In 2011, Dean Obeidallah my trustworthy co-producer at the New York Arab American Comedy Festival approached me with what seemed like a brilliant idea. He had partnered with an Iranian-American filmmaker and wanted to take a band of Muslim comics to the Deep South in August during Ramadan to perform in cities that had banned masjid and burned Quran. The trip was going to be filmed for a documentary. We would fly to Florida and then road trip to Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. I had no idea that the folks in the South would be so kind or that the other producer could be so evil.
I have changed said producer’s name for this blog because seven years later, she has become a superwoman. Instead, I will just call her Tammy. I had met and worked with Tammy before, but you really don’t know a person until you’ve travelled the Deep South during Ramadan with them. The upside was that Tammy was proof that Muslim women are not a monolith and are far from oppressed. In Tammy’s case she was the poster child for privilege. She also had a fetish for pig and insisted on stopping for lunch on our road trip at places that roasted swines. As she noshed, I would sit in the blazing hot sun unable to drink water because I was fasting. I resisted the urge to commit hara-kiri because I didn’t want to be accused by the mainstream media of terrorism. I pictured the evening news: “Muslim woman commits jihad on people enjoying pig”.
Bonus, Tammy was not funny. She insisted on blaming the audience’s refusal to laugh on them being conservative Muslims, even though the majority of our audiences were whiter than the Pillsbury dough boy and certainly not Muslim.
The one or two Muslims who did show up proved her wrong because they laughed at me, and I’m as far from conservative as you can be.
The tour kicked off in Gainesville, Florida. When we arrived, Dean was as excited as Dick Clark on New Year’s Eve, when Dick Clark was still alive. Tammy was doubled-over, grasping her head, and shrieking. She wept that she didn’t think she could go on, to which I responded helpfully, “Go home!” There is no crying in comedy.
I figured it couldn’t get any worse and so I looked forward to kicking off our road trip, thinking these were just pre-filming jitters and that Tammy would be better in the morning. I was wrong. She was like a cartoon version of a high school mean girl. She hated me because I was prettier. She hated me because I got more laughs. And most of all, she hated me because I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t care if she had a headache. I didn’t care if she had a bad set. And I didn’t care if our jokes hurt her feelings, which they always did. One of her most memorable breakdowns was when our two fellow guy comics, asked each other for the camera’s sake “If you had to marry Tammy or Maysoon, who would you marry?” Before anyone could answer, I piped in, “Obviously you’d both pick me because no one could handle listening to Tammy’s annoying voice day in and day out.” The guys cracked up and Tammy broke down. She started crying hysterically because my joke broke her feelzies. I am not an advocate for bullying, we were on a comedy tour and comedians are known for viciously mocking each other. If you think we have no mercy on stage, you should see us in the green room. Tammy was still crying, we were all laughing, and I was still fasting.
Our next stop was Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. The venue we were performing in had no food, just alcohol. So unless I wanted to break my fast with a shot of Southern Comfort, I was out of luck. Mid-show the sun set and I downed a glass of water to hold me over. After the show finished, I informed Tammy that it was of the utmost necessity that I be fed immediately since the sun had set two hours earlier and I had yet to eat anything but water. Tammy said, “We’re in a hurry and there is no time for that.” She suggested I get a bagel from Seven Eleven. I calmly explained to her that she was the Devil and that a bagel would not sustain me for the next day of fasting. Her response stunned me. She shrieked in my face “no one told you to fast, Maysoon.” To which I responded, “Nobody told you to shoot a documentary about Muslims during the month of Ramadan. How are you surprised that one of us is actually fasting? I repeat you are the Devil.” At this point Dean intervened and whisked me away to a sports bar where I was able to find some halal sustenance. As I chomped down on a mozzarella stick, I explained to Dean that Tammy was Satan and that she had been sent to ruin his Muslim movie. He told me to drink more iced tea. And the tour went on.
Tammy made us do stupid things like stand on railroads reenacting a scene from Stand by Me. I refused to because it was an active train track and I have Cerebral Palsy which makes standing on a train tracks a bad idea. Tammy claimed I was ruining her movie by not getting run over. She also wanted us to hold “Hug a Muslim” signs in Alabama. I don’t even like having people I like touch me. I’m not letting some sweaty southerner hug me to prove that Muslims aren’t all terrorists. By the time we got to Mississippi, only Dean and I were talking to each other. The other comic had also come to the conclusion that Tammy was the anti-Christ and had contemplated leaving the tour to go read the Quran for one year straight in order to cleanse the Tammy out of him.
In every single city, Tammy insisted I go on before her. I would kill it and she would get on stage and crash and burn. I always admired her perseverance. She never gave up trying to follow me, even though she never succeeded. We were at Elvis’ house in Tupelo, Mississippi when the Devil finally won. The statue of Elvis started talking to me and I had to break my fast and drink water. I had started fasting when I was eight and I had never broken down before. I don’t know if it was the heat, the hate, or being in the presence of The King that did me in.
Those were the longest ten days of my life. Dean had to beg me to sign the release. After what I believe was ten days of torture, I ended up being in the movie for like 15 seconds. Mostly I’m just flapping around in the background. As a Muslim I shouldn’t be suggesting this, but I highly recommend getting a copy of the documentary and playing a little drinking game. Drink every time you see one of my limbs or my entire body flop into the shot. By the middle of the movie, you’ll be so trashed that Tammy will seem funny. Years later, I came to appreciate my ten days in the Deep South. It gave me street-cred. I do interviews and brag about how I spent ten days fasting in the blazing heat surrounded by hate, doing comedy in the former Confederate States. I just never mentioned who that hate was coming from, and even forgot about the hate when I saw that our movie was on iTunes at #1.
The moral of the story is never do a tour during Ramadan in the deep south with an irate Iranian.