Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, comedian Eman El-Husseini visited Israel only once, to perform at a comedy festival in the Palestinian territories. “In Israel, they loved me so much,” she said. “They loved me so much that they kept me at the airport for three hours.”
Israel’s well-known policy of detaining visiting activists and “suspicious tourists,” usually of Arab or Muslim descent, is a serious issue. But for El-Husseini, presenting the topic in a funny way “makes it easier to digest.” In an interview she said, “People are more receptive to comedy than having some long political conversation.”
A self-proclaimed “second-class citizen from birth,” much of El-Husseini’s comedy discusses her experience as a Palestinian Muslim woman growing up in Canada, and Canadian society’s perception of her immigrant family. “My parents’ wedding anniversary falls on September 11th,” she said. “Can you imagine how that seemed to the rest of the neighborhood?” The comedy show audience groaned. “Picture this: Arabic music blaring, a whole lamb roasting on a spit, and a ton of Arabs celebrating. On September 11th. My father’s making a speech with his very scary, very heavy Arabic accent. ‘9/11 is a special day for us. It is the day that brought us together in unity. Allahu Akbar.’ Within minutes, the helicopters are hovering over my house.” The audience roared with laughter.
Privately, El-Husseini spoke of growing up in an “open, moderate Muslim family.” Her parents approved of her Jewish childhood best friend; the girl often slept over at the El-Husseini home. People remarked on the physical similarities between El-Husseini and her friend, as oftentimes strangers thought they were sisters. She mentioned going to her friend’s brother’s bar mitzvah as a moment when she was struck by the overlap between Jewish and Arab culture. “On their father’s side, they were Lebanese Jewish, and on their mom’s side, Moroccan Jewish.” El-Husseini described “a room full of Jewish men in kippahs, speaking in perfect Arabic. It tripped me out.”
But when El-Husseini fell in love with Jess Salomon, a Jewish Canadian, her parents weren’t as accepting. The two met on the small Montreal comedy scene, in which there were only a handful of women. Despite her parents’ generally liberal leanings, it was difficult for them to accept that their daughter was romantically involved with a woman. “My father’s solution for this ‘problem,'” said El-Husseini, “was to suggest that me and Jess marry brothers, so that we could stay close.”
“Muslim brothers,” added Salomon, to whom El-Husseini is now married.
Salomon, a former UN war crimes lawyer turned comedian, spoke of her own family’s difficulties accepting her decidedly non-mainstream choices. “It’s been a rocky road,” she said. Since her teenage days of being a major Phish and Grateful Dead fan, her family has always worried about her choices. “Even when I finished law school, they didn’t want me to work for the U.N. They were worried about me being sent somewhere dangerous. They were like, ‘Jess, can’t you just go work for some normal law firm?'”
Salomon’s decision to share her life with El-Husseini was yet another choice her parents wouldn’t have made for her. “But, they’ve come around recently,’ she said, as her mother threw the couple a belated wedding party. Salomon said that on a personal level, her relationship with El-Husseini has been enlightening for some in her Jewish community. “I’ve seen a few mentalities shift,” she said. “Now that they know Eman, and they know an actual, real-life Palestinian, some of their views have changed.”
On stage, Salomon discussed the anxiety instilled in her Jewish childhood. “Jewish kids aren’t afraid of the Boogieman,” she said. “I mean, your parents tell you about the Nazis! The Boogieman can’t compare to that.” She continued, “Actually, the Boogieman is Jewish. I think his full name is Joshua Boogieman, and he’s just made some poor life choices.”
Salomon and El-Husseini, sharing the stage, spoke of their future children’s names. “I want to give them my last name,” said Salomon, “so that they have a chance.”
Alluding to the fear-inducing nature of Islamic names, El-Husseini said, “I think Jihad El-Salomoni has a nice ring to it.”
“Osama is a name that Eman seriously suggested,” said Salomon.
“Jess gives me a baby name book,” said El-Husseini. “I just hand her the no-fly list.”
Lauren Marcus is a writer in Los Angeles.