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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Rising Palestinian-Kuwaiti comic Eman El-Husseini: ‘Comedy is the best way to get through to people’

Along with the rise of fellow Canadians Russell Peters and Sugar Sammy, El-Husseini fills a still-yawning void in the entertainment business – the prominent ethnic comedian.
The multilingual comic Eman El-Husseini. Photo by Amelie Cousineau
The multilingual comic Eman El-Husseini. Photo by Amelie Cousineau

“Being a Palestinian-Kuwaiti and Muslim, there was no way to avoid being political.”

Likewise, there was no way for Eman El-Husseini to avoid being funny. So why not combine the two, right?

Born in Kuwait and raised in Montreal, El-Husseini is much sought-after on the comedy circuit – so much so that next year, the rising young star will be moving to New York City to plunge into the major league of the business.

“When you’re onstage there, you’re super-motivated,” she says. “You have to bring your A-game every night. even though sometimes there’s nobody in the audience – just a bunch of comics.

“But they might be really important comics.” And so might she. Along with the rise of fellow Canadians Russell Peters and Sugar Sammy, El-Husseini fills a still-yawning void in the entertainment business – the prominent ethnic comedian.

Born in Kuwait, she and her family moved to Montreal in 1990 “during the first Gulf War. We had planned on moving in 1991, but ‘circumstances’ sped things up”.

Never mind the culture shock – what about the climate? Montreal has one of the fiercest winters on the planet, with an average January temperature of -10°C.

“At first, I was super-excited about the snow,” she says. “And of course Kuwait is hot – like 50°C hot, so the idea of cold and snow were really appealing. But that was short-lived. Snowmen, skiing, skating! But forget it.”

In any case, she wasn’t going to be a hockey player.

“I always wanted to be in entertainment industry. I felt there was a lack of Middle Eastern representation.” Her father, interestingly, wanted her to be a politician, “but I just couldn’t. You have to watch what you say too much. And it’s too preachy and there are too many lies. Comedy is the best way to get through to people. Because they listen to you when you make them laugh”.

Her family was always supportive. Her father is an “open-minded, liberal person, I always say I have the same mindset as him. A critical thinker, doesn’t deal well with ignorance, big supporter of women. Such a great, encouraging person”.

English is El-Husseini’s third language after Arabic and French.

Initially, she wasn’t even aware “you could do stand-up for career. I tried to get into acting, but I was so terrible at it. It was so hard to not be myself”.

Then came the epiphany – the night she knew she could do this. It was in 2008, the anniversary of September 11 attacks, “and I was bombing terribly at an open mic night. It just happened to be September 11th, and so I spontaneously joked that it was my parents’ wedding anniversary, and people lost their minds with laughter.

“And I thought, ‘There’s something here – people want to hear something different, and it’s actually my story’”. That moment not only reassured her she was funny, it also revealed that she could inject a Muslim perspective into the business.

El-Husseini might have faced double resistance in comedy – as an Arab, and as a woman. But “as difficult as it is to be a female in the industry, there’s still a demand for it. I might get some opportunities quicker, but I still have to prove myself. And I still have to deal with getting onstage and seeing people roll their eyes because I’m female and Middle Eastern. I think people were curious about what I had to say, which made it easier”, she says.

“Being in the entertainment industry as a Middle Eastern person really gives us a voice – because people really usually fear the worst. We need Arabs in the media. Because the news will only cover terrorism or refugees. You’ll never see just regular Arabs.”

But she is aware of her own goals, how they feed an approach that mines her ethnic background, but does not exploit it.

“The basic thing is, my intention is never to offend. It’s always to entertain, and hopefully the message follows that.”

In fact, she calls her act Emantertainment. “I try to make light of differences, but also to shed light on things.”

She has not received any flak from her community: “I do Muslim gigs all the time, I just came back from the New York Arab Comedy Festival.”

“Being funny really bewilders people,” she says. “It’s like ‘You have the guts to call yourself funny?’ It’s not like people don’t believe it, they want immediate proof. But when somebody laughs, it’s an honest reaction. It’s so gratifying for me to hear a genuine laugh coming from an audience. It’s such a beautiful thing.”

artslife@thenational.ae