“I had sex this morning,” confessed Palestinian-American comedian Suzie Afridi at the start of her new monthly comedy show, “Amreeka.” “But I can’t tell you about it. It’s not allowed in my culture.”
She went on to tell the audience that her husband is Pakistani and that the two of them are “very different kinds of terrorists. My people were on the first season of Homeland, his people were on the fourth.” Then, in case we had any doubts, she affirmed her patriotism: “Listen, anyone who tells you America is not great has not traveled overseas and tried another country’s paper towels.”
A minute into her set, and she’d already covered sex, consumerism, and global politics. Afridi is as American as it gets.
“Amreeka,” curated by Afridi and produced by her husband, Saks, and Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal, gets its name from the Arabic word for America and is billed as “Everything you want to know about America, but are afraid to laugh at.” Its mission is to give comedians of all backgrounds a platform from which to take on taboos and interrogate the dangerous stereotypes of our current political era.
And despite the onslaught of bad news from Washington, Afridi feels emboldened by the new administration.
“Trump’s election is the 9-11 for Muslims,”she says. “It’s generating a lot of goodwill, and we have to take advantage of this chance to rewrite our narrative. America never took advantage of the post–9-11 global goodwill it had received. Instead, Bush set the Middle East on fire, giving us ISIS, a refugee crisis, and Donald Trump.”
Now Muslim comedians are seizing the opportunity, with some taking the message to the screen. Aziz Ansari, best known for his roles on Parks and Recreation and his Netflix series, Master of None, hosted the first SNL episode of the Trump administration, declaring, “[It’s] pretty cool to know, though, he’s probably at home right now watching a brown guy make fun of him.” He then referenced the Women’s March: “Yesterday, Trump was inaugurated; today, an entire gender protested against him.” The crowd erupted.
“The media’s not telling the truth, politicians aren’t telling the truth,” Afridi says. “The only people telling the truth are comedians.”
And there are plenty of them, with the mainstream finally paying attention. Inauguration weekend also saw the premiere of Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, a film based on the comic’s marriage to a non-Muslim woman. Nanjiani has acted in more than twenty movies and on more than thirty shows (including Silicon Valley, Portlandia, and Broad City) and co-hosts the Comedy Central series The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail. Aasif Mandvi, a correspondent on The Daily Show, recently won the Peabody-Facebook Futures of Media Award for starring in the web series Halal in the Family. Nasim Pedrad, a veteran of SNL, now stars on Scream Queens. Most of these comedians got their start in New York City’s stand-up scene. It’s only in recent years, though, that they’ve become more open and vocal about their Muslim identity.
“The [identity] profile matters because it challenges myths and stereotypes,” says Maysoon Zayid, co-producer of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which began in response to rising Islamophobia in the wake of 9-11 and finished its fourteenth go-round in October. “But we’ve always had Arabs of all different faiths and no faiths,” she adds, as part of the festival.
Three years ago Zayid and partner Dean Obeidallah started a second show, the Muslim Funny Fest, to attract and include non-Arab Muslims. Zayid expects both festivals to get bigger, adding that the only thing they need more of in the age of Trump is security. “I wish I were joking, but the spike in hate I receive online since the rise of Trump began is quite terrifying. The Muslim Funny Fest is more necessary than ever. Luckily, we are funnier than ever, too.”
Zayid, who has cerebral palsy and works as a disability rights advocate, gained notoriety when she appeared on 60 Minutes in the spring of 2016 to talk about her wildly popular TED Talk, “I Got 99 Problems…Palsy Is Just One.” She’s currently developing a comedy series that will feature a mainstream American Muslim character who “won’t be a terrorist or an FBI informant. She is a Jersey girl just like me.”
Meanwhile, what distinguishes “Amreeka” from its predecessors is the wide platform it offers to other marginalized groups. Opening night featured a lineup of comedians who embrace their outsider status, with Alex Barnett taking on the stigma associated with interracial marriage: “A guy came up to us and said, ‘You guys are together because you find each other exotic.’ Dude, my wife is from Detroit, not Narnia. And I’m a neurotic Jewish New Yorker. I’m only exotic if you’ve never seen Seinfeld. Another one said, ‘Oh, you guys just have jungle fever,’ which I resent….Dude, we’re married. There’s nothing sexual about that. We have a five-year-old now. I don’t even have sex in my dreams anymore. My sex dreams are about taking a nap.”
Nigerian-born Ndidi Oriji, co-host of the Brooklyn show “Comedy Diaspora,” started her set by raising the bar on catcalling: “They’re always calling me things I can never become. ‘Girl, you look like a princess!’ ‘Yo, queen! Queeeen!’ How about calling me something I aspire to be? How cool would it be to walk down the street and have someone say, ‘Hey, Speaker of the House! You’re looking good in that suit. Prime Minister! Girl, you look like the prime minister of a small Caribbean nation!’ Yeah, sure, I’ll go on a date with you.”
The headliner, Chloe Hilliard, a journalist-turned-comedian, took on the socioeconomic realities of food politics, closing with an anecdote about gluten-free diets: “In New York City, they sell a ten-dollar cupcake and we all stand in line thinking, ‘This is the new wave, we gotta get this.’ Then they put the old-fashioned full-of-gluten one next to the new one. You can’t tell the difference, but now you have to make a life decision: ‘How long do I want to live?’ And that old-fashioned cupcake full of gluten and diabetes is staring back at you like, ‘Bitch, you want to die today, let’s do this, you don’t need them feet!’ The gluten-free one is staring back at you, [with a British accent] ‘Do you want to talk about foreign policy?’ ”
At some point in the evening, the conversation turned to coffee and Saks’s pour-overs. I joked and called him a Muslim hipster. Afridi corrected me: “Metro Muslims. I added it to Urban Dictionary. It’s part metrosexual and part Muslim.”
Another so-called Metro Muslim is their imam, who runs Cordoba House, a “cool” Islamic Sunday school housed in a synagogue.
“Imam Feisal is so chic; his socks probably match his prayer rug,” Afridi said.
“We send our son to Islamic Sunday school because we want him to have an identity and want him to feel like he’s part of a community of like-minded Muslims,” said Afridi, whose own sense of alienation inspired her to work with new immigrants at the inner-city nonprofit organization Behind the Book. “To be honest, I don’t pray. I was raised Christian, and I converted, but I don’t practice. I joke that I downloaded the app but I haven’t played with it. And I admit I enjoy a glass of wine occasionally.
“There are a lot of Muslims like me, and instead of being conflicted, we should embrace the elasticity that Islam has to offer. It’s fluid, not as rigid as some people interpret. I’m not saying Muslims should drink, but Muslims should start being more accepting of those of us who do. Metro Muslims need a brand. ISIS has a brand, so should we.”