Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania

Turning hatred into humor

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By Ray Hanania

Anyone who has followed my columns over the past 45 years knows that I have a knack for finding myself in some major controversies.

I enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War in college and, after being honorably discharged, was the subject of a two-year long FBI investigation. They thought I was an Arab terrorist. Banks mysteriously closed my accounts, and I lost two jobs. Friends stopped talking to me. I only learned about the investigation years later, when I used the Freedom of Information Act to pry loose the information from the government.

RayHanania 1

Ray Hanania

When Jane Byrne was elected Chicago’s mayor, her husband, Jay McMullen, threatened to punch me in the nose when I reported that Mayor Byrne was getting vengeance against Circuit Clerk Morgan Finley for not hiring her husband.

Then there was Richie Daley, who attacked me at a press conference after he finally won election as mayor. Daley used my popularity as a community columnist during the Byrne administration to protect his patronage pals. Once he got elected, instead of giving me exclusives on the city budget, he got upset when I started questioning his hypocrisy.

The Chicago Sun-Times slammed me hard when I demanded to be included in a six-reporter team the paper was sending to Israel. It was during the Palestinian Intifada; and as the only Palestinian journalist working at a daily newspaper in the country, I felt I should be included.

They refused and huffed I could destroy my career by going “to that hell hole” called Palestine if I wanted. And I did, taking two weeks vacation and writing five stories about the brutality there. Backed into a corner, the newspaper ran the stories, which one editor thought were so good he nominated them for a Pulitzer Prize, but vowed to get even with me.

They did when I met City Treasurer Miriam Santos that same year.

Well, that finally got that Arab out of the Sun-Times City Hall slot, replacing me with someone else that was more in their political line.

After Sept. 11, 2001, a little old lady came up to me at a speech I had given, telling me with disgust, “I can’t believe you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab.”

I was so shocked at her ignorance that I couldn’t figure out how to respond. So I started to throw some jokes at her to make her laugh past her racist hatred.

I turned that into a standup comedy routine where I did jokes about growing up Arab in America, and lampooned my marriage to my wife, who is Jewish American, and our Jewish son.

Zanies, the premier comedy club in America, heard about my “Arab comedy” and invited me to perform on their Wells Street stage.

After six months of performances, and taking classes they recommended, they gave me my own show, nine shows over Labor Day week in 2002.

A few weeks before the performances, which were sold out to my family, relatives, close friends and many national journalists, Zanies told me comedian Jackie Mason was passing through Chicago and needed to warm-up on their stage before launching his next Broadway performance in New York. Could he take my first three shows as the headliner and have me as his opener?

I was thrilled. Mason was a funny curmudgeon. He would have made a great City Hall reporter, probably better than the ones I left behind. I urged Zanies owner Rick Uchwat to make sure to tell Mason I am Palestinian. He laughed and said, “We’re veterans. This is comedy.”

On opening night, Mason learned I wasn’t “just an Arab,” but a “Palestinian.” He told Uchwat I could not open for him, and the cancellation made international headlines.

We appeared together (from different locations) on every major TV program, the Today Show to Phil Donahue, with Mason attacking me. All I wanted to do was use humor to bring people together, especially Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis.

I realized if I couldn’t get Mason to joke with me, there was no hope for any of us. He declined repeated invitations to join me on stage after I co-launched the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour and performed across Israel, in Palestine, Dubai, Dublin’s Trinity College, colleges across America, before 2,400 people at Toronto’s Thompson stadium, and 7,000 Muslims in London.

Mason died last week.

So, when a pipsqueak mayor in my own backyard screams about columns I write criticizing his ignorance, I respond, “My mother is from Bethlehem, buddy. And Jesus is my cousin. So get in line.”

Check out Ray Hanania’s work at Hanania.com.

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