20 feet from stardom: A conversation with Iraqi-American comedian Reem Edan

5 min read
28 June, 2024

Amid her European comedy tour, The Diversity Fire Tour, I caught up with Iraqi-American sensation Reem Edan at a coffee shop in Portobello, London, on a rainy day.

Contrasting this with her sunny Italian holiday the previous week, Reem remarked, “Is it freaking cold? Yes… But I love London; it reminds me a lot of New York, which is my favourite city on earth. The comedy here is great, the people are awesome.”

A viral clip from her debut comedy set, titled I’m Muslim Unless Trump Gets Elected, led to Reem being invited to host a London comedy show in 2017.

Seven years later, she has become the headliner.

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We began our interview by discussing Reem's upbringing in Fort Collins, Colorado. As a middle child who received the least attention and was "overweight as a kid," Reem used humour as an outlet to "prove" her "worth."

She attributes her weight gain to her parents bribing her with fast food and sweets to convince her to attend Arabic school. "And they wondered why I got fat!" she joked.

Reem also recalls fooling around with telemarketers on the phone and putting on silly accents, indicating that comedy was her calling from an early age.

However, the most significant influence on Reem was her “studious” dad, from whom she learned to “break grand concepts down into bite-sized pieces of comedy.”

Navigating identity and breaking stereotypes

Reem moved to Bahrain a week before 9/11, and after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, she questioned, “Which side am I on? Am I too Arab to be American? Am I too American to be Arab?”

I asked how Reem learned to balance her identity, a struggle many second-generation migrants face. “It’s such a dichotomy… living in the US has afforded me a lot of opportunities, including the chance to speak about my identity.”

Reem recalled her mum’s school talk about Iraq in the 3rd grade, the clothes they wore, and the food they ate, saying, “I just knew I was different from the white kids…after 9/11, it became a badge, for better or for worse.”

Moving to Bahrain, Reem felt deep “fear” watching the “burning of an American flag” at an anti-war protest and hearing the US warn Americans about an evacuation plan.

Upon returning to the United States, Reem avoided speaking about being Iraqi or Muslim.

It wasn’t until she transitioned into comedy that Reem confronted her identity: “It's almost like writing a thesis statement about your own life,” and when the Trump Muslim ban happened, she said, “I had to talk about being Muslim.”

From Hollywood dreams to comedy gold

As a child, Reem originally wanted to be an actress. She pleaded with her mum to pay $800 to 'star searches' coming to town, believing they would make her a Disney star, innocently not knowing it was a scam.

Eventually, recognising this wasn’t the “path to success,” Reem got a job in marketing and publicity in the film industry.

Working for Paramount and Disney was amazing, but she had a moment of realisation at a red carpet event: “I'm 20 feet from stardom. What am I doing?”

Self-doubt started to creep in, and one Saturday, Reem found herself driving around LA without direction, both physically and metaphorically.

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Meditation helped Reem reflect on the two things that made her happy: “Carbohydrates and making people laugh.” This pivotal moment encouraged Reem to start doing open mics more and eventually leave her job.

The rest is history.

We also discussed the importance of having more Arabs and Muslims in entertainment and comedy today to break down “stereotypes that still exist.”

Reem believes it shows that “we’re just normal people like everybody else” and that people aren’t naturally “bigoted, but it's because they don't have access to stories like mine.”

She continued, “Ironically, me discussing my religion and my blunders… has helped me get closer to God.”

As an Arab-Muslim woman, which comes with attached stigma, Reem feels validated being able to make “a room full of white men laugh… it helps them see us as more than just what we're labelled as.”

Guiding the next generation

Given her remarkable success, I was eager to learn how Reem translates her achievements into inspiration and guidance for the next generation of young Arabs and Muslims who admire her.

Reem paused thoughtfully before offering her advice: to simply begin, ignore criticism, and be ready for a "lifetime's worth of rejection."

Reflecting on the pandemic, she realised the importance of adaptability, which led her to engage in content creation alongside her stand-up career.

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She ended with a saying her friend told her: “If you are at the station, eventually your train will come, and that's the advice I keep telling myself. You're going to make it.”

Reem is always the one to make people laugh and entertain them, so I thought it would be nice to end by asking what makes her happy.

Reem replies that she loves frozen yogurt, her family, making videos with her parents (which helped them get closer), The Hangover, travelling, and the Burning Man festival.

To purchase tickets and stay updated on Reem’s tour, visit her website and Instagram

Tariq Manshi is a London-based freelance journalist. Previously, he served as the Middle East & North Africa correspondent for Bath Time Magazine and contributed as a football writer at From The Spot