Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lightbulbs and Losers

           Based on a true story
One name has been changed to shame the evil.

I have been a bridesmaid 17 times. After spending $28,000 on my friends weddings, I decided it was time to make my money back.

Gollum was one of those guys who’s just always around until you're like best friends. After years of working together in the Palestinian refugee camps, Gollum decided to take our friendship to the next level. He dropped to one knee at a checkpoint, held out a ring, and said,“Here—take it.”

He was skinny, ugly, and boring, but I  was 27, and time is running out. So, I said ‘Alrighty.’

Gollum landed in New York City on Valentine’s Day. It was a fight to the finish getting him a visa. If you've never tried to get a 30 year old muslim former political prisoner into the USA, let me tell you. It's no picnic. The night my fiance arrived, my bridesmaids threw us a spectacular engagement party. Payback was as delicious as the butterfly sugar cookie favors. After the party we unloaded the my precious gifts into the cute little furnished apartment I subletted for Gollum cause good Arab girls don’t live in sin.

The next morning I got up bright and early to go pick him up to scout out wedding locations. I walked into the apartment and he was gone. So was the furniture. And the engagement gifts. And the lightbulbs. The icing on the cake, the punk also cleaned out my bank account. Oh AND I had a $25,000 bond with US Immigration stating that, should my Arab, Muslim fiancĂ© violate his Visa by, oh say, disappearing, the The Department of Homeland Security would own my mom's house – and we would be homeless, a fun fact I never mentioned to her.

Months go by. I can’t find him anywhere. Then I got a text message. It read,“Has my Socialized Secure Card get there yet?” 

“Has my Socialized Secure Card get there yet?!!!!!!!” Asshole’s acting like nothing happened! I texted him back, “Why yes it has. But, I need your exact mailing address, so I can send it to you. Exactly where you are. Right now. At this moment. Exactly.” And that poor, dumb popple sent it to me. I could see him on the frickin’ Google map, and so could the Department of Homeland Security. As the clock struck midnight, they threw his skinny ass into a burlap sack with some rocks and tossed him back into the West Bank.

Nine Lives: 2 Down Croaking in Cairo

Snow White and the Seven Pharaohs

In 2009 while on tour with Arabs Gone Wild, I booked my first Egypt show. I had grown up watching National Geographic specials about King Tut and the curse of the pyramids so I was super excited. I couldn’t wait to finally see the Sphinx up close and in person. I arrived in Cairo and was whisked straight to a fancy-schmancy five-star hotel. When I walked into my room, I found a beautiful basket of fresh fruit awaiting me. Like Snow White, I grabbed an apple and bit into it. I remember very little about my trip to Cairo after that first bite. I have never been so sick in my entire life. I threw up my own shoes. When I looked in the mirror, my face was actually green. I looked like Kermit the Frog in a Cher wig. The apple was poison. My food poisoning even had a name; the Pharaoh’s Dreaming Death. I believe it is called that because if you have it you dream of dying just so the diarrhea will stop. The hallucinations were the upside of my digestive dilemma. 
The show must go on and the next day I headed to The Cairo Cultural Center trying desperately not to vomit on my fellow comedians en route. Cairo is overflowing with people. In my mind they looked like Smurfs and I really enjoyed watching them scurry about. I was determined to find Smurfette, like a Where’s Waldo in Cairo and was annoyed that the other comics refused to help me. They kept insisting there were no Smurfs and begged me to go to the hospital. For obvious reasons I have hated hospitals since the day I was born and I certainly was not going to voluntarily die in one in the third world.

The only time I went outside my bathroom in Egypt was when I walked from the hotel to the car service and from the car service to the theatre. I was only outdoors for a total of ten minutes and still managed to get groped by half of the male population of Cairo. In the end, vengeance was mine. I barfed on one of the creeps who rubbed up on me. Somehow I managed to get on stage and do a coherent set in front of two-thousand people. They were not Smurfs. They were Fraggles and they seemed to be having a fabulous time. We had booked back-to-back shows so I had one more set to do. Between shows I went back to puking. Dean found me shortly before show time, lying in the fetal position on the floor of the dirtiest bathroom I have ever witnessed. The show must go on, so he dragged me up to my feet and I hit the stage for Round Two.
This time there was a very angry Fraggle in the audience. I was doing a joke about Egypt Air, the country’s national airline. The word “air” in Arabic means dick. My joke was questioning why any Middle Eastern Airline would call itself “Air” instead of “Airlines”. Unbeknownst to me the angry Fraggle in the audience was Fayza Abu Naga, the Minister of Tourism and she did not appreciate my blue-collar comedy. She charged the stage and attempted to hit me but two other comics held her back. I was quickly shuffled off the stage and escorted to the airport. The next thing I remember was waking up at Newark Airport still wondering why they chose to name that airline just Air. I never got to see the pyramids and after my dalliance with the Pharaoh’s Dreaming Death, I was also never able to digest meat again. 

