Ambassador of laughter Mona Aburmishan brings home the reality of life in Palestine and the Middle East
Comedy Central Arabia’s stand-up flagship, Comedy Central Presents, returns to our screens tonight, with Palestinian-American comic Mona Aburmishan as a headliner.
Aburmishan, a regular on the United States comedy circuit, travelled to Dubai to shoot the show – her debut performance in the city and in the Middle East, outside of her native Palestine where she plays occasional shows in the West Bank.
Given the political climate in the US, it must be a fascinating time to be a comedian of any sort – there’s certainly no shortage of material – but a woman, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim comedian? Aburmishan is a walking Breitbart checklist – how do audiences react to her?
“Actually, American crowds really want to hear what I have to say, especially because I’m Muslim, because there’s so much conversation going on around Muslims in the States at the moment,” she says.
“The Palestinian thing, the woman thing, they’re not so concerned about, but they’re really interested to learn more about these Muslims they keep hearing about.”
Aburmishan admits she enjoys toying with US audiences’ perceptions of Arabs. “It really resonates when I say that Arabs go from black-as-black to light-as-light, there’s a whole rainbow of us and you really can’t tell the difference between a Palestinian and an Israeli. That totally blows their minds.”
She says it’s not just Americans who have false perspectives of the Middle East – she has learnt lessons of her own, in Palestine. “I’m usually the only woman on the bill, but no one’s ever said anything. It just hasn’t come up as an issue. My dad said to me, that’s because in Palestine a woman can do and be whatever she wants, and I thought that was really weird. Then I realised that even my own perception of Arab women, and my perception of myself, was based on perceptions from the States, from US media and society, not on who I really am. It was a strange moment.”
Aburmishan now sees herself as an “ambassador” for Palestine and the region. “In the UK, the Palestinian ambassador said to me: ‘You’re more of an ambassador than me. I speak to dignitaries, professors, politicians. You speak to the average guy in the pub. You change the perception of what it is to be a Palestinian more than me.’”
Aburmishan now tries to ensure her sets include some education. “My favourite comedians have always been ones with an element of social activism. I don’t try and preach, but for example, I do a joke about my dad going to parent-teacher conferences, and in the kernel of the joke you leave remembering that Arabs invented algebra. We’re not all terrorists running around like goofballs. We’ve conceptually done things other than that. I try and hide little kernals of truth in my set.
“I do feel the same responsibility, but it’s different here because someone on a stage with a microphone sharing their thoughts is usually a crazy dictator, so I have a privileged position. I take my role very seriously and cherish it.”
Comedy Central’s growing presence in the region can help comedy become a greater force for education, through its nurturing of local talent, she says. “In the UK and US we’ve almost forgotten we have freedom of speech, it’s been there so long, and that’s why I love Comedy Central Arabia. It’s trying to bring that sort of truth-speaking western stand-up here. Arab comedy is usually a guy on a stage, in a costume, in character, very vaudevillian. These guys are being encouraged to be themselves, be vulnerable, have a deeper conversation; don’t just say what you’re supposed to say. I really think over time, with Comedy Central’s help, we’re going to see a big boom and there’ll be a lot of speaking the truth, holding up a mirror to the audience, and hopefully a lot of healing.”
Comedy Central Presents starts tonight at 9.10pm on OSN, then runs nightly, Sunday to Thursday. Please check listings.