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Comedian Amer Zahr: ‘American politics affects Palestinians more than it affects Americans’

Palestinian-American activist and comedian Amer Zahr [Wikipedia]
Palestinian-American activist and comedian Amer Zahr [Wikipedia]

Mass slaughter and widespread destruction are no laughing matter – and yet, it seems the comedy scene in Palestine is thriving.

Palestinian-American activist and comedian Amer Zahr, the founder and producer of the annual 1001 Laughs Ramallah Comedy Festival, is a rising star in both the US and the Middle East.

He has travelled throughout the US, Canada and the Arab world, including Palestine, to advocate and “humanise” Palestinians, who he feels are frequently mistreated in the media, and which he considers to be one of the greatest challenges for Palestinians.

He draws his sharp political humour from his experiences growing up as a child of Palestinian immigrant parents, who were driven from their birthplaces of Yaffa and Akka, and being an Arab-American Muslim in the West.

“They say the best comedy comes from tragedy. Also, comedy is in its purest form, a form of protest. So when you make somebody laugh, they listen to you,” expressed Zahr, an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

“Crying and laughing are not that different. So you can use comedy for deeper issues. We’ve all seen somebody laugh so much that they start crying, but there’s also sometimes you see somebody crying so much that they start laughing. So, they’re not really that different from the point of view of emotions.”

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His content is hilarious and unapologetic. Humour is a means to say things that people may otherwise not want to hear. It is the tool Zahr, as an artist, uses to tell a story.

Zahr recounts how he shifted into the world of comedy, which always appealed to him, during his time studying law at the University of Michigan School of Law, where he is currently an adjunct professor.

According to Zahr: “Law and comedy are both about advocacy and telling a story. And when I graduated, I figured let me pursue comedy before I try a career in law otherwise I’ll never try comedy again.”

“The first few years were tough, obviously. But, then people started paying me and my life changed. Now this is what I do full-time.”

It’s a form of escape that’s especially applicable in Palestine, where people need a break from their suffocating realities. It flies a defiant flag in the face of Israel and its allies in the occupation, who never want to see Palestinians laughing.

Inspired by comedians such as Dave Chappelle, George Carlin and Lewis Black, who use comedy to raise awareness about social issues, Zahr doesn’t just want to make people laugh, he wants to make them think.

“I’ve never had people say, ‘how can you use comedy to do this?’ Comedy is my form of protest,” explained the 43-year-old of the formula he has used to turn his trials of being a male American born to Palestinian parents into ironic, irreverent, and often bawdy, humour.

Palestinians in Gaza show solidarity with the Eyad Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian man who was shot dead by Israeli police and with US protesters following the death of George Floyd who was killed by a white police officer by pinning him to the ground, 2 June 2020 [Abedalrahman Hassan/ApaImages]

Palestinians in Gaza show solidarity with the Eyad Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian man who was shot dead by Israeli police and with US protesters following the death of George Floyd who was killed by a white police officer by pinning him to the ground, 2 June 2020 [Abedalrahman Hassan/ApaImages]

As part of his activism, Zahr interviews young Palestinians living in Gaza as part of a new series, Voices from Palestine, initiated by the NGO organisation The Tamer Institute for Community Education, to highlight and share their stories for the world to hear.

The first episode explored the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May, and the killing of Eyad Hallaq who was autistic, and how their experiences as Palestinians connect them to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Because of the climate we were in, the first episode was about how young Palestinians are seeing Black Lives Matter. American politics can affect Palestinians way more than it affects Americans, so you’ll find that they are pretty educated and involved in and understand American politics more than most people. They are very knowledgeable about the current events, the world needs to hear it.”

This year and in 2016, he also served as a national surrogate for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In his recently penned essay for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he writes about the reasons why many voters in the Arab-American communities are drawn to Sanders, despite him being Jewish.

Sanders received the endorsement of prominent Arab-Americans from across the country and energised young Arab-Americans in support of their “Amo Bernie” (Uncle Bernie), in this year’s presidential race.

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Zahr has been asked by journalists how the Arab-American community could be so supportive of a Jewish candidate. He explained that such questions are “utterly racist” and “ridiculous” as they reinforce the false assumption that Arabs, and Palestinians especially, are anti-Semitic.

Zahr wrote: “There are many things we Arabs are predisposed to. Garlic. Bargaining. Fighting over the bill. Plastic on the furniture. Disagreeing loudly. Agreeing loudly. Just being loud. Moving our hands while we talk. Yes, even on the phone. But not anti-Semitism. Not that.”

Comedy, like any other art form, is the product of a creative process and can be presented in many layers. In Palestine, it is still relatively new, but quickly becoming a popular form of therapy.

Palestine has a long tradition of art which has come from oppression over the last 72 years. Zahr notes that Israel needs to end its military rule over the Palestinian territories and ensure full freedom for everyone.

“I believe in one secular democratic state. And it seems like we’re further headed in that direction, which has basically been the reality on the ground for a long time anyway. And with the annexation, it is just a continuation of the theft of our land since 1948.”

Israel plans to annex 132 settlements in the illegally occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley.

Despite the international community roundly condemning Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory, the US has been in negotiations over how to go ahead with the plans.

“Israel has been stealing our land and attempting to ethnically cleanse us for 72 years. Luckily, they’re very bad at it.”

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Asia & AmericasInterviewsIsraelMiddle EastPalestineUS
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