Mona Aburmishan is the first Arab, Palestinian and Muslim woman to ever perform stand-up comedy at America’s most prestigious institutions—The Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Moreover, Mona is more than just laughs. She earned her master’s degree in International Development & Urban Planning, runs a kids comedy class and workshop throughout the inner city, called “Lil Comix”. She is currently touring across the country and headed for the U.K., Middle East, and South Africa this summer.
Palestine in America sat down with the comedian to discuss her childhood, what inspired her to become a comedian and her advice to fellow Palestinian women looking to follow in her footsteps.
Palestine in America (PiA): How confusing is it growing up half Palestinian in America?
Mona Aburmishan (MA): Part of the struggle is to constantly have a healthy balance between the two. I think I have a slightly more complex identity crisis, than your full-blooded Palestinian born in America. As I watch my cousins who are full-blooded Palestinian never waver on their Identity or allegiance; wherever they go they always know they are fully Palestinian, just born in the US. For me, it isn’t that clear, I have a short blonde haired, blue-eyed mom and a dark hairy dad and I look Puerto Rican! Sometimes I find my identity doesn’t make sense, like in the food I crave. I’ll be ordering the best looking chicken shawarma wrap from a vendor downtown Ramallah and crave a side of mashed potatoes! Can you imagine a Roast Beef shawarma, I can! Most, recently when I was in Palestine, eating some of the best home cooked meals, yet after day 5 I was craving steak, corn, gravy, and Pillsbury rolls. I’m from Chicago and I wasn’t even craving Pizza, I was craving my mom’s food. The challenge is, if I only associate myself with one of my cultures, then I’m essentially denying a parent. It’s a struggle I’ve had my whole life to balance. For example, when I was young I would spend many summers in Palestine and when I came back to America, I would be washing my laundry in a sink next to a high-tech Washer, I was washing them old school like a Fa7hi. My mom would say, “Hey Mona, you know you could just put it in the wash machine?”
“Being half Palestinian and American, makes me sometimes want a shawarma, but also want a side of mashed potatoes!”
PiA: Why Comedy?
MA: I love to make people laugh, I never thought about making it a job until the first time I performed and nothing else made sense. To be able to bring people of all religions, races, age groups, and cultures come together and make them happy, it fulfills me in such a powerful way. It’s said that when people sing or laugh together, their heartbeats synchronize, what an amazing gift that is to create this connection in the world. Similarly, with stand up comedy the comedian gets to say whatever is on their mind and can often relate powerful messages and observations of the world through a joke. In my stand up, I try to break down any stereotypes of who I am rather it be that I am a woman, Muslim, Palestinian, American, Arab or just an unmarried Puerto Rican looking chick on stage. Stand-up is so intimate and such a powerful vessel for discussing difficult topics while inspiring new thought that the greatest comics can hide a little bit of medicine in there jokies.
PiA: Palestine is the most beautiful country in the world, but if you had to choose what would be the most beautiful city you visited while there?
MA: That’s easy; Halhul. That city created my father and without him I’m nothing. Despite the family connection, it’s a city whose soul and soil is so rich that the fruits are fresh and sweet that the grapes alone might give you a cavity! There’s such a wonderful sense of harmony in Palestine with a vast sense of wonderment. It’s so quiet. Peaceful. Surreal. Breathtaking. And despite global perception, Palestine loves strong, determined women. In Halhul especially, women aren’t asked to be passive, quiet and docile. I often joke “if you ever see a Palestinian woman walking behind her man, it’s because she told him to get the car!” In Halhul, Women Rule!
PiA: Were you worried about what your family would think of you, because you wanted to become a comedian?
MA: I am American born. I have luxury of being able to say, “Hey, I want to be a comedian, not a doctor.” In my late 20s, I started to think about what I wanted, not what others wanted. I’m balancing two worlds. I respect my Palestinian side, but want to respect my American side also. I tell people all the time, don’t ever forget who YOU are! We as Arabs constantly pick at our own feathers. Instead, we need to be uplifting each other and pushing our people. I’m constantly feeling like I have to be so light hearted when performing in front of Arabs, because if I say something wrong I’m done! When I perform comedy, unlike most American comedy I don’t talk about dating, drugs, or alcohol, because I respect my Palestinian side. My sister would tell me, “You just have to do it.” You have the ability to make people laugh. I had a choice, either I leave the city and find a job in development, move to Africa or the Middle East or I try Comedy. For my Birthday, my mother and sister bought me Improv classes. The rest was history.
