News Column

Muslim Comics Fight Hostility With Humor

September 21, 2013

YellowBrix

Some quips you won't hear from any of the Muslim stand-up comics in the documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!":

I just flew in from Damascus, and are my arms tired. ...

A funny thing happened on the way to Abdullah, the rug merchant. ...

I'm here all week, try the falafel. ...

But the material you will hear from Lodi's Dean Obeidallah and the other comics profiled in this film, which opened Friday at New York's Quad Cinemas, is almost as familiar: sex jokes, family jokes, slices of everyday life. These young guys and gals are just as cheeky, friendly and ordinary as any comic anywhere, from Times Square to Tel Aviv. Which is, of course, the point.

"We're just comedians," says Obeidallah, co-creator of the documentary with comic Negin Farsad.

"It's entertainment," he says. "Hopefully, you're gonna be having a good time. But hopefully while you're laughing, we may be sneaking, in a stealthlike way, a little message."

The message is not, Obeidallah insists, Surrender, America.

It is, rather, a plea for goodwill and understanding on behalf of America's more than 2 million Muslims, still viewed with suspicion by many Americans in the post-9/11 world.

"Three right-wing media outlets attacked the film in the last week, based on the trailer," Obeidallah says. "[One] called it a cultural jihad. So somehow I'm a jihadist now, because I try to spread laughter and happiness through comedy."

"The Muslims Are Coming!" chronicles a 2010 goodwill tour that Obeidallah and Farsad made, in the company of two carloads of other Muslim comedians, to a handful of red states: Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Utah and Arizona.

The two of them are seen bowling, visiting Southern gun shows, hugging Mormons in Salt Lake City. Along with comics Preacher Moss, Aron Kader, Kareem Omary, Omar Elba and another North Jerseyan, Cliffside Park's Maysoon Zayid, they field questions at an Ask A Muslim Booth, and play scriptural trivia with passers-by (the point being that the Old and New Testaments contain as many incendiary texts as the Quran).

All of this, Obeidallah says, to break down walls and promote understanding. But in some ways, it was he and his fellow comics who got the lesson.

"I actually went to the South with more preconceptions than I had coming back," he says. "People were tolerant. Almost all the Mormons, too. They were amazing, those people. I'm actually happier, more optimistic, more proud to be an American."

The film -- which also contains weigh-ins from entertainers like Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Janeane Garofalo, Aasif Mandvi and others - - is part of an ongoing effort by Obeidallah, founder of the 10- year-old New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, to enlist laughter in the fight against anti-Islamists who see all American Muslims as stealth agents of al-Qaida.

"For us, the challenge is standing up to the misconception, and making it clear we do not agree with that," Obeidallah says. "They [al-Qaida] are not Muslims in our eyes. They're murderers. They're trying to use Islam to further a political agenda. And frankly, they kill more Muslims than non-Muslims."

It's the kind of argument that he has had to make a lot in the past 12 years - ever since the September day when, as he likes to put it, he went to sleep white and woke up Arab. "It was never really an issue," he says. "And then it became one."

Son of a Palestinian father and a Sicilian mother, Obeidallah grew up in Paramus, and went to Bergen Catholic High School. For much of his life, his background was a curiosity rather than a liability. One day, he even brought his father in for show-and- tell. "The teacher wanted to expose students to a man from the Middle East," he says.

In the past decade, he and his fellow Muslim comics have been on the defensive -- if not from accusations of terrorism, from perceptions (fostered by films like Albert Brooks' "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," 2005) that followers of Islam have no sense of humor.

Actually, Islamic culture has a rich comedic storytelling tradition, says Obeidallah, whose own comic monologues have been seen on Comedy Central, ABC's "The View" and NBC's "Rock Center."

"When I perform for American Muslim organizations, I do jokes about us," he says. "From the way we're late for things, to certain expressions we overuse. Like 'Inshallah.' It means 'God willing.' The joke I tell - true story - I asked, 'Where is the bathroom?' The man said, 'Over there.' I say, 'I'll be right back.' He says, 'Inshallah.' What will happen in the bathroom where I need God's protection?"

Can comedy be a bridge to understanding, and a weapon against hate? Absolutely, says Obeidallah.

Though perhaps "weapon" isn't the best word.

"This is a comedy jihad," he quips. "And it's not over."

At Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St., Manhattan; 212-255-8800. For more information, see themuslimsarecoming.com.

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