A Palestinian-American Muslim disabled stand-up comedian is surely a title that turns heads. To do stand-up with cerebral palsy means to do “sit-down” stand-up and to virtually redefine the genre. And to do stand-up comedy about one of the longest and most brutal occupations in history as a woman of color in the U.S. can be dangerous territory.
You are at risk of not being recognised merely because your identity itself - Palestinian - is not recognised. You are at risk of having your jokes misunderstood and taken as attacks against governments. You are at risk of censorship. Of backlash. Of having your career constantly threatened. There are many risks behind the decision to make jokes for a living, especially when your existence in itself is made political so that every time you breathe, you are at risk.
It’s hard to hop on stage and be funny when Israel is carpet bombing Gaza, but I have found a way to educate people about these atrocities through my comedy
That is a mere glimpse into the life of Maysoon Zayid, the woman who holds the aforementioned, extremely loaded title. Zayid grew up as a child in in the late 1970s and early ‘80s in the US - pre-9/11, in a very different political and social landscape than now. She was raised in New Jersey in a predominantly Italian catholic town as one of only six Arabs - the rest being her family, as she jokingly points out in her TED talk in 2013 for TEDWomen, which got over 10 million views on TED’s website. But contrary to many other experiences of Arab and Muslim Americans, Zayid felt safe.
She was never bullied or made fun of, and she felt at home. It was on her excursions to Palestine, on vacations as a child and later working with disabled and wounded refugee children, that she was sobered, having been exposed to the harsh political and social realities of the world, starting with her motherland.
I was the type of kid that got to go to both Disneyland and the Dome of the Rock
“I was the type of kid that got to go to both Disneyland and the Dome of the Rock [an Islamic shrine in Old Jerusalem],” she says. It was this hyphenated identity and strange combination of experiences that moulded Zayid into the eclectic, hilarious, socially and culturally aware comedian, actress, and philanthropist that she is now.
Besides touring with comics around the world, from the U.S. to the Middle East, where she was the first female standup ever to perform in Palestine and Jordan, she is now appearing on ABC’s long-running soap opera General Hospital - a product of a lifelong dream - making her the first Arab American on the show since it first aired 56 years ago.
Maysoon Zayid performing in Amman Stand-Up Festival in 2009. Photo courtesy of Amman Stand-Up Festival.
But that dream did not come easy; it took years of trying to find a window into acting - any acting, whether it was theatre, TV, or film - before Zayid came to the realisation that being both of Arab descent and disabled made her chances in the field slim to none. And that’s how she became a comic.
That was one of several jokes she made during her TED talk in 2013, where she also recalled her first wake-up call from the industry: after years of not being able to fit into any roles offered by her school’s theatre department plays, there was finally a role of a girl with cerebral palsy, and an able-bodied girl got it instead of her.
...there was finally a role of a girl with cerebral palsy, and an able-bodied girl got it instead of her.
When she asked why, they told her it’s because she wouldn’t be able to do the stunts required for the role. With lots of emotion and an energy that induced hundreds of laughs - although it is less of a joke than a plain and honest truth - she said in the talk: “I told them, if I can’t do the stunts, neither can the character!”
Facing a much rockier adulthood, saturated in post-9/11 tensions, social and political unrest in Palestine with the Second Intifada at its peak, and discrimination, Zayid began to turn all of that into dark, sometimes distinctly Arab - and perhaps only Arabs will know what that means - humor.
Zayid in her role as Zahra Amir, a lawyer, in long-running soap opera General Hospital.
Twisting a tragedy into a one-liner, and making a powerful politician into a punchline is apparently oddly satisfying, and it is undeniably empowering and subversive - comedic satire and commentary both in the U.S. and in the Arab world have long been used as a tool for political opposition and dialogue.
Stand-up comedy has recently begun to thrive in the Arab world, with Arab comedians even featured on the mammoth streaming network that is Netflix, and platforms like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook driving the scene further. However, governments and censorship entities systematically target local shows and the people behind them when they begin to stray into politics, especially into mocking political leaders.
I’m privileged to live in a country where I can joke about our political leaders
Egyptian satirist and TV presenter Bassem Youssef’s weekly political comedy show - the first of its kind in Egypt - had to undergo several changes, from 2011 when it first aired to 2014 when he had moved to a new channel and began a new show, as the political climate transformed with a rapid pace. By 2014, his show was targeted, fined multiple times, and accused of attacking Islam, the army, and the president, and of being a “disruption to the fabric of society,” which forced him to cancel the show and eventually flee the country in fear for his safety.
“I’m privileged to live in a country where I can joke about our political leaders,” Zayid says. “I’ve never let censorship worldwide stop me from doing it overseas too. The Minister of Tourism of Egypt almost beat me on stage for mocking Mubarak… [But] my right to comedically criticize will not survive if Donald Trump remains in power with supremacy and violence against women on the rise,” she says.
Satirical cartoon of Trump, courtesy of the Washington Post.
Even though Islamophobia and discrimination against Arab Americans existed long before Trump ran for office, Trump has undoubtedly exacerbated all of the voices that had, before then, perhaps, been slightly dulled, often lurking in the shadows rather than taking up the spotlight: the voices of white supremacists and xenophobes.
But such racist attitudes have been favourites for comedians to turn into jokes; Trump has had countless jokes made at his expense on a daily basis. When it comes to Palestine, however, that territory has largely been left unbreached.
