Ahead of her Abu Dhabi performance, we speak with Palestinian-American comedienne and founder of two comedy festivals, Maysoon Zayid, about life with cerebral palsy (CP) and fighting racism
You said once that you’re not inspirational. Do you really believe this?
Yes. I think that society tends to view people with disabilities being alive and not miserable as inspirational. I want people to laugh because I’m funny, not because they think I am brave.
On the other hand, I have no problem inspiring people by my actions instead of my mere existence. So if I inspire people to be more charitable, that makes me happy. I’m also happy if I inspire people to follow their dreams. But if the only reason I am inspirational is because I’m disabled, I reject it.
A lot of people may think of CP as your main challenge, but have you faced any other barriers being an Arab woman?
Being Palestinian in America is a huge problem. I have lost a lot of work because I publicly advocate for Palestinian equality. Also, being a woman worldwide is a challenge. There is a myth that women aren’t funny so I always have to battle against that and sadly, the world is not safe for women.
You set up the New York Arab American Comedy Festival (NYAACF). Why was it important to you to have the Arab side of it?
I set it up with my co-founder, Dean Obeidallah. The reason we started it was to battle the negative images in media of Arabs post 9/11 and in the run-up to the Iraq War.
Americans often confuse Arab and Muslim, so we have two festivals: NYAACF and Muslim Funny Fest. NYAACF shows that Arabs can be any faith and the Muslim Funny Fest shows that Muslims can be any race or nationality. Both festivals showcase professional talent; these are not just Muslims and Arabs trying to be funny.
You’ve said that people with disabilities are under-represented in entertainment. What advice do you have to people with disabilities that may be too scared to follow their dreams?
I will tell them what my father told me: “You can do it. Yes you cancan.”
I don’t really understand fear, so I guess if there’s no way to get over that fear and you still want to be an entertainer, try making YouTube videos. You don’t have an audience, chances are no one will watch them, and if it goes viral it’ll make so much money, you’ll forget the fear.
For those who can conquer fears, my advice is be the best at the art you pursue. It is a competitive job; you need to practise your art every single day. I have to make a lot of sacrifices. I have missed weddings and funerals while I am on tour because the show must go on.
Finally, my advice is to have fun. Being an entertainer is not like being a cardiac surgeon, no one will die if you fail.
You’ve worked with celebrities like Adam Sandler. What’s been your most memorable moment?
My most memorable moment was performing for The Greatest, Muhammad Ali. As a Muslim growing up in predominantly Christian America, it was amazing having someone
like Ali to look up to.
He was everything that was good. He went to jail rather than agreeing to fight a war he didn’t believe in. He was charitable and beloved. I was so blessed to have the chance to make such a fine man laugh.
I learned a lot about accepting my CP by watching Ali deal with his Parkinson’s with such grace. The best part of that event was the fact that my dad was there to watch and got to meet Muhammad Ali.
If you weren’t a comedienne, what do you think you’d be doing?
I would definitely be a lawyer. I wish I had the time to do both. I would want to be a
good lawyer though, someone who frees political prisoners, not someone who defends violent criminals.
Maysoon Zayid performs in Arabic on 13th September at 8pm and English on 14th September at 8pm. To book tickets, visit: nyuad-artscenter.org