Maysoon Zayid: Stand Up and Speak Out
Every single year I go to Palestine for Christmas. Every time, I go to Bethlehem. And every single year my best friend Tina says, “Who the hell goes to Palestine for Christmas?” And I say …”Mary and Joseph went.” – Maysoon Zayid
When I first started researching this article I considered writing a tale of two comedians. It all started when I watched former Saturday Night Live comedian Victoria Jackson make some outrageous anti-Islamic comments on her cable program Politichicks. In the segment, Jackson states, “the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated our highest positions in government…Islam is our enemy.” Jackson goes on to rattle off why she believes Sharia law is being enforced in America. Of course, this is complete hogwash. There is nowhere in the United States where Sharia Law being imposed on Americans. Nor, is there any evidence that Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama are operating under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, as Jackson claims. However, that doesn’t stop bigoted Tea Party members, like Victoria Jackson, from spreading their destructive, hate filled lies. Jackson’s goals, and folks of the same ilk, are clearly aimed at creating fear of Obama by demonizing a group of people she obviously knows nothing about.
One of the most effective ways to counter bigotry, be it racial, gender oriented, or religious, is to simply get to know those that are different from us. I have to admit; I was born in New Jersey and grew up in a small town in the northwest corner of the state. There were very few Black people in my town and I knew of no Muslims. In my last year of High School, my parents moved down to Georgia and I eventually took a job at New Leaf, a book distributing company near Atlanta. One of my bosses was a super kind, motherly like, Black Muslim woman named Felicia. Often we worked in the same small room and I remember I always enjoyed our time together. Twenty years later, I wrote to New Leaf inquiring about the company and Felicia responded to my email. She had remembered me and together we took a nice little trip down memory lane.
I have found, once you get to know people that are different than you, you find they’re not all that different after all. Racial, gender oriented, and religious bigotry is a product of profound ignorance. And of course, the best way to counter ignorance is through education. This is what drew me to the comedian Maysoon Zayid. In many ways, Zayid is the perfect counter-balance to Jackson’s hateful and profoundly ignorant beliefs.
On stage and in interviews, Zayid has describes herself as “a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy, from New Jersey”. (Well, she is married now). Yet, Zayid is far more than a Palestinian, Muslim, comedian or actress, from New Jersey. Zayid has become a powerful educator and activist working on behalf of children with disabilities and against Islamophobia.
Zayid was born in New Jersey and attended Arizona State University (Go Sun Devils!). Zayid graduated with a BFA and went on to appear on the TV soap opera As the World Turns, bit roles on Law and Order, and other TV programs. In spite of Zayid’s early acting success, she often found her disability and ethnicity was hindering her acting career.
That is when she turned to standup comedy. In 2003 Zayid co-founded, with Dean Obeidallah, the now highly acclaimed New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. Remarkably, Zayid is said to be the first American Muslim woman comedian. Zayid is also reportedly the first person to ever perform standup comedy in Jordan and Palestine. I first discovered her comedy early two years ago.
Zayid currently co-hosts a radio program and is a frequent contributor to Keith Olbermann’s new show on Current TV. Click on the Olbermann link to watch Zayid comment on Lewes home supply store pulling their advertisement on The Learning Channel’s new program All American Muslim.
After this latest interview, Zayid was viciously attacked by right-wing extremists. The following is just one example she posted on her Facebook page, “This biatch is shaking in her taqiyya boots and she’s all drugged up too. She’s slurring her lies.” This crap reminds me of the time Rush Limbaugh mocked Michael J. Fox or when Ohio Tea Party members mocked a man with Parkinson’s disease because he supported the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare).
While Zayid’s success in acting, stand-up comedy and even as a commentator are all commendable actions, it is her work with children is what is most commendable. You see, three months of each year, Zayid works with program for disabled and orphaned children living in Palestinian refugee camps. Zayid uses art to help children cope with trauma and disabilities. Eighty percent is funded by her comedy.
