“Are there any white people here?” Atheer Yacoub asked the audience last night at The Experiment Comedy Gallery. “Can I hide behind you until this election is over?”
Yacoub played host for Hilarious Muslims: a Patriotic Stand-Up Show, the second all-Muslim comedy showcase at Williamsburg’s newest DIY comedy venue, which caught a wave of viral attention recently when owner Mo Fathelbab introduced the “Donald Trump Special” last Friday.
In honor of the Republican presidential candidate’s extremist remarks that the U.S. should enact a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” the venue is offering free admission for anyone who can “prove they’re Muslim” by reciting the Al- Fatiha, or the first chapter of the Quran.
News cameras lined the white wall of the Experiment Comedy Gallery last night, zooming in on Atheer Yacoub’s shirt as she delivered her introduction. “I am super not into terrorism,” it read. As she guessed, it wouldn’t be easy for most of the Muslims in the room to prove they were, in fact, Muslim. Yacoub singled out a woman in the audience who said she’d taken advantage of free admission. “I put on my hijab,” she said. “And I recited the Fatiha.” But as Yacoub pointed out, the woman had now removed her hijab.
“People get really freaked out when they hear the Quran,” Yacoub said. “It’s a fucked up time to be a Muslim in America right now […] that’s why I live in New York.”
But as the all-Muslim line up of comics demonstrated last night, even living in New York City doesn’t exempt people from becoming targets of rampant Islamophobia and racism. “I’ve definitely faced those obstacles,” Mo said. While the material featured last night was as diverse as the lineup, almost every comic at least touched on a sense that they were being unduly labeled as violent extremists by politicians and their fellow citizens.
“We live in a time where you sort of have to address the elephant in the room, where it’s your Muslim-ness or it’s that Donald Trump is trying to have you banned from being in this country, or putting you inside of an internment camp,” explained Mo Fathelbab, founder of the venue and a Muslim-American.
Last night was, in fact, the Experiment’s second all-Muslim showcase, but “it just happens to be the first since Donald Trump opened his mouth about how he would ban all Muslims,” Mo said.
He released a very serious statement along with the introduction of the Donald Trump Special: “I want to do my part to bring the Muslim-American community and the New York City comedy community together, which is why I’m making this offer. For Mo, the special was a way to bring attention to the absurdity of this atmosphere of fear and hatred directed at Muslims, something propelled and validated by people like Donald Trump. “We live in a crazy time, it’s a bit scary,” Mo said. “It’s far worse than it was after 9/11, it’s not a safe time for people who are Muslim or Muslim-looking.” Clearly he’s not the only one– recently, the Times published an article on the “surge in Islamophobia” felt acutely by young Muslim-Americans.
And while the Experiment has taken advantage of Trump’s signature pucker face (which, conveniently for his opponents, resembles a rather private part of the anatomy, i.e. a butt hole) to make fun of the candidate on social media, I was surprised to hear that Mo wasn’t ready to just write Trump off as a buffoon. Even though he’s been the target of backlash from Trump supporters, mostly in the form of “hate mail” and trolling on social media, Mo still conceded that the candidate and former slumlord should not be ignored until he inevitably drops out of the race, since he represented a larger issue.
“In this country right now, the demographics are changing, and it’s very unfortunate that Latinos are also under fire,” he said. “I’m not one of those who feel like we should dismiss Trump, because everybody says, ‘He’s a joke.’ Yeah, he’s a joke but he’s pandering to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately he’s running for the nomination of a party where 60 percent of the voters believe Muslim Americans are not capable of being ‘full Americans.’ And it’s a party that’s already anti-immigration and not exactly friendly toward people of the LGBT community. Women have had a hard time with that political party too. So sure, he’s pandering, but he’s pandering to a party that wants this stuff that he’s talking about.”
The lineup of comics who took to the stage at the venue last night challenged also the notion that Trump’s logic relies on– the mythology of a unified Islamic population, singularly in support of violence. “It seems like everybody’s from a different walk of life, different genders, sexual preferences— it’s cool, it’s a mixed bag of comics who all happen to be Muslim-Americans, whether they’re practicing or not,” Mo explained over the phone, just ahead of the show.
