The Power and Necessity of Humor in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The Power and Necessity of Humor in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

There is a growing a new debate in the Arab-Israeli conflict involving the power and role of humor. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a new industry of Arab American comedians doing standup comedy increasingly on American comedy club stages. Although several of the Arab American comedians had been doing comedy prior to Osama Bin Laden’s assault, most were seeking to assimilate into the huge standup comedy industry. Since, however, they have stepped out of the closet and openly address their Arab heritage and even Muslim and Christian religions. I am one of them.

It sounds like a natural phenomena, but it’s not.

Arab culture and the Arab religious cultures are hugely different from the cultures in the West. As a note, many people are surprised to learn that Arab World Christians are more “Islamic” in their thinking than they are Western Christianized. I often identify myself as being “Christian by religion but Muslim by culture.”

Also you must recognize that communications is not merely the conveying of a thought from the speaker to the audience; it is also about speaking directly to what an audience believes in the language and thought process by which they understand it. For example, most Western audiences believe that I am a Muslim, even when I tell them I am a Christian.

Weeks after Sept. 11, one American audience member approached me after a show and said, “I can’t believe you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab.”

Stupid, but a commonly held Western belief.

So keep in mind, as I discuss this issue, that it’s not enough to address what I believe is reality. I have to speak to the issues that the audience believes is reality in order to change them.

Humor is the most powerful form of communications and the most important distinction in this discussion is about communications. Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East do not have a tradition of free speech. While they have a strong base of humor, they lack the experience in the freest form of humor, standup comedy.

Standup comedic humor is not native to Arabs and Muslims. In fact, it is foreign.

Arabs and Muslims do have humor and laugh as much as everyone else on the planet. What they do have though is a humor that publicly and freely challenges not only their governments and religious institutions, but they lack humor that challenges their own issues.

Self-deprecating humor – which in the West is a powerful way to undermine stereotypes – is viewed as “haram,” or sinful by Arabs and Muslims. They view any public display of “dirty laundry” as an act of dishonor.

In truth, though, self-deprecating humor presented to Western audiences is a very powerful strategic method to challenge and undermine the very stereotypes that enslave Arabs and Muslims in the West.

For example, when I mock a stereotype that a Western audience has of myself, I am challenging the seriousness of the stereotype. And when audiences laugh – laughter is not a controllable human action – they are responding in a subtle way to the ridiculousness of a stereotype.

Jews in the West used humor and specifically standup comedy to overcome the Western stereotypes of Jews and Western anti-Semitism. Self-deprecating humor regarding their cultural habits, Jewish mothers, their foods, their politics and more helped audiences see the ridiculousness of their beliefs.

Now, humor can’t change everyone. I view audiences as being in two groups, those that really hate me and those who are angry with what they see in me and whose anger appears to be hate. The latter group is the larger majority and humor can address the anger and assuage it.

Standup comedy and humor can change how those who are angry conceptualize their anger.

Another point of Arab World humor and standup comedy to contemplate is that Arab World humor basically is humor shared among friends, family and internally.

There are some exceptions, but the tradition of Arab humor is directed towards people who already accept them, and usually are of the same ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds.

Standup comedy is such that it is made specifically for audiences who are different.

The keys to successful standup comedy are 1) audiences must absolutely understand what you are speaking about, and 2) the jokes must be funny.

Now my comedy act as a co-founder of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour has come under fire, mainly from fanatics in the Arab and Palestinian community.

It’s not driven by the humor. You can find self-deprecating humor all over the Arab World, just not placed publicly on stage. It is driven by the politics. I have been the target of a hateful campaign by the extremists since the tour began in January 2007, mainly in the Arab and Muslim world of gossip. It only recently rose to the public arena in a column by a Palestinian extremist at a Houston university newspaper.

The criticism was directed not at the comedy or humor, but at my strict adherence to the application of principle and morality. My message is clear. I oppose all forms of violence and terrorism, be it by Israelis or Palestinians. And my critics don’t like it.

If an Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian civilian, my critics are the first on their feet screaming about Israeli injustice. When a Palestinian kills an Israeli civilian, those same Palestinian critics are silent.

That is hypocrisy. It is precisely the hypocrisy my writings, speeches and standup comedy challenge and pierce.

My critics cite a few jokes (I perform usually 30 minutes of more than 75 minutes of material – three to five jokes per minute) to make their point. And they ignore any material that undermines their point.

My material encompasses a mix of some self-deprecating humor, much political material that targets Jews and Arabs, and material that pierces the unfairness of both Hamas and the Israeli government very effectively and courageously.

It also includes my true-life experiences of growing up as an Arab child in an American that is defined by race and where racial perceptions constantly challenged every step of my life.

The humor was first published in a groundbreaking feature I wrote in 1988 for Chicago Magazine (the first ever) called “Ya Habibi: An Arab American Childhood. That was followed in 1996 by a book I wrote called “I’m Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing Up Arab in America/Humor and Reality in the Ethnic American Experience.”

The book was immediately criticized by hardline Arab and Muslim activists. They just didn’t get the joke.

Yet at least of today’s Arab American comedians called me in 1996 to say he bought my book and he was using it to inspire him as he entered standup comedy.

The Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour is a phenomena. No such pairing of Israelis and Palestinians exist that offer standup comedy. (There are Palestinian-Israeli collaborations in music, theater and activism, but not standup comedy.)

I hope to change that. During one show in Arab East Jerusalem, the tour organized an open mike for new Palestinian and Israeli comedians. We attracted six comedians including two Palestinians. Their first ever public performances.

I am not discouraged by the intensity of the personal attacks by Palestinian, Arabs and Muslims against my comedy. I am encouraged. For far too long, Arabs, Palestinians and Muslims have allowed themselves to be held hostage to the small band of extremists.

This is one effort to bring those vitriolic fanatic voices to a halt and to change the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli debate to one of discussion, debate and an embrace of principle.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist, author and radio talk show host. He can be reached at where you can view a video of his comedy act. Distributed by the Arab American Writers Group,