Allah Made Me Funny: Borscht Belt Goes Halal

I.

There is a scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker is training with the Jedi Master Yoda. Luke must enter a cave to learn a truth about himself. He enters the cave not know what he will find or what the truth he is searching for is.

Entering the darkened theater to watch film Allah Made Me Funny filled me with the same sort of dread that I imagine Luke is feeling as he enters his cave. I think, “will I learn something of myself watching this?” “Will I discover a great truth that I can spread?” “Will I go from being a Muslim padawan, to full-fledged Knight, perhaps even Master?” “Will the forces of ignorance and Islamophobia, the dark side which seems to be gaining power, fear me as a I complete my training?”

The answer to all these questions is “no.”

I am a Muslim padawan; as are these comedians; as is (what I imagine to be) the target audience. This is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, five years after Gulf War II, seven years after 9/11, fifteen years after the first bombing of the World Trade Center, fifteen years after Gulf War I, twenty-five years after the Beirut bombings, twenty-nine years after the Iranian hostage crisis, I am still waiting for the emergence of a Knight, or a council of Jedi, to fight the Sith.

The Muslim-American community is embattled and we offer a comedy tour as a response. A useful weapon, but a blaster when a lightsaber is needed.

The film is funny at points, but not laugh out-loud funny. (I should put as a caveat that humor is best shared and I saw this movie in an art-house theater on a weekday, with an audience of old men.) The film documents a performance of the three comedians on “The Allah Made Me Funny” tour: Mohammed (Mo, Mike) Amer. Azhar Usman (in the interests of full disclosure, I met Azhar at a conference a couple of years ago, and found his impromptu stylings tear-inducingly funny. I do not keep in contact with him.), and Preacher Moss (can a brother get your real name?). Each individual set is followed by a documentary segment that shows the individuals as people.

The humor in the movie is predictable. Each set can be divided into halves, with the first half focusing on ethnic/racial identity and the second half talking more generically about being Muslim. The ethnic humor is stock. Substitute “Jew” for “Arab” or “Indian” and it feels like a Jackie Mason schtick. For Preacher Moss, his material did not talk about the immigrant experience, but aside from a few quips on Americans being afraid of Blacks and Muslims, his material still felt dated, like it was coming from his days writing for “In Living Color.” The fact is, in America “Muslim” is being transformed into a race. I believe that to call someone “Muslim” is newly acceptable way of saying “[sand] nigger.” What “In Living Color” did was force us to have a new and more sophisticated discussion on race, and humor was the vehicle that forced that discussion. Dave Chapelle did something similar on his show. Muslim comedians do not have to be on the cutting edge of humor, but if the point is to have us enter into a greater discussion, it needs to be more targeted.

Perhaps the humor is sufficient and it was the biography that needed to be better. Mohammed Amer is married into a Latino family, his father-in-law is his comedic mentor, and his daughter carries the name “Gutierrez.” He is portrayed as ritualistically devout, so how did he navigate an inter-faith marriage? How did his wife’s family feel? I can understand not wanting to put the daughter in the spotlight, but they could have talked about how they decided to raise her in terms of her religion. Preacher Moss talks about his conversion to Islam and the initial resistance he met from his family. The details are absent and the reconciliation is not discussed. Azhar Usman’s wife is presented as outspoken and accomplished, he even jokes about it. She is a hijabi, so there is a story there about navigating career as a visible Muslim.

These are the daily travails that are hinted at in the movie, but never explored. The reality is that Muslims deal with inter-faith relationships, romantic and otherwise, on a daily basis. There is a way that the strongest reservations about other faiths can be bridged when trying to build or maintain community. Muslim women are successful. I do not think this film needed to be a full documentary on the comedians personal lives, but it did need to make them more human. I do not know how many people will connect to them as humans by watching them stare at a screen and type out ideas.

I say all of the above with the utmost love for my communities, Muslim and American, and the comedians who have the courage to both perform and to have it filmed to show around the world. I am critical. I want more. That is the academic and activist in me. Would I watch this again? Yes. Just as I listen to the CD repeatedly. Go with some friends. Have dinner afterward. Ask yourselves, did I laugh? Did I smile? Would others do the same? Will this start a conversation? I have to say “yes” to all of the above.

II.

When Luke is getting ready to enter the cave he is aware that he is potentially one of only two Jedi left alive. What binds Luke and Yoda together into one community? It is a belief in something larger, the Force, that gives such disparate beings a bond.

As Muslims, we like to think that ideally our faith of Islam gives us a similar bond. The reality is it does not. We see Muslims killing other Muslims throughout history, because there is no one Islam that we all agree to. Can there be a Muslim community that this film, described as a “Muslim Comedy Tour,” speaks for or to?

