Life is fair for some. Our attitude defines how we take it on. Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian from New Jersey, an actor, stand-up comedian, writer, tap-dancer, a cat loving Twitter addict and an activist with cerebral palsy chooses to defy convention and change opinion. Her fierce sense of humour makes her one of America’s first Muslim women comedians.Maysoon jokes about her own identity intersections of ethnicity and disability, with sharp wit and insight to inspire cultural understanding and education. Offstage, she spends time in the West Bank providing assistance to wounded and orphaned refugee children, and has established an organisation called ‘Maysoon’s Kids’ to educate and empower young Palestinians also facing the challenges of disabilities.
Excerpts from her interview with Yasmeen Maqbool
What is the bridge between ethnicity, comedy and being yourself?
I am of Palestinian origin, considered to be one of America’s first Muslim women comedians and the first person ever to perform standup in Palestine and Jordan. During my early acting experiences, I realised that my disability and ethnicity was repeatedly limiting my advancement. I then turned to stand-up and began appearing at New York’s top clubs, including Caroline’s, Gotham, and Stand Up NY, where I take on serious topics such as terrorism and the Israel-Palestine conflict. I also speak about the survival of the un-fittest and reinforce that no dream is impossible.
How did you take to comedy?
When I realized that the only non-perfect women in Hollywood had all started out as comedians, I decided that I needed to become a comic. I attended a six-week stand-up comedy class at Caroline’s on Broadway in New York City. I had an excellent teacher and I still use the techniques he taught me to this day. I was really lucky, and got booked to do shows at my very first gig.
What have been your achievements and set-backs?
The one thing I am most proud of is the New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Dean Obeidallah and I founded it more than a decade ago, in 2003. This highly acclaimed, first-of-its-kind festival, now in its twelfth year, has since received national and international media coverage. It is held annually in New York City and showcases Arab-American comics, actors, playwrights and filmmakers.
The idea was to actually use our talent to bridge the gap between the Middle East and the West in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Negative images of the Arab world were being played in movies and television, most of them being terrorist roles, while we were getting a lot of positive coverage as comedians. So we decided to take this positivity to the broader Arab community and decided to hold the festival.
It had an impact because I had kids come up to me every day saying, “I became a comic because of your festival”, or “I got cast on a sit com thanks to the festival”.
I have failed to get on General Hospital (General Hospital commonly abbreviated GH, is an American daytime television medical drama that is listed in Guinness World Records as the longest-running American soap opera in production). This is my absolute goal and I have in no way given up. I have just yet begun to fight.
You say you have 99 problems and palsy is one of them?
The doctor who delivered me was drunk and I lost oxygen. The part of my brain that controls coordination was damaged. Having cerebral palsy means I shake all the time. It’s exhausting and frustrating. However, I am still privileged and blessed. I know so many people who have suffered far worse situations than I.
What has been the cure for you?
Nutrition has been the key. I avoid sugar and caffeine because I already shake enough. I love lamb, but the reality is I have less muscle spasms when I go vegan. Yoga has had a remarkable effect on my balance and stability. It has also immensely decreased my joint pain. Finally, I am a fan of herbal teas. Give me some rosemary and thyme with a little honey and it works like magic.
Who has been inspirational for you and why?
My grandmothers, Shahema and Masada and my father, Musa Zayid are huge inspirations for me. They lived in a totally different realm. I am so lucky to be able to tell those stories.Also, a motivating factor for my comedy is to give a human face to the Arab Muslim women.
How has it been to live the life you have been gifted with?
It’s really tiring. I fly a lot and have to deal with other people’s screaming children keeping me awake and end up with red-eyes. I function in three different time zones and I am a writer who cannot type. I love my job. I’m blessed to have seen so much of the world and to have met fascinating people.
Does the image built by media about special needs individuals bother you?
I am determined to get Hollywood to ban able-bodied actors playing disabled on screen. We need able-bodied actors to say no to crip-face and to allow for authentic portrayal of disability by actors with disability. Physical disability is as visual as race.
Also, I’m working to change the image that people with disabilities are pathetic, desperate to be healed and not attractive. I’m working on getting stories told through the medium of a movie, a book and touring stand up/writing columns, where the character has a disability, but it is not the focus. And by far the most crucial – In everyday life we need to stop playing victim and we need to fight able-ism head on.
What is “United Cerebral Palsy of NYC Women Who Care”?
United Cerebral Palsy of NYC holds an annual luncheon fundraiser. Women Who Care honours women who have gone above and beyond to make the world better for those in need of an advocate. I am honoured to serve on the committee.
Tell us about Maysoon kids?
Maysoon’s Kids is a scholarship and wellness programme. Our goal is to get education to kids with disabilities, where regular schools fail to. We also offer scholarships and advocate for the right to play.
I am also very excited to introduce our 2015 Next Generation campaign! Anyone can be part of our “Feed a Mind” Fundraising Campaign. We are proud to be partnering with the village of Beit Fajjar for this revolutionary educational experiment. Our hope is to now replicate these classrooms in the rehab centers throughout Palestine so that eventually there is no excuse for not integrating these students into the mainstream.
I also spend three months a year in the Palestinian territories, running an arts programme for disabled and orphaned children in refugee camps.