any kind of bigotry, and my goal on some bigger level, frankly, is to create alliances between the brown communities.”

The act has attracted some big-name comedians in the past, like Aasif Mandvi, best known for his work as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” and Kumail Nanjiani, a star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

Of all the performers on Sunday, Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian-American who Mr. Obeidallah calls his comedy sibling, spoke the most vividly about the anxiety that some Muslims are grappling with in the age of Trump.

During her set, she said she was suffering from “Trump-pression” and was losing her eyebrows as a result.


Atheer Yacoub performing. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

“I am Donald Trump’s worst nightmare: I am Muslim, I bleed wherever, and I’m disabled — I have cerebral palsy, so I shake all the time,” she said, referring to Mr. Trump’s mocking of Megyn Kelly, then a Fox News host, and of Serge F. Kovaleski, a reporter for The New York Times who has arthrogryposis, which limits the functioning of his joints. Ms. Zayid once gave a TED Talk on living with cerebral palsy, and her routine was almost entirely a takedown of Mr. Trump, using exaggeration and hyperbole to play to the crowd.

“I’m genuinely afraid that Trump is going to nuke Canada,” Ms. Zayid said during her set. “And he’s not going to realize that the fallout is going to take us out too, right? And I think the motivation is Justin Trudeau is a 10.”

After her set, Ms. Zayid said that Mr. Trump worried her far more than other recent presidents she didn’t like. “With George Bush, I had absolutely no fear that I would ever be silenced,” she said. “With Donald Trump, I think I could get dragged offstage and have people actually cheer it. I never thought that would happen in America.”

Not every comedian on Sunday focused only on Mr. Trump. There were sendups of cultural stereotypes. There were jokes about immigrant parents picking significant others for their children. Mr. Obeidallah cracked about President Obama taking his shoes off in a mosque.


The crowd taking in “The Big Brown Comedy Hour” at Comic Strip Live.CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

“He was confident and he was comfortable. He’s a Muslim,” he said, playing on the disseminated falsehood that the president is Muslim.

Others seemed to treat Mr. Trump as another source of material, nothing more, nothing less. Feraz Shere, a 33-year-old comic who specializes in impressions, did spot-on caricatures of both President Obama — whom he tweaked as having to weigh in on toothpaste rather than nuclear issues after leaving office — and of Mr. Trump, whom he portrayed as a stand-up comedian.

“‘I tell the best jokes. O.K.?’” Mr. Shere started in a Trump-like voice, gesticulating wildly to the crowd.

In an interview, Mr. Shere said he didn’t think he was targeting Mr. Trump for unusually harsh ridicule. To him, the jokes were just that: jokes. “I haven’t really looked at things politically from solely a Muslim viewpoint,” he said. “I grew up in a fairly nonpracticing household.”


Feraz Shere at Comic Strip Live. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

While comedy is generally regarded as a stress reliever, some members of the audience emerged expressing various levels of unease, anxiety and hope.

Mahnoor Waseem, a 21-year-old political science student at Montclair State University in New Jersey, came with her 19-year-old sister. She was born in Pakistan and arrived in the United States a few months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She called the 2016 election “emotionally strenuous,” and said she reacted to the comedy show with “nervous laughter.”

“Because I hope that whatever the comedy, the material doesn’t become true,” she said. “So it was like, close my eyes and hide.”

But she said she did not have a visceral hatred of Mr. Trump and that she had to be loyal to the country and the president, “regardless of who the president is.”

“I felt a little bit of hope,” she said. “That hope comes with my faith.”

After the last comic left the stage, Mr. Obeidallah ended the show by putting a twist on the usual bit that comedians use to promote themselves. He said another “The Big Brown Comedy Hour” had been scheduled for March because of high demand.

“If we’re allowed,” he quipped.

Categories: The Muslim Times, USA

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