‘My best jokes come from times that make me angry.’

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‘My best jokes come from times that make me angry.’

Maysoon Zayid is a US-Palestinian comedian. She talks to Subi Shah about acting, politics, race, and being a disabled performer.


Photo: Michelle Kinney

‘What motivates me? Money, of course! For disabled people in Trump’s America. life is expensive. I grew up with cerebral palsy (CP). My father taught me how to walk by putting my little feet on top of his feet when he walked. He taught me to dance by holding a dollar note in front of me.’

I saw Maysoon Zayid’s TED talk some years before we met. I noticed how the audience was nervous at first and then their reaction was painfully funny. ‘My best jokes come from times that make me angry. I think and learn if I get “called out” by people in the audience shouting at me. But if I offend you by questioning your politics, I don’t mind hurting your feelings and I’ll do it again.’

Covid-19 continues to affect BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people) and disabled people especially badly. As the world waits for a second wave of Covid-19, Maysoon thinks that President Trump is to blame for America’s big and rising number of deaths. He did not take the right action and did not care for the poorest in society.

‘Poverty and disability go together in the US. Disabled Americans fought for years against living in institutions. We want to have the power to live in our own homes and communities. A quarter of all of the people who have already died from Covid-19 in America were in nursing homes. Disabled people often had to live in institutions and mostly no-one thought about them. We also had to listen to terrible conversations about whether we deserved a ventilator or whether the ventilator should go to non-disabled patients first. For a long time Trump has discriminated against disabled people.

‘With Trump as President, the US government has tried to make the lives of disabled Americans hell. Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, took away 72 protections for disabled students. The government is in court now and it is trying to take away protections from people who already have health problems. There’s only one way out of this bad situation: vote for Joe Biden.’

Maysoon helped to start the festival, Arabs Gone Wild, in 2003. The festival came from the New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Famous comedians came from it, like Ramy Youssef. The festival happened because there was so little opportunity for Arab comedians, including Maysoon.

‘Since the age of five, my dream in life was to be on theTV soap opera General Hospital. During my comedy career, when I was interviewed, I made sure to mention General Hospital, and finally, my dream came true! Now, I play Zahra Amir, a lawyer. There is no mention of Zahra’s disability. She is disabled because I have CP. Zahra is the only character in soap history that love cannot heal.’

We did this interview after the global demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. I ask Maysoon how she feels about the police in her country.

‘I am disgusted. Almost half of all Americans killed by police are disabled and they are disproportionately people of colour. This country was built on slavery. It is time to end this. I hope Donald Trump is the last of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) and that this country can finally have liberty and justice for all. I feel deeply about Black Lives Matter because I have always fought for equality. I grew up spending my summers watching Palestinians oppressed.

‘The situation in Palestine is terrible. And I am very surprised that Palestine managed Covid-19 better than America. Palestine shut down, tested, and then isolated the few cases. It closed mosques and churches and didn’t let extremists make them open again too soon. As a Palestinian, I watched the police gas and shoot rubber bullets at BLM protesters in Washington DC and I thought no-one believed Palestinians when we said the police were attacking protesters. Now, maybe we can fight for equality for all people, from Jerusalem to New Jersey.’

Our interview is coming to an and. Maysoon tells me she loves reading New Internationalist. To young readers, she say, ‘Please get involved in your college’s politics. Learn about the past so you can better understand present politics. Don’t be afraid to be a leader. Don’t let anyone tell you that equality, justice and ending violence is impossible. Believe you can change the world and find others who are working for that change. There is power in numbers, but never be afraid to be the first person to do the right thing. It only takes a small flame to light up the dark. Be that flame.’



(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)