By Hanan Daqqa
January 27, 2020
Maz Jobrani, the “just Iranian American” comedian and actor loves the Kennedy Center and D.C. and, obviously, they love him back. His latest Netflix special “Immigrant” was filmed at the Kennedy Center, and, in 2016, he performed at the White House, where he introduced former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Jobrani, who was born in Iran and moved to the US when he was very young, made a name for himself as a great communicator about Middle Eastern issues and people. He was one of the founding members of the Axis of Evil comedy group that appeared on Comedy Central and toured the Middle East. Later, he published the LA Times bestselling book, “I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV.” He has appeared in many films and television shows, including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “True Blood,” “Shameless,” “Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero,” “The Interpreter” and “Friday After Next.” After embracing his Middle Eastern identity, Jobrani embraced his immigrant identity and has people from all backgrounds coming to his shows. He is returning to the Kennedy Center on Jan. 31.
For this interview, I decided to experiment and asked Jobrani, “How about I share some stories? And for each story, I just want your reaction.” He said, “Sure, go for it.”
Michael Moore, in response to Iranians reacting to the killing of General Soleimani, tweeted, “Is there an American general for whom millions of us would turn out for his funeral? Mad Dog? Kelly? Colin Powel? William Westmoreland? Can anyone even name the chair of the Joint Chiefs? We all support those who serve, but would we pour into the streets like this?” And he shared a photo of a huge crowd at Soleimani’s funeral. Did you read that tweet?
Jobrani: I did not read that tweet. No, I did not read that tweet. But I saw another tweet he posted that I thought was pretty funny, in which he said, you know, how dare the Iranians put their countries so close to all of our military bases? Then he showed all the bases that were in the region and it was just a funny… He was being sarcastic, obviously because we have surrounded Iran with a bunch of military bases. So he has some good stuff, definitely. And the thing with Soleimani that’s interesting, as an Iranian American, obviously there were a lot of Iranians who liked Soleimani. There’s also a lot of Iranians who don’t like Soleimani. So you know, I think Iranians are split on that and I think the bigger question is, “What comes after the killing of the number two in Iran?”
I think that was what worried many Iranians. That’s the one thing I think that a lot of Iranians could be more in agreement on, which is, “Was that going to lead to a war?” And thank God for now it has not. But who knows what’s coming down the pipeline? I have no idea. So, yeah, it was a crazy week for anyone who’s from anywhere in the world, but it was an even crazier week to be Iranian and/or Iranian American because we really didn’t know what was going to happen. There were rumors that there were… Not rumors, there were actually Iranians being detained longer at the border. Iranians that are American citizens were being detained at the Vancouver border and asked more questions and kept for hours and hours. So a lot of Iranians that are Americans were worried about, “Can I even travel outside the US? Are they not going to let me back in?”
So you know, there was that and then there was a question of “Is this going to lead to a war with bombings in Iran with innocents dying?” and all that stuff. And obviously, we saw the airplane thing. So, that was very tragic. Yeah, my heart just goes out to the people of Iran because I think that they’re stuck between a government that’s very oppressive in many ways and then our government, which is just imposing more and more sanctions. And so the people of Iran are really suffering and it’s heartbreaking to see it.
But it is interesting to see, as Moore said, that millions of people poured into the street for Soleimani’s funeral. How do you react to this?
Jobrani: I think, obviously as a comedian there’s nothing and I don’t get too into it. If I’m going to find comedy in it, I find comedy at some of the silliness of it. Like, one thing I was trying to talk about was how it’s interesting that as a Middle Easterner, whenever Americans kill anybody that’s of Middle Eastern descent, we watch them on television messing up their names. They really don’t know how to pronounce the names. And so, I was watching some news report and they were talking about Soleimani and they kept calling him General Salami. They weren’t trying to be funny. They just kept messing it up. And I was like, “Oh my God.” Or the time when Trump took out Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and he was having the hardest time saying his name. So you know, those are just silly things that you observe. But when you get into the whole thing of war and all that other stuff, it’s hard. It’s hard to really… You don’t really have a lot of jokes on it. You know, you just got to pick and choose what you’re going to make fun of and keep moving.
When my firstborn went to preschool, the teachers and I were very excited about teaching her how to embrace being different. But she didn’t want to be different; all what she wanted was to belong.
Jobrani: Absolutely. I think that’s a dilemma as old as time. Kids want to blend in; they don’t want to stand out. And I’ve always talked about that in my stand-up, about how hard it is growing up in America with immigrant parents, because I say, “Whenever your immigrant parents would show up at school, they would blow your cover and they would reveal that you’re not the same. …” So, it was always embarrassing as a kid to be the kid whose parents had the funny accents, and they would come to a parent-teacher meeting with 20 of your cousins, not realizing it’s supposed to be a very private event. So yeah, I get it. I get what kids want. I mean, even kids whose parents aren’t immigrants will sometimes say, “Hey, Dad, drop me off a block away. I don’t want to be seen with you.” So yeah, it’s an ongoing thing and I think it comes full circle. I hope it comes full circle. I know that in college for me, I really started embracing my Iranian background more. I started learning more about Iranian history. I had friends that were Iranian Americans who’d grown up in the same kind of environment as I had. And yeah, I think you give it some time and hopefully they come back and embrace their cultures.
As a Middle Easterner myself who moved to the US in 1999, I only realized that the Middle East is racist when I moved to America.
Jobrani: Yeah. I think every country is racist in one way or another. So you go to a place like Italy. For the longest time, Northern Italians were racist against Southern Italians. And now that they’ve got immigrants, they’re racist against immigrants. Not to say all the people, I’m just saying there are people that are racist in those countries. You go to Iran, Iranians are very racist a lot of times against Arabs. Or Iranians are racist against Iranians of different regions. I know the Arabs, a lot of Arabs are racist against other Arabs. You know, I was talking to a lady who’s Lebanese, I said, “You’re Arab.” “No, I’m not Arab. We are Lebanese.” … So the racism exists everywhere. The reason that we see so much of it in America is because it’s such a diverse country.
I feel that it takes generations for any immigrant family to heal from the trauma of transitioning to the American way of life. I want the American public to understand immigrants better, because I think that the reason behind the lack of a sense of community in many American neighborhoods comes from the gap between immigrants and non-immigrants. There’s not enough communication between both sides.
Jobrani: Well, I think, whether it’s the communication or not, I think it’s hard, like you just said, for anybody to move to a new place and to settle in, and it’s a strange land. I work with an organization called Miry’s List. And this is a lady who is a white American woman [Miry Whitehill] who decided to help refugees resettling in California. And she tells me all kinds of stories, but the way I’ve heard refugees speak about her…they talk about her almost like she’s Mother Teresa. They talk about how they were, like you said, struggling and didn’t know what to do. And Miry showed up and said, “Here, I’m going to help you guys by finding out what you need and then reaching out to the community.” And that’s part of what Miry’s List is.
Miry’s List is…people that are settling in California will say, “We need a bed, we need towels, we need this, we need that,” and then people that are donors to Miry’s List help out and they provide these families with all that stuff. And she’s got Syrian families and Egyptians and Iranians and Afghans and all kinds of people come to her, and she’s helped resettle a lot of families. So, I think that we need more people like Miry, reaching out and understanding and helping, and less people like our president, demonizing immigrants. So I don’t know. I’m hoping. I keep hoping for more, a better and better future. That’s all I can say.