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Laughing in the face of terror.

"In my hometown, Muslims here wanted to build a mosque but the entire community rose up to say you're going to bring terrorism," says comic and former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Ray Hanania. "I talked to one of the opponents and asked him what's the problem and he put it real succinctly: What do we need a mosque for when we've got three 7-11s?"

Ray Hanania believes he is using journalism and comedy to advance what he calls "a moderate Arab voice," one that affirms nonviolence and peace. It's a mission he has sought to fulfill his entire life. "There's room for good leaders in the Arab community, but the section for lousy leaders is filled up," he says.

This Palestinian American was a reporter before becoming a PR wizard. Now he's a standup comic who has found a unique way to educate people about the Middle East crisis: by hitting stages nationwide to crack jokes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"If we can laugh together, we can live together," Hanania says on his website. "Humor breaks the barriers of hate."

Hanania's comedy career began a few weeks after September 11. He was attending a luncheon at Chicago's Columbia College when a student approached him, Hanania recalls, and "asked me why I killed all those people in New York." Rather than hanging his head in shame or reacting in anger, Hanania stunned the student by responding with humor and gained the upper hand.

"I don't know about September 11," he said. "All I know is before I could come into this building, I got strip-searched five times, and they even strip-searched me before I sat down at my lunch table."

More students listened in, laughed, and told him he should try performing in comedy clubs. After just three open-mic appearances, Hanania short-circuited a process that usually takes years of grueling rejection and asked for an audition at the city's primary club, Zanies. The results surprised audiences so much that he quickly performed more than thirty shows at the hallowed venue.

"The early jokes were talking about my marriage to my Jewish wife," he says. "The one they really liked was, 'You should have been at our wedding. We had 900 people. We only sent out twenty-four invitations. We had all the Arabs on one side, all the Jews on the other side. We didn't have a bridal party--we had a U.N. peacekeeping force right down the middle. And they were flicking pita and matzo bread at each other the whole time. We had thirty-eight casualties. They took one Jew and thirty-seven Arabs to the hospital for sprained fingers.'"

But Hanania's run came to a screeching halt when the club decided to book him as the opener for legendary Jewish comic Jackie Mason on August 29, 2002.

With six hours to go before show-time, Mason claimed that he had been left unaware that his opening act would be a Palestinian American. Mason demanded that Hanania be dropped from the lineup, but Zanies's management didn't count on the fact that some of Hanania's former reporting colleagues would be among the attendees disappointed to find him gone.

"As they came in, just an hour before showtime, people were told they could get their money back if they were there to see me," explains Hanania. "The manager said she couldn't talk about it, and my reporter friend called the Associated Press to tell them I was let go because of Jackie, and the AP put it on the wire."

The next day, Mason and Hanania hosted dueling news conferences to respond to each other's charges, and by the end of the week, Hanania found himself a guest on MSNBC's now-defunct Donahue show, Hannity & Colmes, Curtis & Kuby, Entertainment Tonight, and Access Hollywood, and he debated Mason on the Today show.

The resulting attention got him effectively banned from Zanies--he's never been booked again, and the club declined to comment--but his comedy career was propelled far beyond the local stage. He now has published a book of his humor entitled Slice of Life.

Growing up in the South Shore area o Chicago's South Side, Hanania was originally surrounded by a broad mix of Palestinians, Jews, and Eastern European immigrants.

At first, everyone seemed to get along. Then the Six Day War exploded in 1967, bringing Arab-Jewish tensions to the surface in his neighborhood for the first time.

After that, the "white flight" following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the subsequent race riots ripped apart what remained of the areas fragile unity.

"You'd go to bed saying goodnight to your neighbors and when you'd wake up the white people were gone and you had black neighbors," he says. "Everyone was ashamed of what they were doing and it was a terrible, ugly thing to run. The ironic thing is we ran to the suburbs--an area that treated Arabs as badly as they did black people. One day I was walking down the street with my blues guitar when a man ran out of his house, put his hands around my neck, and said he didn't move to the suburbs to be around a nigger. Then he threw me on a bus and showed me his police badge."

During his eight years at the Southtown Economist and six more at the Chicago Sun-Times, Hanania became a star reporter at city hall. He garnered two of the city's prestigious Lisagor Awards and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And he was elected president of the Palestinian American Congress.