It is definitely all Muslims speaking on the stage. To that extent it is a “Muslim Comedy Tour.” However, when I first heard it, my thought was that this film is attempting to define a Muslim identity. It is not. It is not fair to the producers and actors to expect them to do so. However, as Muslims are besieged in act and speech, will we see a resurgence of a universal sense of Muslim-ness?

Worldwide, I do not think so. In the US, I think there is a great deal of potential for us to see that result. I work with adolescent Muslim communities in a faith-based capacity, offering guidance, teaching, and just being available. I travel around the country to do this work. Prior to 9/11, I would say that most of the kids were inward-looking regarding their faith. Like most adolescents, fitting in was paramount, so their faith questions were variations of the theme of “why am I different?” This emerged from interactions with Muslim communities from different parts of the world, or from different communities of interpretation, that highlighted differences from the way things were done at home. After 9/11, the questions changed. They were more outward looking. “How do I explain my faith?” This description is brief and anecdotal, but serves to highlight how being Muslim, because of the ascriptive nature of the label, is forcing the community to come together.

The meaning of diaspora is changing. It used to be a physical exile from a place, now it can refer to a community that feels alienated for perceived “otherness.” Muslim in this country are becoming part of a diaspora, not from a place, but from an ideal, the American ideal of all us living together peacefully. In the US, more so than in some European countries, the civic institutions exist to allow diaspora communities to be both marginal and active in shaping their acceptance into the mainstream. It is not perfect, but it does allow for the existence of a film like Allah Made Me Funny.

When these comedians made jokes about Muslim life in America, any Muslim-American could relate, regardless of point of origin or time in this country or time in the faith. There is something unique about our faith in this country, both with respect to what we are doing to our faith and what is being done to our faith. We are becoming a greater community that does not exist elsewhere in the Muslim world. When people use the term “Muslim” as a derogatory appellation, it makes the community stronger. What we have to be careful of is that strength coming from a place of rage rather than pride. Allah Made Me Funny, helps to keep us from that dark place.

III.

When Luke sees the cave for the first time, we are struck by how unkempt it is. It is organic and natural. It was not created by Yoda or anyone else. When one sees the website for Allah Made Me Funny, one notices the presence of One Nation Media and Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), two organizations who feature prominently at the end of the movie as well. Both are fantastic organizations. I use UPF materials for teaching and I have friends at One Nation. I do not know if this movie would have been made without their support.

However, I have to wonder if that is a problem with respect to the Muslim-American community. When I think of “Oh, God!” or “Spaceballs,” these are great Jewish movies as well as comedies. They are not labeled as such, but they show how Judaism is both normative and normatized in the American context. The American Jewish Committee did not have to sponsor them. Even the more recent ”The Original Kings of Comedy,” and “The Original Latin Kings of Comedy,” did not have institutional support of the type Allah Made Me Funny received.

Again, I think it was necessary, but where do we go from here? How long can we have institutions propping up our cultural growth? At some point the Muslim-American community is going to need something more organic. We have musicians, actors, athletes, etc., all over the country. Maybe we need to start giving them more support. We also need to give recognition to shows that portray Muslims positively, not just condemn negative portrayals. When I say positive, I do not mean necessarily as Muslims can do no wrong, but that Muslims are people, who struggle with their conscience like every other person.

IV.

When Luke finally does enter the cave, sees his nemesis Darth Vader. He slays the simulacrum and Vader’s helmet splits open revealing Luke’s face. The message is that the darkness is not far from us, but is within us. We find out at the end of the movie that Vader is Luke’s father, so perhaps Luke is guilty by association as well.

I was aware of walking into that theater in a way that I am not usually. I am a Muslim walking into a film about Muslims. Would I be marked by the government as a potential traitor? I was a Muslim walking into a film about Muslims. Would I be the target of a hate crime? Would there be other Muslims there whom I should not be associated with? Whether I talk to them or not, I am in the same place at the same time? What if one of them is later accused of a crime? Will I too be guilty?

The darkness that was outside was inside me as well. I am not afraid to say I am Muslim. I am afraid to be associated with Muslims. I am afraid to live my life as an American and go see a movie. The fear that pervades our society now regarding Muslims is beginning to be my fear. The Dark Side is winning.

Last week my two children were called “fucking terrorists,” and someone else commented that they deserved it because of what 19 men did four years before my eldest was born. However, it was OK because I look like a person, not a Muslim. What Allah Made Me Funny has the promise to do is to keep a spark burning that it is not all doom and gloom. To remind us of what else our Muslim and American identities hold. At the end of the film, they interviewed audience members to get their reactions of the show. It seems like all the interviewees were Muslim. This is not a film, or a tour, of Muslims for Muslims. It is for people. It would have been nice to see non-Muslims commenting on the show. We needed to be reminded that we are not living in ghettos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *