A Ha-ha That’s Halal

Montreal’s Answer to the Riddle: What’s Arab, Muslim and Funny?

The phrase “Muslim comedian” might sound like an oxymoron to some, like “free parking,” or “Mennonite rapper.”

But one person is giving Muslim comedy its proper diction—a young woman who is known onstage simply as Eman.

Although Eman Al-Husseini claims to love her last name, not many people have the opportunity to be known solely on a first name basis, so why not flaunt it? But unlike Madonna—an idol of hers, coincidentally—things ain’t always so easy.

“I have to tackle three stereotypes: Muslims being funny, Arabs being funny and women being funny,” said Eman. “[But] that’s why I love doing stand-up.”

Being a comedienne of colour, audiences expect to hear about her exotic upbringing, she said.

“I think every ethnic comedian roots to that at the beginning: describing their family life and how they grew up. And that’s what people find humourous, because they’re also very curious about it.”

Like many children of Middle-Eastern parents, Eman was pressured to go into one of the “big three” careers: lawyer, doctor or engineer.

“[Me becoming a] doctor, they gave up on quite easily,” she said. “[They’d have settled for me] just being an accountant. My father thinks that I could have been a great politician because he finds me very charismatic.

“Being Palestinian, [however], you’re born in the midst of political discussion. It’s in our blood, it’s in our everyday life. But I’d rather use comedy to express any political beliefs.”

Puns and politics

If people expect Eman’s comedy to be political because of her ethnicity—although born in Kuwait, her family hails from Palestine—then they certainly don’t expect there to be quite so much swearing.

“I just speak about personal experiences, and if it so happens that something is dirty, I’ll mention it,” she says. “But you know, I’m not going to stand there and talk about my sex life unless it’s happening in the moment. But I tend not to be vulgar. For a comedian, it’s so much more challenging to try to be a clean comic as opposed to being a dirty comic.”

If Canadians are interested in her Middle-Eastern roots, then Middle-Eastern audiences are fascinated with what it’s like to grow up Canuck.

A frequent participant in the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, Eman was invited in 2008 to participate in the first-ever stand-up comedy festival in the Palestinian city of Nazareth, for which she briefly appeared in headlines across the world, including France and Israel.

“We know standup comedy is an American concept,” she says, “but the Middle-East has embraced it so much.

“We have this misconception that they don’t necessarily speak English very well, or they don’t get what we get. But they watch American TV, [and] a lot of them follow stand-up on the Internet. I felt that they loved my material more than people in North America, to be honest.”

Now with an international reputation, she had a chance to perform last year in Amman, Jordan. Next month, she’ll be touring the Palestine Territories, including stops in Nazareth, Jerusalem and Ramallah with fellow Arab comedian Maysoon Zayid.

“Being Arab has helped me travel. Isn’t that crazy?” she joked.

Eman discovered her love of comedy from a Kuwaiti sitcom her mother used to tune into.

“I remember my parents, my mother especially, loved theatre shows. She’d buy them on videocassette and I remember trying to reenact the lead roles. I was so entertained by it, and I tried to reenact the whole thing. I even tried to dress up [to fit the part].”

After moving to Montreal in 1990 during the midst of the first Gulf War and settling into a French school—which is mandatory for all immigrants, although Eman says she’s fortunate to have had the experience—it would be years before her thoughts returned to pursuing comedy.

“I was kind of embarrassed about wanting to be in the entertainment industry,” she recalled. “I feel like everybody wanted to be an actor, everyone wanted to be a singer, everyone wanted to be a celebrity. It’s something that I kind of suppressed and tried not to embrace.”

From car crashes to crack-ups

In 2006, while driving home from work in the city to her home in the West Island, Eman’s car slipped on some black ice. The culprit? She hadn’t purchased winter tires, which were not yet mandatory by law.

Exactly what happened afterwards is difficult to recall, she said. When she regained consciousness, she learned that she had received 32 stitches to her forehead, but didn’t suffer any internal injuries. The car, however, was totaled.

“I could have died so easily,” she recalled. “[I realized] I have to embrace what I want to do in life, and so I started doing comedy shortly after my recovery.”

Her parents were disappointed, but nevertheless supportive.

“It broke their hearts at the beginning,” she says. “It’s not easy, financially speaking. When you start making money, you’re making $30-40 a set in comedy clubs, and you’re not established until you become a headliner, and even then you have to market yourself properly.

“So of course they weren’t too fond of the idea, but they’ve always been extremely supportive. They bought me my first video camera to record my shows. They just hoped that I could find a really stable nine-to-five job to make sure that I have enough income, and then they’d rather I treat this like a hobby, which is kind of impossible. You need to focus on something like comedy if you want to succeed.”

Since 2007, Eman has been working at the Montreal ComedyWorks, where she hosts BOOM, the Best of Open Mic, monthly.

“The reason I founded the show is because I really believed in the Montreal talent. We have much more than just a Just for Laughs festival that happens once a year. I figured by putting this competition together, it’ll encourage Montreal comedians to write more and to want to perform more.”
The thing with comedy, said Eman, is that it’s not what you’ve just done, but what you’re about to do next that’s important to finding success.

With that in mind, she’s decided to focus her efforts on embracing her home and native land: Canada.

“This is my country, this is where I’m from,” she said. “In 2011, one of my resolutions is to start doing stand-up comedy in French—maybe even Arabic.”

You can catch Eman every Monday night at the Montreal ComedyWorks (1238 Bishop St.), where she hosts an open mic. The best two performers as chosen by the audience will have the chance to compete in BOOM, the Best of Open Mic, on the last Sunday of each month.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 17, published January 4, 2011.