What’s so funny about Benghazi, racism, and ISIS? Ask Mohanad Elshieky, 26, who finds fodder for stand-up in all these grim topics. The Libyan immigrant placed third in Helium’s “Portland’s Funniest” championships in June, then bagged a coveted cohost spot at the long-running comedy showcase Earthquake Hurricane—a slot once held by such local legends as Bri Pruett and Curtis Cook. It’s been a quick rise in the local scene for the former English teacher from Benghazi. Elshieky arrived three years ago, soon after Libya’s civil war erupted. While waiting for his asylum application to be granted (he’s still waiting), he studied business at Portland State, where a professor recognized his comic potential and encouraged him to try stand-up. After all, if you can’t laugh about it....
Back home, I taught English, but I did translation work for foreign news agencies on the side. Someone from CNN would come and say, “Hey, I need someone to go with me to the front line as an interpreter,” and that’s what I did. It is scary when I think about it now. At the time that was the most fun I had in my life. It began in 2011 when the Arab Spring started. I was right there every day throughout the whole thing. I also worked as a radio show host, where we’d speak about almost everything—politics to religion, whatever. It got us in a lot of trouble. We spoke against the regime. We got a lot of death threats. My car was shot on two different occasions.
In 2012, we had our first election in 42 years. It was a good year. Then, out of the blue, everything changed. We had people in the background who throughout the revolution were making other plans. They’d been holding the weapons and the power and they were like, “OK, we’re taking over.” By the end of 2012 to 2014, that’s when stuff was ugly—really, really bad.
Once your name is on the [Muslim Brotherhood’s] list, they get to you. There’s no running away. There are no longer any police stations. The government doesn’t care. You have no one. It got too dangerous for me. The Islamic State [thought I] worked for the US government, because I’d been an interpreter. And some classes at my school were sponsored by the US embassy. [US Ambassador] Chris Stevens came two or three times to my class as I was teaching. That made it even worse. When I came to the US, they went crazy. I got death threats on Facebook.
I came to PSU on a six-week exchange program called MEPI (US-Middle East Partnership Initiative)—it brings students from the Middle East and North Africa. When my program ended I told the organizers, “Here’s the thing, I can’t go home.” It was a matter of survival, of staying here or dying—just that.
I got out right on time. There was no way I would be alive if I’d stayed two more weeks. My parents’ house, where I lived, got broken into once or twice—they were searching through my stuff. My family had to move, and leave the city.
Even compared to whatever I’ve seen before, I was so disappointed and sad when Trump got elected. I was like, “Fuck, do I have to do this again now? Only a few years ago I had to live with a psychopath, and now I have to do it again?”
I try to find the funny part. That happens to be my whole life, trying to find the funny thing. I think I got that from my dad. No matter how bad something is, my dad would find a joke in it. So that’s what I’ve been doing, because if I don’t do that I will go insane. Also by doing that, you can get your point to people and get them to listen to you.
I don’t want to leave the US. I really love doing stand-up comedy. I am taking all the shit that this country is putting me through just to do stand-up comedy, because that’s how much I love it.
A printable joke? “A lot of people are surprised that Trump got elected, that so many people voted for him. But not me, because I’ve seen that coming. Because I’ve watched a lot of America’s Got Talent, and I understand that this country always votes for the wrong person. For two years, a ventriloquist won the whole show. So this country is not racist. People just love voting for puppets.”