Photo Credit: Sarah Wells

When A Comedian Is Afraid: How Trump changed the way one Iranian-American thinks about her comedy

NOTE: This is from a monthly column about life in Trump’s America for the Japanese publication Courrier Japon. I wrote it in English for a Japanese audience, and editors translated it into Japanese. It was published on Mar. 13, 2017 here.

A few weeks ago, I attended a performance by my comedian friend Zahra Noorbakhsh. Zahra is a 36-year old feminist, Muslim Iranian-American known for her stories and jokes about her family and her relationship with Duncan, her white American husband. I loved Zahra’s comedy because she captured the small clashes that regularly occur in families that straddle two cultures. It didn’t matter that her family came from Iran and mine were from Japan. The dynamics were similar when parents have grown up in a different culture with different expectations than their children.

One of my favorite jokes of hers was about her father’s disappointment when she would come home from school with an A-minus on a test. If she got an A, he would say, “Where’s the A-plus?” If she got an A-plus, he would ask her why she took such an easy class. It triggered memories of my mother reacting in a similar way.

The most defining theme of Zahra’s comedy was the underlying bond between her, her parents, and her husband. They could fight or disagree. The world outside could be harsh at times. But they were there for each other. While that could sound like a cliché, it was an important message. Ever since 9/11, Muslims were treated like “the other” at best and a terrorist at worst. Zahra wanted her audience to understand that her family had the same worries, joys and values as everyone else. She brought a warmth to her performance that cut through differences and focused on our similarities.

When Zahra told me that she had a show for six nights in Oakland, I recruited a few friends, and we bought tickets for the opening night. I took my chair in anticipation of a lighthearted evening filled with her funny, astute observations.

At this performance, however, Zahra struck a different tone than I’d ever heard before.

“What are you doing here?” Zahra demanded of the audience as soon as she got up on stage. “What are you doing here?” she repeated. “You’re in a mosque!”

It took me a beat or two to understand what she meant: we were sitting in the café of the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California at a time when racists were feeling emboldened by Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Earlier that week, a rightwing pro-Trump supporter opened fire at a similar center in Quebec City, Canada, killing six men. Someone also had set fire to an Islamic Center in Texas, burning it to the ground. (Just yesterday, Jewish schools and community centers in 11 states had to evacuate after receiving bomb threats)

But Zahra was rattled by more than that. Just the day before her first show, 150 masked agitators threw rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at the student center at the University of California, Berkeley to protest a speech by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Zahra had been at the scene, reporting on the news for a multicultural online media company called Fusion that targets young millenials. She had gone in expecting a non-violent protest. Instead, she found herself in the middle of the mayhem as protestors lifted the metal police railings and chucked them aside.

“I discovered that I can run!” she joked. “I’m chicken shit!”

The line got big laughs, but I could see that her fear was real.

As Zahra wrapped up the show with stories of fear, she shared two about her father. The first was about the fear he felt when he witnessed Zahra’s birth. In Iran, much like in Japan, fathers weren’t traditionally present when babies were born, so the whole incident had been a shock to his system.

“The second time my dad was afraid is now,” Zahra said, glancing at her father who was sitting in the audience. Her voice cracked ever so slightly as she explained how afraid he had been about her safety at this performance. He had driven two hours just so he could watch over her. “Thank you Dad for being here because you coming today let me come too,” she added.

I choked up. Until this moment, I hadn’t fully appreciated what it must feel like to be a target. I learned later that she had applied funds from a grant that could have been used to publicize the show to pay for the security guards that stood at the entrance.

As a minority female comedian, Zahra has already had to overcome a double handicap to carve out a space for herself. Like with many other aspects of the American culture, comedy in this country has traditionally been dominated by white men, and their presence on stage have tended to reflect their authoritative status and position in society.

The comedy scene is more diverse today, but Zahra explained to me that if you’re anything other than that, you still have to be a bit more careful about how you present your jokes because audiences don’t like it when their worldview is overly threatened. You can push, but not too much.

“Women have the additional challenge of having to be beautiful, funny but not intimidating, not threatening and not dismantling of male authority,” Zahra said.

Given those realities, Zahra came up with an angle that played to her strength as a storyteller and focused on her own experiences growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her breakthrough one-woman show in 2010 was called “All Atheists are Muslim” about how her parents found a way to accept her white boyfriend (now husband).

In the show, Zahra re-enacts a dinner table scene with her parents when her 25-year old self tells her parents that Duncan would be moving into her apartment. “The man and the woman does not live together unless there’s the marriage by the God,” she imitates her father saying. “That’s it! End of discussion! New topic, thank you!”

Later on in another scene, she tells her father that Duncan is an atheist. What I love is watching the shift in his demeanor. By the end her father has gone from being doctrinaire to a man at peace with the universal definition of religion. “Muslim” just means “one who surrenders to a force greater than himself,” her father says. So, “Does he believe in gravity?” he asks. “It is a force greater than himself. He cannot change it. He surrenders to that force. He’s a Muslim!” he concludes triumphantly.

Even though I wasn’t Muslim, many of the scenes felt like echoes from my own life. I had an almost identical conversation about roommates with my own father when I first moved in with my now husband right after college.

Over the years, Zahra has continued to perform this show to sold-out audiences and to great acclaim and laughter. But she has also had critics, who thought she should address current events more directly. “None of this gives us answers for 9/11,” said one.

Her response until now had been fearless and defiant. When people told her that it was unbecoming to show pride in her Muslim identity during September, a month when 9/11 memories are strong, she ignored them and performed her show anyway. A couple years ago, she started a podcast called “#GoodMuslimBadMuslim” with an activist friend.

“I was furiously trying to re-center the narrative so it wasn’t always about the day’s politics,” Zahra said. “I wanted to reframe the conversations on my terms, instead of on the terms of a right wing movement.”

Last week, she told me sadly that they had lost that battle. The way Zahra sees it, the government has a strong stake in portraying Muslims as villains, which is the opposite of what Zahra tries to do with her comedy. “If I’m successful in breaking down that villainous viewpoint, I’m in their way,” she told me.

“I’m afraid to get up on stage and contend with the authority of white men while people in positions of power are pushing for a white nationalist agenda,” she said. “That’s terrifying.”

Zahra said that the shows that she performed in Oakland were some of the most challenging in recent memory because the audience’s reception to her comedy changed depending on their racial makeup. The minorities in the audience intrinsically understood that her stories about her family were set in an unspoken backdrop of fear, pain and uncertainty. White audience members, on the other hand, had seemed to look to her for a more direct interpretation of current events, which can be difficult to do. “How can I craft jokes when the stakes and the premises I’m working with change every day?” Zahra said. “Executive orders come out on a daily basis that completely change the game about my safety as a citizen and even challenge my identity as a citizen.”

Ironically, her comedy has come around full circle. Zahra said she has been thinking a lot about how Iranian storytellers throughout history have used stories and satire as veiled commentary on repressive regimes and societies. She said she plans to go back to her roots to tell stories of the people and relationships in her life.

“More than ever I have to be intentioned about the work I do,” she said. “I have to keep paving the road. I have to create the spaces for it.”