Assyrian comedian Jenan Younis: We're not Arab, we're not Asian, and we're not Muslim
What is the difference between an Assyrian and an asexual? That’s the question doctor-turned-comedian Jenan Younis was confronting after one of her gigs.
“I had spoken about being Assyrian and after the show this old lady came up to me and said, oh so you’re a Syrian,” she recalls.
“I said 'no, I am Assyrian'.
“She responded by saying Assyrian? Do you mean a bit like asexual?”
Younis looks back on the encounter through the prism of humour and says that her comedy act is at least getting people talking about the Assyrian community, to which she belongs.
A surgeon by profession, Younis entered and won the BBC New Voices competition in 2019 for her skit on attending an Islamic event but disappointing her audience when they discovered she was neither Muslim nor Arab.
“It’s not easy being a British Muslim, especially as I’m not actually Muslim… hashtag plot twist,” she says in one skit.
The winning script was based on a real-life incident, as much of her work is, and was a chance for Younis to explain the diversity of Middle Eastern people.
For Jenan, 30, the experience of being mistaken for a Muslim is so common that on occasion she has just given up trying to correct the mistake.
'It’s not easy being a British Muslim, especially as I’m not actually Muslim… hashtag plot twist'
- Jenan Younis, comedian
“I think being British, we’re polite and amenable. A lot of the time, especially when I was younger I think I've gone along with an assumption because it always seems rude to correct people," she says.
“At work, I’d always get rostered in to work over Christmas and Easter as they assumed I must be Muslim.”
She is also a teetotaller, which hasn’t helped matters for her. A colleague once tried to organise a work event at a venue that didn’t serve any alcohol and served halal meat under the impression she was a Muslim. Younis had been exploring veganism at the time.
“Even when I correct people they still don't quite understand it.”
“I think Donald Trump has a huge part to play because I feel like he's turned Muslim identity into an ethnicity… into this idea that there is a country out there that is one category of people coming from the Middle East. It's become ingrained into the narrative.”
More digestible, less inflammatory
But religious identity is the least of the problems Younis faces as she pursues her career as an entertainer.
She noticed early on that mentioning Iraq or Palestine in her comedy acts - she has one parent from each - would result in her not receiving new bookings.
“I started to repackage myself into something that was more digestible. Kind of less specific terminology, with things like the Middle East or Asia. You know I was trying to make myself less inflammatory."
That was until one incident proved to be too much for Younis to put up with.
Organisers for an event that had requested Middle Eastern representation approached her after the set to tell her some aspects of the show had been inflammatory due to her mentioning Palestine.
“I had a good audience reaction… (but mentioning Palestine) was triggering for one of the organisers, which is ridiculous,” she says.
The incident resulted in a change in the approach Younis takes and she has since sought to be less apologetic about the topics she covers.
“I think: why is it okay for a white male comedian to talk about Iran, for an audience to listen to someone in that position, but not me?” she says.
To serve and sacrifice
Born to an Iraqi mother and a Palestinian father in Surrey, Younis credits her mother with making her politically aware.
“I was at peak political awareness at 15 – sneaking out to go to protests before they were fashionable. I was boycotting brands like Nike, Starbucks... I wanted to live a politically active life.”
But she says a combination of pressure from school and reading the Argentinian revolutionary and fellow doctor Che Guevara’s autobiography directed her to become a surgeon. “I never thought I would end up going to medical school. I had an academic scholarship so I think, to an extent, there was an expectation.”
Working as a colorectal surgeon in a busy London hospital, Younis says she threw herself into her job, and during the pandemic, became part of the NHS frontline team.
As ethnic minority NHS staff bore the brunt of the casualties in the fight against the pandemic, the experience was another defining moment for Younis.
It was at this point she penned an impassioned opinion piece about higher death rates “in BAME communities” among the public and within the NHS.
“Many individuals such as myself will undergo a stark realisation that the value of being ‘ethnic’ in this society is to serve and be sacrificed,” she wrote in the piece.
Working 80 to 100 hours a week even before the pandemic, it was only when Younis found time to pause and reflect she began to re-evaluate her life choices. "I realised I had lost the political awareness and what I wanted to do with my life, my creative side," she says.
Younis had performed in the English National Opera when she was younger and has an acting diploma, but she says she put all of this to one side in order to become a doctor.
Realising in 2018 that she “needed an outlet” she decided to give comedy a go.
With stand-up, you can perform “on your own terms” and discuss topics that matter to you, she says.
Some comedians can take years to prepare for shows, but Younis spent just a week writing a 35-minute sketch that she took to the Edinburgh Festival that same year. She cut her comedy teeth performing two live sets to a packed audience in a small theatre under Edinburgh’s George IV bridge.
“They were local people, they laughed in all the right places and the adrenalin was amazing,” she says.
