Meet Zahra Noorbakhsh: a Feminist, Muslim, Iranian-American Comedian Flourishing in The Era of Trump
Zahra Noorbakhsh is a feminist comedian, writer and teacher who is also a Muslim and Iranian-American. Her work has long focused on cultural juxtapositions and during the 2016 presidential campaign and current Trump administration, which have seen an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate-crimes, she’s been reexamining her identities and roles as a comedian.
Noorbakhsh tells me that one of her least favorite moments as a comedian was election day, 2016: “I hated that for four years, my political humor would have to revolve around [Trump],” who has been working to establish a U.S. travel ban against citizens of several Muslim-majority countries. The most recent version of this ban was approved by the Supreme Court in December 2017.
In a 2016 show at the NYC Comic Strip, she offers a glimpse of the intolerance she’s personally encountered in America: “I had a guy come up to me the other day, ‘What’s a Persian, what’s an Iranian, why do you have two things? I’m just one thing, I’m just an asshole.’”
Noorbakhsh On “Everyday Muslim” Comedy
While she recognizes that comedy “has some potential to open people’s minds,” Noorbakhsh writes in The New York Times that she believes it should primarily be used “to heighten [tensions and differences] and illuminate for everyone what is a moment of crisis.” She now steers away from gigs that focus on her using comedy to make Muslims more relatable to those with prejudices. She is wary of requests to use her jokes to prove “everyday” Muslims are “just like you.” Noorbakhsh feels she’s already “played this game” in the past with her one-woman show, “All Atheists Are Muslim,” about moving in with a white atheist college boyfriend and discussing him with her parents.
“In some ways, by rejecting the persistent call to deliver ‘We’re just like you’ comedy in Trump’s America, I’m finally asserting my right to be ‘just like’ any other comedian and, more important, just like myself,” Noorbakhsh writes.
The Playful Courage of Performance
Noorbakhsh tells me she got into stand-up comedy at a University of California, Berkeley talent show at the Iranian Student Culture Center, with an audience of 500 parents and alums. “A friend of mine coordinating suggested that I take all of the jokes I had about my dad and string them into a routine. I did, and it was great. I’ve been hooked on comedy ever since,” she says.
At the Comic Strip, she touches on the high expectations often placed on first-generation immigrants and their children — if she comes home with an A-minus, her dad says, “We did not escape a revolution and swim the Atlantic Ocean and kiss the feet of the Statue of Liberty for you to get an A-minus.” If she comes home with an A-plus, his response is, “Why’d you take such an easy class?”
Her father was also central to a comedy special she recently booked at her childhood Islamic center, as a crucial member of the audience. The show was scheduled during the same week that six people were killed at an Islamic center in Quebec and a center was burned down in Texas. While she fearfully considered canceling, she ended up keeping the gig, hiring security and making sure her dad would be there, she tells NPR.
On the night of the show, Noorbakhsh decided to drop her planned routine and asked the crowd to talk about times when they were afraid. When she then explored her own fearful memories, she tapped into her childhood, discovering seeds of bravery and playfulness there as well. Here’s the example she shared:
When she was 10, she was caught by her father playing “Super Mario 3” at 3 a.m. and was sent to bed. At 4 a.m., she snuck into her parents’ bedroom on a reconnaissance mission to retrieve the remote. Remembering this she realized, “I needed [my Dad in the audience that night] to remind me of the mischievous 10-year-old girl on her tip toes, eyes wide with anticipation, clutching her candle in the dark, because she loves to play.”
She tells me that lately her comedy “has been about reminding [herself]” of this love of play. While she understandably still experiences increased anxiety around performing her comedy live in the current political era, she perseveres with a sense of childlike mischief.
Noorbakhsh encourages any Muslim youth who might be interested in her line of work to “Do comedy!” She adds:
Don’t let the club comedy scene intimidate you; don’t let them shape your material. Perform like it’s for you and your best friend. And, don’t quit, even it doesn’t become your career. At the end of the day, it should be for you, anyway.
Along with The Times, her work has been shared on many platforms, including at the International New York City Fringe Theater Festival, Paramount Theater, Muslim Funny Fest and in the podcast she co-hosts, #GoodMuslimBadMuslim.
Noorbakhsh says one of her favorite moments as a comedian so far was when Taz Ahmed, her “monthly podcast co-host in Muslim mischief,” and she were invited to record at the White House under the Obama administration. “We were in a conference room with like six lawyers and my beaming mom and brother. We kept making the lawyers laugh. It was amazing. Not sure how to top that, but I don’t mind trying.”
Noorbakhsh’s most recent comedy special is called, “On Behalf of All Muslims.” She says, “It’s a snarky response to the claim made that Muslims don’t have a sense of humor.” I’m sure her response is quite convincing.
Julia Travers is a journalist and writer. She’s on Twitter @traversjul.
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