Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Going to try (again) to organize an Arab-Israeli Comedy Festival in Jerusalem

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You would think Arabs and Israelis hate each other. They must have some kind of issue or something between them. I know. if it were really a big story, the mainstream news media would be writing on it.

I'm going to try AGAIN to organize an Arab-Israeli comedy festival in Jerusalem. When I launched my comedy for peace drive in January 2002, the purpose wasn't to be a professional standup comedian. I'm not. It was to use comedy and humor to break through the animosity between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis and get them to see each other as people.

The Comedy for Peace gig did not last long. We tried hard. I worked with a great TV producer and creative mind, David Lewis, who formalized the whole effort as "Comedy for Peace." We traveled to the West Bank and did a lot of interviews. David's mind never stopped working. genius and good guy. But the odds were so far against us. And everyone we encountered wanted to do it their way. By the end of 2006, we were on a difficult slope and it wasn't moving, unfortunately.

Then in November, 2006, I got an email from Charley Warady. Warady, who is Jewish, lived on Chicago's Southeast Side, where I lived. He was a few years younger than me and his friends were the younger brothers and sisters of my friends. He since moved to Israel and is doing standup comedy -- although there were no standup comedy clubs in Israel except one that didn't seem to have many shows in Tel Aviv (The Camel Comedy Club). Warady read an online book I wrote (Midnight Flight: The Story of White Flight from Chicago in the 1960s) which was about our old neighborhood in Chicago. He emailed me and he said he was a comedian. I asked him if he would be interested in doing comedy together and he was the first Israeli standup comedian to say yes.

We decided to bring in more comics. I reached out to Aaron Freeman and he reached out to Yisrael Campbell. I wanted to morph it all into Comedy for Peace but none of these guys new David and they all had their own ideas about how to do things. They ended up pushing to create a new comedy troupe called The Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour.

We didn't waste a lot of time planning and we set out to organize as many shows as we could in Israel, first, and then in Palestine. Our first show was in a place called the Syndrome in downtown West Jerusalem at the end of January 2007. We ended up doing a few shows at other locations too. In June, we came back and did more shows and included the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem where we did a sold out crowd of mostly Palestinians. We did even more shows and cities in Israel then too. And we came back in December (this time with comedian Sherif Hedayat replacing Aaron Freeman who could not make the tour) and we did two shows at the Ambassador East and several in Israel.

By then, a comedy club opened in West Jerusalem at the top of Ben Yehuda Street and Sherif and I did some guest shows there too. We went on to do shows around the world including in Dublin and also Toronto where we did our biggest show at Roy Thomson Hall for some 1,800 people in the audience. We did tours of college campuses through MASA and even did Limmud in Los Angeles in 2008. This year, 2009, we did more shows including two in Upstate New York and Long Island, and also recently for an audience in upstate Pennsylvania. Houston was our favorite, although a Palestinian activist in the audience hammered us because she didn't like my two-state solution is the best ideas and because I happen to criticize not only Israelis but Palestinians, too, which is a non-no in the extremist Palestinian circles which dominate American Palestinian activism.

2010, though, will be the year we formalize a series of shows in Jerusalem. Campbell is off preparing to launch his one-man show in New York this November, but Charley and I hope to galvanize a new drive in Jerusalem for all of us and for more comedians who have courage and vision and who believe that humor is the best medicine to help the people -- not the politics -- in the Middle East.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it. I'll make it happen.

I mean, it's not like peace is going to break out any time soon and undermine the whole premise.

-- Ray Hanania

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