Reem Edan is no ordinary comedian.
Born the daughter of Iraqi parents, Reem’s stand-up comedy performances have quickly caught the attention of audiences and critics alike for her brazen viewpoints on this post 9/11 world. Twenty-six and full of gall for the state her country is in, Edan is quick to chow down on the realities of leading an American life on the edge of the aftermath of cross-cultural tension with the Middle East. She is set to take on her biggest career event in the coming week, headlining at the Asian Comedy Night in London, before coming back to the U.S to no doubt shed light on the current state of affairs in Brexit’s capital. Below she shares with SWAAY a tumult of facts about her life, the current state of American politics, and quirks of growing up a Muslim-American.
In Her Own Words:
The opening line of my first stand-up performance in summer 2016 was, “I’m Muslim. Unless Trump is elected -- in which case, I’m fu**ed.”
Obviously, I had to update that line and make it truthful for the present tense. There’s a lot I have to say about our current political climate, especially in relation to the issues it brings up with my religion, heritage, and culture. I won’t get into that here (I’ll save that for the stage) but I think now more than ever, it’s our responsibility as global citizens to speak out against unjust in the world and speak up for what we believe.
I woke up on November 9 very confused. I had been in Europe the two weeks prior (where I performed stand-up in Amsterdam) and joked there about what was going on in our country. I didn’t think Trump was going to win, and wanted to give off a good impression to those I met about Americans. “We won’t let that happen,” I joked around, “and if so, I’ll move to Amsterdam...”
The night of the election I fell asleep early, tired with jetlag. When I woke up, I had a pit feeling in my stomach and knew something was wrong. It was that day I realized -- when it truly hit home -- that I had to use my gift and my platform for the greater good.
I woke up with a renewed sense of purpose. I could speak on issues that needed to be addressed, and have those messages reach the people it needed to the most. For women, for minorities, for all of us who are confused and afraid -- but who aren't afraid to fight back. It sounds preachy, but it’s true. I’m so grateful to have been born in this time and to have had every experience, good and bad, that’s shaped me as an individual. For me, now is the time to stand up, and to stand-up. Here, I will share a few interesting facts about me, so you can understand a bit more about my comedy.
I was really overweight growing up. To take attention away from that, I put a lot of effort towards being the class clown and making others laugh. It was a way for people to like me for who I was, not the way I looked.
My parents are both from Baghdad, but they moved to the US in 1987. My two siblings and I (older sister, 28, younger brother, 23), were born in Fort Collins, Colorado, where my father was studying at Colorado State University. Though my parents initially intended to return to Baghdad post-education, the Gulf War in 1990 found them stuck in the US having to claim asylum when all Iraqi embassies shut down. Think of it as the original version of the Muslim travel ban.
Up until last year, my father had never returned to Iraq. Three out of four of my grandparents passed away before he was able to visit -- it was simply too dangerous for a man who’d lived in the US to re-enter the country. I on the other hand visited Baghdad in 2000 with my mom and sister. It was great; I went on a rollercoaster (almost died), ate an “Iraqi pizza” (almost died) and saw Saddam’s motorcade drive by (almost died). Couldn’t sh** right for a month after that.
90% of my family still lives in Iraq, amongst millions of other displaced citizens whose everyday war-torn reality is dramatically different to our first-world experience. It gives you intense perspective when you know (and have seen) how the other half lives, which lends moral purpose to my stand-up material. I draw inspiration from the fact that in the face of adversity, they’re still positive people leading happy lives. Next time you catch yourself complaining about something trivial like a barista spelling your name wrong at Starbucks, just remember to calm the f*** down. People outside the US have to worry about bigger things.
I’m so grateful to my parents for uprooting their lives to start over in a foreign country. The education, quality of life, and opportunities that I’ve been blessed with would simply not be possible in the Middle East -- especially not with my chosen career path. The rise of social media and YouTube have allowed minority viewpoints to surface, but the resources and support available to us in the US (and in Hollywood) allow for important cross-cultural and gender issues to be examined on a grandiose scale. I hope to leverage that for tangible social change.
I feel stupid when I remember that I used to be kind of embarrassed by my parent’s accents as a kid. Now I proudly celebrate their backgrounds on-stage, to the dismay of my father who keeps reminding me that he “doesn’t sound like dat.”
There was very little diversity growing up in Fort Collins, CO. I was often the first/only Muslim and/or Iraqi that people had ever met! A small Muslim community does exist, but they were more conservative. My family did participate in religious events & Friday prayers, but I always felt like an outsider.
