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Jenan Younis Image Credit: Supplied

We speak to the founder of one of the first Middle Eastern Comedy shows in London, who is giving ethnic minorities a voice and representation in the comedic sphere. Weapons of Mass Hilarity is taking over the UK, and it’s all thanks to Jenan Younis. The London-born Assyrian comedian and NHS surgeon is on a mission to not only give Middle-Eastern and North-African comedies a space in the industry but also use the shows to help disasters around the world, and now Younis is focusing on using her show to support the earthquake relief in Turkey and Syria.

The Kurator: Can you tell us more about the earthquake relief efforts in Turkey and Syria that the Weapons of Mass Hilarity show will be supporting?

Jenan Younis: Since March, we have supported two charities assisting with earthquake relief efforts in Turkey and Syria: The Molham Team and Assyrians Without Borders. I made the decision to begin doing this at our debut sell out show at The Soho Theatre; it's the largest audience we've played to and the first time we were invited into a mainstream space; with the earthquake being fresh in all of our minds at the time, it was only right to convert the show into a fundraiser which was kindly supported by the production team.

The Kurator: How did you choose this particular cause to support your event? And can you discuss how the earthquake relief efforts in Turkey and Syria are connected to your personal experiences and cultural heritage?

Jenan Younis: It's always challenging to select charities to support as so many are doing such fabulous work out there but I decided to opt for organisations that are smaller and less well known in the UK. The areas affected by the earthquakes are multi-ethnic parts of the region and sadly many reports have emerged regarding aid discrimination towards minority groups such as Assyrians by Turkish authorities. My family are Assyrian, my mum grew up in Baghdad and my dad in the West Bank. As non-Arab, non-Muslims, our voices are marginalised in our countries of origin but even within Western spaces. Having said this, I was always raised to be proud of the multi-ethnic make-up of the Middle East, something I think should be better celebrated, embraced and protected fervently by majority groups.

The Kurator: Can you share with us some of the specific ways that the funds raised by the show will be used to help those affected by the earthquake?

Jenan Younis: The Molham Team are based in Syria whilst Assyrians Without Borders are predominantly based in Tukey and both are providing humanitarian aid and accommodation for those that have been displaced.

The Kurator: How important is it for you to use your platform as a comedian to make a positive impact on the world and support important causes?

Jenan Younis: Comedy is such a flexible artform, it can be as superficial and frivolous as you want (I recall one of my first sets that involved an impression of a South Asian car phone warehouse sales boy with precision point sculpted facial hair in a pinstripe suit); but it can also serve as a medium to talk about issues that ordinarily people wouldn't want to listen to - it's an alternative form of communication and a real vehicle to change people's minds, even if it's just planting that seed. I recall growing up watching comedians like Gina Yashere talking about her experiences of racism as a British-Nigerian, or Patrick Kielty juxtaposing the stereotypes of terrorists thrust on the Irish in the 80s and Middle Easterners post 9/11. Rule #1 as a stand-up might be to "make the audience laugh" but if you can make them think too, that's a double-whammy I think you can be proud of.

I do aim to broach tricky subject areas that are relevant to my lived experience - whether it's slating the narrow-minded views white feminism has of me (I have been repeatedly asked when my "arranged marriage to the owner of Manchester City" would be), or how laser hair removal technology is just plain racist, but of course sometimes I'll fall back into the need for some escapism! WEAPONS OF MASS HILARITY as a show was partly created to change the world of the UK comedy circuit. I began the night after I ran an experiment contacting comedy promoters with my real name versus an anglicised name but using the exact same comedy CV. 81% promoters booked me as "Janine Young", but only 12% when I emailed as "Jenan Younis". By showcasing Middle Eastern comedians whatever their experience level, genre, ethnic/religious background is a way to break down the assumptions about our communities, and our audiences have become more diverse with time; on average half the crowd are White British - so we're not just preaching to the converted!

The Kurator: How have you seen the comedy community come together to support charitable causes in the past, and how does your event fit into this larger trend? Can you share with us any challenges or obstacles you have faced while organizing this fundraising event?

Jenan Younis: On the whole, the comedy circuit is incredibly supportive of fundraisers, and there is an abundance of fantastic comedians who are always keen to assist. Having said this, when initially enquiring about setting up our first earthquake fundraiser it felt like pulling teeth getting a promoter to agree to letting us use their venue; when the Ukraine war began, there were daily stand-up fundraisers up and down the country cropping up. I didn't see this post-earthquake, and while I don't want to sound like I'm claiming a hierarchy of suffering, there is a hierarchy of consequence. Events in Tukey and Syria no longer make the news reports, but the devastation is profound, ongoing and long-term. I don't want to squander my energy into whinging about the lack of action from our industry, which is why the comedy night fundraiser has become a recurring event. These sentiments have now oddly woven their way into my current show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (IRAQNOPHOBIA); a reflection 20 years on seeing the Iraq War unfold from the safety of Surrey and the selective empathy I've seen as an adult with regards to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The Kurator: What do you hope to achieve through this event in terms of raising awareness and inspiring others to take action?

Jenan Younis: One of the aims in creating WEAPONS OF MASS HILARITY five years ago was to create a basis for collaborations, artistic or otherwise; it's inspired spin offs from acts as well as some of our audience members to go on to raise awareness in their own spaces. There is often the impression that tragedy is a baseline state in the Middle East and the more we speak up, repost and fundraise increases the chances of dissolving those preconceived ideas.

The Kurator: How can people who are unable to attend the show still support the earthquake relief efforts in Turkey and Syria?

Jenan Younis: Donations can be made to any number of charities assisting with efforts, a few examples are:

  • Syrian American Medical Society Foundation
  • The White Helmets
  • Assyrians Without Borders
  • The Molham Volunteering Team
  • International Blue Crescent Relief and
  • Development Foundation
  • Project HOPE
  • Bridge to Turkey Fund

Next shows:

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Check out the Weapons of Mass Hilarity on Instagram @weaponsofmasshilarity__ Image Credit: Jenan Younis, Weapons of Mass Hilarity

WEAPONS OF MASS HILARITY Saturday June 24, Kentish Town, London featuring Nadz, Sezar Alkassab, Baz Shadnia, Darius Davies, Maria Shehata and Jenan Younis, https://www.eventbrite.com/e/weapons-of-mass-hilarity-stand-up-for-turkey-syria-earthquakfundraiser-tickets-635422153767?aff=erelexpmlt

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Check out the Weapons of Mass Hilarity on Instagram @weaponsofmasshilarity__ Image Credit: Jenan Younis, Weapons of Mass Hilarity

IRAQNOPHOBIA July 16 Bitesize Festival Richmond, August 22-26Edinburgh Fringe Festival https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on#q=Jenan%20younis