The Power of SWANA Comedians: Meet Yeganeh Mafaher

Yeganeh Mafaher
Yeganeh Mafaher

By Janelle Jajou (she/her/hers)

Hey, everyone! I was pumped to sit down and speak candidly with a funny and genuine SWANA comedian about her upcoming show, “The Arab Spring Comedy Show” in NYC, which premieres this Tuesday, July 20th. Yeganeh Mafaher (she/her/hers) has an unlimited passport for all viewers who want to take a tour of Southwest Asia and North Africa with an all-female lineup, consisting of both comedians and activists. The show promises to deliver laughs, while touching on deep topics such as the Arab Spring demonstrations, with a comedic outlook.

Read on to hear Yeganeh and I discuss the show, double standards for SWANA women, using comedy to process trauma, and why Conan O’Brien can’t tell jokes about Morocco.

Part I: Identity

“Sometimes, I’ll get comedians who are like, ‘Ooh, the Iranian comic! You were good.’ Like, I have a name!”

J: For our lovely audience, could you please introduce yourself and share a little about yourself?

Y: My name is Yeganeh Mafaher. I am originally from Iran, but I grew up in California. I came to New York to go to college, and that’s when I started doing stand-up comedy. I focus a lot on cultural events. Before the pandemic, I worked with a lot of Jewish performers, trying to bridge a gap between Arab and Jewish performers, but more recently, I‘ve been trying to give a voice to female non-Arab Middle Eastern performers, Black Muslims, and just trying to make an audience for female performers.

J: And give voice to people that may not have that opportunity in more traditional comedy circles.

Y: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s one thing to be a woman in comedy, you’re surrounded by...older, kind of sleazy men sometimes. If you do stand-up comedy, there’s never really management you can call if something bad happens.

With my previous show that I did - this is like, part good thing, part bad thing - but we hired a very expensive videographer for our show that we had at the Jewish cultural center. He actually hit on me in a very uncomfortable manner, and we ended up getting him for completely free [laugh]. So it was one of the worst things ever, but then we’re like, “Oh my god, we saved so much money.” He just didn’t expect me to say anything, you know what I mean?

It’s not always just the comedians that can make it hard for female performers, sometimes it’s photographers or the venue space. Luckily, the show I’m working on currently, I’m working with a woman, and everything is very female-identifying.

So yeah, it’s very exciting, giving voice to people that have experienced some negative things in the past.

J: As you pointed out, it’s not just being a woman in comedy, and being disrespected by other comedians that’s difficult, but also not even being respected as a professional by other professionals you’re working with. That’s so frustrating. I’m so sorry you had that experience.

Y: I think people who have been in that industry are so used to having the girls kind of letting it pass, not having anywhere to go to, but now with social media, we have different tools. So one of the things I’m lucky in is that he didn’t only do it in person; I had receipts online, which maybe not every woman has the exact proof of it, but I had proof, and he was like, [gasp] “My services are free.”

J: Yeah, it’s crazy that anyone has to “show proof” of it. So, that answered a little of my next question, which is: how is your experience as a woman, but also as a woman from a minority background - if you want to talk about how you identify specifically - how has that shaped your experience and understanding of comedy in America?

Y: For some reason, when I moved here, I really wanted to stray away from saying my ethnicity. I don’t know. Sometimes, it was made a joke by people like Aziz Ansari, or people that did accents and made fun of their parents and made us seem like not the most attractive, or just the stereotypes - like, the woman has a big nose, and this and that. Like, why is that even a bad thing? I don’t know, making us seem...undesirable. So I didn’t want to say it.

And I am - maybe not this moment because it’s summer - but I am generally white-passing. So I didn’t necessarily face that discrimination unless I outwardly said, “I am from Iran.” But I was very, very lucky in that.