Shortly after our show, there was a revolution in Egypt and I thought that I would finally get to go back and see the damn pyramids. Unfortunately, the Minister of Tourism survived the revolution, the elections, the ousting of the new leadership, and the new regime, which means no Sphinx for me.

Nine Lives: 1 Down at the Daytime Emmys

I have been addicted to soap operas since I was five years old. Yes, five. Although my parents were super strict and conservative, they missed the boat on monitoring our television consumption. As a tot I spent a summer wondering “Who shot JR?” I memorized Andrew Dice Clay’s entire nursery rhyme routine at age ten which included gems like “Miss Muffet, I Ate Her Tuffet”, and I loved my soap operas. I followed three religiously; As the World Turns, The Guiding Light, and my most favorite, General Hospital. Being a fan of Guiding Light and General Hospital posed a challenge. They were on at the same time so for years I flipped between the two during commercials. Then I got a VCR. We always got cutting edge equipment before anyone else because my dad used to deal electronics. I would tape Guiding Light while watching General Hospital live. And my dream in life was to be on General Hospital. I even studied acting in college.

When I graduated ASU, I moved back home because that’s what good Arab girls do. I altered my dream of being on General Hospital to being on As the World Turns instead. They filmed in New York City, the perfect location for a life-long Jersey girl to have her dream come true. I landed in an acting class recommended by my mentor from ASU, Marshall Mason and low and behold two of the actresses in my class were on As the World Turns. We became besties. 

Terri Conn was my blond-haired, blue-eyed photo negative of me.  We were the same age, 22, but she already had tons of TV experience. Jaime Dudney was the other As the World Turns starlet in my class. She was also Barbra Mandrel’s daughter. I had grown up watching Barbra Mandrel and the Mandrel Sisters variety show, so I was star struck . Terri petitioned to get me on As the World Turns. My first ever television appearance was as an extra on a soap opera. Dreams do come true if your dream is to play Diner Number 3 and to only be recognizable by the back of your head. The year I met the girls from ATWT was also the first year I ever attended the Daytime Emmy Awards; the Oscars of the Soaps. I wasn’t nominated. I wasn’t even invited. I was a seat filler. 

A seat filler is a person who fills any empty seat in the audience so that if the camera pans to the stars being nominated, there is never an empty seat in the house. Basically our job was to keep Susan Lucci’s seat warm while she went to the powder room.  The key to being a great seat filler is the ability to move fast through a row of evening gowns without knocking people’s knees. I was very bad at this job. Dick Clark yelled at me during a commercial break to “move faster”. He had no way of knowing that I was gimpy, so I don’t blame him. Also he made the announcement over the PA system so there’s a possibility he wasn’t talking about me when he said, “The person standing up, please sit down immediately.” But in my mind, he was totally talking to me. It is one of my fondest memories. 

After the awards ceremony concluded, each network or producers had their own party. The ABC party was the party that everyone wanted to be at. It was where the General Hospital stars were. I would have killed and gone to jail to be at the ABC party. Instead, I went with Terri and Jami to the Procter and Gamble party. I was wearing a lilac corseted bridesmaid’s dress with way too much cleavage. Corsets push you up while pulling you in. I had no business pushing up my chest. It practically blocked my vision. I had never worn the dress before because the wedding I was wearing it to got called off by the bride. It was like something out of a soap opera, so I thought the dress was perfect for the occasion. I followed Terri around the party like we were conjoined and tried my best to look hip. 

After some mingling, we gave up and sat down with Jaime. There were servers passing out hors d'oeuvres. I grabbed a beef tenderloin crostini and popped it in my mouth. I had really impressed myself by not dropping it. The tenderloin slid down my trachea and I began to choke. I was going to die in the coolest way possible at a Daytime Emmy’s after party. But I was not ready to go so I tried to cough up the assaulting appetizer. Unfortunately, the way-too-tight corset top of my dress made coughing impossible and I began to turn lilac. 

