Hello. My name is Nemr. It’s pronounced Nemr—like simmer, but hotter. It means “tiger” in Arabic.
I am writing to tell you my thoughts on the American presidential election thus far. If not for me, it would have passed you by without anyone so much as bringing it up.
As a stand-up comedian, I have done shows in English as an American would—only in front of crowds of thousands of Arabs all across the Middle East for the past decade, after having started the industry there from scratch.
My background is, shall we say, unique. I am an American citizen, but before that I was born in Beirut, Lebanon. Having lived equally both in the U.S. and the Middle East, I’ve noticed that America is currently the most Arab it has ever been since the Phoenicians first set foot here thousands of years ago. And it’s alarming. (The Arab part, not the Phoenicians part.)
First, a little background on myself: I was born in 1983 and due to war, much like many of my fellow Lebanese, our family came to America—San Diego, to be exact. I, at almost two years old, and my sister, a year younger, came to know nothing but the red, white, and blue.
I grew up here, fell in love with stand-up comedy, got lost in Bill Watterson and his ingenious cartoon creation Calvin and Hobbes (incidentally also a tiger), conceived the Umbrella-Hat for my entry into the Invent America competition (which I lost, prompting my parents to assure me it was due to us failing to influence the right people), and regularly got kicked out of class for doing what I would later make a living from while exclaiming, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a stand-up comic… or a Ninja Turtle!”
Just before my 11th birthday, our parents decided we should go back to Beirut—you know, where it was safe.
The Lebanese Civil War was over. And for my parents, it was much safer than America. Every week here we would receive sketches of suspects to look out for who were doing bad things to children. D.A.R.E was in the middle of its disastrous campaign to stop drug addiction, and every time we would have breakfast the milk carton would remind us of a missing child.
So off we went to Lebanon in the early ‘90s. I hated it at first, and then I came to love it. And it’s there I’ve spent the rest of my years, an American who was also Lebanese, Lebanese also American, and then realized, rather than one or the other, I was simply a child of this world.
I went on to achieve that goal of becoming a comic (after failing in my attempt at Ninja Turtle) in an adventure of epic proportions—starting in Beirut, the cultural epicenter of the Middle East, and spreading stand-up comedy over the next decade across the region, all under the slogan of “No Politics, No Religion, One Love.”
You see, I had experienced quite a bit since my return to Lebanon. I witnessed my first massacre when I was about 14, experienced several wars, lost friends and family when I shouldn’t have, and many more interesting life experiences. So when I started stand-up comedy in the Middle East, one of the most divided places on Earth, I started it to bring people together, regardless of who or what they were. Unity through laughter. Tell someone something and they won’t usually listen, but make them laugh and you’ve just won. Make them laugh with other people, and you’ve just reminded them they are not as far apart as they thought. They become one. There is a reason politicians seek out comedy shows to bolster their image.
Boy did it work. Whether it was as recent as my show in Beirut (a democratic country) months ago, bringing 5,000 people together in one night while ISIS was trying to break us, or as far back as the first stand-up comedy show ever in Saudi Arabia (a kingdom) without permission from the royalty that would have forced men and women to be segregated, and drawing in close to 3,000 people, it worked.
Then, two years ago I decided to come back to America to do here what I did there, unity through laughter, figuring it would not be very difficult after my experiences abroad.
Well, shit. It’s like walking right back into the Middle East all over again.
In the Middle East today there is no one to look up to. From leadership to Saturday morning cartoons, there is no sense of doing what you must for the betterment of all, while upholding a code of conduct—like Batman or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Donald Trump controversially confirmed his bid for the presidency, I knew he had a real shot at being the next president. I was in Los Angeles and everyone thought I was mad. “Trump?! No way!” But what nobody picked up on is we no longer live in an America where people look up to anyone; we look down—at our phones, and our selfies, staring back at us.
In the Middle East we have no one to choose from; in America, we’ve chosen no one.
Combine that with the internet giving the reach of an Olympic opening ceremony television broadcast to potentially anyone, and suddenly people are looking at whoever gets the most likes, shares and comments for guidance. And that’s why the rhetoric of divisiveness is so effective: it’s clickbait, and that metric of success has been brought into the real world where it does not belong.
When I did the aforementioned show in Saudi Arabia, we did it on foreign ground—meaning property belonging to a foreign country (Embassy, American school, etc.). But until we got there, we had to park, and walk, in Saudi Arabia.
I walked with about 1,000 people (the other 2,000 were late, typical of us Arabs) in silence—women covered from head to toe, along with their male sponsors (as women aren’t allowed to venture alone or drive), and men sure to keep their distance. The second we touched foot on foreign ground it was a celebration. People embraced one another, stunningly beautiful women revealed themselves in breathtaking outfits underneath their abaya, and the show lasted for hours. People risked their lives to come together for a comedy show that became a show of defiance.
Do you know what that was? That was the American way. Doing things right and winning against all odds. Why have we stopped doing that here? We’re using what America taught us to change the Middle East, while America is starting to be like the Middle East we’re trying to change.
In the Middle East power is kept in the hands of the powerful few by exploiting and keeping people divided. In America, this election is being orchestrated by ripping people apart. From deplorables to criminals, black or all lives matter, Muslim or Mexican, women or objects, you will be categorized and you will be vilified. And even then you still won’t be sure who to vote for.
Even Muslims, who many expect would never vote for Donald Trump, don’t know who to vote for. When a Muslim woman posed a question to the candidates during the second presidential debate, she was listed as “undecided.” And while that may seem confusing, my theory is it’s mainly because they are tired of their relatives visiting from overseas.
I’m a Christian. I’m shocked to see Americans discriminating on faith and race while in Lebanon we’re all getting along.
We used to point to America and say, “That’s a country where no matter what the result, the leaders come together to pass power peacefully, because unity over all. One day, we will be like that too.” Now I come to an America that has a significant portion of the population rejecting the electoral process?
Why is America the most Arab it’s ever been? Because, like the Middle East, we are only thinking short-term. Donald Trump is focused on winning, and Hillary on not letting him ruin the country by winning. Or the other way around. You choose. But what happens when all is said and done? Sometimes winning at all costs ends up costing a lot more than you were willing to spend. But for a country this much in debt, maybe it isn’t that surprising that this has yet to settle in?
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I quote that, not because JFK said it, but because it was first written by Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran. I have lived in the hell of no nation, and I have dedicated my life to defining it again, because without a nation we are just people living in close proximity to one another.
Muslims, Christians, and Jews killed and displaced millions in Lebanon and the Middle East. Then the war ended, and the country was—and still is—full of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. And guess what? We all get stuck in the exact same traffic every morning, we all suffer from a struggling economy equally, we all hate the government that we elected, and that same government can’t seem to elect a president (Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy, and until literally this week, we had no president). And before you say, Wait a second, no president? Google it and find out Lebanon is now the most stable place in the Middle East even though we haven’t had a president for some years and you’ll conclude: Why don’t we try that! Realize we are on our path to becoming what America is: a nation.
And a nation found in indignation is no more than an infant without a mother.
NEMR will be performing November 3rd at New York City’s Gramercy Theatre as part of the New York Comedy Festival. You can purchase tickets here.