An Arab and a Jew Walk into a Bar…

15 December, 2021
Stand-up come­di­an cou­ple Jess Salomon and Eman El-Hus­sei­ni (pho­to cour­tesy Brid­get Badore).

Hadani Ditmars


Have you heard the one about the Jew and the Arab who walked into a bar? No? Chances are, in these dystopi­an times, that no one would look up from their phones and their masks to notice, and in fact, the bar would be closed. And of course, one can simul­ta­ne­ous­ly be both a Jew and an Arab. After all we are cousins and have much in com­mon, includ­ing our fun­ny bones.

Dark times call for dark humor, my friends. Con­sid­er these two gems:

What’s the def­i­n­i­tion of a Jew­ish opti­mist and pessimist?

Well, a pes­simist says, “My God, we live in such ter­ri­ble times. Things can’t get any worse than they are!”  An opti­mist says, “Oh yes they can!”

Here’s the Gazan equiv­a­lent. An opti­mist says, “My God, if this sit­u­a­tion gets any worse, with the siege, the bomb­ings, Covid and eco­nom­ic dis­as­ter, soon all we’ll have left to eat is sand.” A pes­simist wor­ries that there won’t be enough sand left for every­one to eat!

Indeed so much of Jew­ish and Arab — this is prob­lem­at­ic, so shall we say Ashke­nazi and Lev­an­tine? Or Mus­lim, Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian Arab…. but what about the Kurds and the Yezidis; okay, let’s just say Semit­ic and pan-Mid­dle Eastern/former Per­sian and Ottoman empires… (you get the drift already) — humor is a game of spot the dif­fer­ence, that many have used this sim­i­lar­i­ty as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for peace and understanding.

In fact, our own esteemed Jewish/Arab/Moroccan/French/American edi­tor once host­ed reg­u­lar stand-up ses­sions in LA called the Sul­tans of Satire, com­posed of Arab, Jew­ish, Per­sian, Armen­ian and oth­er assort­ed hyphen­at­ed Amer­i­cans com­pris­ing what he called the “unruly tribes of the Mid­dle East.”

After all, why shouldn’t our humor — the best defense/coping mech­a­nism against racism or say loom­ing apoc­a­lypse — bear a like­ness? We’ve faced  sim­i­lar dis­crim­i­na­tion. Con­sid­er the racist stereo­typ­ing of Jews in the ‘30’s as both dan­ger­ous Bol­she­viks and greedy bankers. Some­how the ghosts of this trope have been revis­it­ed from the late 20th cen­tu­ry until today, with the stereo­typ­ing of Arabs and Mus­lims as both wild eyed “ter­ror­ists” and “greedy oil sheikhs” (rather than say, the vic­tims of those same villains).

Then there are the comics Eman El-Hus­sei­ni  (who famous­ly joked that 9/11 was her par­ents’ wed­ding anniver­sary) and Jess Salomon ( a lawyer turned com­ic with a dry sense of humor), who met at a stand-up club in Mon­tre­al and found so much com­mon ground, they end­ed up mar­ry­ing each oth­er. Togeth­er the dynam­ic Pales­tin­ian and Jew­ish duo are com­e­dy mag­ic, high­light­ing both their sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences  and even cre­at­ing a new com­ic book called the El-Salomons that they hope to turn into an ani­mat­ed sitcom.

In one car­toon, El-Hus­sei­ni encoun­ters Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies and scares them away just by describ­ing her­self: “I’m Mus­lim … and gay … and my wife is Jew­ish,” she says. “Have a nice day,” the mis­sion­ar­ies respond.

In anoth­er, the cou­ple dis­cuss baby names. “If it’s a boy,” says El Hus­sei­ni, “I’m think­ing Yasir, Mustafa, Ham­mad, Ahmed…” to which her bet­ter half replies, “Are those baby names or a no-fly list?”

