No Thick Sheik

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Maz Jobrani is a member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, a group of stand up comedians with their roots in the Middle East who take the piss out of such hilarious topics as terrorism and racial profiling. In his solo show Jobrani talks about his Iranian background, Middle Eastern politics and what it’s like to be married to a woman of the same ethnic background as my temperamental mother!

Newmatilda.com: So Maz, tell us about yourself.

Maz Jobrani: Well I’m tall, dark and handsome. I’m also Pisces. That makes me a little indecisive apparently…

I mean tell us about your upbringing.

Oh. Well, I was brought up in Marine County in the San Francisco Bay area. It was an all-American area. We had little contact with Iranians. The only Iranians I knew were this elderly couple who ran a small supermarket. One day I went there, and the woman asked me politely: "Excuse me, are you Iranian?" And I said: "Yes, I am". She said, "I’m Iranian too". We both seemed pretty happy with that.

It was only when I moved to LA for College that I realised just how many Iranians there are [in America]. I went with an Iranian friend to an Iranian supermarket. I asked the guy behind the counter, "Hey dude, are you Iranian?" He wasn’t as happy as the lady back home. "Of course I’m Iranian! What do I look like?"

Aren’t Iranians a bit cheesed off with Islam?

I don’t think that we’re all disillusioned by Islam as much as many Iranians [are]turned off by the Government in Iran and the way it has run its affairs over the past 30 years. If you look at Iran today it seems like there’s still corruption in the Government, there is an abuse of human rights and there is neglect on the part of the Government to create opportunities for the youth. I think that most Iranians consider themselves Muslim, but it’s all about the degree of religiosity. Many Iranians in the Diaspora are more secular than religious. I think the mixture of religion and politics has turned us off.

Does that mean US Iranians are ambivalent about the stereotyping of Middle Easterners and/or Muslims?

Most Iranians feel that any stereotyping against Muslims is also a stereotyping against them – because it really is. I view the stereotyping that’s happening as stereotyping against Middle Easterners in general.

I use this joke a lot in my show. I’d love to see an Iranian on the news not just shouting "Death to America!" but doing something harmless like baking a cookie. Yes, we do have cookies in Iran.

You recently performed a gig in the US sponsored by the FBI. What was that like?

That was part of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee’s annual Conference in the US. They called us and said that they wanted us to do a show for them. They said the FBI would be sponsoring it. Our first thought was: "Great, it’s an easy way for them to get us all in one room at once to make arrests!" Our second thought was, "Wow, we’re going to have a field day with material about this gig."

I didn’t know what to expect, but it was actually a great event. To be honest with you, if we don’t bridge the gap between ourselves and law enforcement [agencies]then there will never be any communication and we will just continue to yell at each other and accuse each other. However, if we agree to talk to them and even have Middle Easterners and Muslims in something like the FBI then we can make a difference in the way our communities are treated.

If there were more people of Middle Eastern descent in the FBI then the next time they wanted to put handcuffs on a Middle Easterner in front of his family because he has violated his visa stay in the US (something like this happened with immigration a few years back.), the Middle Eastern agent would know that this is a demeaning act to do in front of one’s family. They might find another way to handle the situation. The same way Blacks and Latinos have joined law enforcement over the years, we need to have more of our people in these positions. I think it will lead to more understanding and less innocent people accused wrongly.

So were you arrested after the show?

No, but I used my camera on stage that night to take a picture of the FBI agents in the room. They were seated at two tables near the stage and I turned my camera on them saying: "Now you know how we feel when you’re watching us". It went over really well in the mostly Arab crowd.

And now you’ve done some gigs in the Middle East. How did that go down?

Yeah, we took the Axis of Evil comedy tour to Dubai, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait. Seriously, I had no idea of what to expect there. At first I thought they’d come and see us and shout "Death to America!". But when I got there, I was amazed that our shows sold out so quickly. Everyone had heard of us. It’s funny that people in the Middle East love Western culture. And they know all about what’s happening in America. They know more about us than we know about them. They even know domestic stuff. They know everything about Britney Spears.

And the funny thing is that they love action movies. Even the Chuck Norris ones where he’s stereotyping Arabs. You know the ones. You see Chuck Norris walking down an Arab street. He walks past some Arab dude who’s got a bazooka stuck up the donkey’s ass. Before you know it, the Arab guy is shooting at Chuck who shoots back with a huge machine gun and blows up both the Arab dude and the donkey. I grew up watching movies like that, but I didn’t notice any donkeys with bazookas up their ass in Amman or Beirut. But I did meet lots of people who love Chuck Norris movies.

I really enjoyed taking part in this "Arabian Idol" type show put together by Showtime Arabia, except they weren’t looking for singers but rather for comedians. We found this Egyptian guy – I think his name was George Azmi – who did his whole show in Arabic. I couldn’t understand a word he said but just his theatrics had me in stitches.

Do you think you’d ever perform in Iran?

The way things are at the moment, I doubt it. I’d turn up at the airport, and the Revolutionary Guards would be there waiting: "Mr Jobrani, we have a special request for you to do a show in our central prison. Please come with us."

I was in Iran 10 years ago and I saw young people there wearing Pink Floyd t-shirts and riding skate boards. I get emails from young Iranians asking about how they can develop comedy over there.

Finally, Maz, a stereotypical question you’ve been asked a million times already. How has September 11 2001 changed your perceptions of the world?

I’ve always considered myself an Iranian-American. I did before September 11 and I do now. Having said that, I also find myself disagreeing with the stand taken by the leadership in both countries from time to time. So as much as I feel Iranian or American, I often don’t see eye to eye with the decisions that are made at the top. I think most citizens fall into that category. We want to live our lives and live it in peace.

I never considered myself very religious. I’ve always believed in the basic tenets of doing good and appreciating what has been given to me in life. What September 11 did for me was to make me more aware of abuses against Muslims in the world. I find myself wanting to defend them against such abuses. But that’s just my nature. I always want to fight for the underdog. I do that by bringing certain issues to the stage and trying to present them in a funny way so that people think about the issues.


Catch Maz Jobrani’s show in Sydney on Saturday night or in Melbourne on Sunday.

New Matilda

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