Mayon Zayid is where Palestine and New Jersey intersect. A funny, cheerful woman, with a strong character who has managed to prove herself where no one would have imagined. The daughter of an immigrant, said it herself “being tan, disabled and curvy, I was not the typical Hollywood profile, so I turned to comedy”. A choice that has finally paid off, allowing her to play on her own particularities.
Still, It took her a lot of determination to get there. When a door closed, Maysoon Zayid wasted no time in hand wringing, she ran straight on to the next. The one whose father sent every summer to her country of origin in order to perfect her education, has not only become a pro stand-up comedian but also an actress, a writer and an activist mastering self-deprecation. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, she and her friend decided to found a comedy festival to heal wounds and laugh at stereotypes. Bingo! Her receiving death threats will not dim neither her success nor the happiness to contribute in a greater America.
Four years ago, Maysoon harvested 8 million views on a TEDx speech video where she said she had 99 problems and that her cerebral palsy was only one of them. The speech sends off a good lesson of courage but above all a sharp response to those who had mimicked her affliction on social networks. But overall, this 40-years-old tap-dancing and spaguetti passionate has more fans than haters.
Her humor is unique like her. One only has to listen to her engagement story with a man she met in Gaza “the best place to get settled, since these gentlemen have nowhere to hide” to understand who we are dealing with…
You are very committed to providing support to Palestinian children, and defending the rights women and disabled people. How do you manage all this?
I admit that it is very exhausting on a daily basis but I have found a way to make it easier. Instead of defending each of these causes separately, I gather them all in the name of equality, for this value is their common denominator. It alone can help us rebuild what was broken in this world. Except for the environment.
It would seem that supporting others is a major concern of yours
I learned it from my grandmothers in Palestine. Charity and generosity are the bases of Islam, but these women gave their hearts out and not because they felt obliged to do so. I love helping others succeed. It is not an obligation, but a privilege.
How did you get the idea to create an Arab-American comedy festival in New York just after September 11? What was the biggest challenge of this adventure?
I co-produce this festival, which is now 14-years-old, with my friend Dean Obeidallah. The aim of the event was to resist to prejudice in the aftermath of the attacks and on the eve of the war in Iraq. The hardest part was to convince the public that we were not just Arabs trying to be funny or Arabs trying to be American but professional actors with an Arabian heritage.
You talk about very sensitive topics on your shows (terrorism, Israeli-Palestinian conflict). How do we make these things funny without offence, especially in a country as puritan as the USA?
I speak of everything indeed. There are no red lines in those moments. Sometimes people need to be shocked even if it is not really my intention. My goal is to make people laugh. It works when I tell my story. Palestine occupies a large part of me, not to mention it is unimaginable. As far as terrorism is concerned, I do not find it funny per se. My jokes revolve mainly around the cliché that makes all Arabs terrorists. There is the distinction …
Is humor a family trait?
Absolutely! I learned to tell jokes while listening to my aunts during their long gossip sessions. My father was one of the funniest people I have ever known. We were constantly laughing with him. He gave me my best jokes.
Are you always on the same page with Dean Obeidallah, in terms of the meaning you give to your shows?
If that were the case, it would be boring, but I feel blessed and lucky to have a partner whom I respect and who shares my vision.
Were you afraid after Trump’s victory? Especially since you received threats of death …
I’ve been receiving death threats for about 10 years but it is true that the situation has escalated since the campaign of Trump. I am afraid for the world, because “the orange nightmare” now has nuclear power. I am not afraid for myself, I grew up in a country at war, I do not get impressed so easily.
How did you feel about the “Muslim Ban”?
I was not surprised. The hatred of Trump and his friends is real. On the other hand, I was delighted to see that some courts were set up against him. America has many flaws, but its respect for religious freedom is undeniable. The attitude of these courts has given me hope.
What makes a woman powerful in your opinion?
I would say an independent woman. Not all have this privilege, so it’s very difficult to define. I think women who live in war zones and who protect their families are powerful. I find Beyoncé powerful too. It depends on the woman.
Where do you draw your energy and radiance from?
I have no idea. I’m just a positive person with a good dose of confidence. Maybe growing up between Palestine and New Jersey made me aware of the luck I had.
How do you spend your time when you are not on stage?
I write a lot. Scripts, articles and books. I love good food, spending time with my family and my cat or watching TV. I do not have too much free time, so when I do I take advantage of it. I also have a big addiction to Twitter …
You have received many rewards for your work and what you represent. Do you see it as a redemption on life?
Yes of course. I also see it as proof that we should never give up. Success did not come overnight, I had to work very hard, which I continue to do to achieve my other goals.
You want to win an Oscar it seems. What are your plans to do so?
I want an Emmy or a Golden Globe. My ambitions are focused on television not cinema. I am currently in the process of producing a TV show, hopefully I am nominated either as a screenwriter or as an actor. My biggest dream would be to have my own TV show. You can win an Emmy for that too (laughs).
Has there been any progress since you started? Can minorities have easier access to the scene?
You know, the Internet has completely changed the way people put themselves forward. It is much easier to be discovered now. In my time Youtube did not exist, it was necessary to go through comedy clubs, to stick posters across the city and to give cards in hand if they wanted to succeed. Today, you can just create an event on Facebook and you’re done. For minorities, on the other hand, I do not think there has been any real change. I opted for comedy because it was a very diverse world. Unfortunately, television did not follow the same course. Currently in the United States, there is not a single night show that puts forward a person of color or even a woman.
Would you consider coming to Morocco one day?
Of course! I would love to visit this country, to discover the cuisine and the culture that made its reputation.
Last question, have you solved the 99 problems you previously mentioned in your famous TEDx?
I solved about 48. I have only 51 left to get it over with.
by Sabel Da Costa.