Out of Misery, Muslim Comedy

Vulgar sex jokes don't work here! To make Muslims laugh, you have to understand the uniquely different Muslim experience.

BY: Omar Sacirbey


What tickles the funny bones of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims? Ahmed Ahmed has some answers.

"How do you know you're a Muslim?" the Egyptian-American comedian asked, recalling one bit that worked in a recent show in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. "When you drink, gamble and have sex -- but don't eat pork."


"People there laugh at the same things we do," Ahmed said in an interview, ticking off a list that included dating, religion, airport security and getting into nightclubs. Not to mention George W. Bush.

Comedy does indeed exist in the Muslim world. But, as suggested by Albert Brooks' recent film "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," stand-up is still a rarity in Muslim countries.

Films, sitcoms and talk shows have been making Muslims laugh for decades. Newspapers, magazines and theater troupes dish out political satire and poke fun at celebrities and the wealthy. Even jokesters that some regimes just won't tolerate can still find captive audiences in the privacy of dinner parties or the ubiquitous cafes of the Middle East and other Islamic countries, where story- and joke-telling have been elevated to an art form.

Eccentric families, politicians and awkward boy-girl situations are all sources of comic relief from Morocco to Malaysia. At the same time, following decades of colonialism, corrupt regimes and war, many Muslims have become masters at turning misfortune into laughter.

Across the Muslim world, it seems, misery loves comedy.

Consider Mayzoon Zayid, a Palestinian-American who claims to be the first stand-up to perform in the West Bank and Gaza. The winning jokes there were about Israeli curfews, diets, and Arab men marrying one of Bush's twin daughters (both girls, she said, if you're Muslim).

"People there laugh at themselves all the time, because if they don't, they will go insane," said Zayid, 30.

Comedian Maz Jobrani, whose family fled Iran when he was 6 around the time of the Iranian revolution, agrees that misery breeds humor.

"Look at the history and what's happened to us and our countries. You have to have a sense of humor," said Jobrani, 33. "These countries have gone through so much crap that they have to laugh at it."

Luckily, misery isn't the only source of humor in the Muslim world.

"Arabs are very political, so any humor you do about politics is funny. Any humor you do about a crazy mother-in-law is funny. It's the things that people all relate to," said Zayid.

"George Bush is the universal joke," she added. "In Amman, Beirut, Palestine, Nazareth, every single place I've gone and told a George Bush joke, people freak out laughing."

There's even political humor in Iran, home to almost 70 million Muslims, but writers and filmmakers can't name politicians and must tread carefully or risk running afoul of the hard-line Islamic regime.

"You see a lot of subtext in this stuff," Jobrani said, talking about Iranian films. "People have to really think about how they're going to comment on something the regime just did."

What might make Americans laugh, however, might not work on Palestinians.

Continued on page 2: Joking about being a virgin? That's not funny--they're all that way! »

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