When Michel Atieh decided to go to school in the United States, he chose the University of Michigan for a specific reason – it was close to Chicago, the home of Second City. Atieh, a Syrian national, was a regular performer at the Courtyard Playhouse, one of the premiere performance venues in Dubai and the only improv training center in the country. “With everything going on in Syria, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities in Dubai,” Atieh says. “America was the chance for a restart. Second City was part of the plan.”
Now that plan is in doubt. On April 18th, President Trump signed an executive order that stated he would reform the visa program for foreign technical workers, a continuation of his “America First” rallying cry. For now, the order calls for relatively modest steps, but any small changes could affect the already competitive H-1B program.
For comedians from Middle Eastern countries, the H-1B program represents their best chance at immigration. Like Atieh, many plan to come as technical workers and pursue their passion of comedy on the side. Under current rules, the program takes in a total of 85,000 foreign workers annually. Around 199,000 applied in 2017. After signing the order, President Trump said that H-1B visas “should include only the most skilled and highest paid applicants and should never, ever be used to replace American workers.” Whether that means less foreign workers remains unclear, but the prospect has Atieh on edge. He will graduate this year and isn’t sure what the future holds. “Right now, I’m living one week at a time,” Atieh says. “I have no idea where I’m going to be in a month. If it doesn’t work out, I may end up back in Dubai, performing improv again.”
For the most part, Dubai has been accepting of immigrants. About 15 percent of the population is made of UAE nationals, leaving 85% of the country a diverse mix of expatriates. In a region of the world not known for its acceptance of outspoken comedy, Dubai has become a holding ground for Middle Eastern comedians waiting for the chance to break free.
“It’s not happening now. It’s always been there.”
Standup comedian Rami Boraie was born in Windsor, Ontario. So, you can imagine his confusion when a TSA agent at JFK airport asked him if he’d ever been to Canada. “I legitimately thought he was joking,” Boraie says.
As an Egyptian Muslim, he is used to being stopped in the airport. Boraie usually took it in stride, but had a limited amount of time to get to his spot at the Arab-American Comedy Festival in Manhattan. Despite offering a Canadian passport, the agent continued to prod him, eventually asking if his wife had plans to “smuggle him in.” He’d had enough.
“I told him I was Canadian,” Boriae said. “I lived there 18 years of my life, so, no, there was no need to smuggle me in.”
When he asks the agent why he was doing this, the agent whispered under his breath, “I don’t know.”
That was in 2010, under the Obama administration.
For Boraie, President Trump is a continuation of a problem that is pervasive in America. Trump didn’t create the xenophobia – he simply gave it a face. “I was stopped at the airport under Bush, under Obama, I’m sure it will continue under Trump,” Boraie says. “The difference is that, with the Muslim ban, how people feel is now completely out in the open.”
Boraie recalled visiting Disneyland with his family in 2014. He saw a man wearing a shirt that said Kill All Muslims, Let Allah Sort It Out. “This is a guy who woke up in Orlando, Florida, taking his kids to the happiest place on earth and said, ‘you know, this is the shirt I’m going to wear,’” says Boraie. “This was before Trump and the red hats. When people ask me how I feel about what’s happening now, I tell them it’s not happening now. It’s always been there. We’re just seeing it come to the surface.”
Boraie left Canada and went to school in Egypt, where he saw there were auditions for performers at the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour founded by Ahmed Ahmed. It went well, and he parlayed his performance into his own show, Shut Up and Laugh, an English-language show that sold out a 750-seat theater. While he is aware that standup was born in the US and will continue to perform in the states when opportunities arise, he feels more secure performing halfway around the world in Dubai for now.
“If you can’t laugh at yourself, what’s the point?”
Rayan Karaky was born in Lebanon in the midst of a war. He left to pursue a Master’s degree in Texas in August of 2001. A month later, the September 11th attacks happened. Instead of returning to Lebanon, he found sanctuary with uncles who lived in Dubai. He learned comedy and improv in Dubai among what he calls a diverse and accepting community.
“I feel that you can say jokes there that will not play anywhere else. There are no taboo topics,” Karaky says. “I grew up in a war. I have this joke where now you have terrorists from everywhere in the world. In ISIS, there are terrorists in Europe and America, but that was our thing – it was the only thing we were good at!”
“If you can’t laugh at yourself, what’s the point?”
In 2007, he did a one-year exchange program with his company in Chicago. Although moving is an option for him, unlike many others, it’s not a goal for Karaky. He plans to stay and continue standup and improv in Dubai. In fact, he feels there is more freedom in Dubai than there is in the US when it comes to comedy.
“I wish that more people would visit Arab countries,” Karaky says. “There are examples of great places in the world that are Muslim countries, such as the UAE, Indonesia, Singapore. Those countries should be the allies of the American people. If you want moderate Islamic countries you can live with peacefully, these are the countries you should visit, encourage, and spread the word about.”
“There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world. There are only 10,000 or 20,000 militants.”
Nick Jack Pappas is a comedy writer, standup, and activist in New York City. You can follow his political rants on Twitter @pappiness.