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My name is Maysoon Zayid. I am a Palestinian-American Muslim with cerebral palsy. I listen to Dave Matthews Band 24-7.
By night, I'm a stand-up comedian who performs at clubs in and around New York City. By day, I'm a volunteer political activist for Palestinian rights.
On 9/11, I saw the World Trade Center collapse from Cliffside, New Jersey. After the initial shock passed, my concern shifted to my family and friends in and around the towers. My brother-in-law worked on the 86th floor of the south tower. My best friend works in the Pentagon. Thankfully, they were OK. I also remember sitting on the floor of my dad's house praying that the terrorists weren't Arab. I knew that if they were, the Palestinians would lose all hope of having international support for the Middle East peace process.
After the attacks, the phone lines were jammed for hours in the New York area. When phone calls finally came through my friends asked, "Did you know this was going to happen?" They thought I knew just because I was Arab. Friends that I've known for years actually said they needed time before they could talk to me again. Can you imagine being lumped with a bunch of insane zealots just because you speak the same language? It was so awful.
I started to worry about the repercussions there would be at home. Those who hijacked the planes were not Palestinian, but no one seemed to make the distinction. Even today, people forget we had nothing to do with this. The terrorists weren't even Muslim in any acceptable sense of the word. As I like to say, Osama bin Laden represents Arab Muslims as much as Timothy McVeigh represents American Christians.
I knew that anger towards the hijackers would surely be misdirected against my community, my family, and myself. I was particularly concerned about my dad, who has flown the American flag for years outside his house, but looks stereotypically Arab and speaks with an accent. In my stand-up routine, I sometimes joke that he bears a striking resemblance to Saddam Hussein.
Sure enough, in the weeks following the attack, my dad found he was getting nasty looks in stores and on the street. More disconcerting was the fact that my sister, who works at the United Nations, received numerous death threats.
I found myself under pressure from friends to tone down my views on Palestinian rights and to "act less Arab". At a shared summer rental house on the New Jersey shore, my temporary roommates accused me of being anti-American because I detest Bush's foreign policy. They even called the cops one night to break up a party I was throwing with friends who happened to be Arab. The reason? We were speaking Arabic and they thought it seemed suspicious. I don't think they ever realized that what they did was racist.
In a strange way, September 11 also presented me with a unique opportunity because in addition to increasing antipathy toward Muslims, the tragedy seemed to heighten curiosity about what Islam actually stands for. It gave me the chance to dispel some of the myths that exist about my religion.
Just ten days after the September 11, I made my first stand-up comedy appearance. In general, I love the spotlight and feel perfectly comfortable on stage, but that night, it was a whole new world. "Hi," I said, "I'm a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey. And if you don't feel better about your life, you should!" That warmed them up pretty quickly. From there, I used my show to dispel some of the truly ridiculous myths that exist about Islam and to remind people that Arabs are still human.
The crowd loved it. Afterward, people came up to me and said, "You are not the way I pictured a Muslim." One guy even said he was amazed that he'd found a Muslim he wanted to sleep with. I think that was supposed to be a compliment.
At my shows since I've continued to represent, doing my best to knock down misguided but pervasive stereotypes. I remain proud to be Palestinian-American Muslim and glad that I have never piped down to satisfy and please the ignorant. Moreover, I'm glad to have had the chance to educate while doing what I love most — making people laugh.
(Maysoon will be spending the next year in the West Bank. She is starting an arts program for teens in the Palestinian refugee camps.)
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