Being Palestinian by definition is controversial. I’m always having my actual existence denied.
“My favorite jokes are when I make real life horror shows funny […]. Being Palestinian by definition is controversial. I’m always having my actual existence denied. It’s hard to hop on stage and be funny when Israel is carpet bombing Gaza, but I have found a way to educate people about these atrocities through my comedy,” Zayid explains. “[And] the justification of the oppression of the Palestinian population is so ridiculous that it’s easy to spin into comedy. If I didn’t laugh about life in Palestine, I’d never stop crying,” she adds.
...the justification of the oppression of the Palestinian population is so ridiculous that it’s easy to spin into comedy. If I didn’t laugh about life in Palestine, I’d never stop crying.
She is also an unflinching activist - she fights against the particularly jarring situation in Palestine, where, as she describes in an interview with The Guardian, “a whole generation of children were being disabled, in a society that didn't know how to deal with that,” with as many donations as she is capable of giving and by speaking up on behalf of that community overseas and through her comedy itself.
Zayid, along with American comedian Dean Obeidallah and other performers at the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, founded by Zayid and Obeidallah. Photo courtesy of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.
At the end of the day, however, it is her mere existence, up on the stage, that makes it more possible for someone else - whether Palestinian, Muslim, disabled, or inhabiting any other identity made marginal and forced into the category of ‘other’ - to follow in her footsteps. “My entire entertainment career is one big battle against discrimination,” says Zayid.
“Palestinian is the one nationality they don’t want you to be on American TV. If you look at entertainment award shows, the winners are often white, so being brown didn’t help me. There’s [also] barely any visibly disabled people on American TV. We are 20% of the population but only 2% of the images you see on screen. Of that 2%, 95% are played by non-disabled actors,” she adds.
Visible disability, much like race, can not be played. Imitations are offensive and inauthentic.
Issues of representation and diversity on TV span across the globe, but are especially prevalent in the U.S. According to the Arab American Institute, there was an estimated total of 3,700,000 Arab Americans living in the U.S in 2016. Most Hollywood blockbusters and Oscar-winning movies are dominated by white actors, filmmakers and directors, and most disabled characters are also played by able-bodied actors. In a similar vein, Arab roles, when made available, are largely stereotypical, fitting convenient Western narratives of 'Middle Eastern' subjectivities - most famously, the Arab terrorist, the young damsel in distress suffocated by her 'conservative Muslim family', etc.
What is undoubtedly the Mecca of cinema and film is mainstreaming the very problematic practices of whitewashing and 'disability drag.' Aside from the actual problem of discrimination against disabled actors and actresses, there are many reasons why disability drag is an issue.
Daniel Day Lewis in the role of quadriplegic Christy Brown in My Left Foot, released in 1989, - a role for which he received the Oscar for Best Actor.
In The Atlantic, one critic had summarised quite powerfully the late, disabled playwright John Belluso’s theory about why this practice remains widespread: “It is reassuring for the audience to see an actor like Daniel Day Lewis, after so convincingly portraying disability in My Left Foot, get up from his seat in the auditorium and walk to the stage to accept his award. There is a collective 'phew' as people see it was all an illusion. Society’s fear and loathing around disability, it seems, can be magically transcended.”
Having able-bodied actors portray the role of a disabled person also steals the very limited roles available to disabled actors from them. And Zayid iterates: “Visible disability, much like race, can not be played. Imitations are offensive and inauthentic. It is also incredibly harmful for children with disabilities to not see themselves represented so when stars walk down the red carpet miraculously healed, disabled kids think ‘that’ll never be me.’’
It is incredibly harmful for children with disabilities to not see themselves represented so when stars walk down the red carpet miraculously healed, disabled kids think ‘that’ll never be me.'
It is that form of discrimination that Zayid is fighting against, both perhaps implicitly through her comedy, by being a living and breathing embodiment of everything Hollywood casting directors are refusing to accept and include, and through her philanthropic efforts.
She continues to create active efforts to also promote Arab voices in comedy in the U.S., most notably through founding, alongside fellow Muslim comedian Dean Obeidallah, the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which has been taking place for 15 years and is dedicated to showcasing the talents of Arab-American actors, comics, playwrights, and filmmakers.
Zayid with comedian and co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, Dean Obeidallah. Photo courtesy of NBC.
Helping other children brace adversity through comedy as well, she founded a charity in 2001 called Maysoon’s Kids teaching comedy workshops to children in refugee camps in the occupied West Bank.
With that very full life under her belt, it had only made sense to write a screenplay for her to star in, loosely based on her and her experience as a Muslim Arab in the U.S. Unfortunately, after presenting the pilot for CanCan to the ABC network, it was rejected. But Zayid stayed true to her resilient nature and decided to write a book about it.
When I asked her why it hadn’t worked out, she replied mysteriously, “you’ll have to buy the book to hear all about how Cancan burnt to the ground. It’s a great story. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry.”
The name “CanCan” which has become something of a motif for Maysoon in most of her projects, was drawn from something her father had always said to her as a child, when everyone else had - wrongly - assumed she would never be able to walk, and what has ultimately become a clairvoyant reflection of her life. He used to tell her, “you can do it! Yes you can can."
Main images courtesy of Michelle Kinney.
Visit Maysoon's website to read her blog and find out when her performances are.