Obeidallah Cracks Islamophobia with Comedy

Arab-American Comedian Dean Obeidallah joked he could convert the entire audience to Islam by the end of his act in Mead Chapel last Thursday night. (Rachel Frank/The Campus)

Arab-American Comedian Dean Obeidallah joked he could convert the entire audience to Islam by the end of his act in Mead Chapel last Thursday night. (Rachel Frank/The Campus)

By Hye-Jin Kim

“There are so many POC students in here,” Shannia Fu ’17 whispered as I settled into a pew in Mead Chapel last Thursday, waiting for stand-up comedian Dean Obeidallah to perform.

“What’s a POC?” I asked. The opening act, Narinder Singh, a Sikh-American comedian from New York City, in a large red turban took the stage.

“People of color,” she said.

I hadn’t noticed. I looked around; she had a point. In the usually Caucasian-dominated Middlebury bubble, a diverse crowd of faces erupted in laughter as Singh cracked one self-deprecating joke after another.

In addressing the clash between Muslim-American identity and Islamophobia, “We wanted to make the audience as broad as possible and reach out to as many different groups and sponsors,” said Mariam Khan ’16.5, president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) which organized the event.

When Singh finished reminiscing on his Indian immigrant childhood (including his limited edition cologne, Chanel Chicken Curry No. 5), Dean Obeidallah took the mic.

Obeidallah, an Arab-American lawyer-turned-comedian, has been featured on CNN and MSNBC. His first joke inside Mead Chapel: “At the end of the show, you’re all gonna be Muslims. I’m going to convert you … in a church.”

“The MSA board heard about Dean this winter when we got an e-mail from his representatives,” Khan said. After watching his documentary, “The Muslims are Coming”, the MSA was convinced he was worth bringing to campus. With the help of the MCAB Speakers Committee, they organized this event.

“We believed that Dean’s mission of using humor to increase awareness about Islamophobia fell perfectly in line with the annual Muslim Monologues,” Khan said.

Muslim Monologues is an event where students and professors share stories on Muslim identity in America today.
Obeidallah’s jokes touched on this, describing his experience as a member of a persecuted minority group.

“Whenever you’re a minority, you have to answer for the worst group of their kind or the sins. Like, ‘What do you think about beheadings?’” Obeidallah rolled his eyes. “If anything bad happens, I’m always thinking, please don’t let them be a Muslim. Remember the Hudson River event? When I found out, I was like, please don’t let the geese be trained by Al-Qaeda.”

“Right now for Muslims, we’ve never been in more of a precarious position,” Obeidallah began. “Last week in Oklahoma, these bigots put bacon on the door of a mosque. Here’s the thing, we’re not supposed to eat pork, but pork is not kryptonite to us. Nor is pork garlic, like we’re vampires. That’s not going to keep us out of there. If you put a pig on our property, we’re going to take it and sell it to non-Muslims. We’re going to make money off of that. If you’re an ignorant bigot, that’s the worst. At least Google stuff before you do it!”

Because Obeidallah is light-skinned, he said most people did not believe he was Arab or Muslim when they first met him. When he told them, he joked this was the first question he was asked: “So you’re Arab? How many terrorists are there?” He paused. “I said 83.”

He also gave some professional advice on breezing through airport security despite his Muslim identity. “Here’s my advice: dress white and make your flight. Dress brown, you won’t leave town.”

After his stand-up act, Obeidallah hosted a question and answer session for attendees, where he was asked about his opinion on modern religious issues, like Zionism.

“I really enjoyed that part at the end of the show. Sometimes comedians can be hard to connect to outside of their [comedy] act. Sometimes they just have to make a joke about everything,” Fu said, “but Dean was must more real than a lot of other comedians.”

Obeidallah had dinner with MSA members in Proctor before the show where they discussed Muslim-American identity, especially inside the Middlebury bubble. “I really loved Dean’s openness about the importance of representing Islam positively in the media,” Khan said.

“In the media today, the image of Muslims that is promoted polarizes and promotes discrimination and hate,” Khan said. “Through humor, personal analogies, and experience, we hope that members of the Middlebury community enjoyed Dean Obeidallah’s perspective as much as we did.”

A native of New Jersey, Obeidallah said, “But it’s easier to get people to like Muslims than New Jerseyans. We have two websites, newjerseysucks.com and newjerseysucks.net.”