One-woman show explores Muslim-American identity

by Amelia Rosch | 10/4/15 6:01pm

Contemporary comedians have increasingly explored political and social issues. From comedian Amy Schumer’s critiques of popular culture) to “The Daily Show” (1996) correspondent Aasif Mandvi’s social commentray a range of topics from religion to relationships have been worked through in comedy. Iranian-American comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh explores how politics intersects with comedy in her one-woman show “All Atheists are Muslim,” which she performed on Friday at the Hopkins Center.

The show is based on her experience introducing her now-husband to her parents, Noorbakhsh said.

“[It] is about when I was 25 years old and I moved in with my whitey-white, white, white, white, atheist, infidel, non-believing boyfriend — now husband — who wasn’t my husband at the time and telling my Iranian-Muslim parents about it and seeing the arguments that ensued,” she said.

She said that the show puts a lot of focus on her relationship with her father, before and after revealing her boyfriend to him. She said that not leading a “double life” was important to her at the time, since her parents had raised her to be authentic.

“It did a lot of things for me and my family,” she said. “I already had a really close relationship with my family, which is why I couldn’t reconcile not telling them about moving in with [my boyfriend]. I really wanted to be able to have that conversation.”

She said that she also wants “All Atheists are Muslim” to explore and skewer stereotypes about Muslim-American families.

Noorbakhsh, who describes herself as a “feminist, Muslim Iranian-American comedian,” said that the material in the show was autobiographical, coming from the conversations between herself, her parents and her boyfriend.

Hop publicity coordinator Rebecca Bailey said that Noorbakhsh was selected as one of the Hop’s performers for the fall term because of the breadth of ideas she explores. Bailey said that a large part of Noorbakhsh’s appeal comes from her ability to discuss the complexity of identities while still remaining humorous.

“There are a lot of people that are attributing thoughts to Muslims that they are not actually having,” she said. “To actually hear from somebody who is exploring this, who has that identity, is very important. And she’s tremendously funny and insightful about it too. She hits all of those sweet spots.”

Noorbakhsh said that the show is the first piece that she developed as a solo comedian. She developed it over the course of a year, and most of the show was improvised, based on audience reaction, because she struggled to put down her words on paper.

“It was too scary to write it,” she said. “It was easier just to say it.”

She originally began working on the piece in a workshop with comedian W. Kamau Bell, who asked her how she balanced her family and her boyfriend and helped to “midwife” the show.

“I told him the basic story of how it was that I told my parents about my atheist, infidel then-boyfriend,” she said. “He immediately just said, ‘That’s your show.’”

She said that she was initially worried that her show was too specific and would not appeal to a general audience. She said that since that conversation, she has performed the show for over 10,000 people. She said that getting to perform the show for such a large group of people from diverse backgrounds has been an “act of discovery” for her.

Noorbakhsh said she feels like the show is able to speak to a broad swath of people because its themes have some universality.

“In part it developed simply because it was the first story that was important to me, and I could feel that there was a real audience hungry for that story, that narrative,” she said. “It also marked for me a moment where I actually really started to feel like my own person.”

Noorbakhsh said that while she has always been a comedian, her father was the original inspiration behind her comedy because she valued his laughter so much. She said her first stand up performance was based around stories of her father at a talent show for the Iranian Student Cultural Organization during her time at University of California at Berkeley.

“My dad was there, laughing and crying,” she said. “I wanted to know how I can do this.”

She said that she knew she wanted to be a comedian after she bombed her first professional show and still wanted to perform.

Maieda Janjua ’17, a board member of the College’s Muslim student association Al-Nur, said that the group had dinner with Noorbakhsh Thursday night, as well as an impromptu visit to Everything But Anchovies after Noorbakhsh’s second show on Friday. She said they discussed their individual relationships with Islam.

Janjua said she enjoyed Noorbakhsh’s sense of humor and the way she defies stereotypes around Muslim women.

“My favorite thing about her was how personable she was and that she became buddies with us right away,” she said. “She is definitely not a Muslim woman in the way the media presents us, as weak and shy. She was so strong and loud and independent and funny.”

In addition to her comedy show, Noorbakhsh also co-hosts a podcast called “#GoodMuslimBadMuslim” that explores the female Muslim experience in America, and has had a series of other stand-up shows. While at the College, Noorbakhsh also spoke to religion and women, gender and sexulaity studies’ classes.