I remember Terri screaming, “Oh, my God” and getting super blurry. And then Jaime Dudney whacked me on the back with the kind of strength only a southern girl has. And that meat went flying out of my mouth and across the table. One of the hottest male actors on Guiding Light turned around and looked at the moist lump of meat and bread in disgust. It was the greatest night ever.

If You Can't Fast, Give

I was born and raised in the United States. I spent my school days in beautiful New Jersey and my summers in the war zone known as the West Bank. The first Ramadan I ever fasted was no joke. I was 8 years old and on summer vacation in my parent's village. It was late June and the Middle East is a sauna at that time of year. During Ramadan, those observing the fast abstain from food, beverages, smoking, and shagging. I have never had an issue with fasting. I'm one of those crazy Muslims who loves Ramadan.

I have cerebral palsy. That means, technically, I am exempt from fasting; even though it is one of the five pillars of Islam and extremely important to the faith. The Qur'an states clearly in Surah 2, Ayah 185 that those who have medical conditions are pardoned, so I was treated like a champ for fasting. My family was over the moon and I refused to show any weakness. I knew that by fasting against the odds I had been born with, I'd totally get into heaven and more importantly would get amazing gifts for Eid. Eid is the celebration that marks the end of fasting. Muslims celebrate for three days because after 30 days of fasting, one day simply isn't enough.

Regardless of the heat, its fun to fast Ramadan when you are in a country where the majority of folks around you are also starving. Ramadan is not as much fun in America when you are the only one fasting. In my day, teachers weren't as culturally savvy as they are now. I had teachers who genuinely feared for my life and were convinced that I was being forced by my horrible Muslim parents to fast. They'd try to slip me a butterscotch candy at lunchtime. I would shove their candy away and tell them not to push their beliefs on me. I could eat whatever I wanted at sunset, thank you very much.

Every Ramadan, without fail, my mother has given me the option to not fast. Those who cannot fast during Ramadan get to make a donation that will feed a hungry person for the duration of the holy month. If you cannot afford to do so, you should instead perform any acts of charity within your capability. My mom has donated on my behalf every single year I have fasted, just in case it ever got to be too much and I had to give up. How is that for faith?

My most challenging Ramadan came in the form of a ten-day road trip in 2011, in America's Deep South, on a comedy tour called "The Muslims Are Coming". Ramadan which moves back 10 days each year landed in August. I was filming a documentary in addition to performing nightly. We would spend all day on the street doing interviews with the locals who weren't too fond of Muslims. For the first time in my history of Ramadans, I complained. I was hot, thirsty, and tired of bigotry. Some nights, I didn't break my fast until 10:30 pm, but I survived. I only broke down and broke my fast once on tour. We were at Elvis' house in Tupelo, Mississippi. The statue of the King spoke to me and I realized if I didn't drink water I would drop down dead just like he did. I did not want to die where Elvis was born. It's okay to miss a day or five, if you are sick, or traveling, or are on your ladies holiday. You then have a whole year to make it up. Some Muslims are slick and do their make-up days in December when the sun sets at like 4:30 pm and they only have to fast for six or seven hours.

On July 10, 2013, after three decades, my days of fasting came to an end. As I mentioned, I have cerebral palsy. One of my symptoms is that I shake all the time, just like Shakira's hips. On the first day of Ramadan 2013, my shaking got the best of me. By noon, I no longer had the coordination to Tweet and by the time I broke my fast at 8:30 pm, I could barely breath. I knew that I had fasted my last day. The next morning the water I drank tasted like poison. It felt so wrong to quench my thirst during the daylight hours. Ramadan is something I strongly associate with the happiest times of my life and I felt like a tradition was lost.

I am not ashamed that I cannot fast, but I know many who are, even though they are excused for God's sake. I miss fasting, but I'm happy to take on my newest mission of reminding those who can't fast, that there is no reason to put themselves at risk. Muslims fast so they can suffer a little. It is important not to die in the process. Instead, those who can't should channel their devotion into charity. This will not only help you stay healthy, but also help someone who is genuinely suffering. Those who are blessed with the health to fast, please don't interrogate your fellow Muslims about their hunger status. It is impolite to ask others if they are fasting unless you are in the process of offering them something to eat and sometimes you really don't want to know the answer.