And this is a privilege in itself, but I met a white woman who started hosting these open mics with me, and it allowed for income from doing comedy. We made it female-oriented and everything was really nice. Because of her, I met everyone I know in comedy, and I know it didn’t need to be so toxic and terrible, so I started saying my ethnicity. Sometimes, I’ll get comedians who are like, “Ooh, the Iranian comic, you were good.” Like, I have a name! [Laughs]

J: It’s like you’re fighting--there’s so many battles to be fought, right? It’s like the general, already racist, preconceived notions of Iranians - or people from the SWANA region - and not only that, but people are actually from those backgrounds then using it for comedy, and it’s like: which audience are they catering to?

Y: Yeah. I think Dave Chapelle said something very interesting once [that] one of the reasons he walked away from his show was because he felt like he was making a white audience laugh at anti-Black racism.

“...Showing through comedy that we have these amazing, crazy stories, and we experience them maybe in America or abroad, but hearing it from a Middle Eastern person who’s not ashamed of being Middle Eastern, or saying, ‘That's the culture I left behind to be American.’”

Part II: The Arab Spring Comedy Show

J: Who would you say your audience is for this show?

Y: I think it’s for everyone. Last year, I worked on a show with a Jewish-Arab audience, and an anyone audience because we talked of the peace that could come with it. We ended up not going forward with that this time because of how sensitive the topic is right now, and we wanted to keep it safe for everyone involved. But I think our audience should be for everyone.

I personally identify as a Christian-Iranian, so it’s not even just for Muslims or Arabs - I think it could be anyone who wants to learn about our culture...I think everyone likes it once they open up to it. They’re like, “Oh, it’s not high school. It’s not a lunch table I can’t sit at.”

The performers happen to be from those countries...because I don't want someone not from Pakistan to talk about Pakistan. And I tried to make an effort that it wouldn’t even be from the same Middle Eastern countries because I did want the fake plane ride we’re on to land in different countries. [But] the performer would be from the country they’re speaking about.

J: Right, we wouldn’t want a Conan O’Brien-looking dude to talk about--

Y: Morocco.

J: In another interview for your previous show, you discussed how your comedy is perceived back home, or across seas. Do you have any expectations as to how the Arab Spring show will be received from non-Americans?

Y: When I did the "Shalom, Habibi" show, I just had to accept that I could not go back to Iran. I always knew it was gonna be bad because I posted a pic in a bikini. Things like that, that anyone in Iran might delete their Instagram before they go back, you know? There’s ways to hide it.

As sad as it is, my mom’s uncle worked for a law firm in Iran that got bought, and the law firm’s owner became Israeli. The Iranian government assumed everyone working became a spy, so they all hanged. That actually happened. So when I did a show [at the Jewish Cultural Center], I had to accept at that point that maybe times have changed, but I would never risk going back, knowing the way they handle things when there's one hint of Israel, they just wipe it.

But the safety thing - it’s pretty big. Most performers that choose not to be recorded, they’re either saying something their family doesn't know yet, or they wanna safely go back and forth.

I hope this show is an ongoing event we can have, so that we can fit in more performers from more countries, and more diversity. Because a performer from those countries does exist, it's just sometimes hard to find them. I've even met a comedian who performs a lot in NYC, but if you see her performance, you're not allowed to videotape it. You're not allowed to do anything where her family could know what she's saying.

J: To maintain safety in being anonymous.

Y: There is a safety concern. Certain countries, if they see a video of you doing a certain thing - it's not gonna be good for your family.

“It’s a comedy show, but I think it’s important during it to talk about how it’s not in our blood to be at war.”

J: Was the show born out of you and other performers and friends wanting to share their experiences in comedy form?

Y: The show was originally supposed to happen before the pandemic hit...the performers have changed a little bit depending on who left because of the pandemic, but I have some people who are not comedians - some people who are Palestinian activists. I have, unfortunately, had to turn some people away because of recent Israel-Palestine issues, and I want to make it a really welcoming space because I have worked with Jewish and Arab performers before. I have no issue working with Jewish performers. There’s Middle Eastern--Palestinian Jewish people, there’s Iranian Jewish people. That was never an issue. The only issue I have is a Zionist kind of a play. I don't wanna make it a toxic environment, so we unfortunately had to let go two performers because of that.

