Take Me Hostage. Please.

By Zachary Block '99 / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
At age five, a shy, sensitive Tissa Hami emigrated from Iran to the United States. The next year, Iranian militants took fifty-three Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. “I remember the yellow ribbons around the trees [to show solidarity with the hostages],” Hami says. “And to me it meant that Americans hated me. I knew that Americans hated Iranians.”

Twenty-five years later, Hami has channeled that pain into laughter as a fledgling stand-up comic. “It was scary growing up Iranian in this country,” Hami deadpans in one of her regular bits. “But when other kids teased me, I threatened to take them hostage.”

A former paralegal and investment banker, Hami turned to comedy after the September 11 terrorist attacks, troubled by the portrayals of Muslims she saw on television and in newspapers. She’d read about Muslim comics using humor to defuse stereotypes about Islam and the Middle East, but all the comics were men. “I found myself growing increasingly tired of the image that Americans had of Muslim women as oppressed and at the mercy of their men,” she says. “I’m showing that a Muslim woman can use her voice.”

Hami’s routine mixes anecdotes from her childhood with bits about airport security, radical Islam, and the travails of Muslim dating. “For one thing, my father has more fun on these dates than I do,” Hami jokes during a recent appearance at the Comedy Studio, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, club located on the third floor of a Chinese restaurant. “And these guys try to impress me with such stupid things. Like how they graduated at the top of their class at flight school.” Hami gets a little raunchy when she mentions perusing ads soliciting Iranian brides: “They all write the same four words, ‘must be a virgin.’ I’ve got four words for those guys, ‘hymen reconstruction surgery, sucker.’ ”

Hami, who wears a head scarf during her act, appears comfortable on stage, if not totally at ease. “I really should be wearing a long coat, but I was feeling a little slutty today,” she tells the audience of twenty in her slight nasal whine. Hami is quick with a quip and gets some big laughs, but she suffers, following a riotous and highly political set by the club’s host.

While audiences have largely embraced Hami’s routine, she says a host at a major club refused to shake her hand following one performance. Her parents are slowly warming to her hobby, she says, but they wouldn’t dream of telling their family in Iran about it.

Now an admissions officer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Hami performs four or five times a month in and around Boston. Growing up in the area, she says, gave her family a unique identity. “We weren’t just Muslims,” she says. “Dammit, we were New England Muslims.” Pause. “We loved our lamb chowder.”

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November / December 2003