New Internationalist

Standing up for peace

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Comedian Dean Obeidallah aims to build bridges between the Jewish and Arab communities in the US through laughter. Cheryl Morris met him.

Robert Lowell
Dean Obeidallah in action on stage. Robert Lowell

When Dean Obeidallah read ‘Arabs are the new Blacks’ in the US press after 9/11, he couldn’t have been more thrilled. ‘Oh my god! We’re cool!’ he exclaims enthusiastically. ‘Hot Asian girls will stop dating Black guys and start dating Arabs! People will ditch baseball hats for Arab head gear! Posters of Nasser will replace Tupaq in teenage boys’ rooms…!’

If Arabs are the new cool, comedians like Obeidallah are at least partly responsible for spinning their image back from the ‘crazed foreign fanatics’ so commonly seen in the mainstream US press back to one more grounded in reality

If indeed Arabs are the new cool, comedians like Obeidallah are at least partly responsible for spinning their image back from the ‘crazed foreign fanatics’ so commonly seen in the mainstream US press back to one more grounded in reality.

It can’t have been an easy task. The comedian explains that before 9/11, he ‘was just another white guy. And then one morning in September I woke up and I was an Arab.’ Previously simple tasks, like withdrawing money from the bank or buying air tickets, suddenly became politically loaded and even suspicious. Bank tellers and airline staff would say: ‘Obeidallah? What kind of a name is that? Where’s it from?’ ‘I’d tell them: “It’s a Middle Eastern name that means Peace-loving Arab. Oh, and I come from the same country as Aladdin”,’ he says with a grin.

‘Our goal is to build bridges between the Jewish and Arab/Muslim-American communities through comedy by highlighting our commonality’

But Obeidallah is more than just a cheeky chappy. He’s a popular US comic who has organized other Arab-American comedians into tours with names like ‘The Axis of Evil’ and ‘Arabs Gone Wild’, has won The Spirit of Bill Hicks Award for his thought-provoking, stereotype-smashing comedy, and has recently been touring his show Stand Up For Peace, which he performs with co-creator Scott Blakeman.

The pair mainly tour universities in the US, and aim to build bridges between Jews and Arabs, as well as to engage in dialogue about the Israel/Palestine conflict. But what could possibly be funny about that? ‘We actually don’t do jokes about the conflict – most of the show is about being Jewish and Arab-American, and through the comedy, we try to point out the shared, common experiences we have had. Our goal is to build bridges between the Jewish and Arab/Muslim-American communities through comedy by highlighting our commonality.’

‘We encourage vigorous debate here in the US about our government’s ineffective and disinterested Middle East policy. We urge students and adults alike to get involved’

There’s a question and answer session after the show to encourage discussion with the audience on Middle Eastern issues. ‘The most common question at college shows is: Why isn’t there peace already? College students in the US are amazed that the conflict has gone on for so long. Other questions are about why we started the show and what we recommend as a solution to the conflict.’ And the answers to those questions? Firstly, in a nutshell, the two started the show in 2003 after performing it as a fundraising gig for the charity Seeds of Peace, which brings Palestinian and Israeli teens together in a summer camp in the US to teach them tolerance of the ‘other side’. The routine was so fun and successful, the duo decided to continue its performance indefinitely. Regarding a solution to the conflict: ‘We joke about those who say: “We tried talking and it didn’t work.” That’s like saying “I tried breathing – I didn’t care for it”. Engaging in a constructive dialogue about peace is the only way to bring it about. Another thing we encourage is vigorous debate here in the US about our government’s ineffective and disinterested Middle East policy. We urge students and adults alike to get involved, work for pro-peace organizations, and ask their elected officials to break away from the status quo of accepting an unacceptable situation that has offered Palestinians and Israelis alike a bleak future.’

So, with Arab-American comedy going mainstream, are attitudes towards Muslims changing in the States? ‘I don’t think people are as angry with us as they were in the first few years after 9/11 and at the beginning of the Iraq war. But I’m not saying Americans love us. So it’s still challenging. The fear is that it seems that rightwing people can make racist comments about Muslims and Arabs and few non-Muslims or non-Arabs will defend us, while if someone made a racist comment about Blacks or Jews, many people of all different backgrounds would rush to condemn it….’

So perhaps Obeidallah’s enthusiasm may be a bit premature: until racial slurs towards Arab-Americans are as stigmatic and universally condemned as those directed towards African-Americans, it seems Arabs will not yet be ‘the new Blacks’.

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour is now available on DVD.

For more information about Stand up for Peace, please see www.standupforpeace.com

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