Stand-Up for Change in the Middle East: Interview with Comedian Dean Obeidallah

Note: Contributing Writer David Dietz is based in Cairo and doing freelance reporting. For more of his opinions and coverage of Middle East politics, see his blog, TheMidEaster.com. This interview is adapted from there. 

Dean Obeidallah is an award winning Arab-American comedian who has appeared on numerous U.S. and international TV shows including Comedy Central’s “Axis of Evil” Comedy Tour, ABC’s “The View,” CNN’s “Inside the Middle East,” and Al Jazeera’s “Min Washington.” Dean has been featured in various publications including Time magazineNewsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. He is the executive producer of the annual NY Arab-American Comedy Festival and The Amman Stand up Comedy Festival. (www.deanofcomedy.com)

David Dietz (DD): Dean, the start of this year has been an historic few months for the Middle East. We've seen governments overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt and protests in almost every country throughout the Middle East including Jordan, where you host the Annual Amman Comedy Festival. The majority of your audience of Arab decent has surely been moved or somehow affected. Does what is happening politically, especially recently, influence your comedy? Have you changed your style or jokes to stay up with current events, or do you avoid the subjects of unrest and revolution all together?

DO: My comedy reflects current events - so the revolutions in the Arab world are becoming part of my comedy act. I feel that as an Arab-American who has performed for the last few years in the region, I can hopefully use my material about the region to educate people in the audiences here in the U.S.

DD: Conversely do you feel that you and other Arab comedians may have played a role in inspiring critical and provocative thinking? I know from seeing several of your shows that you generally refrain from including too much politically-sensitive material, but nonetheless, comedy is about pushing the boundaries and being able to make light of serious subjects. Do you believe that your work in developing new comedians may have indirectly added to a cultural revolution that has energized the political ones?

DO: I don't believe there is a direct connection between the rise of stand up in the Middle East and the revolutions. But we did use the same social media platforms to distribute info to the masses about our shows and to organize audiences to attend. I was certainly aware of the power that social media plays in the Arab world from the use of it to promote our comedy shows.

DD: Speaking of a cultural revolution, many artists that I have spoken with in Egypt have indicated great excitement over being able to express themselves more freely with fewer boundaries and restrictions. As an American, you don't necessarily have to deal with the repercussions of going too far with a joke back home, as say Egyptians and Tunisians did and those in the Gulf states and Jordan still do. Will comedy blossom in the coming years and as someone who has worked to promote local regional comedian are you excited about its potential as a growing medium of art?

DO: I think stand up comedy is already blossoming in the Middle East. There are now Arab comedians performing across the region from Egypt through Saudi Arabia. In time, I'm sure with greater freedoms to discuss politics, an Arab Jon Stewart will emerge who tackles political issues in a comedic way that also promotes change.

DD: Lastly, you are of Palestinian origin. Do you think that the protests will affect - either positively or negatively - the prospects of a Palestinian state?

DO: I can only hope that with increased freedoms spreading across the Middle East, that the Palestinians will not be the only exception. I believe these revolutions will put increased pressure on the Israeli government to negotiate a just resolution of the conflict. Egypt will now be the biggest democracy in the Middle East and if it can treat all citizens fairly regardless of race or religion, it will put increased pressure on the Israeli government to do the same.

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