Arab-American comedians hope to dish out laughs at New York festival

Twenty-seven comics will deliver punchlines at this week's Arab-American Comedy Festival

NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 25, 2013: Maysoon Zayid, co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, performs at the 8pm 10th anniversary Headliner Show at the Gotham Comedy Club, 208 West 23rd St. The festival, featuring over 30 comedians, took place at two venues over four days in Manhattan. (Dave Sanders for The National) *** Local Caption ***  on29oc-ComedyFest-Pg-10.jpg
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When Maysoon Zayid and other comics launched the Arab-American Comedy Festival in 2003, they had no idea the event would have such staying power.

Back then, the stand-ups lampooned racial profiling and anti-Arab attitudes following the 9/11 attacks and the US-led invasion of Iraq.

This week, Zayid and 26 others will take the stage in New York for the 18th annual event, which gained renewed impetus during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“It’s so much worse than it ever was because white supremacy has been unleashed in this country,” she told The National.

Negative comments from some conservative pundits about Afghan refugees settling in the US after the Taliban retook Afghanistan is the latest example of hostility towards Muslims in America, she said.

The three-night run at Gotham Comedy Club, beginning in Manhattan on Thursday, will add satire to the experiences of an estimated 3.5 million Arab Americans.

“Will someone make a joke about hummus?” quipped Zayid.

“It's 27 comics, somebody is talking about hummus. Somebody's going to talk about cousin marriage. Somebody's going to talk about being mistaken for terrorists. It's going to happen. But it's not like if you're not Arab, you don't get it.”

Over the years, the festival has enabled the rise of Arab-American talent, from actor Omar Metwally to Ramy Youssef, the Golden Globe-winning funny man at the centre of the Hulu series Ramy.

This year’s up-and-comers include Sarah Harvard and Yemen-born Ali Sultan, who in June booked a coveted spot on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Zayid, a Palestinian American, says the festival has been a game changer for wannabe comics with Middle Eastern ancestry.

“When we started, we were scouring the subway stations for comics. Now we have to turn people away,” she said.

She and festival co-founder Dean Obeidallah have used jokes to tackle stereotypes in other formats, from television shows to appearances on CNN.

For Obeidallah, this year’s showcase is a chance to entertain a live crowd as New York, once the global epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, reopens.

After months of lockdown, he wants to perform where “we can actually hear the laughter".

Updated: November 02, 2021, 8:26 PM