From pain to punchlines: Arab American comedians spread laughter through 'traumedy'

Instead of avoiding trauma, these comics are finding humour in personal and collective pain, while searching for healing

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Rola Zaarour says she finds humour in the darkest and most unlikely places: fleeing the civil war in Lebanon, getting a divorce, losing her job and financial troubles.

Instead of avoiding talking about these traumatic experiences, Zaarour, 50, says she leans into them and looks for the humorous side as a way to cope and connect with other people.

“When we laugh at our own pain, we can also heal others and that's been the biggest reward,” she tells The National.

For the past three years she has been performing and producing stand-up comedy shows all over Washington in what she calls trauma comedy or “traumedy” – the art of turning pain into punchlines.

She started her flagship project Funny Arabs, bringing together dozens of Arab American comedians from all over the country, reflecting with humour on their upbringing, their experiences and their troubled homelands.

Zaarour argues that we don't know what makes us laugh. It could be cultural or personal preferences. She says she does not find "slapstick" mainstream humour at all funny.

Some of the jokes are dark and she admits that this type of black humour is not for everyone.

The reaction to her gags can sometimes be dramatic. Zaarour calls it “cathartic” when people laugh at their own deep pain for the first time, bringing with it an intense flood of emotions, followed by relief.

“We come from war,” she said during a recent panel event. “That breeds innovation and it also breeds humour because it’s the only way to cope.”

“[Lebanon] is probably at war right now, I haven’t checked my messages,” she says.

But despite maintaining a light-hearted attitude about many of life’s challenges, the ongoing Israel-Gaza war has been particularly grim.

Every day since October 7, when Israel launched a retaliatory war on Gaza for the Hamas-led attack that killed 1,200 people, brings new horrors.

Television and social media show an unending stream of gruesome images of Palestinians, often children, dead, injured or suffering intensely.

More than 36,200 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes, much of the coastal enclave has been reduced to rubble and a humanitarian crisis is worsening.

The war on Gaza, now approaching its ninth month, has also spread to Ms Zaarour's ancestral home in Lebanon, with cross-border fire between the Israeli army and the armed group Hezbollah.

About 80 civilians in southern Lebanon have been killed in Israeli shelling, including children, medical workers and journalists.

Still, she and other Arab American comedians say laughing and making others laugh is in itself an act of resistance and resilience.

It is a healing space for people and a platform to talk about political issues, they say.

“I think that – with all the love and respect to academics, policymakers and lobbyists – a lot of what they've done has failed,” Zaarour says.

“So why not try comedy?”

Majdy Fares is a Palestinian American stand-up comedian and he sometimes performs alongside Zaarour.

They will soon both be performing at the NY Arab American Comedy Festival at the prestigious Kennedy Centre in Washington, alongside five other comedians including Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid.

Fares, who has family in the occupied West Bank, says he and a growing number of average Americans oppose seeing billions of their tax dollars being used to fund Israel's war while domestic issues such as health care and education remain underserved.

“I try to find the funny in the hypocrisy, in the ridiculousness of how some people behave towards the subject,” he tells The National.

“Sometimes it becomes dark comedy and sometimes I'm able to get the audience to laugh together at something that is not funny at all."

“Last week, I went to six protests, three marches and I ran two Gaza 5km races,” one of his jokes goes. “I'm in the best shape of my life and I call it resistance training – I did it from the river to the sea, my waist down to a 33.”

While many Arab American comedians joke about being physically hit or scolded by their immigrant parents, he says his parents’ idea of punishment when he misbehaved as a child was being forced to watch Arabic satellite news, which he calls “psychological warfare”.

Next month's Kennedy Centre show is a culmination of years of professional work, Fares says, but also critical to his own personal healing, which remains a work in progress amid the seemingly never-ending troubles in the Middle East.

“I'm desperate to get through the grieving cycle right now,” he says. "Because it seems like I'm stuck at stage one and every day I see something else that resets it back to denial.”

Updated: May 31, 2024, 6:00 PM