Maria Shehata mixes Middle East/US Midwest in comedy
London - Egyptian-American Maria Shehata got into comedy to break down the stereotype of the bomb-wielding, angry Arab prevalent in the United States. Born and brought up in Columbus, Ohio, Shehata’s comedy explores her perspective of growing up between the cultures of the Middle East and the US Midwest.
With the name “Maria”, she is often mistaken for being Hispanic, especially in Los Angeles. Shehata jokes about her background, such as her entire family welcoming her at the airport and constantly offering people food. She complains it is hard to find a partner and mocks arranged marriages.
Shehata has been involved in the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival almost from its beginning in 2003. The festival aims to increase “the visibility of talented Arab-American artists as well as attracting positive attention for the Arab-American community”.
“The Arab-American Comedy Festival came about because there was so much Islamophobia and the word ‘Arab’ had a negative connotation to it,” Shehata said after the Arabs are Not Funny show at Rich Mix in London.
“Every time you turn on the news or look at a newspaper, there’s always an angry Arab protesting something and our image looked really bad so we started a comedy festival to show: ‘Hey, we are funny people. We are light-hearted. We know how to make fun ourselves’,” she said.
Unlike many Middle Eastern comedians working in the West, Shehata does not solely play on her background and its stereotypes.
“I’m actually the least Arab- American comedian. I don’t do the funny accents,” she said. “I grew up in Ohio so I have my own point of view. I have about 5 minutes of Egyptian material but the rest is me being a human. Me being me.
“There are Arabs out there who are known for their Arab humour but I want to be known for just being a comedian.”
Shehata said she does not feel racism in the United States directed towards herself. “Americans like to pretend there is no problem and even if people secretly don’t like minorities, they will never say it out loud,” she said.
“I feel there is hidden racism. Some people will smile to your face but say something behind your back. I think there is a lot of racism towards Arabs but no one will admit it, until Donald Trump does and then they will,” she said with a laugh.
Shehata has appeared on The Watch List on cable network Comedy Central, which showcases Middle Eastern comedians, and Bridging the Gap, which brought Jewish and Muslim-American comics together on stage for Showtime, another cable network.
“So it’s always an Arab and a Jew. That was about Arab comedians and Jewish comedians. The idea was us laughing together to show we can understand each other if we laugh together. So I was just bridging gaps all over the place. I solved the Middle Eastern conflict with my comedy. I did it,” Shehata said.
Shehata is working on a documentary entitled United Ladies of Comedy about female comedians around the world and the similarities and differences between them.
“I filmed in London, Stockholm, New York, Ohio. I intend to film in Paris, Moscow, Mexico City and Singapore,” she said.
“Just like in the Middle East, these stand-up comedies are new and I want to talk to the girls starting in these new scenes and find out why they are doing it. My main concern is how females become comedians, if they have dating or family issues that lead (them) into comedy.”