It ranges from comedians to activists, and I really want to make it as if you get a passport--I want to make it like an airplane ride, and you keep landing in these different countries, and a different performer comes up. Our performers range from Egyptian, Palestinian, Pakistani, and Iranian.

I tried to get it specifically so the countries that were in the Arab Spring - the protests that sprung up - because I know Iranians aren't technically Arab, but they were in the Arab Spring. We have two Iranian performers, so I prefaced it with that.

But I want to make it like we’re on this airplane that keeps landing, and it’s a positive one where your passport keeps getting stamped, and you go through and you learn all these things. And there’s a part where you can answer questions and win gift cards to different Arab restaurants in New York, so you can support their small businesses. It will be fun.

“So many of our parents and aunts are so funny in their little gossip circles...but they just keep it inside and the men...are always the ones doing the talking - the personality of it all.”

J: It’s called the Arab Spring Comedy Show, and I'm curious because this year, of course, is the 10-year anniversary since the start of the Arab Spring. A couple of the countries you mentioned may not be considered Arab, but they also played a part and were affected by that. Is that something you guys will hit on in your plane ride around those countries?

Y: I think it’s important that we remember those things, and why a lot of protests now look the way they do, and what happened. Iran, for instance, they’ve had so many revolutions that they started colorizing them. They did the red one, which was the bloody one, they did the green one, which is the peaceful one.

There’s been so much, and a lot of Middle Eastern people I've talked to will agree that people in the Western world see us as this group that is always at war and is immune to it. It’s not like Middle Eastern people are born and they’re like, “Oh, I’ll be fine. War is gonna happen.” It’s always shocking. People just assume everyone there can cope with it. I really wanna address that with this show, that these events - the Arab Spring, the revolutions that happened, the civil wars, everything - it’s not normal. It’s painful for the people who are from there. Even if you are lucky enough to come to America, our parents have these traumas and PTSD from those events.

It’s a comedy show, but I think it’s important during it to talk about how it’s not in our blood to be at war. It’s not normal for us to see things blown up.

J: How do you guys plan to tackle the more serious topic of that trauma associated with revolution and war, and then turn it into comedy?

Y: I think the most interesting comedy is always one that makes you uncomfortable, or one from someone that you might have not seen before.

I know many people, when they think of comedians, might not have a Middle Eastern favorite in mind, so it’s quite rare that it’s a female Middle Eastern performer giving you this. So we all handle trauma in different ways when it’s done in comedic ways.

I think it’s very relieving and nice. I think our parents and the generation before had a difficult time with that. So when someone our age or a little bit older is doing comedy, I just know they’ve been through so much with getting through that mindset of like, “We came all the way to America to be doctors, and this is what you chose?” But it just proves that the person performing has thick skin because if you could get past that with your parents, it means you really want it, and what you’re discussing is always gonna be important.

Just showing that they’re using this pain to make people happy and also thinking about it - like, it’s not over, let’s not forget it - so that’s what I hope to do. And I talk about my own things, too, because it sure wasn’t easy convincing my parents to let me--you know, the move here was worth it when I was like, “I just wanna make jokes.” They were like, “Can we tell people you’re a pharmacist back home?” [Laughs]

J: Yeah, I totally get that. It’s like you’re either a doctor, an engineer, or the only third category is: “Disappointment.”

Y: Literally. I think they don’t really care. They just want something to say for back home. Like, you could be making quadruple the money and they’d still say, “Can we say this instead back home?”

“ grandma's flashbacks were about a horrible war, and mine is just like, “I slipped on a banana peel.”

J: Comedy, especially for women of SWANA background - it’s even less traditional. I feel like, obviously, if it was a male SWANA comedian, that would be way different, you know?

Y: Yes, because even at our family parties, husbands are always the ones who are going around, teasing the kids, and the women are sometimes more gentle and soft-spoken, so when it’s the woman who’s the loudest one in the room, everyone’s like, what?

J: They’re scared. They’re intimidated. They don’t know how to process that in their heads.

Y: I know. So many of our parents and aunts are so funny in their little gossip circles. If they honed in on that, it would be so funny, but they just keep it inside and the men - well, I don’t know if there’s even that many male [SWANA] comedians, but the men are always the one doing the talking - the personality of it all.

