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Funny, Shaking Ay-rab

In a low-cut orange dress and dark red lipstick, 26-year-old Maysoon Zayid looked out at the predominantly white, out-of-town crowd at Chelsea's Gotham Comedy Club on April 10. "Hi," she said. "I'm a Palestine Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey. And if you don't feel better about your life, you should."

Ms. Zayid, who grew up in Cliffside Park, N.J., doesn't exactly match the media profile of the oppressed, veil-wearing, Arab Muslim woman. Nor is she the typical image of a comic. She used to be an actress, but after Sept. 11, she said, she turned to stand-up "to dispel some of the myths about Islam...and to remind people that Arabs are still human."

During a series of 15-minute sets at comedy clubs around the city last week, Ms. Zayid offered up her love life as proof. She told the crowd that she'd recently broken up with "a 39-year-old tambourine player. He's Palestinian Christian, because I have to find a way to complicate my life even further." She also explained that her aforementioned virginity was not for lack of offers, but indeed a religious and familial duty.

"My father, whose name is Mousa - Moses in English - has just one commandment: "Thou Shalt Not Fuck My Daughter."

Badoom-boom! The crowd was visibly startled for a second, followed by some loud guffaws at the back of the room.

Ms. Zayid told The Transom that her interest in comedy began five years ago, after she realized that the profession was more open than acting was to non-conventional performers. (An appearance on the daytime soap As the World Turns was the highlight of her thespian career.) "I looked at Rosie Perez, Rosie O'Donnell, Gilda Radner, and they all began through stand-up," she said, adding that the late Radner's style was the closest to her own edgy, profanity-laced repertoire.

But it was after Sept. 11, when being Muslim became, in her word, "scary" that she decided she could help defuse the tension with comedy.

When Tim Halpern, executive producer of the Happy Hour, a weekly stand-up night currently hosted by Porter's in Chelsea, learned about Ms. Zayid, he said it was "a double whammy...Not only was she Arab-American, but a female stand-up," Mr. Halpern explained, adding that he was always ready to sign up comics who didn't fit into the balding white male category.

"Now's the time that people need to be able to laugh at the things that are very uncomfortable for them," he continued. "Maysoon is a very funny lady."

Not everyone thinks so. After taping an upcoming segment for 20/20 on Arab-American comics, correspondent John Stossel recommended that Ms. Zayid consider therapy to tame her anger. The comic, who said she was careful with everything she said on tape to avoid being case as a "scary Ay-rab," said she told Mr. Stossel: "I'm a comic, John...shove it up your ass." Mr. Stossel told The Observer that his comment was made in jest.

Judging by Ms. Zayid's recent work schedule, her Arab-American heritage-and shtick-hasn't been bad for business. "I've been busy since Sept. 11, but after the war started, people got skittish. I've been asked not to say stuff by certain club owners."

Meanwhile, Janeane Garofalo is being quoted all over town as having said that in terms of minority status, "Arab" had become "the new black" in America."

As for Ms. Zayid's material, she noted that there was something new everyday. She recently added a riff to her routine about the Department of Homeland Security's special registration policy - "Thanks, Mr. Ashcroft, for getting together all the Arab men under 35 in one place for my viewing pleasure" - and a recent visit she made to Palestine ("or Israel, according to political inclination"). "People kept asking me. "Are you scared?" And I said, "No, I'm not scared of going to Palestine. I'm scared of going to Newark airport. Not only am I an Ay-rab - you can tell that from my facial hair - I'm a fucking shaking Ay-rab." Ms. Zayid waved her hands in the air, making light of her cerebral-palsy-related tremors. "Security guys are like" - Ms. Zayid's voice morphed into a growl - "That chick looks real nervous..."

-Shazia Ahmad

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This column ran in the 4/21/03 edition of The New York Observer.
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