In post-Trump New York, comedian Atheer Yacoub uses jokes to fight prejudice

Atheer Yacoub attends Muslim Funny Fest at Comic Strip Live on July 20, 2017 in New York City. (AFP)

New York based comedian Atheer Yacoub is a walking punchline. She is a Muslim-Arab, raised in the American South, fluent in both levantine Arabic and New York’s trademark sarcasm. After growing up having to explain and apologize for her identity, Yacoub decided to use her unique background as a way to entertain and inform others.

Yacoub was raised in Alabama, an American state known for a largely conservative Christian population, and a history of violent racial tension. It’s not an easy place for any person of color to grow up, and especially not for Arab Americans after 9/11.

She moved to New York almost a decade ago for graduate school, and fell into the city’s proverbial comedy world naturally. Yacoub quickly realized that her true calling was in the monologue-based, self-reflective storytelling uniquely offered by stand-up.

“It wasn’t really planned,” Yacoub says, “I was always a huge fan of stand-up, growing up in Alabama, it didn’t ever occur to me to try to do it myself.” But once she did, she was hooked. Despite working a full time job as a nutritionist, Yacoub found herself moonlighting on the same historic stages and comedy clubs that had nurtured many comedians before her.

For any performer, though, one of the biggest challenges is standing out. The comedy industry is dominated primarily by young white men -- much like the entertainment industry as a whole. But even early on, Yacoub knew she was in a unique position to not only make audiences laugh, but to change their preconceived notions about what it really means to be Arab in America.

“I think I got tired of people in New York finding it super weird that I was from Alabama and what it was like growing up there as an Arab, so now I talk about it publicly,” Yacoub says, “I felt like there wasn’t really a space or platform for Arabs in entertainment to talk about their experiences, so I took to the stage.”

A complex hyphenated identity

Yacoub’s typical comedy set tackles everything from religious discrimination, to strict dating rules, to the relatable challenge of having to explain a complex hyphenated identity. In one crowd pleasing bit, Yacoub jokes that her Alabama friends would often simplify her Palestinian background by saying “she’s just like Princess Jasmine!”

While many in her position might be offended by this kind of simplification, Yacoub uses jokes like this to make the seemingly sensitive subject of Arab-Muslim diaspora in America far more approachable for a Western audience.

“I think that comedy gives the opportunity for any marginalized group to challenge stereotypes and social norms. As an Arab-American comedian, I do feel that it is my responsibility to project a different image than you see on the news and in the media about Arabs and Muslims,” Yacoub says.

(L-R) Producers Atheer Yacoub and Nas Jab attend “Children of the Mountain” Premiere - 2016 Tribeca Film Festival at Regal Battery Park Cinemas on April 17, 2016 in New York City. (AFP)

(L-R) Producers Atheer Yacoub and Nas Jab attend “Children of the Mountain” Premiere - 2016 Tribeca Film Festival at Regal Battery Park Cinemas on April 17, 2016 in New York City. (AFP)

Dotted with hecklers

But that doesn’t mean that audiences are always receptive. Inevitably, Yacoub’s shows are sometimes dotted with hecklers who take it upon themselves to challenge her while she’s on stage. From Islamaphobic comments to simple-minded insults, Yacoub handles each instance with grace and a smile.

“In comedy, no matter what you do or say, someone will be offended, so you can’t live by those people,” Yacoub explains. “I try to use my position on stage, not only to entertain, but to inform. Telling jokes is a unique way to help people let their guards down by laughing and at the same time, make them listen to real issues.”

If the audience is laughing, a comedian has done his or her job. But after a Yacoub show, another Arab-American in the audience might go home feeling more confident and less alone. In what she calls a “post-Trump” America, Yacoub’s work helps third-culture kids like her find a sense of place, while trying to give Western audiences a better understanding of Arab culture.

Yacoub’s upcoming shows can be found at atheeryacoub.com. She is also producing a new political late-night show called Passport Control, which follows Middle Eastern current events and politics with wit and humor.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:51 - GMT 06:51
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