RAMALLAH – The peace process is, as always, stalled. The summer heat is, as always, oppressive. Just last week, dozens of locals suffered effects of tear gas after clashes with the Israeli army, and other clashes the previous week left a 17-year-old dead. There is not, particularly, an enormous amount to laugh about this August here in Ramallah, Palestine’s de facto administrative capital.
Exceptions are made though. Like, for example, when the first-ever stand-up comedy festival comes to town. The brainchild of Arab-American stand-up comic Amer Zahr, the “1001 laughs comedy festival” played to sold-out and falling-over-themselves-laughing crowds last week at the Ramallah Movenpick Hotel (the tour’s sponsor, together with the United States consulate in Jerusalem), as well as at the Hakawai Theater in East Jerusalem. So great was the demand for tickets that organizers tacked on an addition free show in Bethlehem last weekend.
Seven Arab-American comedians from across the U.S. were brought in by the festival to, as U.S. Consulate General spokesman Clay Alderman put it, “entertain, coach and inspire.” The program, he continued “represents one part of a series of cultural exchange programs sponsored by the American Consulate General that cement the bonds of understanding and respect between Americans and Palestinians.”
Or, as Zahr quipped on stage, in less diplomatic speak: “They get 3 billion dollars a year ... But hey, this is nice too. We like comedy!”
Did the Americans vet any of the material, which included endless funny but hard-hitting jokes about being mistaken for terrorists by clueless Americans, detained at airports by humorless homeland security officers or just trying to get Americans of any kind to properly pronounce their names.
“The festival demonstrates a core U.S. value of freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” explained Alderman in an email. “The comedians were given broad artistic license to express themselves and their own opinions, and use humor to talk about complicated issues.”
Playing two back-to-back two-hour shows every night in a tent set up in the Movenpick garden, the seven comedians, joined by a changing lineup of local guest stand-ups, took turns at the mic, tossing it up: They switched between English and Arabic, and mixed the personal and the political, with jokes about their overbearing mothers and demanding grandmothers going down as well as the jokes about the occupation and the 6-12 hours they each spent at Ben-Gurion Airport.
“So, I just came back from my sisters wedding,” started Zahr, a Detroit-based comedian/writer born in Jordan to Palestinians from Nazareth, warming up the audience: “It started nice, like all Palestinian weddings ... then it turned into a demonstration.”
Jokes about marriage were not too far behind: “Why are you sitting here ... with your wife on the other side of the tent?” he asked one hapless elderly man in the audience. “Are you into separation walls?”
By the time he got to his riffs on the Palestinian way of giving directions, the crowd was cracking up. “Everything in Palestine is ‘dugri, dugri’ [straight, straight]” Zahr joked, his laughter contagious. “No wonder the Israeli security can find us all the time.”
The audiences – a mix of everyone from men with moustaches dragging on their cigarettes, to women in traditional Muslim head coverings and dress to young adults in cut-off jeans and tank tops, with a smattering of NGO workers and diplomats along for the ride – laughed, giggled, and clapped throughout.
But still, the language and content was clearly not for everyone: “Uh oh,” mouthed Egyptian-born Californian comedian Ahmed Ahmed as two women, both wearing hijabs, eased their way out of their row in the middle of his routine about his 23-year-old ex-girlfriend giving him an ultimatum.
“It’s me or the pot,” she told him, he joked, adding: “That’s weed. Do you guys have weed here?”
And then, “Where are you going?” he called after the women. “Moses was a stoner,” he added. “You all know that, right?”
And not only was it not right for everyone, not everyone felt totally welcome either: Rabbi Bob Alper, a reform rabbi and stand-up comedian from Vermont, who often performs in the U.S. together with Ahmed Ahmed and Palestinian-Californian Mo Amer, another comedian in the festival, had planned to join the Wednesday and Thursday night shows in Ramallah as a guest act.
He did perform a set on Tuesday night, at the festival’s East Jerusalem show, but was informed there by Zahr, at the last minute, that Ramallah was a no-go.
According to Alper, Zahr explained that Ramallah was a different sort of audience from East Jerusalem – one that has less contact with Jews “and Zionists,” and hinted that they might like to keep it that way.
“I was disappointed,” admits Alper, who decided to come along to Ramallah anyway, to watch the show from the audience. “I just wanted to make people laugh.”
Zahr, in response, says that the lineup decisions were creative ones, based on what he believed would work best for the audience.
Alper’s comedy partner Ahmed, meanwhile, gave him a shout-out from the stage: “I have a friend in the audience,” said Ahmed. “He’s a rabbi ... but don’t kill him after the show.”
The two men are slated to do three performances together this week– in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa – as part of their own tour called, “Laugh in Peace.”
One theme that kept repeating itself in all the different comedy routines was that of what it is like living with a dual sense of identity – a sense of belonging both in the U.S. and in the Middle East. Or perhaps, not really anywhere.
“I’m like a cheeseburger ... with hummus on top,” explained Mona Aburmishan, one of the two women in the lineup, whose father hails from Hebron and who grew up in Chicago. Her mom, actually, is all-American, she confided. “When I tell this to people they say, ‘Wow, how did your parents meet? Did your dad take your mom hostage?”
“People always say to me – Hey! what’s going on in the Middle East?” moaned mop-haired Ramy Youssef, the son of Egyptian parents who grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Hollywood – and not to be confused, as he pointed out with a sigh, with 9/11 bomber Ramzi Youssef, who is dead. “I’m like ‘Dude, I have no idea. I have no idea. I’m from California! I don’t even know what’s going on in California!”