Remy Munasifi's falafel songs dispel Arab stereotypes

Remy Munasifi, an American comedian of Iraqi and Lebanese descent, seeks to dispel stereotypes of Arabs with jokes and songs about food and security screening.
Remy Munasifi says he wants to entertain, not deliver a political message through his music.
Remy Munasifi says he wants to entertain, not deliver a political message through his music.
WASHINGTON // If hummus, falafel and tabouleh have become more familiar to mainstream America, then it is partly thanks to Remy Munasifi, an American comedian of Iraqi and Lebanese origin. His spoof rap songs about the staples of the Middle Eastern diet have had 50 million views on YouTube while his slapstick humour is helping to dispel US stereotypes of Arabs as troublesome terrorists.

Munasifi, 30, says he wanted to entertain, not to deliver a political message. Along with Middle Eastern mores, he has gently lampooned pop culture and aspects of daily American life, such as McDonald's or the Washington Metro. Using such unlikely material, he has generated a steady following via the tools of new media including YouTube and Facebook.

"One of the nicest e-mails I got was from someone who said they'd been having a bad day before they saw my stuff," he said in between bites of a cupcake, another of his favourite foods, at a cafe in Washington last week. "Everyone has times when they want to escape and I'm glad to help out."

He was born in Washington and grew up in Virginia with his Iraqi Muslim father, a doctor, and Christian Lebanese mother, a Pilates instructor. He shied away from discussing religion, saying his parents taught him about it in a "unique way".

His younger sister followed the more traditional path expected by their parents and is a lawyer. But Mr Munasifi got hooked on stand-up comedy when he was supposed to be studying business at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

He bought himself a video camera in 2006 and has been making rap videos ever since. After college, he moved back home to save money and lived off credit cards. He gained national exposure when his video question was chosen as one of 39 out of 3,000 submitted to a CNN/YouTube debate of all eight Democratic Party contenders for the presidential nomination in 2007. His question was a song about being overtaxed and all the candidates, including Barack Obama, the US president, laughed.

"It was so cool doing that and being super-close to all the candidates," he said. "A lot of people saw it and I managed to get some side work doing videos with think tanks like the Tax Foundation."

He was also invited to become a partner in a programme run by YouTube and Google in which producers of original content share revenue from advertisements. Although Munasifi would not say how much money he makes, he now lives in a flat in Arlington doing what he loves full-time.

"It's a very generous programme and lets creative people be creative," he said. "It's the best feeling to be doing this, looking at your furniture and knowing you got all this from jokes."

After an initial wariness, his parents are also supportive of his career choice. He likes to say when people ask if he has a recipe for tabouleh: "Step one: beg mum to make tabouleh."

Munasifi thanks a group of American Arab comedians who broke new ground and achieved success before him. They include Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader and Maz Jobrani, whose Axis of Evil comedy tour in 2005 received critical acclaim.

Habib Abdul Habib, or "Baghdad's worst comedian", is Munasifi's comedic alter-ego and it is in this persona that he makes jokes about US security screening, for example, in his stand-up routine.

The latest video from The Falafel Album, a song called Saudis in Audis, was released last week. Munasifi steers away from any serious political messaging and described his lyrics as "ridiculous". These are some lines from Hummus: The Rap.

"Saddam, Iran, Osama. Baby bomber drama, little peace. It's on your TV but believe me, there is good in Middle East, it's... Hummus. I'm eating hummus. With Thomas Jefferson-us."

Munasifi said he was overwhelmed by the positive e-mails he had received from across the world including the Middle East and the US. "The most negative I hear is if someone says they prefer baba ganoush to hummus," he said.

He very much hopes to tour the Middle East but he was unable to perform in Lebanon before his grandmother died there last year. "I've been to Lebanon several times and now have a lot more family there who left Iraq in 2003," he said. "I would love to keep making people laugh. Anything bigger would be great but it all derives from people sharing videos online and it's the greatest feeling."

Published: October 30, 2010 04:00 AM


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