Recently, I asked Maysoon Zayid to comment on her work with disabled (or as she says “differently-abled”) children and Islamophobic bigotry, serious stuff for a comedian. Nonetheless, Zayid graciously responded to my request. As you will see, Zayid uses her intelligence, wit, and humor to address many of the profound challenges confronting the Palestinians, Muslims, women, and people with different abilities:
DW: Recently, I read Alice Walker’s book “Overcoming Speechlessness”. As you may know, Walker devotes more than a third of the book to her experience in Palestine. In one section of the book she writes about women wearing a headscarf. In our phone conversation, you mentioned that you choose to not wear a headscarf. I’ve also heard you joke about how you planned on putting your bridesmaids in burkas. Still to this day, some people take real issue with the headscarf. Can you please share your thoughts on headscarves, your faith, and why you choose not to wear one?
MZ: I choose not to wear a headscarf because frankly nowhere in the Qaran does it say it’s required. Yes. It’s true. There’s nothing about a woman having to cover her hair. What it says and I’m not quoting, but the jist of it is, “cover”. I take a more Adam and Eve approach than scary ninja. I have met many women who choose to wear the hijab in all different ways. They are not forced, it’s a choice, and I respect that. Who knows, someday I may wear hijab, but I promise you I will never see me in a Burkini. There are also women who are forced to wear it, (yeah, I’m looking at you Saudi) that is sacrilege. In the end Islam has no hierarchy – what you believe is between you and God. Not covering my hair doesn’t make me any less Muslim and I doubt it will send me to hell in a hand-basket. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I am good with God even if my hair is flappin’ in the wind. As for the burka joke, the reason I do that joke is to show that forcing a 37 year-old spinster to wear a sea-foam green ballgown is just as absurd as forcing a woman to wear a burka because that means “cover” to some man. Also, honestly, I was just trying to pick something (that) looks good on all different body types.
DW: I’m very much interested in your work with The Friends School of Ramallah and El-Bireh. Can you share with us a little bit about The Friends School, how you got involved, and what have been their challenges and accomplishments since you started volunteering at the school?
MZ: We don’t give people money, we’re very much hands on to “teach a refugee to fish.” Due to the political climate, I am not allowed to travel to Gaza, but we work everywhere else in (Palestine). Past projects include art and wellness programs, summer camp lunches, eye exams and glasses, Mommy classes, physical therapy equipment for rehab centers, tutoring seniors preparing for college, and providing shoes, clothing, and milk locally made for orphans.
In June of 2011 we were proud to have our first Maysoon’s Kids university scholarship recipient graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work from Bethlehem University. Currently we are partnered with three organizations. Our first partnership is with the Friends Quaker School in Ramallah. Friends is currently the only school in Palestine that mainstreams differently-abled children, otherwise they are left to glorified babysitting U.N. facilities where they learn nothing. It is our goal to provide scholarships that cover the entire K-12 education of a differently-abled student with no other financial means to attend. Our dream is that schools all over Palestine will mainstream, but for now we just want to get as many kids into Friends as possible. Our second partnership is with Playgrounds for Palestine, who we partnered with to build a locally-made accessable playground for the Silwad Disabled Center. We are planning to partner on a second playground. Finally, we are working with the Bethlehem Orphanage to facilitate the adoption of special needs orphans in search of a family. For more information please visit www.maysoon.com\charity.htm.
DW: When I look at biographies written about you online we often see claims about you being the “first stand-up comedian in Palestine and Jordan”. I know you have cast some doubts about this claim. Nonetheless, can you share with us a little about your experiences doing comedy in Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt? How free are you to joke about the governments, culture, gender, and other “hot button” issues?
