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.
Sometimes the person you have to stand up to is you! There I was, rewatching the Miss Universe 2019 competition. Which I do for inspiration from time to time. (No, seriously!) There is something about seeing women on stage, in full-on glam mode, and speaking with confident assuredness that really lights my fire!
I have seen this Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa win this crown so many times before, but something about this particular viewing, her delivery or her words, touched something inside me a little differently. At that moment, I truly believed, with complete conviction, that she lives what she speaks.
The announcement was made, the audience cheered, and the crown was awarded. The light was dazzling,, she looked stunning, almost blessed. The judges made the right call with 2019's queen.
Reflecting On Myself
Suddenly, the YouTube video ended. And I was left looking at a black screen. In the darkness of that screen, I saw my reflection and I began assessing what I saw, asking myself, "What have I been doing with my life?" It may seem like an overly dramatic question, but at that moment, I had to ask myself seriously… What have you done? The fact that I couldn't come up with a solid, confident answer gave my inner-cynic license to quickly spiral into self-criticism.
This went on for quite some time, until I got up. I stood up and walked to my mirror to have some serious one-on-one "Queen Talk." I needed to get out of that self-critical mindset, and I know that physical movement is something that help disrupt a way of thinking. I needed to remind myself of who I really was. The negative feelings I was experiencing at that moment were not reality.
Here are a few reminders for whenever you need some Queen Talk!
1.) Comparison is truly the thief of joy.
This saying feels like a cliché. That is, until it's applicable to you. At that moment, this "cliché, becomes self-evident. Comparing myself to someone on a stage with years of experience in an area I know nothing about is not only unfair but straight-up mean. A part of my comparison comes from me wondering, "Would I have the ability, if put in that position, to perform at such a level?" The answer is totally and without question, yes. I excel in the field I work in now, and I know that if I put that same energy towards something else, with practice, I could do just as well. No joy can come from comparing yourself to someone in a completely different field!
2.) Never forget the blessings that have been bestowed upon you.
Every single day, I am blessed to have the opportunity to wake up with all ten fingers and toes and choose to create the kind of life I want to live. There is so much power in that alone, but sometimes it's easy to take it for granted. Let us not forget those who are unable to make that same decision every day of their lives.
3.) Appreciate how far you have come!
I've been very intentional for some time to be kinder and gentler to myself. I need to realize that I am human. Being human means that I will not know everything, and I will continue to make mistakes.But I must let go of the need to always be right. I feel empowered when I can see the growth that I've made, regardless of the mistakes that may come in the future. I don't react to every little thing that bothers me, because I have learned boundaries when it comes to dealing with others and myself. I truly value my time and my energy, and, for that, I am proud.
4.) You Can Be Who You Want To Be
If you can see it in your mind, you can achieve it in reality. I saw myself when I looked at the women on stage, when she smiled, the way she talked, her elegant walk. For a moment, in my self-criticism spiral, I forgot that we are all connected. Debasish Mridha has said "I may not know you, but I don't see any difference between you and me. I see myself in you; we are one." I will not sit in the mentality of lack, there is more than enough opportunity and good fortune to go around for everyone. Her win was not a loss for me, but it can be a nudge from the universe for me to go ahead and dream big!
This Queen Talk was not easy. There may have been some tissues and tears involved but giving myself an honest yet compassionate talk is sometimes what I need to bring myself out of some bad head space. In these moments of doubt, you truly need to be your own best friend.When times get rough, criticism won't always come from outside sources. How you speak about yourself internally is crucial to how you see and feel about yourself. As Beyoncé once sang, "I've got Me, Myself, and I." We must put forth every effort to be there for ourselves. I look forward to more Queen Talks when some negative emotions arise. I am grateful for the person I am today, but I am excited to see the women I become.