I had just walked off the comedy stage glad the audience spoke English when a young man who identified himself as a “devout Muslim” came up and asked me a question.
“Why are you making fun of 72 virgins?” he asked, face flushed with ire.
“I’m not making fun of 72 virgins,” I said.
“Yes you are,” he insisted, calling it “haram,” the Arabic word for “a sin.”
“No. I am making fun of the idea that you can kill your sister if some stranger says she slept with a strange man, but it’s OK to enjoy 72 virgins if you die for a good cause.”
That only made him more agitated. He explained that according to his religion, those who sacrifice themselves for a just cause will enjoy the beauty of heaven and 72 virgins.
It was exactly that kind of logic that got me into standup comedy in the first place. Standup comedy is an industry in America, a style of humor that is somewhat different from what most people in the Middle East are used to.
Humor the most powerful weapon
Both Palestinians and Israelis have humor, of course. But it doesn’t hurt to have even more. Humor is the most powerful weapon a person can use to defeat hatred, overcome animosity and to calm the angry.
Most of the time.
If you can get an angry person to smile, you’ve won.
Faced with this noble struggle, I decided I wouldn’t give up. I tried the joke on him again, just in case he didn’t speak English very well and thought I was making fun of 72 sturgeons, a tasty fish that has never been the cause of any Arab-Israeli conflicts that I know of. Well, there was that one incident during the Crusades …
Anyway, I launched back into my act, just for him.
“They said that American who wanted to blow up the airplane with his shoes, Richard Reid, was promised 72 virgins. Obviously, he doesn’t speak Arabic. It’s not like English. You read Arabic from right to left.… So, it’s not 72 virgins. It’s one virgin and she is 72 years old … and they promise her to everyone.”
Still no smile. But I wouldn’t give up.
“Let’s face it. Just what I always wanted. 72 virgins. For what? So when I get to heaven I can be rejected 72 times? That’s not my idea of a good time.”
Not even a smirk.
“Listen,” I continued. “If you want to make me happy, keep the 72 virgins and give me one good looking prostitute who’s only been at her job one week … that’s my idea of a real reward.”
At this point, he started to yell - in Arabic. And although my parents are Palestinian, it never made any sense to me. I just stood there nodding my head.
Finally, I interrupted him.
“You mean to say, it’s okay to defile 72 virgins. I don’t have to marry them. I don’t have to care for them. It goes far beyond the legal limit of four. But I can’t have a prostitute instead?”
Some people just don’t have a sense of humor.
Butt slapping one day, killing the next
I do know for a fact, though, that most Palestinians and most Israelis do have a sense of humor. The real tragedy is that Palestinians and Israelis have wide mood swings. We are both the most emotional people in the world. One day we love each other, and the next day we are killing each other.
Like Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak slapping each other on the butts at the entrance of the Camp David meeting one day and literally killing each other the next.
The best way to stop the conflict is to stop the anger. It’s easy to hate a stranger. It’s hard to hate a friend. Nothing builds friendship more than humor.
If we can laugh together, I know we can live together.
Okay. Maybe the stern jihadist who confronted me after my show and I were not going to be the best of friends any time soon.
But I was certain it wouldn’t be any different if we had sat together over a hot plate of freshly cooked sturgeon.
Sometimes, you just have to look past the anger.
Ray Hanania is a Palestinian-American syndicated columnist, peace activist and standup comedian who was raised in Chicago. Hanania has been a champion of Palestinian rights while also advocating peaceful compromise. He is from a Christian family; his father is from Jerusalem, his mother from Bethlehem. His wife and son are Jewish. He is the founder of "Comedy for Peace, " which hopes to bring joint Palestinian and Israeli comedy appearances to Israel and Palestine. He can be reached through the group's website. This new column is exclusive for Ynetnews