It’s no secret that humor — espe­cial­ly in the North Amer­i­can con­text — push­es the enve­lope polit­i­cal­ly, where politi­cians dare not tread. Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can come­di­an Emi­ly Shi­hadeh real­ly nailed the essence of the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian saga when, in her one woman show Grapes and Figs Are in Sea­son she quipped (and I para­phrase), “What do you mean we don’t rec­og­nize Israel. Of course we do. Look over there, I rec­og­nize my grandmother’s farm, my uncle’s house!”

But I admit my tastes are rather old school. Much of my pan­dem­ic cop­ing strat­e­gy has revolved around watch­ing episodes of Curb Your Enthu­si­asm and read­ing sto­ries by Mul­lah Nas­rudin (in between singing Fan­ny Brice tunes) Now, while these two char­ac­ters — one a Jew­ish Amer­i­can come­di­an and the oth­er the leg­endary 13th cen­tu­ry Seljuk satirist known as Hoja — might seem worlds apart, they too share much in com­mon. Their whole schtick, as with the best humor, is to empha­size the very absur­di­ty of exis­tence, through instruc­tive anec­dotes about human foibles. Both men play the fool as a device for illu­mi­na­tion, and Hoja’s sto­ries — like Lar­ry David’s improv — often mean­der into flights of alle­gor­i­cal fancy.

It comes as no sur­prise to learn that Hoja, like the best Sufi sages, bor­rowed heav­i­ly from a vari­ety of tra­di­tions includ­ing Per­sian, Indi­an, Bud­dhist and yes, Jew­ish. There are so many exam­ples, espe­cial­ly in medieval times, of Jew­ish mys­tics and Mus­lim Sufis influ­enc­ing each other’s spir­i­tu­al prac­tices, it make sense that they would influ­ence each other’s humor as well.

Nas­rudin and his donkey.

Here’s one of my favorite Hoja jokes: Nas­rudin used to take his don­key across a bor­der every day, with the bas­kets loaded with straw. Since he admit­ted to being a smug­gler when he trudged home every night, the bor­der guards searched him again and again. They searched his per­son, sift­ed the straw, steeped it in water, even burned it from time to time. Mean­while he was becom­ing vis­i­bly more and more pros­per­ous. Then he retired and went to live in anoth­er coun­try. Here one of the cus­toms offi­cers met him, years lat­er. “You can tell me now, Nas­rudin,” he said. “What­ev­er was it that you were smug­gling, when we could nev­er catch you out?”

“Don­keys,” said Nas­rudin (from Idries Shah, The Sufis, Anchor, 1971, page 67).

Intrigu­ing­ly, a joke called “Bor­der Patrol” — almost iden­ti­cal but for the sub­sti­tu­tion of bicy­cles for don­keys —  can be found on the web­site of one — ded­i­cat­ed to pro­mot­ing “the wis­dom of the Torah.” Hmm…could the whole Israel/Palestine issue boil down to one about steal­ing the best mate­r­i­al,  let alone real estate?

Who wrote it first, you might ask? In the vast world of sto­ry­telling who has the monop­oly on the best jokes? Take the famous Sufi tale of Yusuf and Zulei­ka (the wife of Potiphar), for exam­ple, the sto­ry of the Egypt­ian noble­woman who for­sakes her hon­or and rich­es for the love of the beau­ti­ful Hebrew dream­er — the very same Joseph who was thrown into a pit by his broth­ers. In the Sufi ver­sion, Yusuf and Zubai­da final­ly mar­ry but when Yusuf asks his wife to leave her lengthy prayers and come to bed, she replies. “ Sor­ry, but I’m mar­ried to God now. It was Him I loved all along — you were just a veil of the Infinite.”

So not haha fun­ny but humor­ous in a Zen koan kin­da gotcha way — not entire­ly dis­sim­i­lar to the plot­line of an episode of Curb Your Enthu­si­asm.  And again, unsur­pris­ing­ly, there is some­what of a debate about whether this ver­sion of the sto­ry is Sufi or Midrash in ori­gin. But I say, why not both?

This puts paid to the rather North Amer­i­can stereo­type that Jews get all the best lines and Mus­lims and Arabs are some­how humor­less — as do the Hoja jokes that are very pop­u­lar in Afghanistan, a coun­try much less cel­e­brat­ed for its humor than for its terrorism.

