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In A Climate Of Fear, A Comedian Remembers What Makes Her Brave


This is FRESH AIR. Zahra Noorbakhsh prides herself on her fearlessness as a self-identified feminist Muslim and Iranian-American comedian. But with the rise in hate crimes, she's reduced the number of her live performances and started taking extra precautions. She's going to tell us how she looked back on her childhood to rediscover what makes her brave.

ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH: I had scheduled a debut of my comedy special at the Islamic center I grew up in, but I really wanted to cancel. That week, six people had died in a mass killing at an Islamic center in Quebec. In Texas, an arsonist had burned another one to the ground. I was composing the eighth draft of a sorry, I'm-too-terrified-to-show-up-and-you-should-be-too email to ticket holders when a reviewer from the local paper called to laud me for my bravery. He put my show in the paper, and it sold out that day. So I hired security guards, and then I called my dad. My dad is not Vin Diesel. It's not like he's going to show up at the mosque in aviators, tell security, yo, I got this, and guard the entrance with bulletproof forearms. He's 63 years old with a shuffle in his step and a Fitbit to monitor his blood pressure. As soon as he says yes, I will be there, I feel like a selfish child. If anything should happen to him, I'd want him to be anywhere else, and safe.

As the audience trickles in, if they weren't already aware of the heightened climate of fear that week, they are shaken awake by pat-downs and bag-checks at the door. Sometimes after shows, well-meaning friends will say to me, not that Donald Trump is good for anybody, but, man, what a great year this must be for your comedy career. But I have never declined so many opportunities to perform live as I have this year. It was already risky. Working late nights as a woman in comedy, hopping clubs to squeeze in five-minute routines, keeping an eye on my drink. Flirting back with this booker, or letting that MC give me a standard gross feely hug. Now I'm always wondering who's in the crowd when I announce that I'm Muslim and Iranian-American. Will this heckler be the same guy I spot near my car, on the subway or at my bus stop?

I've sequestered myself in liberal cities and resistance-themed comedy showcases. On stage in the brightly lit Islamic center turned comedy club, I take in the crowd. Taut and expectant, this audience seems too afraid to laugh. By show of hands, most of them have never been in a mosque before. But it's the times in general that they're scared of, not the space itself. I spot my dad looking at me with equal parts worry and bewilderment at my antics. He's afraid. I'm afraid. We're all afraid, and there's nothing I can do to make this fear go away. So I drop my usual jokes and ask the crowd, when was a time that you were the most afraid? There is silence for a moment, and then someone replies, 9/11. Another person calls out 11/9, the day after the election.

My childhood has no shortage of frightening experiences to choose from. Mom wore hijab during and after the Iranian hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq War, and it painted my family as a target well before the election and 9/11. But instead of going to those memories, my trembling legs take me back to the best summer of my life, in 1990, when Mom and Dad worked from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. I was the 10-year-old babysitter. We lived in a cul-de-sac bordered by a forest. When my siblings and I weren't watching "DuckTales" and mimicking Scrooge McDuck's adventures or running through the woods, we were screaming at each other over whose turn it was to defeat Koopalings in the best video game of all time, "Super Mario 3." I loved "Super Mario 3," but every time I was getting the hang of it, I'd die and I'd have to pass the remote.

One night I waited until 3 a.m. to play alone. Three levels in, Dad caught me. He snatched the remote, turned off the television and stomped off to bed, whisper-yelling at me to do the same. So I waited until 4 a.m. then launched Operation Zahra Gets The Remote. I put on my Scrooge McDuck night cap and gown that Mom had sewn for me. I clutched the brass ring of an ancient-looking candle holder she bought me from the dollar store, and I tiptoed through Mom and Dad's room with exaggerated steps, terrified and marveling at the shadows my candle made on the wall behind their bed.

I remember why I had scheduled this show in the first place, and I realize why I called my dad. I needed him to remind me of the mischievous 10-year-old girl on her tip toes, eyes wide with anticipation, clutching her candle in the dark because she loves to play.

GROSS: Zahra Noorbakhsh is the co-host of the podcast "#GoodMuslimBadMuslim." She's touring her show, which is called, "On Behalf Of All Muslims: A Comedy Special."


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, stories of ordinary people fighting extremism in Africa, including a girl and a boy who were each abducted by a rebel group in Uganda, forced to commit atrocities and then forced to marry each other. They escaped and started a new life together. We'll hear from Alexis Okeowo, who writes for the New Yorker and has written a new book. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Zahra Noorbakhsh