Comedians take on peace in Mideast

By Andrew Moesel

“I don’t know what all my cousins are complaining about. You know they come from the Middle East, look how nice they treat us at the airport. They give us a job, they give us money, they give us a place to stay and they feed us,” said comedian Ray Hanania, a native Palestinian and acclaimed columnist. “OK, those orange uniforms are terrible, but the rest isn’t so bad.”

Hanania and fellow comedian Aaron Freeman entertained a crowded room at International House on Thursday night, March 4, as part of their Comedy for Peace tour, a program that attempts to bridge gaps between Palestinians and Israelis through humor.

Hanania, who began performing stand-up comedy a year ago, spoke first and used a self-deprecating brand of humor to mock stereotypes about the Arab community and its interaction with American culture.

“I recently lost weight on the Arab version of the Atkins diet,” Hanania said. It’s called, ‘You look like Mohammad Atta and I’m going to kick the crap out of you.” I’ve been running away from people for weeks.

“I went down from a 38 waist to a 34 waist, and I dropped two towel sizes on my head,” Hanania added.

As an Arab child growing up in a predominantly white area, Hanania sarcastically recounted the differences that existed between his family and those of his friends. While his friends lunch boxes held bologna sandwiches and cookies, according to Hanania, he had lamb and rice, stuffed grape leaves, stuffed squash, stuffed green peppers, hummus, babaganoush, and tabouli.

“Do you know what that smelled like after three hours at school,” Hanania remarked.

Freeman, a black man and converted Jew who received a Catholic education, delivered an animated performance about his experiences interacting with a variety of very different cultures. A seasoned stand-up comic and frequent voice on National Public Radio, Freeman’s deep, raspy voice boomed across the room as he frequently made zany facial expression and bodily gestures.

“You can’t just become a Jew. The say when a Jew becomes a Christian they get a new religion, when Christian becomes a Jew you have to get 6,000 years of retroactive oppression,” Freeman said. “I am in fact pissed at the Amalekites.”

Freeman, who studies ethnic comedy from around the world, rifled through several traditional racial jokes from distant locations, such as those that black people in South Africa tell to ridicule white people.

“What’s the difference between a white person and an egg,” Freeman said. “After you beat an egg, you can’t take its land.”

Both Freeman and Hanania believe that comedy can be used as a tool to break down stereotypes and, in the long run, promote understanding between cultures. If people see a Christian Palestinian and a black Jew getting along, Freeman said, than it will encourage more tolerance across racial and cultural boarders.

The comedians have been touring together for six weeks, recently visiting Chicago colleges such as DePaul and Loyola. In May, the pair plans to perform their act in the West Bank, where they will be the first Palestinian-Jewish comedy team to ever perform on the same stage in the politically charged region.

Hanania and Freeman said that, while slightly concerned about possible cultural backlash for their partnership, they would not significantly change their material when entertaining abroad.

The event was sponsored by the Middle East Studies Student Association, which began planning roughly three weeks ago. Co-sponsors included Global Voices, Turkish Students Association, South Asian Students Association, Pan Asian Solidarity Coalition, SGFC, and Action for Peace.

“We wanted to make this event as multi-cultural as possible, said Aziza Khatdoh-Mehmoudzai, a first-year graduate student in the Center for Middle East Studies and an organizer of the event.

The audience spoke with the performers as everyone piled out of the room, and those in attendance generally seemed enthusiastic about the evening. Both performers were also happy with the show and were excited about continuing to spread their message through comedy.

“Comedy is a way of looking at something that makes happy endings seem inevitable,” Freeman said.