But before you insist that the Tal­iban have some kind of cul­tur­al monop­oly, con­sid­er this gem of an Afghan trib­al joke (as told to me by an Afghan woman friend): There was a pir (saint­ly man) who went to a vil­lage in Peshawar to ensure the build­ing of a shrine to anoth­er pir who had died there. He was rather shocked to arrive and see that noth­ing had been con­struct­ed in hon­or of his fel­low pir and kept berat­ing the vil­lagers, say­ing, “You peo­ple are god­less crea­tures. You must build a shrine or face divine wrath.” The vil­lagers went about their busi­ness, ignor­ing him and say­ing yes, tomor­row, tomor­row, until final­ly the pir real­ly let them have it. So, the very next day, they killed him, and built a shrine.

While this kind of humor is right up there with the dark­est of say Russ­ian Jew­ish humor, it also demon­strates how trib­al loy­al­ties in Afghanistan trump faith. Could this be a kind of Peshawar ver­sion of Lar­ry David’s spite store?

It’s no sur­prise that many of my friends from the Mid­dle East liv­ing in dias­po­ra enjoy the barbed humor and sit­u­a­tion­al com­e­dy of Curb Your Enthu­si­asm. I won­der if it’s dubbed in Ara­bic or Urdu? If not, there’s cer­tain­ly an untapped niche mar­ket. And while US for­eign pol­i­cy in the region and grow­ing Islam­o­pho­bia remain huge issues, shows like Curb demon­strate how com­e­dy can lead by example.

Lar­ry David is a genius at expos­ing the hypocrisies in Amer­i­can soci­ety, just as Hoja did in  his own way in the 13th cen­tu­ry. Begin­ning with 2004’s Sea­son 4 open­er, the “Blind Date” in which Moon Unit Zap­pa plays Haboos, the veiled Gulf Arab who gets set up with Larry’s blind pianist friend, his explo­ration of Amer­i­can taboos is bril­liant. The episode also fea­tures a sub­plot about men­tal­ly dis­abled car mechan­ics who steal Larry’s sun­screen. In typ­i­cal Curb style, all the plot ten­ta­cles get wrapped up togeth­er when Lar­ry ends up at a din­er with his blind friend and Haboos and encoun­ters the mechan­ics, who invite the trio to sit with them. Just as they do, some of Larry’s Jew­ish come­di­an friends walk in and see him sit­ting between a men­tal­ly dis­abled man and a veiled Mus­lim woman. The look of dis­dain on their faces says it all. And then in a fur­ther twist, when Lar­ry makes his wife Cheryl don a veil to pro­tect her mod­esty in a reveal­ing I Dream of Jean­nie Hal­loween cos­tume, their car gets egged by Islamophobes.

And who can for­get the Pales­tin­ian chick­en episode, in Sea­son 8 in 2011, when Lar­ry is torn between loy­al­ty to his pro-Israel friends who want to boy­cott a new Pales­tin­ian eatery and his love for both the deli­cious chick­en they serve and his pas­sion for a gor­geous Pales­tin­ian woman who hangs out there.

Then there’s Fat­wa, the Musi­cal, from Sea­son 9  in 2017 — Larry’s inspired take on the Salman Rushdie sto­ry that earns him his own fat­wa. I have to con­fess, this one had me won­der­ing whether a chance encounter with David in 2012 at the Grill on the Alley was his inspiration.

So….an Arab Cana­di­an goes out for lunch in Bev­er­ly Hills, fresh from the cen­te­nary of the Bev­er­ly Hills Hotel, dressed in a retro Hol­ly­wood out­fit com­plete with flop­py hat. Against bet­ter Cana­di­an instincts and egged on by wait­ress — go on, he comes here all the time, his friend is late go and sit with him — she edges up to Lar­ry David’s booth and says some­thing like Hel­lo, Mr David, I’m a fan. You’re a com­ic genius to which he replies with a nod and a So What’s with the hat?  And hence­forth I have mag­i­cal­ly entered into an episode of Curb Your Enthu­si­asm com­plete with ban­ter, dis­cus­sion of the Pales­tin­ian chick­en show, and he even lets me tell — with his express per­mis­sion — my one Jew­ish joke. (An out of work actor in Brook­lyn lands a part in a Broad­way play and phones his moth­er to share the news. That’s won­der­ful, she says, What’s the part. Well, he says, I play the part of the hus­band….silence and then, What? It’s not a speak­ing role?) And… he laughs!