The importance of being Assyrian
Growing up in Surrey in the 1990s, Younis says she wasn't really aware of differences in skin colour and appearance in her childhood and that the topic started to feature more prominently in her life, as she got older.
“I did have quite a difficult upbringing, in quite an insular, quite racist, quite hostile part of the world, Surrey,” she says facetiously, further reflecting that she is now aware of covert, subtle forms of racism.
Growing up Assyrian was nevertheless a balance of fitting into her immediate environment and clinging to her culture.
Among other Britons, Jenan went by the name Jen, to fit in – but always felt slightly like an outsider.
At home, her Iraqi mother would feed her and the family wholesome traditional meals of dolma (stuffed vegetables and vine leaves) and maqlouba (an upside-down rice dish).
“I had a school friend who would come over sometimes and would see me eating pitta bread and then make fun of me and say I was eating paper – but soon enough he was the one eating the pittas more than the rest of us.”
Younis’ mother, an interpreter in Syriac, Arabic, and English, would insist that the family, including Younis’s father, speak Syriac (or Assyrian) at home. Which she still does today.
“It was really important to my mum. Assyrian is an ancient language that wasn’t recognised in Iraq, and she wasn’t able to publicly speak it growing up in Baghdad. It’s not recognised in the constitution, it’s not taught at school. So being able to hold on to that mattered to her and to our community.
Younis would also attend the local parish church close to her family home in Kingston Vale, in Surrey. “Denominational differences were never an issue to my mum - she was pro-ecumenical, and I think her approach was integrative too”. Younis still felt she belonged to a community that always felt like an immediate family.
Assyrians are an ethno-religious group said to be from ancient Mesopotamia, which once spread across modern northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria, and parts of Iran.
Years of persecution under successive rulers have forced much of the community out of their traditional homeland but Younis says the Iraq invasion of 2003 led to the largest exodus.
"I think there are certain sources now that say there are only maybe less than 200,000 Assyrians in Iraq, which is phenomenal because we've also only really become a minority in the last 100 years of history - in a relatively short space of time."
Younis’ father, from Jenin in the West Bank, was working for an oil company in Kuwait in the 1980s when he met her mother. He was transferred to London for work and is now part of a 14,000 strong Assyrian community in the UK. The largest diaspora can be found in the United States with 120,000 members.
Nevertheless, her mother’s experience growing up in Iraq and later working as an interpreter helped ensure Jenan was exposed to multiculturalism from a young age.
"She had loads of stories about growing up, about her Jewish neighbours or her Kurdish best friend that would come over and celebrate Christmas,” she says.
"I grew up with this kind of rose-tinted idea of how beautiful (and) multicultural and wonderful the Middle East was.”
Younis uses a mix of deadpan delivery and relatable analogies to avoid sound like she’s “giving a TED talk”.
On being an Assyrian, who is not only an outsider in the West but also a minority within her homeland, she uses the analogy of “an Arsenal supporter stuck sitting amongst Tottenham fans”. Both are North London clubs but also bitter rivals.
When it comes to explaining Israel’s annexation of Palestinian land, she also turns to local analogies.
“I talk about Surrey. Twenty years ago Kingston was part of Surrey and now it’s part of the Greater Borough of London.”
The working title for her latest hour-long comedy set is Jenanistan - a name that came while she was exploring the issues of assimilation and integration.
"As a minority within a minority, the idea to have a state where your identity is no longer under threat is important. Creating a state comes from a need for preservation, and need for accountability," she says.
“I’m thinking of changing its name to Conflict of Disinterest – because I feel like I'm living in two contradictory states, comedy and surgery; Middle Eastern but not Arab nor Muslim; and disinterest because no one really cares about Assyrian issues."
Younis also founded Weapons of Mass Hilarity, a place for new comedians with a Middle East connection to showcase their work.
“It was set up as a way to break down issues from the Middle East, but also to promote diversity in comedy – 90 percent of comedians are white and male – Weapons of Mass Hilarity is about creating my own space where I know I have a platform to perform, regardless of race or religion."
Now working part-time as a surgeon, Younis spends the rest of the time marrying her comedy with her reignited political activism.
“It’s exceptionally difficult to be a full-time comedian, but I also don’t think I will ever go back full time to work in the NHS."
Still, both surgery and comedy have similarities, she says. For both, you have to think on your feet, put things in perspective, and also respond to what’s in front of you.”
“It’s a huge privilege just to be able to make people laugh. If I could change the way one person might think about people from the Middle East, then it’s been worth it."
Jenanistan is showing at the Camden Fringe Festival on 28 and 29 August.
Editor's note 26 August: The word Asian in the headline appears in the British context, where it is used to refer to people of South Asian origin, specifically India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka