Stand up comedian Tissa grew up in a traditional Iranian family in a predominantly white suburb of Boston. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in international affairs from Ivy League universities. Her parents are thrilled that she is using her expensive education to pursue a career in comedy.
People who disapprove of her act will be taken hostage. Tissa Hami’s website
When Tissa walks onstage in black pants, a thigh length black coat and a head covering, the audience is often stunned and silent. Some wonder whether she might be the cleaner who has wandered into the wrong place. Then she starts her routine:
“I really should be wearing a long coat but, well,” and her voice suddenly turned valley girl, “I was feeling kind of slutty today!”
Tissa’s parents, pursuing scholarships, came to the United States in 1978, when their daughter was just five. They planned on returning to Iran until the revolution and war with Iraq intervened. The family then moved to Lexington. Tissa attended school and became “one of those kids who does everything” from chorus to yearbook. In 1991, she graduated from Lexington High School.
She studied hard and gained acceptance to Brown.”I grew up in an immigrant family. There were a lot of expectations heaped on me of what I should do with my life. I was not involved in anything comedy related. I did what was expected of me as a proper Iranian girl.”
She followed the good daughter path getting degrees in international relations from Brown and Columbia. Eventually she landed a “proper job”. Tissa moved to Manhattan. She worked for a couple years as a legal assistant and a half year as an investment banker on Wall Street.
Then September 11 hit and Muslims were all over the news — visible, but in all the wrong ways, she says. “After 9/11, I wanted to use my voice. One thing I always had was being funny. After that, my friends said, ‘Do it — now.’”
“… the emotional level was much more charged and I just didn’t know if America was ready to see a veiled woman cracking jokes about airport security, about these things that we are all scared about, and I was worried for myself and about my safety … but I was determined to do it … With the anti-Muslim sentiment around, I had no idea how people would react,” she says. “I was terrified.”
She left Wall Street, got a job at the admissions office of the Kennedy School of government at Harvard University, and signed up for a comedy class at the local adult education center. Her new job lets her remain close to what she studied while allowing her time to pursue comedy.
Tissa’s family are what she calls typically Iranian. Her parents have seen her perform on stage. “They think it’s not too late for me to go to medical school.” Her mother pointed out that her own Islamic cleric grandfather “would roll over in his grave if he knew that his great granddaughter was onstage talking about lesbian harems.”
Tissa on stage
I should tell you a little bit about myself. I am originally from Iran. Thanks. We have a few Axis of Evil fans in the audience.
I was actually talking to a reporter recently and he asked me, “Now, as a Muslim woman, is there anything you wouldn’t talk about on stage?” [pause] My dick.
You see I’ve noticed that people are always fascinated, they’re simply fascinated by my name. They’re like, “Tissa, Tissa, Tissa, that’s such an unusual name. Does it mean anything in your language?” Yeah, it’s an ancient Persian word meaning, “Ohhhhh, we’re so disappointed it’s not a boy!” Now my little sister – she was born here in America – and her first name is Melody. That’s Persian for “Lucky bitch got an American name.”
“It’s hard being Muslim in this country, I have to put up with a lot of weird comments like ‘Go home!’” She pauses and scans the crowd.
“Go home? What? Lexington?”
“We’re not just Muslims. Dammit, we’re New England Muslims.”
“Sometimes I hate being Muslim, especially at airports,” She makes light of her burning anger at full body searches “I was hoping to save that for the honeymoon”.
She even mocked her own slacker approach to Islam: “During Ramadan, I skip lunch.”
At mosques, women pray in the back, behind the men, something that Americans might view as oppression of Muslim women. But actually, Tissa explained, “we just like the view“.
When asked why there aren’t more female Muslim stand-up comics, she says, “I didn’t want the competition, so I stoned them.”
Halfway through her act, she ripped off her hijab and threw it on the stage. “I’m not making a political statement,” she said. “I just wanted to show off my hot body.”
“People ask whether Middle Eastern Muslims live in tents. They do, but only after Bush bombs their houses.”
Not everyone is welcoming her act.
A consortium of Muslim student groups in the Northampton area canceled Tissa’s appearance at the last minute after visiting her website and deciding that her material was inappropriate for their audience.
Her set does cause tension among some confused crowds. “There have been times when the audience … don’t know whether they’re supposed to be laughing or not. Most people get over it and start laughing.”
For Tissa becoming a comedian was a professional and personal choice. “I do see it not only as comedy but as a form of activism … I’m up there and I’m speaking up. I’m speaking out. I’m showing that a Muslim woman can use her voice, that she’s not just an oppressed woman”.
“Nothing is sacred … The great thing about stand-up is you can say anything about anything — as long as it’s funny.”
“It’s subversive activism, a get-’em-while-they’re-laughing strategy”
“My goal as a comedian is to make people laugh. But if I can also make them think, then that’s an added bonus“.
Sources: Press links in Tissa Hami’s website