As master of ceremonies of "Middle East Comic Relief 2," Peter the Persian, a stout Iranian American comic who moonlights as a labor attorney, says of the comedians performing on a recent evening, "We've screened all these Middle Easterners. We've cleared them out. They're all Jewish friendly."
That gets a roar from the mixed crowd.
"Most of them are Jewish friendly."
"Some of them are Jewish friendly."
Peter the Persian is certainly one of the friendly ones at the Levantine Cultural Center in Culver City, an organization dedicated to fostering cultural awareness among all Middle Easterners. And this is a friendly house, even if it's located on a dead-end street amidst desolate warehouses and almost no street lighting. It's the kind of street Bugsy Siegel might have once used for silencing a rival hood.
Inside this cavernous barn with Persian rugs draped like curtains over the back walls of the elevated stage, there are no mobsters or secret cells from what we can tell. There are just ordinary citizens, but that doesn't stop the host, Jordan Elgrably, a svelte man in a black shirt, from saying, "All those who are working here for Homeland Security, please raise your hand."
No one here is from Homeland Security, but there are "all kinds of creatures" at this event, as Peter the Persian says.
A few rows in front there is a middle-aged man with a 5 o'clock shadow, who wears an unusual furry cap. It looks a little like the Siberian beaver caps once fancied by Mikhail Gorbachev, except it's not quite as furry and mixes black and white hues.
"What do you call that cap?"
"It's a Karakul," says the man with the stubble. "From Kashmir."
His female companion wears another exotic hat.
"It's a Manali," the man says.
"Is that in Indonesia?"
"Manali, India," she says. "In the Himalayas."
Elsewhere, a man holds a glossy Iranian American magazine called Namak; he has opened it to a two-page spread with the headline, "God & Allah Need to Talk."
"Any Muslims here tonight?" Elgrably asks.
Only one person, a grinning young man, raises his hand.
"You can drink," he's told.
The rest of the crowd, several hundred from a glance, settles in as Peter the Persian introduces the first comedian, a 30-something woman of Syrian descent named Helen Maalik, who has come from New York to appear tonight.
Though Maalik is Syrian American, and this evening's entertainment is billed as a post-Sept. 11 satire, she focuses initially not on the Middle East or national security concerns but rather on dating.
Wearing jeans and a faded yellow and green striped shirt, the attractive, petite Maalik says that she doesn't have much sympathy for women who complain about not getting dates.
"Put out," she says in a voice that suggests a whine and a smidgen of urban anomie. "Do it, especially on a first date."
Continuing her riff on dating, she relates the tale of a young woman who complains about a homeless man asking her out--"Those guys come with a lot of baggage."
Maalik says in that whiny voice, "Stop it. We all have it. His is just plastic."
Then she switches to ethnic concerns. "I'm 100 percent Arab, not 50 percent Arab and 50 percent normal," she says, but people often tell the light-skinned Maalik that she looks Jewish. "I don't mind looking Jewish. I have no problems at airports."
The crowd breaks up at that joke, as it does when she says, "My husband is Indian Muslim, I'm an Arab. So we're on the FBI list twice."
She leaves to much applause, after which Peter the Persian introduces Sanjay Shah, an Indian comic from Los Angeles, and then Nasry Malak, an Egyptian American who, like Maalik, hails from New York.
"I've never done stand-up comedy in an airplane hangar before," says Malak, who resembles Johnny Mathis not only in his smooth good looks but also in his velvety voice.
A political comedian, Malak jokes about how his family has decided to "turn his father in" to the authorities. Not that his father has done anything wrong, but it would be a patriotic act.
Then he says that "the homeless of America should not be smarter than the president of America. Bush might be the dumbest man in the world."
Upon reflection, he adds, "Sometimes I think Bush might be the smartest man in the world. He's messed up this country so badly that immigrants don't want to come here anymore."
As Malak leaves the stage and intermission arrives, Peter the Persian ascends the platform and then asks us all to say "Bush." He extends the U like it's two or three O's. Everyone says, "Booosh."
At the break, a woman tells Peter the Persian that he looks Jewish. Putting down his Pilsner Urquell beer, Peter, for once at a loss for words, says, "I am ... I am ... nothing." Then he adds, "I am a populist."
I tell Peter that I must leave. It's 10 p.m.
"I'm not offended," he says in a slight deadpan and hands me his business card.
"He's really brilliant," says another woman, who tells me that the best acts are coming after intermission.
"What about the premise of Albert Brooks' new movie? Obviously, there's comedy in the Muslim world," I say.
Laughing but with a bit of regret in his voice, Peter says, "This is not that world. They're not laughing over there."
On Saturday, Feb. 25, at 8 p.m., the Levantine Cultural Center will host "An Evening of Palestinian Literature and Music"; Elias Khoury will present his novel, "Gate of the Sun," along with a concert of Palestinian music and song with the Naser Musa Ensemble. 5920 Blackwelder St., Culver City, (310) 559-5544.