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Maysoon Zayid - On comedy, disability, Palestine and Hollywood

Maysoon Zayid is using her fame as a comedian in the Middle East and USA to shine a light on issues like the treatment of the disabled and the conflict in Palestine
Photo courtesy of Maysoon Zayid

“My name is Maysoon Zayid and I am a Palestinian, Muslim, virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey with no health insurance, so if you don’t feel better about yourself, maybe you should.”

The annual gala for the American Task Force on Palestine creased up. 

Almost no gag is off the agenda for the stand-up comic in front of them - least of all the fact that she can’t actually stand up. With a laugh and a shake of the shoulders (she starts most of her routines by saying that she is shaking uncontrollably not because she is drunk but because the doctor who delivered was) Zayid likens herself to a cross between Shakira and Mohammad Ali. If there was an Oppression Olympics, she says she would get the Gold.

Provoking an audience is second nature. In an interview with movie star turned chat show host Queen Latifa, Zayid challenged her viewers to admit the fact that “at least once in your lives you have dreamed of being disabled.” In the slightly awkward pause that follows she says “Journey with me. You’re at the mall, it’s Christmas Eve, you’re driving around looking for parking, what do you see? Sixteen empty handicapped spaces!” To which Latifa and the audience laugh with Latifa admitting, “OK, you got me there.” 

Zayid is something of a pioneer - the first female to introduce stand up comedy to the Middle East and by many accounts the first female Muslim stand up comic in the United States.

“I think the Middle East is really bad with disability.” Zayid says. “The one good thing is that I know most folks I meet in the Arab world want to help the disabled and don’t think of them as cursed or scary. The problem is they don’t treat them as equals. Also, in war-torn countries accessibility is not at the top of the list and those living with disabilities suffer exponentially. We have also dropped the ball on education. People with disabilities need to be integrated into the mainstream school systems.” 

And disability is by no means the only heavy or sensitive subject matter Zayid chooses to focus on.

A Palestinian living in New Jersey USA Zayid has clearly made it her mission to normalise what it means to be a Palestinian in American eyes making her Arab roots core material for much of her comedy.

She jokes about going to Gaza to “catch a husband.” Considering her marriage options at the age of 33 she says she asked herself “Where is the best place in the world to catch a husband” and thought “Gaza because they have no place to run,” making light of the Israeli blockade on the small coastal strip of Palestinian land blockaded by land, air and sea. 

Zayid has no problem with making fun of Palestinians joking that, to her consternation, her husband promises to do something about his uni-brow, giving himself two eyebrows instead of just the one, only “when there are two states.” She jokes that “If there ain’t no settlement freeing, there ain’t no eyebrow tweezing.”

Zayid’s life is very far from being a laugh. Despite being a proud American born and raised in New Jersey, Zayid is clearly deeply connected to her Arab roots too. She admits that “Being Palestinian is a major part of how I identify. It is not only where my parents come from, but it is my home too. I spent every summer growing up there and now I split time between New Jersey and Ramallah so my home is both places.”

Zayid spends three months of every year in refugee camps in the Middle East running art programmes for disabled and orphaned children. A charitable project she set up called Maysoon’s Kids do things like help build playgrounds in the occupied territories for children who are both disabled and able bodied. 

She has even set up a “scholarship and wellness programme” for disabled and injured refugee kids.”

A brief look at her twitter feed and Facebook page also reveal just how important Palestine is to her. She is constantly sharing updates about human rights abuses being perpetrated against Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Heavy subject matter for a comic but clearly her way of using her fame and popularity to spread awareness of the issues so close to her heart. 

For a while she even wrote a regular column about the Middle East for the Daily Beast with titles like “Hey-Hey, Ho-Ho, Mahmoud Abbas has got to go” and “Google ‘Palestine’ – It exists, and so do Palestinians.”

Not only does Zayid incorporate her Arab identity and culture into her own comedy routines but she has gone far beyond that. In 2003 she co-founded the New York Arab-American comedy festival and tells MEE that “The Comedy Festival is by far my proudest accomplishment. I co-founded it with my brother from another mother, and father, Mr Dean Obeidallah and it is now in its eleventh year.” 

Zayid does not consider herself a disabled comic.” I’m just a comic who started out working in New York clubs and somehow ended up on Broadway. I work just as hard as my peers and am treated as an equal by them. I’m very blessed.” 

Despite having secured roles as an extra in TV shows like Law and Order and As The World Turns, Zayid acknowledges that her disability has been a hindrance to her pursuing her TV ambitions saying “when it comes to my dream of being on TV, it is by far my greatest obstacle; something that casting directors don’t know what to do with and can’t see past. Hollywood needs to change.”

Zayid has never let her disability stand in the way of her achieving her dreams. She has acted in a film with Adam Sandler, tap danced on Broadway, regularly performs standup in front of crowds of hundreds and has even performed in front of boxing heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali, which she says has been one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of her career so far.

Zayid’s parents are clearly inspirational forces in her life. As a child it was her father who encouraged her to walk, despite her disability, and from a young age and she was expected to do anything her able-bodied sisters could do.

Self-confidence was clearly instilled in her from an early age, and it paid off. Looking forward Zayid says she wants to win an Oscar one day and claims, tongue in cheek, that her disability can only help her. “They can’t say no.” 

She goes on to cite movies like Forrest Gump, Rain Man and others saying “disabilities win awards!”

Zayid claims she does not want to be called inspirational and says her truest goal, is just to get people to laugh. As she tells Queen Latifah “if they’re not laughing there’s no point. I’m not here to lecture people.” 

But her driving force and what makes her whole raison d’etre different from other comics is revealed when she says: “One they’re done laughing I want them to realise that, what I think I symbolise, is that I want equality. I want people to be treated equally and not reduced to their skin colour, their ethnicity, their ability.” 

In terms of reducing her to any of those things she makes it clear, “I don’t ever want to be thought of as a disabled comic or a Palestinian comic, I’m a comic.”