- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

AMMAN, Jordan | “I am actually really proud that my best friend in the whole world is Jewish,” Palestinian-Canadian Eman Husseini told a captivated audience at a stand-up comedy festival in Amman, just the second of its kind in the Middle East.

“We grew up together. It was very cute, instead of playing cowboys and Indians, it was Israelis and Palestinians.

“She would come over and kick me out of my house.”

Bringing humor to a part of the world better known for political tension and conservative social and religious mores is the mission of Mr. Husseini and other young Arab comedians of hyphenated background — be it American, Canadian, European.

“What we know as stand-up comedy — standing on a stage and telling jokes — is a new phenomenon in the Arab world,” said Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-American-Italian. “There are no full-time stand-up comedy clubs in the Arab world. They haven’t heard jokes about their own culture like this before — no one has held a mirror up to them.”

Mr. Obeidallah is part a group that, provocatively, co-opted former President George W. Bush’s name for so-called rogue states intent on creating trouble, the Axis of Evil.

In 2003 — two years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, when many Arab-American comedians struggled to dispel suspicion and outright racism — he and Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayid founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. The aim was to showcase Arab talent, an antidote to post-Sept. 11 fallout that proved a hit and has been held every year since.

Last December, they took the idea to Jordan for what organizers and Amman city officials said was the first event of its kind in the Middle East.

A success, it returned this December with the blessing of Mayor Omar Maani, who said it “paves the way for talented youth with aspirations to become stand-up comedians … to make their dream a reality.”

Amman city officials said they hope to make it an annual event.

“We’re comedy missionaries,” said Mr. Obeidallah, who wants to organize workshops to help Arab youths break into the trade. “In a way it’s like globalization through comedy. We are bringing the world together one laugh at a time.”

About 25 comics performed here this year, including Mr. Obeidallah’s Axis of Evil cohort Aron Kader.

New Jersey-born Miss Zayid, 33, the first woman stand-up comedian to perform in Jordan and the Palestinian territories, spared no topic in Amman, poking fun at Arab and Muslim society, her family and even her own disability, cerebral palsy.

“My father is very conservative. … I am the daughter of [Muslim pilgrim] Musa Zayid. My mum looks like [Lebanese singer and sex symbol] Haifa Wehbe, and my dad looks like Saddam Hussein,” she told the audience. “It’s time for me to find a husband … and where better than Gaza because they’ve got no place to run?”

She delivers her routine sitting on a stool and is unfazed by her disability. “I have something called cerebral palsy, which means I shake all the time, like I am a little bit Shakira, Shakira, and I am also a little bit Yasser Arafat,” she said, triggering peals of laughter as she compared herself to the gyrating Colombian pop singer and the late Palestinian leader, whose hands used to tremble.

Miss Zayid, who regularly visits the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where she runs a charity for disabled and wounded refugee children, has toured extensively in the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Her 2006 one-woman show, “Little American Whore,” was chosen last year by the prestigious Sundance Institute for its Middle Eastern Screenwriters Lab, a workshop to support emerging filmmakers.

She and Mr. Obeidallah kick off a new tour in the United States and the Gulf states in January called “Arabs Gone Wild.”

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