How New York’s Arab-American comedy festival poked fun at fear and stereotypes


On a warmly lit underground stage with an iconic brick wall behind the microphone, the 14th annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival kicked off Thursday.

The sold-out show brought audience members neck and neck to one of Manhattan’s famous comedy clubs, The Stand.

The festival brings together Arab-American comics from across the country. It ran through Saturday, with shows across New York.

The sold-out show brought audience members neck and neck to one of Manhattan’s famous comedy clubs, The Stand. (Phoebe Leila Barghouty)

The great Arab family

Luai Hodi is a comedian from Chicago, whose act finds humor in everyday things like his large Arab family. It’s his fifth year doing the festival, and he says at this point it’s more than just a show.

Hodi’s longtime friend from Chicago, Tim Schulz, even flew out himself just to support Hodi from the public.

“A handful of us just come for this festival every year, it’s like a family reunion,” Hodi said. He also pointed out how unique the Arabic comedy scene in New York is: “Here you have several brown people who have come forward and said, ‘We need a show that represents us.’

Atheer Yacoub, a regular on the New York comedy circuit, has been at the festival for four years.  (Phoebe Leila Barghouty)

Atheer Yacoub, a regular on the New York comedy circuit, has been at the festival for four years. (Phoebe Leila Barghouty)

Fight against stereotypes

It is precisely for this reason that the founders of the festival came up with the idea 14 years ago. Mason Zayid and Dean Obeidallah built their audiences by finding humor in addressing the stereotypes and prejudices they faced as Middle Easterners in America after the 2001 attacks.

The festival created a safe space for a widely hated minority to change the mainstream narrative.

In fact, just this Tuesday, Manhattan suffered another terrorist attack. And while anti-Arab hate speech and fearmongering by American conservatives has risen as a result, comedians featured in the festival say their spirits won’t waver.

The festival brings together Arab-American comics from across the country.  (Phoebe Leila Barghouty)

The festival brings together Arab-American comics from across the country. (Phoebe Leila Barghouty)

Celebrate being Arab

“If this isn’t a place where you can always celebrate being Arab, where is it,” said Dean Obeidallah, one of the festival’s founders and host of the Dean Obeidallah Show on SiriusXM.

Obeidallah noted how much the festival has grown during his tenure and how Arab-American comedy as a whole has continued to grow in the United States.

“There’s a bigger picture here,” Obeidallah explained, “maybe we can change perceptions by doing this.”

The festival created a safe space for a widely hated minority to change the mainstream narrative.  (Phoebe Leila Barghouty)

The festival created a safe space for a widely hated minority to change the mainstream narrative. (Phoebe Leila Barghouty)

The comedy community

Atheer Yacoub, a regular on the New York comedy circuit, has been at the festival for four years. Like Hodi, she highlighted the closeness felt by members of the Arab-American comedy community, but she also recognizes how her platform can help change perceptions.

“Some people fear Arabs and Muslims more than they fear serial killers,” Yacoub said, “so it’s great to show them a different point of view.”

Yacoub went on to describe how fighting hate and prejudice does not mean Arabs should be silent or censor their identity.

“Having to constantly apologize for being a Muslim allows them to group me with people I don’t identify with, Yacoub said, “why should I apologize for a terrorist? White people don’t apologize for the KKK!

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