“This is Islam in the 21st century,” said comic Ari Zeneli — a guy with curly, dark hair, light skin –and horn-rimmed glasses — as he took to the stage.”I’m a white Muslim, and that is strange for a lot of people.” While announcing Zeneli, Yacoub joked that he looked more Jewish than Muslim, something his name seemed to confirm as well.
Zeneli refers to himself as a “bad Muslim,” which was not surprising nor was it unique (and let’s just say the Experiment isn’t exactly a mosque, either), his announcement made clear that, like any religion, there are devout followers and people who identify with Islam more as a cultural background than a code for living. This reality seems to be lost on Donald Trump and others who support a ban on Islam.
Zeneli’s family is from Albania, and as a child of immigrants he poked fun at widespread ignorance here about geography, history, and culture– particularly when those things are applied to areas outside of our own country. “A lot of people haven’t met an Albanian before,” he said.
The comic recounted a trip back to his home country, his first, when he was six. He described the plane that brought him and his family there as a “tin can,” and more than once he referred to the former socialist country as a “backwards” place. All this was exceedingly uncomfortable — after all, Zeneli was voicing classic Orientalist views about his own origins– but brutally honest at the same time. He cited years of war, a struggling economy, and a lack of infrastructure for what he understood to be the country’s problems, but also pointed to cultural norms as a source for this so-called backwardness. “People smoke cigarettes in front of the cabbage in the supermarket with a baby in their hand,” he belted out. But there was something really striking about Zenneli’s complex relationship with his identity, his family, and his home (new and old). And it was clear that each comic last night had their own struggle with their Muslim-ness.
One pronounced stereotype about Muslim women is that they’re all oppressed, and the hijab is repeatedly invoked as a symbol of this alleged lack of personal freedom. Dina Hashem, who by far had the best feedback from the audience and almost sent me into coughing fits every few seconds, pointed out. “But what you don’t hear about,” she paused for dramatic effect. “Is the unforgiving body hair.” Hashem, whose delivery was dry and deliberately awkward, was incredibly open about her sexuality, while at once making clear that sex was not something that was talked about when she was growing up in her conservative Muslim home.
But for as open as she was about her body, her relationships, and her sexuality, Hashem still showed concern for her conservative background– a common thread running through almost every participating standup’s experience. She recounted an incident about a guy who was about to go down on her, but before proceeding he looked up at her and announced: “I’m not afraid of anything.” Hashem was, unsurprisingly, dismayed at this comment. “It’s not a haunted house,” she said. Hashem paused, appearing to regret telling the joke at all, and then looked at the news camera in the corner. “I don’t want my mother to hear that joke,” she said. “We’ll talk later.”
What’s important to remember is that the Experiment Comedy Gallery didn’t organize the Muslim Showcase in reaction to Trump’s rhetoric, instead Mo (as he explained to us back when the venue opened its doors, long before Trump’s proposal) is simply interested in spotlighting a more diverse community of comics, including women, people of color, immigrants, and other people who have been left out of an art form that until recently has been extremely divided, and whose commercial and popular forms have been overwhelmingly dominated by straight white men.
“I think there’s a tremendous lack of diversity in comedy in general, and one of those groups happens to be Muslim-American,” Mo said. “It’s very unfortunate. I think right now the only one who’s made any kind of headway is Aziz Ansari with his Netflix show [Master of None], that’s the first time you’ve seen a Muslim-American, an Indian-American as the lead of any sort of programming. For the most part, it’s a very limited number of people who have been allowed to, you know, just talk on stage.”
While Mo downplayed the importance of comedy, calling it “just talking on stage,” he was also fully aware of the particular power of comedy to confront injustice in an accessible, enjoyable way.
“In terms of comedy, it’s a moment to go all out on stage and just be deeply honest about addressing the issue, whether you’re talking about yourself, your background, or in a political context,” Mo said. “I think the opportunity is there, and I think honestly the comedians who say, ‘We’re going to be the court jesters and we’re going to take a stick and poke the eye of people like Donald Trump,’ I think that’s incredibly courageous.”
The Experiment Comedy Gallery is located at 20 Broadway in Williamsburg.