He was taking on heavyweights like Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban in PBS debates, and throwing viewers and his opponents for a loop by offering a different kind of Arab than mainstream Americans had seen before: one who knew American culture and how to apply American reasoning to Middle East arguments.

"Most of the Arabs people had seen were foreign born and couldn't even speak English, and I don't think other Arab speakers even knew what a double play was," he explains. "If you can't connect with a simple concept like that, then people don't want to hear from you. Americans don't like foreigners; they don't like strangers."

Hanania's journalism career finally ended in 1992 when he got caught in the middle of a showdown between Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and City Treasurer Miriam Santos. Hanania had left the city hall beat a year before to cover county politics, but when he and Santos started dating, he was accused of a conflict of interest.

He claims the Sun-Times was pressured to fire him due to his years of city hall exposes. He later sued them for wrongful dismissal and won a settlement.

He went on to public relations and political consulting, the refuge of many a former reporter. On a couple of occasions, he was invited to the Clinton White House as a panel member discussing solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1997, he married his wife, Alison, who is of Jewish descent.

"When you marry someone who's Jewish and you're Palestinian, you have to sign the katoubah--a Jewish marriage contract," says Hanania. "Katoubah for you Americans is basically a prenuptial agreement that has you by the matzo balls. It doesn't refer to us as husband and wife, but as the Occupier and Occupied, the Chosen One and Terrorist A. My relatives who are Arab can't come and visit our house without a week's notice, a visa, and a security clearance. Her relatives can come and go as they please. They're called settlers."

Alison admits that their marriage and his schtick have not always gone over well.

"We have gotten some flak from both the Arab and the Jewish community, but from people who don't know us, amazingly enough," says Alison. "I'm really proud of what Ray is doing."

Hanania is now planning a bold and ambitious trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank with an evenly matched team of Jewish and Arab comics aiming to perform the first-ever mixed comedy shows there.

The trip, entitled Comedy for Peace, features prominent Chicago funnyman and African American Jewish convert Aaron Freeman among the live talents. David Brenner, Whoopi Goldberg, Omid Djalili, Harry Shearer, Robert Smigel, and other stars are creating special videotape segments for the shows. Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi supports the tour.

Hanania traveled to Israel and the Occupied Territories this past autumn to find partners for the tour. The owners of Camel Comedy Club in Tel Aviv agreed to participate.

Hanania also performed a solo show at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

"The representative of the consulate said it was the first time he had both groups [Israelis and Palestinians] in the same room in two-and-a-half years," says the comic.

The idea for the comedy tour came when Hanania heard about a humanitarian gesture from Hadassah Hospital on the Israeli side of Jerusalem.

"The niece of a friend of mine who is Arab got cancer on the West Bank, and she couldn't get treatment except at Hadassah Hospital, and I was surprised she got it there," he says. "My nine-year-old cousin got leukemia and also got treated at Hadassah, and I wanted to do something to thank them for rising above the politics to do something good for children. I said I'd like to bring some comedians to perform free to raise money to care for Arab and Jewish kids. It's built from there."

The trip is so daring that former 60 Minutes producer David Lewis and acclaimed comedy filmmaker Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Analyze This) are raising funds to shoot a documentary about it. They are hoping for a theatrical run for the film and are shopping it to TV heavyweights, including HBO, PBS, Bravo, and A&E.

"This is a really huge and difficult idea to pull off," says Lewis. "I don't know if people will try to kill Ray Hanania because they don't like what he has to say. The whole question is, what happens when one person tries to make peace in a unique way? Do they try to stop him?"

Lewis recognizes that Comedy for Peace won't solve the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "But if he can change a few minds," Lewis says, "that's more than enough."

From Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor to Chris Rock, comedy has the ability to change minds in a way that nothing else can.

"Comedy for Peace is going to happen," vows Hanania. "You will have Jews and Arabs on a stage doing something together, and that contradicts what people expect. That's positive, and that's giving hope. If you're constantly consumed by hatred, you can't live. But if you laugh, you break out of it and you can live."

Carl Kozlowski is a Los Angeles-based writer who has worked with the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Reader, New City, Pasadena Weekly, and Los Angeles Citybeat. Ray Hanania's website is www.hanania.com.
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Title Annotation:Chicago Sun - Times reporter Ray Hanania
Author:Kozlowski, Carl
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:1816
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