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Finding comedy in conflict

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- It's hard to imagine anyone culling humor from recent events in the Middle East: Hamas gunmen took over the Gaza Strip during a week of bloody fighting against their Fatah rivals; Palestinian militants fired rockets into southern Israel; Israeli aircraft pounded targets in the Gaza Strip; and in Tel Aviv, thousands of peace activists protested the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

But that hasn't kept a group of comedians - three Jews and one Arab - from taking to the stage and trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to poke fun at themselves and their intractable conflict.

"Our goal is to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in six shows," Aaron Freeman, a Chicago-based comedian, tells a crowd of more than 100 Arabs and Jews gathered at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem.

"This is our eighth performance," he deadpans, as the room erupts in laughter. "But as our President Bush would say, we're making progress. For example, no one has been killed in this hotel during this performance yet."

Billed as the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour, the four comedians - an Israeli, an African-American Jew, an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem (who is originally a Roman Catholic from Philadelphia) and a Palestinian-American from Chicago - traveled around Israel this month performing in hotels, synagogues and arts centers.

Often tiptoeing the line between what's acceptable and what might be deemed offensive, they tackle subjects ranging from politics to suicide bombings and terrorism.

Their first goal is laughter. But if they can provide Israelis and Palestinians with a break from conflict and get them thinking about what they share instead of what separates them, that's OK too, they say.

'Process of changing'

"Some people sometimes leave upset. That's fine. You can't make everybody happy," says Ray Hanania, 53, a Palestinian-American whose family is from Bethlehem. "But I think they need to see this whether they leave happy or not. I think the comedy does start a process of changing.

"I really believe it gets people to look at each other in a different way," he added, "but it's not going to happen in just one show. It's going to take hundreds of shows."

"We are not going to change the world; we're going to make people laugh. If that changes the world, well then that's great," said Charley Warady, 51, a stand-up comedian from Chicago who moved to Israel in 1996. "We don't have a grand vision. We're stand-up comedians. But I would like to get the Nobel Peace Prize. In my opinion, if Jimmy Carter could get it, how hard could it be?"

The show is the brainchild of Hanania and Warady, who last year began discussing the idea of doing a comic routine focused on the Middle East. They brought Freeman, 51, an African-American Jewish comedian, and Yisrael Campbell, 44, an Orthodox Jewish comic living in Israel, on board and launched their first tour in Israel in January. This tour was their second trip to Israel. The group doesn't perform in the West Bank because of security concerns, although theaters in Ramallah and Bethlehem have expressed interest, organizers say.

That doesn't keep Hanania, who is also a political columnist and author, from imagining what they might call their show in the Palestinian territories.

"When we are in Israel we call it 'The Israel-Palestinian Comedy Tour.' When we go to the U.S., we call it 'Three Jews and an Arab.' When we go to Ramallah, we call it 'Ray Hanania and the Three Hostages,'" he says during his routine, pausing. "When we go to the Gaza Strip, we're 'The Four Hostages.'"

Much of the comedy is harmless. Nearly all the comics dwell on the recklessness of Israeli drivers. ("If Hamas really wants to kill Israelis they should just buy cars and leave them on the side of the road with the keys in them and go home and wait," said Campbell.) The annoyances of airport security for Arabs. ("When they ask me if I have a weapon of mass destruction, I say I am a weapon of mass destruction. I just ate a whole bowl of tabbouleh," quips Hanania.) And the dismal state of Israeli politics wracked by sex crimes and corruption. ("There was recently a survey that 85 percent of Israelis believe the government is corrupt. That means that 15 percent of the population is completely out of touch with reality," Campbell says.)

Pushing boundaries

At other times, the comedians push the boundaries of humor, taking swipes at Hamas and joking about suicide bombers.

When Warady delivered a joke about how Palestinians elected "a terrorist organization," Hamas, by accident because they switched the Arabic word for hummus and Hamas on the ballot, the largely Palestinian crowd was, at first, uncomfortably silent before chuckling politely.

Then Warady launched into a bit on suicide bombing.

"The last suicide bomber I just don't get. It's just not fair. The 57- year-old woman. Come on! Getting an angry, middle-aged, menopausal, hormone-imbalanced woman to strap explosives around her waist and sending her out telling her to kill as many men as possible? That's just too easy. And like what do they tell her? For the guys they say they'll get 72 virgins [in paradise]. They must tell this woman that she'll have 72 kids who will call every day and visit once in a while. I know my mom would blow herself up for that."

He won howls of laughter from all sides of the audience.

"I could feel the tension," Warady said after a recent performance. "But when they see it's in fun they let go. We are not only laughing at ourselves, we are laughing at each other."

Hanania lost his rhythm momentarily when he started a joke about the struggles of getting through security as an Arab.

"They asked me for my bag and I said that's not a bag. That's my wife. She's wearing a burqa," he said.

He was met by silence.

But no feelings were bruised, according to many audience members.

"I take comedy as comedy. I just came to laugh," says Ari Bronstein, 24, an Israeli computer technology worker from Jerusalem.

"It was good," said Sam Bahour, 42, a business consultant from Ramallah who laughed throughout the show. "It was a bit of fresh air when the reality is so bitter."

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