A Muslim Woman Walks Into a Bar...
Comic Tissa Hami finds humor in the most unexpected material — and audiences can't stop laughing.
Among stand-up comedians, women are a minority, Muslims a tiny minority, and female Muslim comics -- well, the idea itself is almost funny. Tissa Hami launched her unconventional act late in 2002 at the Comedy Studio above the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square, wearing a stage costume of head scarf and long black coat. She was on a program called "Sacrificing Virgins," a kind of graduation ceremony for first-timers completing a stand-up course at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and the sacrifice part had her worried. All of Hami's material plays off her experience as an Iranian-American Muslim woman, not exactly a background that inspired laughter in the States barely a year after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"With the anti-Muslim sentiment around, I had no idea how people would react," she says. "I was terrified." But this was liberal Cambridge, and Hami's act convulsed the audience. At the outset, she warned them that anyone who didn't like her jokes would be taken hostage. Then she described how, at mosques, women pray in the back, behind the men, something that Americans might view as oppression of Muslim women. But actually, Hami explained, "we just like the view," adding, "We're praying for a piece of that." She even mocked her own slacker approach to Islam: "During Ramadan, I skip lunch." And she fumed at having to undergo full-body searches at airport security: "I was hoping to save that for the honeymoon." The audience roared.
Afterward, Comedy Studio owner Rick Jenkins did a rare thing: On the spot, he booked Hami for the following week, on a Saturday-night show, no less, that included celebrated local comic Jimmy Tingle. (Tingle calls Hami "really funny, a great joke writer, very original and clever," and he has twice had her play his own club, Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway theater in Somerville.) "We need people who bring unique personal perspectives to the stage," says Jenkins. "Too often, comedians try to be like everyone else. Most take a year or so to develop their own voice; Tissa started with one."
It's not hard to understand why. For Tissa Hami, 31 (her names, she says, rhyme with "Lisa" and "mommy"), discrimination started long before 9/11, when she was 6 years old. Her family had moved from Iran to Boston a year before the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, and schoolmates in Lexington teased her mercilessly about her Mideastern appearance, her parents' accents, and their foreign-sounding name. Like many future comedians, Hami didn't fit in. ("I'm not an Arab, and I'm not Jewish," she says in her act. "But there's one thing the Arabs and Jews can agree on: They hate Iranians. So why not piss them both off?") Hami recalls watching television as a child and thinking that "the closest thing to someone who looked like me was Connie Chung, and that's not very close."
Another image that doesn't resonate for her is a widely published photograph of a crowd of Muslim women, their heads and bodies veiled in blue burkas. "This is how people think of us: faceless, nameless, voiceless, powerless, at the mercy of our men," Hami says. "I had a vision that it would be funny to have this veiled woman onstage cracking jokes about airport security, talking back, fighting back. "And that's what she does, offering sassy, sexual, sarcastic takes on Islamic womanhood. Like many comedians, she spins laughter out of anger, turning Islamic stereotypes inside out. A conversation about sexual harassment and stalking leads her to muse, "Of course, in the old country, that's how you got a wife." When asked why there aren't more female Muslim stand-up comics, she says, "I didn't want the competition, so I stoned them."
Hami's dentist mother and computer-scientist father do fit in; they are well-assimilated professionals in Weston, where Tissa Hami also lives. ("We're not just Muslims," Hami remarks onstage. "Dammit, we're New England Muslims. We love our lamb chowder.") She earned degrees in international relations from Brown and Columbia and works a day job in admissions at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Hami got a grass-roots taste of foreign affairs a few years ago during a six-month visit with her extended family in Iran. Onstage, she says that when asked whether people in the Middle East really live in tents, she replies, "Only when Bush bombs their houses."
But that's probably her most political joke. "Current-events jokes have a short shelf life," she explains. "Since I'm lazy, I try not to do them. I want to bring my life to the stage." She's been doing so about 10 times a month for more than a year now and finding kindred spirits, as in the Women of Color in Comedy festival, which began in 2000 at the Comedy Studio and includes sidesplitting acts by Latino, African-American, Asian, Puerto Rican, Indian, and Native American women. "You don't have to lean on the old sexual stuff," says Deb Farrar-Parkman, an African-American comic and one of the festival's organizers. "Smarter audiences want more inventive material."
Still, not everyone is embracing Islamic satire. This spring, a consortium of Muslim student groups in the Northampton area canceled Hami's appearance at the last minute after visiting her website (www.tissahami.com) and deciding that her material was inappropriate for their audience. Such resistance rings with irony in light of what a man who taught in a Muslim school told Hami after she had spoken at a diversity conference at Rhode Island College. "You should see these girls growing up in the shadow of 9/11 -- they're so depressed," the teacher said. "They have no image of themselves except as terrorists."
Now they do, as Tissa Hami breaks up both audiences and their preconceived notions. She's even working on her rather traditional parents, who have seen Hami's act but still aren't quite sure what to make of it. "They think," she says, "that it's not too late for me to go to medical school."
Craig Lambert is deputy editor of Harvard Magazine.