NEW YORK – Standup comedy didn’t seem appropriate in the weeks of Operation Protective Edge. Yet, just then I found myself in New York comedy clubs, watching Maysoon Zayid, a comedian of Palestinian-American descent, and busting a gut with laughter. In a show during the first week of the operation, in a small club on the Upper West Side, Maysoon and six other comics spoke on the volatile subject of “religion.” They were four Christians, a Jew and Maysoon, the “representative Muslim,” as the emcee introduced her.
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During a question-and-answer session, the emcee mentioned suicide attacks and Zayid leapt up, fuming. “Out of the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” she said, “there have been no more than 150 perpetrators of suicide attacks. Obviously, even one is too many, but you have to understand that suicide attacks are not the mainstream of Palestinian society. It’s like accusing all Americans of shooting at pupils in schools. And besides,” she added, “that’s what happens when you lock people up.”
Does it bug Zayid to be “the representative of the Palestinian people,” I ask later. “No, I enjoy it because I think I am far more eloquent than the current leadership and far more honest than the media,” she replies.
She responded to the Gaza conflagration on Facebook and Twitter at the rate of three or four posts an hour. On Day 22 of the first phase of Israel’s operation, she wrote: “Hey FB friends & followers if your friends are pro massacre, can you explain to them I’m a comic and I will mock them if they bring their bigotry/hate to my page comments section.” She added that Facebook is not Palestine, and that she would will not let allow them to occupy her page.
Zayid also posted a photo of herself, holding a sign reading, “As a Palestinian, Muslim, with cerebral palsy, who lives in New Jersey, I choose equality, and you can, too!” The post had received 479 likes, but still, a stormy argument ensued over use of the term “pro-massacre.”
“I don’t know anyone who is ‘pro-massacre,’” a Jewish follower wrote. In response, Zayid posted a YouTube clip showing Israelis viewing Gaza from a nearby hilltop and cheering after a bombing. People who cheer when civilians are bombed are pro-massacre, Zayid noted. But by then her followers were already arguing about her next post.
Maysoon Zayid and I have been acquainted for more than 10 years. The first time we met, during the second intifada, she was just starting out professionally. Since then, she’s appeared on the soap operas “When the World Turns” and “General Hospital,” in the 2008 movie “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” alongside Adam Sandler, and on the TV news show “20/20.” She has also done solo shows, written a screenplay based on her life (titled “If I CanCan” and now in early stages of development) about a tap-dance teacher with cerebral palsy from New Jersey who oversees her own “arranged” marriage.
Amid all this, Zayid has appeared nonstop across the United States and around the Arab world. “My favorite place on earth to perform is at the Palestinian National Theater in Jerusalem. El Hakawati is legendary and stepping on that stage is magical. Nothing compares to performing live in Jerusalem,” she wrote me.
Except maybe performing before the boxer Muhammad Ali some years ago. She described it this way in a TED talk last December: “The one moment that stands out the most was when I got to perform for the man who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, has Parkinson’s and shakes just like me, Muhammad Ali. It was the only time that my father ever saw me perform live, and I dedicate this talk to his memory.”
When I proposed an interview, although she agreed immediately, Zayid set one condition: We would meet, but questions and answers would be in written form. She didn’t want her remarks taken out of context and distorted: “I grant email-only interviews because I don’t want to be misquoted, which has happened more times than I can count. As a Palestinian it is especially dangerous to have your words spun. If I do an interview via email and someone misquotes me, I can actually defend myself.” Then, referring to her own tendency to get into trouble, she added, “I also have no filter, so face-to-face is just too dangerous.”
‘Yes you can can’
Zayid was born in New Jersey in 1974, and raised in the town of Cliffside. She’s the youngest of four daughters. “My mother and father were born and raised in Deir Debwan,” she writes, “a village on the outskirts of Ramallah. My father came to the U.S. in 1959 in order to fulfill the American dream. He married my mother and brought her to the U.S. in 1967.”
In her shows she jokes about cerebral palsy, a condition caused by damage to the brain’s motor control center during pregnancy or childbirth, whose symptoms are difficulties with movement: “No one put a curse on my mother’s uterus, and I didn’t get [CP] because my parents are first cousins, which they are.” Or, “You don’t think of romance when you think of Arabs, but my father was romantic. He told me, ‘The first time I saw your mother, I knew this was it.’ ‘How did you know, Dadbaba?’ ‘Because your grandfather told me.’”
What makes you a Palestinian?
“My mom and dad were born and raised in Palestine, so it is my heritage. Growing up I also spent every summer in Deir Debwan. My father thought if we didn’t go back home every year we would forget our roots and grow up to be Madonna. I knew I was Palestinian before I knew I was human and it is the part of my identity I most strongly identify with.”
What was it like to grow up Palestinian in New Jersey?
“Most of the time, it felt pretty normal. People didn’t realize we weren’t Italian. The biggest difference was that instead of spending summers on the Jersey shore I spent my summers at the Dead Sea.”