MZ: The reason I never like to say I’m first is because what if there is someone who came before me? How disrespectful would that be? I did stand-up comedy in Jordan and Palestine not knowing it was groundbreaking. I was a comic in America, and my friends and family wanted to see me perform. So why not do a show? The first show was in Amman Jordan, followed by Bethlehem about two months later in 2002. I will never get to do another Amman show like that, because at the time I was completely under the radar and unaware of the country-to-country censorship in the Middle East. Luckily, Palestine has remained censorship free. Believe me, I challenge it every time I’m on stage there, just to make sure. You can’t really compare Egypt to Palestine. Contrary to popular belief, the Middle East is not one amalgams Arab blob. I was totally culture-shocked when I went to Egypt in 2009 even though I grew up spending summers in the Middle East. I had my ass grabbed more than a Kardashian. This would never happen in Ramallah, because if you do that to a Palestinian chick she’ll break your arm. I also got that really famous Pharaoh’s food poisoning the second I got to Cairo. Dean Obedallah was looking for me between shows for the curtain call and couldn’t find me because I was on the floor of the dirtiest bathroom in Cairo throwing up my shoes. Like a trooper, I got on stage for the second show. Unbeknownst to me Fayza the Minister of Tourism was perched front-row. I knew Egypt had strict censorship laws. I couldn’t make fun of Mubarak, Islam or talk about sex, but nobody said anything about Egypt Air. I did a joke about how I was happy for the first time ever that I have Cerebral Palsy because if I wasn’t flapping my arms the plane would have crashed. I then mentioned in passing that the plane was so filthy my lice had gotten fleas. Fayza didn’t find this funny and she charged up on stage screaming, “You’re not funny!” in English. She then attempted to slap me on my head. She was restrained by two Egyptian comics who had they known who she was would have let her beat me to death. After the revolution I was excited to finally be able to go back but unbelievably the maniac Fayza despite the revolution is still in power and is responsible for jailing a bunch of American NGOs. So I guess I’ll stick to Palestine where no one would dare try to censor or slap a disabled Palestinian J-Lo.
DW: Recently, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called Palestinians an “invented people.” All the while, Pamela Geller has said “there is no such thing as Palestine”. Can you comment on these statements?
MZ: First of all, let’s be very clear, there is no such thing as a Pam Geller. Moving on to Newt Gingrich, this doughy man is a self-proclaimed historian, yet he seems to have missed the part in the Balfour Declaration which was the basis of the creation of the state of Israel where it states, “It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” That was 1917, yet Newt claims we were invented in 1970, so my question for Newt is this, “Who were these non-Jewish communities Balfour was yakkin’ about?” I am fully aware that Newt was paid twenty million dollars to help with his confusion, but let me be clear, I can trace my own family back no less than six generations and that is way before 1970. Palestinians are not invented, we exist and he’d have better luck proving Romney was invented which I believe is an actual scientific fact.
DW: Speaking about Pamela Geller, Ms. Geller states on her website, Atlas Shrugs, “(Maysoon Zayid is) an open supporter of the genocidal Hamas and Hezb’allah but she finds me “really terrifying”. Can you please address Geller’s accusations?
MZ: I try to make it a policy to never directly address someone with clearly untreated mental illness. But I would start with this; does Pam Geller walk into a room and say, “bye” instead of “hi” because she can’t resist the urge to lie? A simple Google search will show you that I have the words “I hate Hamas” basically tattooed on my forehead and Hezb’allah has about as much to do with me as fly fishing. Note to reader: I have Cerebral Palsy and if I ever attempted fly fishing I would most certainly yank out my eye. But even knowing almost nothing about them, like fly fishing, I despise Hezb’alla because I am 100% against any religious involvement in government. Hamas and Hezb’allah are both religious groups and I am secular, something Pam Geller would know if she ever bothered to read anything but her own drivel. Other than that, I feel like she should consider joining me for a duet. She can accuse, I can answer, it can go viral and probably save the world. But until that juncture I’m going to go back to pretending she doesn’t exist.
DW: As you may know, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, anti-Islamic hate groups are on the rise. Why do you think that is so and how might we reverse this trend?
MZ: Southern Poverty Law Center would be less impoverished if they, too, became an anti-Islamic hate group because there is big money in Muslim malevolence. Over $42.6 million was spent by seven charities, not to provide tolerance, but to actually promote hate in America. How’s that for charity? Obviously this is one of the main reasons hate is on the rise. I think the other major factor is that post-9/11 vilifying Muslims became part of campaign strategy the same way LGBT rights and abortion have been in the past, and continue to be. These are issues used to distract and terrify folks and sadly, they are very effective. While Robert Spencer and Victoria Jackson are given platforms left and right to spew hate, rarely are Muslims given a platform to dismiss this vile bigotry. As far as reversing this trend, the onus lies with the media and parents.
Tags: bigotry, comedy, Current TV, dean walker, Expats Post, hate speech, hurricane dean, Keith Olbermann, Maysoon Zayid, Maysoon's kids, Muslims, newt gingrich, Palestine, Pam Geller, Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, stand-up, the Friends School, Victoria Jackson