Soon I’m telling him about my book on Iraq, Danc­ing in the No-Fly Zone, that has a whole chap­ter on Iraqi musi­cal com­e­dy — com­plete with, you guessed it, dark humor. (I have a friend who’s a cof­fin mak­er and he has a sale on this week. Half price for new­ly­weds!) I tell David how musi­cal com­e­dy was huge­ly pop­u­lar in Iraq espe­cial­ly dur­ing the 12 years of the embar­go when cin­e­mas closed down due to film pro­cess­ing chem­i­cals being blocked at the bor­der  by dra­con­ian UN sanc­tions– along with oxy­gen tanks and spare parts for gen­er­a­tors  and chlo­rine for water purifi­ca­tion — and were con­vert­ed into the­atres; a time when plays ran for a whole year and peo­ple need­ed to laugh to escape their grim reality.

The pop­u­lar musi­cals that crit­i­cized the regime with dou­ble mean­ings and veiled ref­er­ences to Sad­dam Hus­sein in the guise of cor­rupt Ottoman sul­tans  in his­tor­i­cal romps, were in fact rem­nants of a once live­ly cabaret scene that flour­ished in the Mid­dle East — and of course found its West­ern con­nec­tion in music hall and Yid­dish theatre/cabaret.

Lar­ry David gave me the name of his agency and asked for a copy of the book. A few days lat­er, I drove out to the agency and gave a signed copy to the assis­tant of the assis­tant of his agent. Alas, I might have won a walk on part if only I hadn’t been foiled by the fact that I’d down­sized my hand­bag for the sake of the out­fit that day and had not a sin­gle busi­ness card to my name. Oh well, Lar­ry, we’ll always have the Grill on the Alley.

But then, why shouldn’t we bor­row from each other’s mate­r­i­al? Why aren’t  we allowed to tell each other’s jokes ? What would the Salomon-El Hus­sei­nis say?

Maybe we should tell each other’s sto­ries. After all they’re so alike. 

Lar­ry David’s best episodes fea­ture cir­cu­lar plot­lines that return back on them­selves,  like the one about how hard it is to open pack­ages that ends with him buy­ing an exac­to knife  that — wait for it — is her­met­i­cal­ly sealed in an impen­e­tra­ble plas­tic pack­age. One thinks of the famous Mul­lah Nas­rudin sto­ry about los­ing his keys (Lar­ry is always los­ing his).

A man is walk­ing home late one night when he sees an anx­ious Mul­la Nas­rudin down on all fours, crawl­ing on his hands and knees on the road, search­ing fran­ti­cal­ly under a street­light for some­thing on the ground.

“Mul­la, what have you lost?” the pass­er-by asks.

“I am search­ing for the key to my house,” Nas­rudin says worriedly.

“I’ll help you search for your key,” the man says and joins Mul­la Nas­rudin in the search. Soon both men are down on their knees under the street­light, look­ing for the lost key. After some time the man asks Nasrudin:

“Tell me Mul­la, do you remem­ber where exact­ly you dropped the key?” Nas­rudin waves his arm back toward the dark­ness and says, “Over there, in my house. I lost the key inside my house…”

Shocked and exas­per­at­ed, the pass­er-by jumps up and shouts at Mul­la Nasrudin, 
“Then why are you search­ing for the key out here in the street?”

“Because there is more light here than inside my house,” Mul­la Nas­rudin answers nonchalantly.

May the light of humor con­tin­ue to illu­mi­nate our way in these dark days, my friends, and may we all raise a glass togeth­er to the pow­er of shared laughter.



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