‘My best jokes come from moments that have angered me’
‘What motivates me? Money, of course! Being disabled in Trump’s America is expensive. Growing up with cerebral palsy (CP) my father taught me how to walk by putting my little feet on top of his while he walked. He taught me to dance by dangling a dollar bill in front of me – my “inner stripper” was strong, even then!’
I had seen Maysoon Zayid’s seminal TED talk some years before we met and was particularly struck by the audience’s (initially nervous) reaction to her story. I can only describe it as painfully funny.
‘My best jokes come from moments that have angered me the most in my life. I reflect and learn if I get “called out” by hecklers. However, if I’ve caused offence by questioning your politics, I don’t mind hurting your feelings and I’ll do it again.’
The global coronavirus pandemic continues to hit BAME and disabled communities particularly badly. As the world braces for a second wave, Maysoon feels that President Trump’s mishandling of the virus and lack of care for the poorest in society are to blame for America’s huge and rising death toll.
‘Poverty and disability go hand in hand in the US. Disabled Americans have spent decades fighting against being institutionalized. We want to be empowered to live in our own homes and communities. A quarter of all of the people who have already died from Covid-19 in America were in nursing homes. The disabled population, often forced to live in assisted living, were largely ignored. We also had to endure dehumanizing conversations about whether we deserved a ventilator or whether they should go to non-disabled patients as a priority. Trump has a long history of discriminating against disabled people.
‘With him at the helm, the US government has made it their mission to make the lives of disabled Americans hell. Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, rolled back 72 protections for disabled students. The current administration is in court right now trying to strip protections from people with pre-existing conditions. There’s only one way out of this mess: register to vote for Joe Biden.’
Maysoon was instrumental in founding the festival Arabs Gone Wild in 2003, a spin-off of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival – a well-respected platform – that has given rise to big-name comedians such as Ramy Youssef. The festival was a reaction to the lack of opportunity for Arab performers, including Maysoon.
‘Since the age of five, my dream in life was to be on the daytime soap opera General Hospital. Throughout my comedy career, anytime I was interviewed I made sure to mention General Hospital, and finally, my dream came true! Now, I play Zahra Amir – a shark of a lawyer. There is no mention of Zahra’s disability. She is disabled because I have CP. Zahra is ground-breaking because she is the one character in soap history that love cannot heal.’
This interview took place in the wake of global demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. I ask Maysoon how she feels about the way her country is policed.
‘I am disgusted. Almost half of all Americans killed by law enforcement are disabled and they are disproportionately people of colour. This country was built on slavery. It is time to end the confederacy once and for all. I hope Donald Trump is the last roar of the KKK and that this country can finally have liberty and justice for all. Black Lives Matter resonates deeply with me because I have always been a fighter for equality. I grew up spending my summers watching Palestinians being oppressed.
‘I am amazed that Palestine, which is pretty much in a permanent state of chaos, managed Covid-19 better than America. It shut down, tested, and then isolated the few cases. It closed mosques and churches and didn’t let extremists force them to reopen before time. As a Palestinian, watching BLM protesters getting gassed and shot by rubber bullets in Washington DC, I can’t help thinking no-one ever believed Palestinians when we said the forces were attacking protesters. Now, maybe we can fight for equality for all people, from Jerusalem to New Jersey.’
Our interview is coming to a close. Maysoon tells me she is an avid reader of New Internationalist. Her message to youthful readers: ‘Please get involved in your college’s politics. Learn about the past so you can better understand the present political climate. Don’t be afraid to be a leader. Don’t let anyone tell you that equality, justice and ending violence is impossible. Believe you can change the world and find others who are working for that change. There is power in numbers, but never be afraid to be the first person to do the right thing. It only takes a tiny flame to light up the dark. Be that flame.’