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Muslim comedian breaks the mold

Azhar Usman uses jokes to counter stereotypes about his religion. He performs in Tampa Saturday.

By SHERRI DAY
Published September 15, 2006


With his long black beard, skullcap and olive skin, comedian Azhar Usman tells audiences he needs to arrive at airports a month in advance to get through security. He also says he’s more likely to be responsible for a disturbance at a 7-Eleven than for the terrorists attacks that occurred on Sept. 11.

Usman calls himself the ayatollah of comedy. But five years ago, he almost gave up making people laugh. After Sept. 11, Usman, a Muslim lawyer turned stand-up comic, traded comedy clubs for the lecture circuit.

He talked at colleges, synagogues, churches and community centers to those increasingly curious about Islam. Ultimately, though, his passion lay in tickling funny bones.

“More than anything else, 9/11 was a wake-up call for me personally and for the American Muslim community to stop being lazy in terms of avoiding talking about the hard issues in our community,” said Usman, 30.

“The weapon I chose was humor, and I feel that my comedy is as much about calling out the hypocrisy in my own community as it is about calling out the hypocrisy in the U.S. government.”

Usman, who lives in Chicago, will perform what he calls ''Muslim schtick” tonight  at the Council on American Islamic Relations’ annual banquet in Tampa.

He is one of a growing number of Muslim and Arab-American comedians who are using their craft to address sociopolitical issues facing their communities.

Usman’s performances focus on topics such as the Iraq war, politics, the erosion of civil liberties, stereotyping and racial profiling.

“He’s able to use entertainment and his talent to articulate what’s happening, and he has a positive message through comedy,” said Ahmed Bedier, the Council’s Central Florida director. “He’s hilarious, especially to our community, because we don’t really have a lot of stand-up comics.”

Consider Usman’s take on racial profiling:

“Everywhere I go, the FBI follows me,” Usman said in a recent performance. “They’re probably here tonight. So let me clarify a few things. First of all, I’m not a member of al-Qaida, nor am I a member of the Taliban. I just play one on TV.”

He also has a bit about newscasters who, in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombings, reported that the incident had “Middle Eastern characteristics.”

“What? Is there belly dancing in the background?” Usman wondered. “The bombing was supposed to happen at 3 o’clock, and they showed up at about 6:30?”

Go ahead. Giggle. Usman welcomes it.

“I’d be offended if (people) don’t laugh,” Usman said. “That’s the point of a comedy show.”

***

Usman’s brand of ethnic-based comedy began gaining prominence in 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Like Usman, who was born to Indian immigrants in Illinois, many of the emerging Muslim and Arab-American comedians use their work to deal with issues of culture, class, religion and race. It’s a well-worn tactic employed by artists ranging from Jewish comedian Jackie Mason to Richard Pryor and Chris Rock, both African-American funny men.

Scholars say comedians who perform racially or culturally sensitive jokes can dismantle stereotypes and spark discussion.

“When you laugh with someone, you’re really sort of agreeing to set aside your weapons, so to speak,” said John Lowe, an English professor at Louisiana State University and the author of a forthcoming book on ethnic humor.

“It’s sort of like a handshake. It creates a sense of community. It’s a great way to open a window into Muslim culture.”

The entertainment industry is taking notice.

Comedy Central recently agreed to broadcast The Watch List, a stand-up program that features Arab- and Iranian-American comedians. Dean Obeidallah, another Arab-American lawyer turned comic, helped pitch the idea.

“Obviously, these comics have a vested personal interest in what’s going on politically in the world,” said Daniel Powell, Comedy Central’s manager of original programming and development. “For a lot of them, it’s given them really strong material.”

Powell said the network plans to air the program later this year  on MotherLoad, its broadband channel.

Obeidallah also helped launch the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. The five-night event, which started in 2003, features 40 comedians performing stand-up and comedic theater in Manhattan. Obeidallah hopes to bring the festival to Orlando in 2007.

“There’s a great deal of anti-Arab rhetoric and a lack of understanding of who we are actually,” said Obeidallah, 36, who lives in New York. “We use the comedy as a way to counter that and try to reach out and force the understanding with our fellow Americans … But you have to be funny. If it’s not funny, it’s a speech.”

Obeidallah’s lineage is a lesson in the dangers of making assumptions. His father was born on the West Bank. His mother is Sicilian. Obeidallah says he is an Arab-American and a practicing Roman Catholic. He chronicles his life experiences in I Come in Peace, a one-man show that recently finished a run in a theater off-Broadway.

The work follows an increasing number of Arab-American and Muslim comedic films, podcasts and comedy shows.
Usman, who is married and has two children, travels the country with Allah Made Me Funny, a comedy tour he helped create. The show debuted in 2004 at the DC Improv featuring an all-Muslim cast.

Honoring their religion, the comics keep bits and sketches G-rated, mostly free of curse words and respectful of Islam. Venues that host the show must agree to suspend the sale of alcoholic beverages during performances.

“It sold out every night that we had it here,” said Redouanne Balazi, a manager at the DC Improv. “It was not about promoting Islam. It was just about having people look at these guys, that they were Americans like everybody else.”

Usman sees a future that spans beyond Muslim humor. He’s working on a Q&A-style humor book tentatively titled, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Muslims but Were Afraid to Ask. He also has plans for his own Internet comedy program and hopes to make a concert film with the Allah Made Me Funny comics next year.

Usman wants people — Muslims and non-Muslims — to laugh at themselves, their preconceptions and the state of affairs for Muslims and Arabs in America. Through that process he hopes to spark thought, conversation and, eventually, understanding. If he offends some Muslims in the process, so be it.

“If I have to be the bad guy by airing their laundry and saying 'Look at how ugly this is. Let’s do something about it,’ that’s fine,” Usman said. “I just feel like things need to be said. Let the chips fall where they may.”

Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or 813-226-3405.

[Last modified September 15, 2006, 20:54:31]


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