Zahra Noorbakhsh performs Dec. 2 @ Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley.
Zahra Noorbakhsh got her first lesson in being different at age 12, when she chose to wear a hijab to a Blockbuster in Danville, eliciting stares and giggles from her peers—and pouts from her mother. Never mind that Mom wore the Muslim headscarf herself. “She would have preferred that I wore hammer pants to junior high so that I would fit in,” explains Noorbakhsh. (Hammer pants are the baggy trousers made popular by the East Bay’s rap icon turned tweet-happy tech investor MC Hammer—and no one who wore them in 1992 ever fit in.)
Two decades later, Noorbakhsh—statuesque and ebullient, with a laugh that’s equal parts falling water and braying donkey—has morphed into a writer-comedian with a knack for turning her heartaches and embarrassments into belly laughs. Hijab and Hammerpants is her second one-woman show. The first, All Atheists Are Muslim, directed by Bay Area comedy star W. Kamau Bell (who just wrapped up his own show on FX), tells the story of when Noorbakhsh moved in with her “translucently white” boyfriend, causing no end of family strife. “[But] I didn’t get stoned in a ditch,” she adds. “There’s so much Islamophobia. I wanted to have a story that showed different aspects of my religion—like its inclusiveness, and how we come to a compromise.”
That’s also the theme of “The Birds, the Bees—and My Hole,” Noorbakhsh’s riotous essay in the anthology Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, published earlier this year. The glowing reception to that piece has her writing a full-on memoir when she isn’t teaching theater to kids at Fremont’s Learning Bee. She’s also refining Hammerpants for an extended run in April. “As a Muslim-American female comedian,” she marvels, “I finally found my clique!”
Next page: Zahra Noorbakhsh on five questions never to ask a Muslim-American woman
Zahra Noorbakhsh on five questions never to ask a Muslim-American woman:
1. So, you’re educated...?
2. What does your name mean? Oooh, that's so exotic! Wait, how do you say it? Wait, how do you say it?
3. So, when are you going to make me samosas?
4. Have you ever seen Not Without My Daughter? ’Cause you should see it.
5. How do you balance your God-fearing, body-hating, sexloathing, suicidebombing sense of piety with your feminism?
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.
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