Monday, September 20, 2010

Arabs Gone Wild

Portland's Arab-American community turned out in force for this comedy troupe. Our venue: The Aladdin. The crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative, which was galvanizing to the performers. Portland is also sometimes known as Little Beirut after all.

I'd attended the Axis of Evil here in Portland in November 2009, but this was a different line-up. No Ahmed Ahmed this time, nor Tissa Hami.

Two of the comedians, Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid had been subjects in my friend Glenn Baker's documentary (along with Ahmed and Tissa). I went up to Dean after the show to say hello from Glenn (he knew immediately whom I meant), and to shake Maysoon's hand. I wanted to blurt out how much I admire her but was shy, plus she was swamped with other fans telling her much the same thing.

A quick poll of the audience discovered large Palestinian, Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian contingents, with fewer from Iraq and Egypt, plus even fewer from Libya. Iranians were present but not polled as Iran is not considered an Arabian nation.

These were in contrast to "whites" (also present) although these categories remain problematic, as many Arabs check "white (non-hispanic)" on the government forms. I'm told "Middle Eastern" is being added to some of the bureaucratic tabulations.

The show reminded me that social comedy is a lot like group therapy. People have an interest in healing by gaining some distance from their pain, and laughter, with a touch of compassion, goes a long way towards creating mental health.

The comedians need healing and therapy as much as anyone, and a friendly audience presents a great opportunity to regenerate one's psyche. Kader's lampooning of Dr. Phil as a source of non sequiturs was funny to me. I was likewise amused when Spears pulled the rug when he tried getting a piece of her that time.

Social comedy traffics in stereotypes, self-consciously and by design. Arab identity has much to do with extended family, food, discussing prices, dressing in various ways. The segment about a TV show adapted from The Price is Right, called The Price is Not Right drew peals of laughter.

A traveling troupe is also in a position to compare notes and update those present with a sense of the times. After some months of relative quiet and benign media, the people now seem angry, with the level xenophobia creeping up the scale.

The comics referred more than once to Ellis Island and the promise of America as a land of opportunity. We embrace newcomers. That's not the mood in California though. Anti-immigrant sentiments are again spiking, especially among "whites".

George Bush has continued as a source of comedy. Aron Kader admitted it's simply harder to turn Obama into a comic figure.

The jokes seemed mostly on the safe side, edgy but not politically all that risky. At a time of such anger, why stoke the flames? Maysoon, who has cerebral palsy, did a sketch about trying to shake Arafat's hand at the UN. As they both quivered, they were unable to connect. Most of her routine was about a new husband-to-be, rescued from a refugee camp with the promise of a visa.

Much of Kader's rap was about gender differences and communication. Guys get paranoid and feel manipulated when gals express their wishes in a round about matter, don't seem to get to the point. Guys don't like to interpret, though may be cryptically brief in their wordless expostulations. The comedy is in the mannerisms and delivery, so I'll not attempt a more thorough account here.