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In a town where you’re as ethnically pure as your favorite ethnic restaurant, comedian Peter Shahriari talks to the mutt in all of us — you know, born there, raised here; studied this, speak that. Since 2005, Shahriari and his fellow members of the Sultans of Satire — all of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent — have been skewering more than kebabs. Using humor to ease the tensions that plague Jews, Muslims and Christians, they tackle the issues that are parting the mono-browed sea.
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The comedy act — which has done an eight-month residency at the Laugh Factory and has upcoming shows at the Improv and in this month’s Los Angeles Comedy Festival — is the brainchild of Jordan Elgrably, co-founder of the Levantine Cultural Center, a nonprofit artistic watering for all the city’s desert people, regardless of where and in which direction they pray.
“Los Angeles is the second-largest Iranian city outside of Tehran,” Elgrably says. “There are more Lebanese abroad than there are in Lebanon. This is the diasporic world we live in, and that’s one of the things the center is trying to capture.”
In its seven years of existence, Levantine has organized literary and arts events, concerts and film screenings. In addition, referrals are available for lecturers to speak on topics ranging from Berber culture to rai music. And you can come in any time and sign up for an Arabic lesson or a doumbek drumming class.
Elgrably himself embodies the center’s pan-culturalism. Though he was raised in Echo Park and Silver Lake, his father is a Moroccan Jew and his mother a Lithuanian Jew. “I’m sort of half and half,” he says, “which may explain on some emotional level why I’m so tied to this cause.”
Elgrably founded the Open Tent Middle East Coalition in the ’90s and began organizing events around the city. He and several associates — Elio Zarmati, Shida Pegahi and Saeed Jonoubi — had the idea to start the Levantine Center in August 2001. A month later, 9/11 happened. “Seven o’clock in the morning we’re all calling each other and going, ‘Guess we’re not doing the Levantine Cultural Center,’” Elgrably remembers. “At first we all felt very dismal. We didn’t think [the public] would want to hear from us. We very quickly realized the opposite was true. Americans seem to exhibit an even greater interest to find out who are the Arabs, who are the Muslims, who are the Al Qaeda, the Shiite, the Sunni.”
On May 20, the Levantine will host one of its biggest events this year: a forum titled “Israel and Palestine at 60: Is There a Solution?” “This year Israel is celebrating its 60th anniversary,” Elgrably says. “Meanwhile, the Palestinians are marking it as the 60th year of Al Nakba — ‘The Catastrophe.’ There’s a disconnect. Jews are going to be having their rah-rah festival celebrating Israel, and Arabs are going to be in Orange County looking at this terrible disaster, all the refugees and all the problems they have. That disconnect personally bothers me a great deal.”
Turning away from the current strife in the region, Elgrably looks to the future and hopes that the conflicts, even the war in Iraq, will become a unifying force. “There is no clash of civilizations,” he says, “there’s a clash of foreign policies. And we take every opportunity to present alternative voices.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon