Arab-American comedian trying to 'compensate' brings much-needed laughter to Washington

Zaid Fouzi is half Syrian, half white and not shy about tackling the controversial topics in both of his worlds

Zaid Fouzi, a Syrian-American stand-up comedian performing. Photo: Zaid Fouzi
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“It’s interesting being half Arab, half white,” Syrian-American stand-up comedian Zaid Fouzi says during his act in a small venue in Washington.

“Because half of me is super scary, oppressive and dangerous. Then the other half is Arab.” The room immediately erupts into laughter.

Mr Fouzi grew up in Dayton, Ohio, to a Syrian father and a white mother. Now living in Chicago, Illinois, he came to the US capital to talk about his complicated identity, with his feet in two very different worlds.

He took yearly trips to Damascus and grew up “super Arab” in a part of the US that was not very diverse. He spent his youth fending off bullying and trying to “compensate” for the fact that his mother was white.

“There was like an asterisk on my family, where Arabs thought I was one of them, but not really one of them because my mum's name is Carol,” Fouzi tells The National.

“And then I would go to hang out with the white kids, and they would treat me like I was Arab. That really stuck with me growing up, where I always felt like I had to overcompensate.”

Fouzi, 26, joins a growing number of young Arab and Muslims venturing into the realm of stand-up comedy, a platform they say has allowed them to tackle taboo topics, such as inequality and racism.

It has also enabled them to shed light on the Arab-American experience, a topic that has long been on the margins of society and art.

“The most important thing I try to do is normalise my upbringing,” Fouzi says.

“I tell jokes about my dad and my upbringing with him and my everyday life with him, and it can really humanise us and it can create this narrative of what it's like to be an Arab American.”

His act comes at a time when Arab Americans are enjoying more visibility on television and in the media than ever before.

Zaid Fouzi, 26, makes jokes about his mixed identity and about his experience as an Arab American. Photo: Zaid Fouzi

Ramy, the comedy-drama show on Hulu, and Netflix's Mo which chronicles the lives of Muslim Americans with identity crises, have both won wide acclaim in recent years.

Those shows, Arab-American artists say, are crucial for reversing years of portrayal of Arabs as “the bad guys” in American films, and counter years of negativity in the news.

Much of the popularity of stand-up is being propelled by social media, where clips of jokes are often shared and viewed millions of times.

“This is the most direct to consumer opportunity we've ever had,” says Fouzi, who works full time as a private equity consultant.

“It used to be that I would have to come up in the clubs in New York and hope that someone from night-time television would see me put me on their TV.

“Now, I can record a clip post it on TikTok and it might get four million views, and that is a level of reach to consumers we've never had before.”

The messages come at a time when Muslim and Arab-American comedians have been more vocal about racial profiling and racism after 9/11 – events they say have deeply shaped their lived experience.

“At four years old, I was on the defensive, I had to learn how to tell people that I'm not a terrorist,” Fouzi says. “And I learnt how to basically play PR for Islam and the Arab culture.”

From the stage, Fouzi is not shy about delving into the heavy topics of the day.

“I was so happy on January 6, I’m going to be honest,” he says, referring to the storming of the Capitol in 2021 by supporters of former president Donald Trump.

“I was happy because I realised, my life got so much easier, because they’re not looking for me any more.”

The crowd laughs and cheers in response.

“Travelling got so much easier – you can have a name like Saddam bin Laden, they’re gonna let you go, but if your name is Kyle, you’ll have issues.”

Fouzi also complained about his name constantly being mispronounced as “Zaeed”.

“Mispronouncing ethnic names is the last socially acceptable way they have to be racist,” he says. “We can’t take everything away from them.”

Towards the end, his act turned inward, with Fouzi poking fun at his father, who was in the audience.

“I don’t know what it is about minority dads, but I just feel like all of them hit 40 and go through life stomach first,” he says while acting out how his father walks.

The audience, a mixture of fans, supporters, relatives, colleagues and complete strangers, engaged with his act, with some shouting out responses to his questions.

“He did a good job reading the audience and engaging the audience, because it was a diverse crowd,” Madeline, who came with a group of friends, told The National after the show.

“You have to poke fun at yourself in order to have fun in life,” Jacky, another member of the audience said. “He made fun of everybody – it wasn’t just white people in the audience. I thought it was great.”

Updated: June 14, 2023, 3:00 AM