When I started doing stand up it was seen initially as a hobby. My community never really saw it as a possible career until I performed at a local fundraiser with Amer Zahr; then my community understood what I was doing and supported me, kinda.
PiA: Which Palestinian Comedian do you think opened up the doors for you?
MA: Maysoon, Zayid, without a doubt! When I saw her in July of 2000 I was shocked and amazed and inspired! She really did pave the way for Palestinian and Arab- female comedians such as myself, as weird as it is to say she’s the Jackie Robinson of Arab Stand Up.
PiA: How can the Palestinian community help support more women in Comedy, like yourself?
MA: In Palestinian families, your internal compass is calibrated on the family’s calibration. It’s not your internal desire. We need to teach our children to find the true meaning of happiness. Teach our children that they determine their own self-worth. Do not seek happiness in validation from others. Our people are so giving, caring, and supportive to others, but we need to remember to instill these things into our own people as well.
“In Palestinian families, your internal compass is calibrated on the family’s calibration. It’s not your internal desire.”
PiA: What kind of advice do you have for other Palestinian women wanting to pursue comedy?
MA: Go for it! Our parents were immigrants, they didn’t have the opportunities that we have now. It is very rare for the immigrant group to land here and to pursue a dream. They don’t have the luxury of leaving Gaza for instance and coming here deciding to make movies. An American Born female whose parents are from Gaza, are able to say hey I want to become a comedian or an actress. Because they weren’t born In Gaza and had classes cancelled because the Israeli’s decided to close the school. Or who went without electricity, clean water, or illegal checkpoints. We have the ability to be what our parents couldn’t. I’m a first generation American Palestinian. It’s only in my right that this would come about. You are starting to see a lot of Palestinians in entertainment, but it’s just so slow. Its having to counter, “hey dad, I don’t want to be an engineer I want to work at the daily show!” Take advantage of what you were blessed with. I had to create my own identity and so can you!
PiA: What does being Palestinian mean to you?
MA: Every Palestinian in the world carries the weight of the Palestinian Nation on their back. Being Palestinian you are always representing your country, your community in the best light. We preserve the identity of Palestine in every single thing we do. Out of all the Arab comedians in the world, 85% of them are Palestinian. Do you want to know why? Because great tragedy creates great humor.
“Every Palestinian in the world carries the weight of the Palestinian Nation on their back.”
PiA: When you performed in Palestine and heard the laughter from the crowd. How did that make you feel knowing, for just that moment you made so many people laugh who are actually hurting inside because they live under an illegal occupation?
MA: My trip to Palestine both times, was the most important thing that has ever happened in my life. Being a Palestinian American, I never ever felt comfortable anywhere. I wasn’t Arab enough or American enough. Performing in Palestine was my dream. For the first time, I felt I belonged somewhere. Hearing their laughter was the most healing thing ever. Finally, after all these years I put on a pair of shoes that finally fit me. It was like someone had gone into my heart and hugged it so tight. I felt fulfilled. I also thought to myself, why was nobody making a big deal that I was the only woman on this show? No one cared that I was a woman doing this. That’s when I learned something else. Palestinian women are raised to be strong, powerful, and driven. The way I had been feeling my whole wasn’t a mistake, the way I was feeling. I’m not a docile Muslim woman like the world said I was. We are not that. The second year I went, the energy in Ramallah was so powerful. People were so happy to be there. When we left, there was a sense of depression. My friend told me after we left there was a sense of sadness. When I was in Jerusalem there was a 9-yr. old girl who came both years. She waited for my return. She had been sitting outside the show waiting an hour before the show. They loved it. It completed my entire life. Nothing brings me greater joy than making people laugh other than making Palestinians laugh.
“Nothing brings me greater joy than making people laugh other than making Palestinians laugh.”
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