Posted by Jennifer Salan on July 20, 2016 in Blog
Arab Americans pushed back against talk of "bans" on Arab Americans and American Muslims, "patrols" for so-called "Muslim neighborhoods" and religious litmus tests on Tuesday, July 19, at a packed comedy show for delegates, attendees and community members during the 2016 Republican National Convention.
While the Arab American Institute Foundation normally does programming around the RNC and DNC presidential nominating conventions aimed at raising awareness around issues of concern, this election cycle created a special challenge. One that AAIF chose to meet with humor.
“BANNED: Dangerously Funny Arab Americans and American Muslims,” meant that while competing protestors were facing off in the streets of Cleveland, Arab Americans, delegates, convention attendees and community members were literally laughing in the face of the bigotry and xenophobia we've witnessed in this election cycle. Booking a nationally known and talented trio of Arab American comedians and actors, the AAIF event helped to educate audience members about Arab American and American Muslim concerns while sharing our cultural commonalities.
"When people can laugh together, share a light moment, it's much harder to believe in or even listen to bigoted stereotypes. If you're laughing with us, you're more inclined to see our commonalities and know that we really are part of the American fabric just like everyone else," said AAIF Executive Director Maya Berry.
With more than 400 registered attendees, several delegates came up to AAIF staff members and volunteers to thank them for hosting the show. It was clear they appreciated the tone and message of the event and the opportunity to take a break from all the vitriol that has marked this election cycle.
Comedian, Dean Obeidallah, host of the new daily SiriusXm radio program "The Dean Obeidallah Show," said "I am so appreciative that the Arab American Institute Foundation did this and brought us all together." Obeidallah also teased special guests from Wake Forest Unversity's @WakeTheVote project, "an intensive civic learning and democratic engagement experience" which offers opportunities to "build competencies for engaged citizenship, and experience American democracy from the front lines..."
Obeidallah, along with fellow comedians and actors Maysoon Zayid and Ramy Youssef, had the audience in stitches with a combination of cultural jokes and bipartisan hay-making. Among Zayid's many crowd hits was her play on her spouse's refugee status and the fact that he's a chef and entrepreneur. To roars of laughter, she said, "I call my husband chefugee because he's both a chef and a refugee.” Given the targeting of Syrian refugees during this cycle, it was a joke that brought both laughter and empathy. Zayid’s new-found fans lined up for more than half an hour to take pictures with her following the show.
Youssef noted that he's constantly asked about being Arab and Muslim often followed by requests for him to explain geopolitics. Without missing a beat, he said, "Dude, I am an American. I barely know what's going on in Cleveland." Of course, Ramy actually knows exactly what's going on in the U.S. and much of the world which was evidenced by his many conversations with the media and guests in attendance after the show.
Several from the local Arab American community were volunteering at the event to welcome delegates and the significance of the show was not lost on them. "In America we spend a lot of time watching comedy and for this event, at the RNC, it was very important for the delegates and attendees to see Arab Americans can do comedy. Hearing the audience laugh at our jokes, was an important step in battling the divisions and hatred we see," said Clevelander Omar Kurdi. He added, "AAIF picked the right theme for this convention because people are sick of politics and pandering. Sharing a laugh with somebody who you thought was different actually helps bring you closer together."
The event was closed out by author and professor Melissa Harris-Perry of Wake Forest University who is also a contributor to BET News and Elle Magazine. She reminded those in attendance "that to be engaged in democracy means you will lose half of the time...and that when you lose, the winner doesn't take all." Noting the long-term nature of politics, she said, "we can show up together at the RNC Convention and we can show up together at the DNC convention."
AAIF will be hosting three events at the DNC Convention in Philadelphia to continue the policy conversation.