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National Agenda 2015: Maz Jobrani

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Jobrani discusses entertainment industry's portrayal of Middle Eastern characters

Maz Jobrani discusses perceptions of Middle Easterners by Americans during a National Agenda presentation.

3:20 p.m., Oct. 22, 2015--Comedian and author Maz Jobrani said he hopes that the perception of Middle Easterners by Americans will become more positive as cultural stereotypes are replaced by a more realistic appreciation of their many contributions to the nation’s economic and cultural life. 

Jobrani shared his journey as the son of newly arrived immigrants from Iran in the late 1970s to his evolving career as an actor and author during a National Agenda 2015 “Race in America” presentation held Wednesday, Oct. 21, in Mitchell Hall. 

“When we talk about race, it’s not only about blacks and whites, but also about all those shades of brown in between,” Jobrani said. “I’m one of those in that middle.”

Addressing such issues also spurred Jobrani to write his best-selling book, I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV, published by Simon and Schuster (2015). 

“I chose the name of my book from an old television commercial where the actor said, ‘I’m not a doctor, but I played one on television,’” Jobrani said. “There is a lot of confusion out there about people from the Middle East. I thought a book with another point of view was a good thing.”

Born in Tehran in 1972, Jobrani moved to California with his parents when he was six years old, and there he went to school with American kids and learned to like the movies and shows he saw on television.

“We watched a lot of TV, because my parents thought that’s what other Americans did,” Jobrani said." My aunt was watching the Exorcist — maybe it wasn’t appropriate for kids, but my parents were upstairs watching their stuff, and us kids watched our stuff downstairs. Watching those kinds of films made me a fan of American films and television.” 

Jobrani also remembers enjoying the Saturday Night Live antics of comedy icons like John Belushi and Eddie Murphy. 

A stand up comedian, Jobrani also found himself offered roles playing stereotypical Middle Eastern male characters, including a turban-topped terrorist.

“When you are an actor of Middle Eastern descent, you are going to get parts where your character will die,” Jobrani said. “I was offered to play the part of a terrorist. I thought I would humanize this character through my acting ability. After looking at my performances in a couple of these movies, I made up my mind that I was not going to play a terrorist any more.” 

Growing up as an Iranian in America was complicated by the hostage crisis that occurred during the last years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Jobrani recalled. 

“A lot of Americans have not forgotten about the Iranian hostage crisis,” Jobrani said. “There were only three networks, and every night Ted Koppel would come on and say, ‘It’s day fifty-something of the hostage crisis.’”

Jobrani said he survived his initiation to American cultural life as a youngster through sports, by offering snacks to other kids in grade school, and via his natural talent for comedy.

“I would go shopping with my mom, and we would have two shopping carts, one with the family’s groceries, and one with snacks and candy bars that I would take to school and give to people, basically bribing them to like me,” Jobrani said. “I also found I could diffuse confrontational situations with comedy.”

When asked by moderator Lindsay Hoffman, director of the National Agenda series and associate director of UD’s Center for Political Communication, about what role he would enjoy playing, Jobrani opted for filmdom’s favorite fumbling French detectives. 

“I love Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies,” Jobrani said. “I would like to do the character of Inspector Clouseau, but Sellers has already done it. Maybe I can come up with a new role, a Persian superhero.”  

Jobrani said that most Iranians like the American culture and are hopeful the recent nuclear deal will be a success.

“Most Iranians say they would like to visit America,” Jobrani said. “Iranian immigrants have done very well in this country.” 

As far as getting Hollywood to offer less stereotypical roles for persons of color or of Middle Eastern ancestry, Jobrani said that will take time and will most likely not happen before the camera.

“I don’t think Hollywood is trying to do that,” Jobrani said. The way to change is to have people behind the scenes pushing for diversity of characters.” 

Jobrani also noted the importance of family and having faith in whatever career and life path one chooses.

“I didn’t set out to be a role model. I like to go by my own moral compass,” Jobrani said. “As a dad, I also would like to do a television show so I could be closer to home and my kids.”  

About the series

The 2015 National Agenda series has as its theme “Race in America.” It includes six speakers and four films designed to stimulate conversations about equality and identity, all scheduled at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays in Mitchell Hall on the UD campus in Newark. Presentations are free and open to the public.

The next presentation is on Nov. 4, and will feature Keith Knight, political cartoonist and creator of there popular comic strips, the Knight Life, (th)ink, and the K Chronicles. His art has appeared in publications worldwide, including the Washington Post, Salon.com, and Ebony. His talk features his artwork over the last 20 years, and is calledThey Shoot Black People, Don’t They?”

The next film screening on Oct. 28 is Bamboozled, the 2000 work by Spike Lee about television executives who produce a modern version of a minstrel show with racist imagery and language. To their horror, the show becomes a huge success, leading to a tragic downfall for the creators.

The director of the National Agenda series is Lindsay Hoffman, associate director of UD's Center for Political Communication.

National Agenda is supported by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost, the Center for the Study of Diversity and the William P. Frank Foundation of Delaware.

Article by Jerry Rhodes

Photos by Duane Perry

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