J: Typically when SWANA women - or at least the SWANA women that I've known - enter [comedy], the first thing that kinda gets people going is the insecurity with the hair and basically everything else that “others” us. Is that anything that you touch on in Arab Spring Comedy Show? Just the experience of being perceived as different in a negative way?

Y: During my set, I’ll definitely talk about that, just because that’s so important to me. I wish I had that growing up as a kid, knowing that all of this hatred towards your hair, your nose, even your body--I talk about this a lot, but a lot of Middle Eastern parents - or even aunts so distant away - will comment on your weight and say that you’re too thick, and other things. Like, “What do you want? Princess Jasmine?” What is the perfect thing?

I talk about it a lot myself just because my family is very, very obsessed with that. My mom had a nose job when she was 16, I had cousins going to Turkey because they couldn't do a nose job before 18 in America, and they wanted to do it at 15. It’s so crazy. I don’t think many kids grow up thinking they can even fly across the world to get a nose job cause they’re so unhappy. If you go to Turkey and Iran, a lot of people on their flight have tape on their noses.

“ sure wasn’t easy convincing my parents to let me - you know, the move here was worth it when I was like, ‘I just wanna make jokes.’ They were like, ‘Can we tell people you’re a pharmacist back home?’”

J: We’ve talked a little about “Arab Spring,” and how you wanna educate people on traumatic experiences, bringing comedy into that human experience. What else do you wanna tell through this story?

Y: I would just love if people saw that we have personalities and different things we go through; we’re not all these quiet girls who don’t say much, or that we’re not all Muslim, or devout people who don’t do crazy things that maybe our white friends do. And maybe we make really bad mistakes. Not necessarily “Americanizing” ourselves, but showing that we experience the same things. Like maybe we’ve tried a drug, maybe we’ve done this or that.

There’s this video that opened my eyes that said--this girl who I think was Lebanese grew up in New Jersey. And her mom put so many rules on her. She wasn’t allowed to have sleepovers, she wasn’t allowed to do this or that. And then she goes to Lebanon, and all her cousins are allowed to do it. And it’s just so crazy that whenever a Middle Eastern woman does something crazy here, they say you’re being “American,” but if you go back to those countries--like, my cousins in Iran do drugs. And I don't. I don't even drink, so it’s so funny to me.

I really want to talk about that and also what I said earlier, that our countries didn't always look war-torn. Women in Iran could wear bikinis and drink and go to movies and do whatever - so breaking that idea that anytime we do something fun we’re “Americanizing.” And showing through comedy that we have these amazing, crazy stories, and we experience them maybe in America or abroad, but hearing it from a Middle Eastern person who’s not ashamed of being Middle Eastern, or saying “that's the culture I left behind to be American.” Like no, I’m still Middle Eastern, and I did those crazy things, and this is a story, and you don't have to feel shame for doing what you did.

J: That would be so meaningful to the girls that have that shared, lived experience, and maybe that could inspire them to tell their own stories and share through comedy.

Y: Yeah! It’s just really sad, the shame that goes with it. It’s almost like the south with churches. A “don’t ask, don't tell situation” of the people who grew up in America, but are Middle Eastern - not knowing if they fit into that, doing crazy things, or just sitting at home and doing their education and what you said earlier: either a doctor, or disappointment. But why? Why is there that shame of choosing to do something else?

J: Right, the only options are these extremes, and if you don’t fit into the good, acceptable extreme, that’s it. You’re not wife-able, you can’t--it’s the point of no return.

It’s funny you said they can’t do these “crazy” things, and one of those crazy things, at least for me and a lot of SWANA women I know: wearing shorts!

Y: Yeah! Like, once a week. I had Mondays. If I wanted to wear shorts, it was like, “You wore it yesterday. You got that advantage already.”

J: If you went out the other day, you can’t go out today, you already-

Y: You already had fun. Why do you wanna have fun again? But then, the guys, they’re like, “I’m gonna go play football,” and the mom doesn’t even listen. But I'm counting down the day I get to wear shorts and exit.