I had a very similar upbringing to other children of Asian immigrant parents -- which is where a LOT of my stand-up commentary stems from. First-generationers can probably relate to: not getting to wear bikinis to the pool, bringing kabob (aka E.T. fingers) to school for lunch, having your parents come in for “diversity day”, missing class to observe religious holidays and explaining (every damn year) “what an E-I-D was” again, forcedly attending Arabic school when all the other kids got to go home and watch TV, no sleepovers (or summer camp), and no marshmallows. Yes, no marshmallows. My parents discovered gelatin (derived from a pig) was in those little sugary pillows of joy. I never had Lucky Charms cereal again.
I’ve always been the black sheep, caught between diametrically opposed identities. I’m an Iraqi-American, half-Sunni and half-Shiite, a mixture of Arab and Western cultures. The older I got, the more the force of those gravitational pulls impacted my identity and self-expression, which is what led me to stand-up comedy in the first place.
Comedy has always played a role in my professional success. From class presentations, to job interviews, to networking, to pitch presentations, it was always what set me apart. Sure I had the brains and track-record to back everything up, but walking away having exchanged laughs with people was what really set me apart from the rest.
I moved to the Middle East the week before 9/11. I experienced reverse racism - I was “the American” in the Middle East, and one year later, I was “the Iraqi” when it came to Iraq/American war. I had to learn how to stand-up for myself and transcend whatever labels were being forced upon me -- which I did with comedy. You can call me “the funny girl,” thanks.
What I communicated then and now is that we all have much more in common than we realize. Take airport security for example. We can all agree it sucks … even though the experience for most Americans probably sucks a lot less, we all have to take our shoes off at the end of the day.
I witnessed my father completely change a man’s world view with words. When I was 14 (during the Iraq/U.S. war) a news program was on TV while we were out in public, and an older white gentleman yelled, “F***ing Iraqis. We should nuc them all and be done with it.” I cringed and covered my face as my dad approached the guy, but when I opened my eyes, was shocked to see the two of them conversing calmly. With a smile, my dad explained that he -- and his 3 children just over there -- were Iraqi. We were kind, loving, educated human beings who wanted exactly what he did: the freedom to pursue happiness.
I watched the man experience emotions ranging from fear to embarrassment to remorse to empathy, and finally heard what sounded like...laughter? My dad made his point, but was quick to joke around and brush off any hurt feelings. To him (and now to me) humor is a universal and powerful language. It’s a dialect of love that we can use to bridge gaps and connect our world, affecting one person at a time.
In Iraq I realized one thing: the world’s watching and is greatly affected by entertainment. My cousins and I didn’t have much to discuss when I first arrived. At 10 years old, I remember the only thing we had in common was which actors we admired; the movies we’d seen; and the stories we knew. Their generation was so affected by the media, and not only had it defined their ideas about Western civilization, but about gender roles and cultural topics not often discussed in the Middle East. What we create in Hollywood truly has a global influence, and with the aid of the internet, has grown exponentially. There’s so much potential to yield that power for change, which is in the back of my mind whenever I perform and discuss taboo issues in my set.
My first open mic: I never allowed myself to believe I was good enough to do stand-up, which is crazy considering how confident I am in other aspects of my life. Humor was always a focal point for me, but I was herded onto a safer path by my parents and instructors, people who wanted to set me up for success...which led to a life with training wheels. All along I had the skills to ride the bike - I just had to believe in myself.
The final trigger I needed to start was to set a deadline for myself to try an open mic (3rd week of February 2016). I promised myself whether or not I even had anything prepared, I’d perform. The rest is history.
MY LIFE AS A STAND-UP COMEDIAN
There’s an idea that “women aren’t funny” which I think is B.S. It’s a male dominated industry yes, but the more females we have participating, the more role models we’ll have for young girls out there with something to say.
Finding my authentic self. People are born into different labels: Gender. Class. Religion. Race. But being FUNNY is something you have to earn. Stand-up has enabled me to transcend all the 3rd party labels I’ve ever had and finally define myself.
YouTube: I posted my first break-out stand-up performance on YouTube, which has since taught me A LOT about the world. I realized that people aren’t always ready for, or comfortable with change. Viewers globally - and especially in the Middle East - have seen my videos, and the comments are all over the place. I don’t take them to heart, but it’s fascinating to see the range of reactions to the subject matter. I’ve seen everything from heated religious and moral debates, to dialogue of whether or not I’m allowed to call myself Muslim, to insults and even threats. What’s kept me going in the face of harsh criticism have been the emails and messages I’ve received from fans around the world, who are moved by my stand-up. It’s touching when they reveal that they’ve had similar experiences in life (usually as a first-generation or liberal person in their country) and that this was the first time they’d been able to relate with someone in a similar circumstance. It’s a pretty badass feeling to know that you words are deeper than punchlines.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.