Since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., Middle Easterners have found themselves under the microscope, especially in the US, and our polarized world is being misdiagnosed as a “clash of civilizations.” Thankfully, standup comedians Dean Obeidallah, Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader, and Maz Jobrani are here to skewer it all in the must-see Axis of Evil Comedy Special, which airs in the US on Comedy Central this Saturday. Comprised of American performers of Middle Eastern descent, the Axis of Evil Comedy Show is an ongoing tour that began in 2005 and has been greeted across the US with critical acclaim.
An obvious target of the comedians’ razor-sharp wit is US President Bush. Obeidallah, who boasts Palestinian and Italian heritage, jokes of Bush, “Herpes has a higher approval rating than President Bush right now. Ecoli is gaining on the man. Spinach is going to beat him any day I’m sure.” Jobrani, of Iranian descent, cracks, “Every time I watch Bush on TV I keep expecting Ashton Kutcher to run up and say, ‘You’ve been punked.’”
Kader, the son of a Palestinian Muslim father and American Mormon mother, contemplates the day Bush gives a press conference and loses the earpiece through which he is fed his lines, and then “gets that one question from Helen Thomas that he doesn’t want to deal with and just goes, ‘How ‘bout fuck you, all right?’” Kader adds, “If Bush just came out and called everybody in the Middle East a motherfucker, don’t you think half of America - maybe more than half - would go, ‘I like that right there. That’s honest’?”
Also taking on the theme of racism and hatred towards Middle Easterners, Ahmed, who is Egyptian, jokes that after Sept. 11 hate crimes against Middle Easterners increased by 1,000 percent. However, the group was still only number four in rank behind Blacks, gays, and Jews. “I just want to be number one in something!” he despairs.
Jobrani explains the difference between Arabs and Iranians, who emphasize that they are Persian because it sounds safer. In an exaggerated Persian accent, which sounds as if “we just got some heroin and are falling asleep,” Jobrani tells confused Americans, “I am Persian, like the cat — meow!”
Obeidallah comments on the absurdity of the Patriot Act in the fevered post-Sept. 11 United States. Discussing governmental scrutiny of library records, he imagines what book titles would be cause for alarm, such as “Waging Jihad Against the Infidel Dog” and “I’m al-Qaida, You’re Al-Qaida.” He adds, “President Bush wants to know what you’re reading. You know why? Because he’s jealous.”
Jobrani also finds some humor in surveillance measures. He recalls being emailed by someone who had seen his act and facetiously asked him where the next terrorist strike was going to be, to whom he replied, “Hey man, I’ve been talking to al-Qaida and, uh, the next terrorist hit is going down in the lower east side of Iceland. Ha ha.” He says the next time he tried logging into Hotmail he was denied access to his account, and so he frantically tried to contact Hotmail to tell him he was a comedian. “I put ‘ha ha!’ Al-Qaida doesn’t put ‘Americans must die. Ha ha.’ They don’t do that!” he considered explaining.
The comedians don’t shy from the subject of religion. Ahmed jokes, “You know you’re a Muslim when you drink, gamble, and have sex but you won’t eat pork,” adding, “the only difference between Muslims and Jews is that Jews don’t like to spend money and Muslims never have any money to spend.”
Likewise, Middle Eastern culture is also not safe from being satirized. Poking fun at Palestinian comedy audiences who unsmilingly nod at his jokes and tell him “You could almost hear me laugh, it was that good,” Kader mimics a hypothetical audience member who might say, “Anyone who thinks Arabs don’t have a sense of humor, I will kill you and burn your flag.” And on the proliferation of armed groups in the Middle East, Ahmed asks, “There’s so many, how do you know the best one to join? … Is it like rushing for a fraternity?”
The hour-long show is the first stand-up special to be aired in the US featuring all Middle Eastern-American comics (though it would have been all the more better had it also featured a female performer as well, as there’s no shortage of funny Middle Eastern women). However, as these seasoned performers ably demonstrate, Middle Eastern performers deserve a lot more than an hour-long slot to showcase their talents.
Maureen Clare Murphy is Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada