Amer Zahr’s Life Outside the Box

The Palestinian-American stand-up believes comedy can change both his worlds

By Adam Grundey
Apr 06, 2014

AMER ZAHR IS PREPARING for his first gig in the U.A.E. He’s sitting outdoors at the hotel caf�, mulling over conflicting instructions for the performance. Zahr’s in Dubai to perform as part of a week of events under the banner ‘This is Palestine,’ designed to highlight the rich cultural contribution Palestinians are making around the world. As the son of Palestinian refugees who moved to America when Zahr was three, it’s a cause close to his heart, and he’s excited to make a contribution. But he’s also a little confused – because this is Dubai, not America. And it’s been suggested that he shouldn’t talk about politics.

“I’m a Palestinian comedian, being asked to do a show about Palestine, and you’re telling me, ‘Don’t be political,’” he says, smiling. “I don’t even know what that means.”

Having gigged extensively in the Middle East, however, Zahr isn’t exactly shocked by the advice. “The idea of stand-up comedy – talking about… not even religion and sex, but politics – is a very scary thing for a lot of people in the Middle East. Because politics, here, is such a volatile word.”

Zahr is adamant that he has no wish to court controversy for controversy’s sake. But, he stresses, “You have to make the audience think a little bit, and maybe – little by little – we can change the perception of what it’s OK to laugh at and what it’s OK to talk about. Not to turn any society into, like, a heathen society, but to say, ‘Look, we don’t have to be so reserved that we’re overcompensating and losing some real conversation and great art along the way.’”

Seeing the growth in regional comedy over the past few years, Zahr is confident that there’s a bright future for stand-up in the Middle East. “We’ve had comedians in this part of the world, but they’ve always gotten on stage and told jokes about other people,” he says. “But stand-ups, we get onstage and we tell jokes about ourselves; our point of view, our problems. And in the Arab world, talking about yourself and your private life – your parents and stuff – is, y’know, taboo. Getting onstage and doing it in front of 500 people is really taboo. But now it’s become much more obviously accepted, and people are consuming stand-up a lot. That makes me very happy. But we still have a long way to go.”

That’s a sentiment he applies to Arab-Americans too. Exhibit A? The fact that the U.S. census form has no box for them to tick. They have to declare themselves ‘White.’ “It creates this weird situation where we’re politically and socially maybe the most visible group in America, because we’re on the news all the time,” Zahr says. “But legally we’re invisible. That’s also the government telling us, maybe in a subconscious way, ‘You don’t exist.’”

Zahr built a tour – We’re Not White – around this idea, and is about to release a documentary about it too. He’s hopeful it will instigate a change in Arab-Americans’ legal status. But he’s aware he needs to stay funny to do that.

“If I wasn’t making people laugh, they’d never listen, because it’s kind of a boring conversation,” he admits. “But comedy is weird. It’s very powerful. If you can make people laugh, they’ll listen to you. So if you’re onstage making a group of 500 people laugh, that’s a lot of weird power.”

Zahr cites Richard Pryor as an inspiration. “He used comedy to make white people comfortable around black people,” he says. “At that point, black people in America were still seen as a threat. White people were still very uncomfortable around them. Right now we Arabs, and, by extension, Muslims, are going through that same problem. We haven’t gotten to the ‘Black is Beautiful’ part of our struggle yet. ‘Arab’ is still a dirty word. And it’s a threatening word.
“Pryor humanized black Americans, in a way, to white America,” Zahr continues. “If I can do the same for Arab-Americans… Not to say that black people or Arabs have a duty to humanize themselves to white people. We don’t. But in many ways it’s a necessity. It’s wrong that we have to do it, but this is the world that we live in. When you have situations in America where guys are walking into mosques and shooting people, you have to put everything you have on the table to try and make sure that something like that doesn’t happen. And that’s what Pryor was doing. Richard Pryor might have prevented who knows how many hate crimes with his comedy. If that’s what I can do, then great.”

The first step, he hopes, will be to get an ‘Arab-American’ box on the census form. “Some Arabs don’t even want the box: ‘Let’s just stay with the whole “White” thing, maybe it’ll work out.’ Well, it’s not f***ing working out. White people aren’t going to let you into their club. It’s just never going to happen,” Zahr says. “There’s one test of being white, and that’s white people. If white people don’t think you’re white, you’re not white. It doesn’t matter how hard you try. And white people definitely don’t think we’re white. They’re not taking us off the planes because they think we’re white, y’know?"