The New Arab Meets: Palestinian-American activist, comedian, and actress, Maysoon Zayid. Having faced countless obstacles from disability to distrust over her ethnicity, Maysoon is a shining example of Arab-American excellence.
In a world that is constantly growing and expanding, the disabled community is still underrepresented and misrepresented. But Maysoon Zayid did not wait for anyone to stand up for her community, she decided to be the leader she was waiting for.
A writer, public speaker, comedian, actress, and advocate who was born with cerebral palsy, Maysoon Zayid brims with great determination and even greater talent.
With willpower that could fuel our entire planet, the Palestinian-American artist has risen above endless obstacles. Refusing to see disability as an impediment, Maysoon continues to advocate for equality in her fight against racism, prejudice, bullying, and ableism—all while making people laugh wholeheartedly.
“Maysoon Zayid belongs to two different worlds and advocates for the rights of different minorities. The artist is a Muslim female Palestinian disabled actress who would not give up on any fight – she wants equality and dignity for all”
The New Arab sat with the artist to talk about her life, her passion, and her many roles of leadership and potential.
Born to Palestinian parents and growing up in the United States, Maysoon Zayid belongs to two different worlds and advocates for the rights of different minorities. The artist is a Muslim female disabled Palestinian actress who would not give up on any fight – she wants equality and dignity for all.
Maysoon reminisces about her school days in New Jersey, about five minutes away from New York City, which she endearingly calls “the center of the world”. She spent her summers in Jerusalem-Palestine which she sees as one of the most famous cities in the world. Her personality, her strength, and her determination were polished by belonging to two worlds, which she seems to enjoy so effortlessly: “Funnily enough, growing up in New Jersey and Palestine made me a Christmas-loving Muslim. Jesus was born in Palestine so there’s nothing like Christmas in Bethlehem, but the Rockefeller Christmas tree which I go see every single year is the next best thing.”
Maysoon’s pliable sense of humour was present throughout her conversation with The New Arab. Some of her best jokes are about her family. “I have tons of family in Palestine. A third of Deir Debwan are my cousins and I managed to marry not a single one of them.
“My family loves my comedy, they come and see my shows in Ramallah and I even did a show in Deir Debwan once. They’re super supportive on my Facebook. I have a cousin or two who think I am going to hell, but in general, my family are my fans.”
In addition to her personal journey with a disability, she also will witness, first-hand, how occupation can be disabling to an entire nation. “When I went to Palestine as a child, there was no TV or internet, so I was immersed in the culture – whether it was the cross-stitching or the suffocating Israeli apartheid system. I was strip-searched by Israeli border control for the first time when I was five-years-old. Those are the types of things that change you as a child. I think the reason that I fight so hard for equality whether it’s for women, disabled people, or Palestinians is because I grew up experiencing violent discrimination first-hand.”
Maysoon’s activism and advocacy for equality are also steeped in the United States’ post 9/11 animosity towards Muslims and Arabs. It is very interesting how she describes two very different lives in the US for Arabs before and after the harrowing events. “I was the only Muslim in my class, and I was also the only visibly disabled student at my school, but I was never bullied, and I was never made fun of,” she tells The New Arab.
“My advocacy began post-9/11. Arabs and Italians look alike. People really didn’t get that I was that different. After 9/11, Arab-Americans were labelled terrorists and others. That’s when I decided to use my comedy to combat the negative images of Arabs and Muslims in media while teaching people the difference.”
“Maysoon’s activism and advocacy for equality is also steeped in the United States’ post 9/11 animosity towards Muslims and Arabs”
Bullying is also one of the many injustices she fights against. It is remarkable to see how society has changed by comparing her childhood memories with the testimonials of the kids who shared their stories with her. “After doing my TEDTalk, I became aware of the fact that disabled people face extraordinary amounts of violence worldwide and that also we lack certain civil rights even in the United States. I also heard from disabled kids that they were being bullied all day at school and all night on social media, so I decided I needed to help create more positive images of disability in the hopes that it can save some lives, or at least stop ignorant people from causing harm.”
The New York Arab American Comedy Festival
In 2003, Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid founded The New York Arab American Comedy Festival (NYAACF). The most recent edition was the 18th festival live at Gotham Comedy Club in New York City.
Maysoon shared her impressions regarding the festival and the abounding talent it promotes: “The talent is extraordinary, but I can’t believe we’re still battling the same hate and bigotry we were when it was founded.
“It’s amazing how the NYAACF has evolved over the past two decades,” she continues, as she talks affectionately about the festival she co-founded. “I never got to be a mum so I guess the festival is my baby, and I am very proud of it. When Dean and I started the festival, there were like five Arab comics in the whole world. This past year we had 27, and it’s not like Arab Idol. This is a top-notch comedy,” she explains.
“Another thing I am super proud of is that so many of our alumni have gone on to have huge success in Hollywood like Ramy Youssef, Omar Metwally, Waleed Zuaiter. Dean has a radio show on Sirius XM, and I’m recurring on General Hospital. The festival continues to sell out every year. I just wish the hate we found it to fight wasn’t growing stronger each day.”
Maysoon’s multiple talents were not her only strength. The artist performs in both English and Arabic with the same wit, abounding sense of humour, and unwavering political engagement.
“I grew up bilingual, speaking English and Arabic. Having a second language has been extremely beneficial in my career as a comedian because I have the ability to perform in Arabic in the Arab world, I love doing comedy in Arabic. The language is much more vibrant than English. Also, I don’t just speak Arabic – I speak Falahi, which in and of itself is funny.
“Arab audiences are so shocked when they hear my dialect because it is extremely old fashioned and very specific to Palestine. People call me the haja’s grandmother because my dialect is antique. I don’t translate my English jokes into Arabic. Those jokes are Arabic and come out that way. I think the funniest Arabic word is jaja. It’s so fun to say and chickens are hilarious animals. I can speak faster in Arabic also, so I get more jokes in.”
Due to the ongoing pandemic, most of Maysoon’s shows are still virtual. She is currently touring from her studio in her basement but explains that although she misses live audiences, she also enjoys being able to do comedy in Jerusalem, Sydney, and Vienna all on the same day.
In addition to her stand-up comedy and teaching at Princeton, Scholastic is publishing Maysoon’s comic book series next year and she is also collaborating with Huda Beauty on “some really fun, fabulous projects,” she reveals.
With so much already achieved and with so much more yet to come for the multitalented artist, Maysoon is truly an inspiration for all. How many people get to say that they performed comedy for the man who floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, had Parkinson’s, “and shook just like me” – Mohammad Ali. She recalls how joyful it was during the Kahlil Gibran Awards when she performed in front of the legendary boxer while her father was also in the audience. “It was the best night of my life and my career,” she affectionately adds.
Ouissal Harize is a UK based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.
Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize