Arab comedians in Washington get serious about inclusion in US communities

The ‘Funny Arabs’ comedy show features talent from the Arab-American community

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Getting home well past curfew, thinking up excuses while stalling outside the house and desperately trying to avoid the wrath of your parents — this is a scene many Arabs can identify with and, for Egyptian-American comedian Eman Morgan, relate flawlessly to knowing laughter.

Morgan and other comedians took to a small stage in Washington last weekend to poke fun at what they know best: being Arab in America.

The US capital's vibrant 14th Street was abuzz with people excited to see the “Funny Arabs” comedy show at BusBoys and Poets, a cafe and bookshop.

“People in DC are hungry for events that are tailored to them,” said Rola Zaarour, producer and host of the show, which included comedians from across the Middle East, including Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine.

The comedians' common goal was to bring a little levity to the heavy issues of the Middle East as well as educate non-Arabs about their culture.

"If I get them to laugh, I’m half-way to getting them to trust me and to want to sit with me and to want to know more about me," said Said Durrah, a Palestinian-American comedian that was in the line-up.

Palestinian-American Said Durrah performing his comedy act at Busboys and Poets in Washington. Leen Alfaisal / The National

BusBoys and Poets' owner, Iraqi immigrant Andy Shallal, was “excited” when Zaarour came to him with the idea of an Arab comedy show.

“We have so many comedy shows hosted here, but to have something called ‘Funny Arabs’ was spot on for me; it was obvious that I had to do it,” he said.

“It did not disappoint. The show was amazing”.

Dream come true

But the show was much more than a night full of laughter for its organiser.

Zaarour, who left her corporate job to produce shows and perform, said she was especially proud of this show because not only is she one of a handful of women comedy producers in Washington, she is also the only Arab.

Although the concept may appear a bit niche, it turned out to be wildly popular, especially among the local Arab population, selling out quickly and racking up a 50-person wait-list.

For the Lebanese Canadian who fled the war in her native country, comedy is a remedy for the trauma Arabs have had to live with in recent decades.

“We’ve had so many issues — we’ve had a financial crisis, we had Beirut exploding, so it’s really important for me to create a show where we can heal trauma as comedians, and by doing that, we can also help the audience to heal their trauma,” Zaarour said.

‘I don’t want Arabs and Muslims in the US to feel alone’

In the male-dominated field of comedy, Yasmine Elhady has garnered a reputation for hilarity — all while wearing a hijab. She views her presence in the field as a statement in itself.

“I’m speaking without saying anything, I’m like walking into the room and there’s already a conversation happening,” she said.

“Sometimes people bring down their guard and tell me that they thought I was going to be speaking in a heavy accent or that I'm going to be talking about God the whole time, but my hijab is an asset, not something that holds me back. It’s what makes me different.”

The lawyer got into comedy after she saw a CNN interview featuring former US president Donald Trump, who said: “I think Islam hates us.”

It “rubbed her the wrong way”, she said, and she decided to get on a stage to prove otherwise.

“I don’t want Arabs and Muslims in the US to feel alone,” she said.

“I just wanted to reclaim my own humanity in front of people who dehumanise me the second they see me.

“Being funny was a coping mechanism for me — it was a way to get people to see my humanity and make them understand that I really wasn’t an alien.”

Updated: June 09, 2022, 5:28 PM