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Meet: Mona Aburmishan— Mona is an International comedian, writer, producer and speaker based in her hometown of Chicago 5 Things To Know Mona has performed, emceed, and produced comedy shows, competitions and events in major clubs, theaters and universities around the world. In addition to comedy, Mona is a sought-after speaker for her experience using […]
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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.
Within my network, I can easily name ten Arabs who are doctors or on their way to becoming one. Let’s be real – badass Arabs all over the country are most likely cramming for their MCATS five years in advance right at this moment. But can you as easily say you know ten badass Arab comedians? Probably not. After today, though, you can say you know at least one Arab comedian. I had the privilege of interviewing the extremely talented, witty, and intelligent Palestinian comedian, Mona Aburmishan, and it was one of the most informative interviews I have ever done. Aburmishan was raw, honest, and did not hold back. Just as she does on stage, she answered all my questions by diving head first into the philosophy of humor, minority politics within the comedic world, her personal journey, and more.
MM: When did you know you wanted to go into comedy? Was it always a passion of yours?
Mona Aburmishan: I had always been a “class clown” in school and the jokster in the family, but I never considered being a professional comedian until much later in life. Growing up in such a culturally diverse community – while being a fat, Palestinian, Muslim girl – allowed for such unique situations, comedy was innate. Also, growing up in the states before Dish Network and Arab TV, gave me access to American comedy like cartoons, sitcoms, and SNL. Something about SNL both annoyed and intrigued me, because I knew I could do what they did, but better, while at the same time, having no idea how they actually did what they did.
You know you’ve made the right choice, though, when you tell your former high school bully what you do and they say, “Oh yea, that makes total sense, Mona, you were always a damn smart ass!”
What took me by surprise, however, was one Christmas, my sister decided to verbally attack me in front of the family by insisting I get off my ass and jump in to comedy already. “Enough already Mona, you’re supposed to be on SNL or something. Stop bullshitting!” The funny part was, at the time, I wasn’t sitting at home playing Xbox, rather, I was finishing up my Masters Thesis in International Development, having just returned from Namibia. I was also employed, but something in her felt the need to attack. God or the universe or Santa must have channeled my little sister the way Patrick Swayze did Whoopi in Ghost. She came at me like I owed her money and by finally becoming a professional comic. I could pay her back. I’m so grateful she yelled at me because it woke up that hidden part of me that had always loved to make people laugh as well as the part of me that needed a stage to address the injustices of the world and in my own life.
What is it that you love about comedy? Where do you get your comic inspiration and influence from?
What I love about comedy is it’s complexity. It’s the only art form where you need other people to create your art. A musician, singer, actress, filmmaker, writer, painter, and even a magician can create their art alone and deliver it completed to an audience. However, a comedian needs the audience in the creation process making it both powerfully vulnerable as well as incredibly intimate and independent. Meanwhile, not a single day in the creation processes is the same. Literally every single day at work for me is different than the day before or the day after. I will never perform in front of the same audience again, ever. Some people might see me again, but never the same chemistry and group of people in the same circumstance will repeat and that is a very powerful contributing factor in the creation of a comedian’s material. So, learning how to create material for a moving target can be empowering while totally nerve wrecking. Nothing in life is so publicly intimate, which allows for a very powerful connection in a time where digital disconnected connection is the norm.