This is about a guy in Chicago who has a unique plan to save the world...
Laughing It Off
By Carl Kozlowski
Ray Hanania was born and raised in Chicago but grew up hearing the story of how his father's older brother Joseph drowned in the Jerusalem quarry in 1926 because no one would help him. "The Jews thought he was Muslim, Muslims thought he was Jewish, and the Christians thought he was neither, even though he was a Greek Orthodox Christian. The tensions were that bad that no one would help a man even when he was dying."Hanania's father had another brother working at a country club in Chicago, and he decided the tragedy was a sign to leave the pointless and terrible religious warfare of the Middle East behind. But nearly 80 years later, the legacy of that awful day has become the focal point of Ray Hanania's life, as this Palestinian-American reporter-turned-public-relations-wizard-turned-standup comic 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.Hanania has seized upon an opportunity to provide a moderate voice in the Arab world, a task he likens to "scaling Mount Everest in your underwear." He has become one of just a dozen Arabic comics nationwide, parlaying his background as a former award-winning reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times to provide a level of added credibility that garners him access to college campus audiences.Atop it all, he writes a weekly newspaper column on life from the Arab point of view that is syndicated in more than a dozen major cities including Detroit, St. Louis and New York. But even these efforts pale in comparison to the next step in his plans: 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 ever held on both sides of that deadly divide.The trip, Comics for Peace, is so daring that former "60 Minutes" producer David Lewis and acclaimed comedy filmmaker Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Analyze This) are raising $1.5 million to shoot a documentary about it and are shopping it to heavyweights including HBO, PBS and A&E. Even as the Middle East grows potentially more dangerous with the Israeli assassination of Ahmed Yassin, Hanania believes he can bring hope and peace through laughter to a region that has seen only tears for far too long."I use journalism and comedy as a message to define the moderate Arab voice, and that's all I've been doing all my life," said Hanania. "There's room for good leaders in the Arab community, but the section for lousy leaders is filled up. Comedy is an instrument to reach people and touch them, and if you can touch people with humor you can touch them and get their understanding."One other reason that Hanania, 51, can understand the hostilities of the Middle East so well is that he has seen the ugliness of racism in ways both subtle and strong. Growing up in the South Shore Valley area of Chicago's South Side, he was originally surrounded by a broad mix of Palestinians, Jews and Eastern European immigrants, and at first everyone seemed to get along.Then the Six Day War exploded in the West Bank 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 area's 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 have black neighbors. Everyone was ashamed of what they were doing, but the realtors were scaring us because my family were the blackest people in the neighborhood before that," he recalls. "It was a terrible, ugly thing to run, and 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."That's the real tragedy of the Middle East: people hate us both, Arabs and Jews, more than anyone else in the world, but we're too busy killing each other to realize it and do anything to stop it."While studying premed at Northern Illinois University in 1972, Hanania was in danger of being drafted for the Vietnam War and instead enlisted in the Air Force, thinking he could steer clear of the Asian conflict. He guessed right, but as Middle East tensions continued to flare he was asked by his superiors if he would follow orders and defend Israel if American troops were called in to take sides there."I thought morons, I joined the Air Force to defend America and you ask if I can be trusted. And it was thrown in my face to think about the Middle East and being an Arab and would I defend Israel," recalled Hanania. "When I got out, I started writing letters to the editor and would get published in Time and Newsweek because I was one of the few Arab-American letter writers. Suddenly I realized this was where power was - communications - so I switched my major and within a year I was hired by the Southtown Economist newspaper."During his seven years at that paper and five more at the Chicago Sun-Times, Hanania became a star reporter at Chicago's city hall - garnering several of the city's prestigious Lisagor Awards for his journalism at the same time that he was named president of the Arab American Congress for Palestine, the largest Palestinian organization in America. He was taking on heavyweights like Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban in PBS debates and winning, throwing viewers and his opponents for a loop by offering a different kind of Arab than mainstream Americans had ever 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 that 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 hit the end of the line in 1992 when he got caught in the middle of a showdown between Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and City Treasurer Miriam Santos. He 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.The one logical move he could take was entering public relations, the refuge of many a former reporter. He was ready to drift peacefully away into the shadows, just like the days of his pre-med youth, and for nearly a decade he did. On a couple of occasions, he was invited to the Clinton White House as a panel member discussing solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in 1997 he married his wife Alison, who is of Jewish descent.But then a distinctly unfunny moment in history propelled him into his current comedic mission: September 11. Suddenly, after a life spent entirely in America - as an Air Force veteran and an award-winning reporter and visits to the White House - Ray Hanania found himself labeled an outsider, berated by strangers as one of "them," the Arab terrorists who had brought such horrors to our borders.He received e-mail death threats from a neighbor who was dumb enough to sign the notes; he went to his local shopping center and saw a white Ford truck with graffiti painted in puce that read "If you wanna see jahad (sic) or Ala (sic) mess with an American"; and Hanania found himself stopped and questioned by the new security men in his own office building."Did the guy with the truck really think Osama Bin Laden was gonna shop at the local mall and read it, or was it an expression of his unbridled hatred from him knowing that there were a lot of Arabs living in the neighborhood?" asks Hanania. "I realized that people were letting emotion get the best of them. So I realized you can get to someone like that by shocking them back, and that comedy's a shock to the system and a good journalist knows how to use humor."Hanania's final leap into performing standup came after a luncheon he attended at Chicago's Columbia College that fall, when a student approached him and "asked 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. More students listened in, laughed and told him he should try performing in comedy clubs.After just three open mike 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 has since performed more than 30 shows at the venue, noted by USA Today as one of the Top Five Comdey Clubs in the Nation.Emboldened by this success, he created Comics for Peace - the organization he's using now to bring Arab and Jewish comics together to shock the system where it counts, directly overseas, in the heart of the West Bank. The idea for the humanitarian venture came when Hanania heard about an incredible 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. My 9 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," he explains."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. Seeing the Hamas leader's killing is depressing because timing is important and I understand. Comedy For Pece is going to happen; you have Jews and Arabs on a stage doing something together, it 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," he concludes. "Maybe one spark starts a bigger fire of hope."Ray Hanania's web page is www.hanania.com.