“Growing up,” she says in her act, “there were only six Arabs in my town, and they were all my family. Now there are 24 Arabs in town, and they are still all my family.”
What’s funny about being Palestinian and disabled?
“When you think of Palestinians you think more oppressed than funny. Dealing with the challenges of a physical disability daily is also the opposite of fun. Comedy, however, is all about taking something painful or infuriating and making it funny. This makes both topics perfect material. I’ve been doing this for 15 years ... My comedy is completely mainstream.”
Is it harder to be Palestinian or disabled?
“It is much harder to be Palestinian, because when I fight for disabled rights no one goes against me. But when I fight for Palestinian rights, it’s a whole different story. The disabled are absolutely discriminated against, but I doubt anyone would say to my face that they don’t deserve equality.”
She opened her appearance on the TED stage by saying: “My name is Maysoon Zayid, and I am not drunk, but the doctor who delivered me was. He cut my mom six different times in six different directions, suffocating poor little me in the process. As a result, I have cerebral palsy, which means I shake all the time… A lot of people with CP don’t walk, but my parents didn’t believe in ‘can’t.’ My father’s mantra was, ‘You can do it, yes you can can.’”
Zayid suffers from shaking and spasms. It’s hard for her to stand or walk for any length of time. Her father taught her how to walk by himself, without the aid of a physiotherapist. She was sent to tap-dancing classes when she was 5; she still dances and also practices yoga.
“If there was an Oppression Olympics, I would win the gold medal: I’m Palestinian, Muslim, I’m female, I’m disabled and I live in New Jersey,” she said on TED, adding, “I went to college during affirmative action and got a sweet scholarship to Arizona State University, because I fit every single quota.”
Zayid says her father hoped she would be cured of her CP in Palestine. “Summer vacations often consisted of my father trying to heal me, so I drank deer’s milk, I had hot cups on my back, I was dunked in the Dead Sea, and I remember the water burning my eyes and thinking, ‘It’s working!’”
Those annual visits also left traumatic memories. “I remember being 7, 8, 9 and 10, and being strip-searched [at Ben-Gurion airport]. I remember they had me take off my pantyhose, and because I have cerebral palsy not being able to put the pantyhose back on.”
Zayid’s father is the dominant figure in her show. In previous years, when she was still single, she used to say, “I’m a virgin by choice. My father’s choice.” Her father died two years ago, and since then she speaks of him with pain and love. “My father’s name was Mousa,” she told an Upper East Side audience, “like the prophet who brought us the Ten Commandments. But my father had just one commandment: ‘Thou shalt not f--- my daughter.’”
Looking to get married, she relates, she went to Gaza “to catch a husband.” Why Gaza? “Because they have no place to run.” All you have to do, she says, is hold up a passport and you’re flooded with marriage offers. Finally, she found her love in Deheisheh, the refugee camp near Bethlehem, and returned with him to New Jersey. They live in her old hometown, across the Hudson River from New York’s Upper West Side.
Single secular solution
Zayid receives me without any makeup, wearing a yellow jersey with a drawing of “Handala,” the Palestinian refugee child created by Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali (1938-87), known for his criticism of Arab regimes. We sit in the living room. A large iron key, from the home that the family lost in 1948 lies on the windowsill.
Her mother-in-law can’t visit America, Zayid says in her act, because the Department of Homeland Security has classified her as a terrorist. But it’s all right, she explains, because she is the one who told them the woman was terrorizing her. “She’s trying to kill me! I explained to her that because of my disease I could die if I get pregnant, but she insists: ‘Try just once,’ she says.” (Zayid and her husband are planning to adopt orphan children in Bethlehem. In 2001, she founded a charity organization, Maysoon’s Kids, which supports children with disabilities in the West Bank.)
Zayid has clear answers about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The supremacists want superior status to be granted, based on faith, and the indigenous population refuses to be subjugated ... We all know the wall lets through thousands of Palestinian laborers without permits, daily. If security allows these people to be the workforce, I see no reason they shouldn’t be granted equal rights. Everyone would get along just fine if the Palestinians were granted equal rights and let out of their cage. There are extremists everywhere, including America ... Once everybody is granted freedom and equality, the extremists will no longer wield any power.”
The solution to the conflict, in her view, lies in establishment of a single secular democratic state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. She addressed this issue on the Daily Beast website last year. “I support one secular state, and ... doing so does not make me anti-Semitic, delusional, or genocidal,” she wrote, adding that “being a secular state with equal rights does not deny the Jewish people their identity… Many will say, ‘But one state denies Israel’s right to self-determination’ ... If your right to self-determination means denying the lion’s share of the indigenous population equal rights then it is not an internationally recognized human right …”
She adds, at the end: “Make it crystal clear that I am not a normalizer, that I believe there is an oppressed and an oppressor. I am an advocate for equal rights and one secular state that is a safe haven for all its citizens. I am against the killing of civilians by anyone at any time. I am a hardcore advocate for nonviolence.”