All Cats Go To Heaven

All Cats Go To Heaven

Tiger, the cat pranced into our lives when I was five. Her name was less than original but absolutely fitting. She looked like a tiny Tony the Tiger down to her big blue eyes. I do not know why my father brought home a cat for us, but he did and Tiger was a great cat. She didn’t scratch. She never had accidents and six months after we got her she was shot dead by my neighbor.

This was not in Palestine this was in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Apparently, Tiger had a taste for strawberries. She was feasting on my neighbor’s crop when she was caught red-handed and blasted with a bb gun. She dragged her wounded body back home and my parents rushed her to the vet. The doctors couldn’t save her. My dad was as heart-broken as we were. He wanted to teach my neighbor a lesson so he seated his four bawling daughters on her doorstep and played ring and run.

To help ease the trauma of Tiger’s murder, we immediately got a new cat and named her Cherry. She was named after Cherry Valance, a character in The Outsiders. She too was a great cat. I have had unbelievable luck picking pets. I have friends whose best beasts are horrifying feral monsters that scratch, hiss and go to the potty wherever they please. Our cats were always decent animals. Cherry would walk up the block and wait for us to come home from school. She would sit in the middle of the dining room table surrounded by notebooks while my sisters and I did our homework. Cherry was a cool cat and one day she disappeared. She was nowhere to be found.

We posted posters on every pole in Cliffside Park offering a substantial one-thousand dollar reward for her return; but the cat never came back. My sisters and I took to badmouthing our missing pet. Fifi believed that Cherry was a CIA agent and that once she had gotten all the dirt she needed on us she left for her next mission. I remember listening to Fifi’s theory at the dining room table and thinking it could totally be possible. I grew up in a Palestinian household in an Italian Mafioso New Jersey suburb, so the idea that my cat could be a rat was totally plausible. My sister, Hanan was less of a conspiracy theorist and more of a slut-shamer. Her theory was that Cherry had runoff with some Tom cat. She called her a skank and a whore and one day my poor father just couldn’t take it anymore. He burst into tears at the dining room table and said, “She was a good cat, Goddammit! She got runned over by a car.” My father had wanted to spare us the trauma of another dead cat, even though it had been seven years since Tiger’s brutal killing. Our grief had traumatized him and when he found our perished pet lying in the road, he hid her body to spare us the pain. We all learned a very important lesson that day. Nothing you do can make loss more bearable. You have to deal with it head on, just like the car that hit Cherry.

Soon after Cherry came Sandy, named for the lead character in the musical Grease. After years of being an exceptional member of the family, she succumbed to the same fate as Cherry and was run over on Christmas Eve, my senior year in high school. I decided that day that no pet of mine would ever leave the house again.

I adopted Lucy my senior year of college at Arizona State University. I had moved out of the dorms and could finally get a cat even though the apartment complex I was renting in strictly forbade it. She was going to be an indoor cat. No one would ever know. Lucy was special, and by special I mean like me, short bus special. Her owners prior to me thought it would be fun to toss her out the window so that they could test the theory of cats always landing on all fours. Lucy landed on her head and in a shelter, where I found her. It was love at first sight. I flew back to New Jersey with Lucy sedated under the seat in front of me. When I walked in the house carrying her, my mother threw a slipper at us, but they soon became best friends.

Lucy was a superhuman kitty. She survived every one of my nieces and nephews. She never fought back as they yanked her, pet her, and fell down on top of her. She would just meow calmly which was her way of saying, “Kindly get the fuck off me.”  When I became a touring comic, I always said goodbye to Lucy last and hugged her first when I got home. Lucy was an alarm clock and a life saver. When my sister Lamiah was diagnosed with brain cancer and living back at home, Lucy would stand guard over her as she slept. One night Lamiah had a seizure. Lucy ran upstairs and started banging her body against my mother’s door, waking her up and leading her back to Lamiah. She was extraordinary, but despite my best efforts I could not save her.

Lucy died in my arms at the age of seventeen. We were lying on the couch and she just fell asleep. She spared me the awful decision of whether to let her live or die, by going peacefully into the night. I have never been more heartbroken. I have lost friends, family, and other pets, but Lucy was my child. Unlike my other cats, there was no replacing her. I couldn’t imagine any other animal coming close to being that cool and I knew I would resent them for not running to the door to meet me when I screamed, “Hey Lucy, I home!” There would never be another Lucy, so as far as I was concerned, I would never have another pet. I simply couldn’t bear the thought of having to yet again outlive something I loved so dearly. I would soon realize that the greatest lesson Lucy taught me was that part of growing up is outliving the those we love the most.