In summer 2014, when another conflict broke out in Gaza, Jess Salomon broke the news that she was soon marrying — and moving to New York with — her Palestinian Muslim partner, Eman El-Husseini.
It would bring about an unexpected rift with her mother for a few years. Salomon, who grew up Jewish in Montreal, had been open with parents about her relationship with El-Husseini.
“They didn’t really say much about it because I think they didn’t expect that she would ever come out of the closet," says Salomon of when she first told her parents. “I think they just assumed it would kind of just go away.”
They were wrong.
Salomon and El-Husseini married in 2015, six years after they met and four years after they began dating. Today, three years since they got married, they are forging ahead together trying to break into a field in New York that’s largely been reserved for cisgender, heterosexual white men: comedy.
“The first year we dated doesn’t really count. It was terrible as I was trying to come to terms with everything, but then the two following years after that it started getting really serious,” says El-Husseini.
“I still count the first year. It was mostly her breaking up with me,” says Salomon.
Both are comedians, so they have a way stating grim facts with a straight face and with enough sarcasm to set off a whole room with laughter.
“Comedy is a great way to reach people,” says Salomon, “and as we’ve said many times to each other, when you make somebody laugh when they don’t want to, it’s like a visceral reaction that’s so undeniable.”
The two, who often refer to themselves using a mash-up of their last names — El Salomon — met in 2009 at a comedy club in Montreal, where they are both from. For the first two years, they were friends.
El-Husseini had been in comedy for a couple of years by then. She was picking up bartending shifts at a comedy club so that she could build her access to the stage. Salomon, who had worked as a human rights lawyer at the Hague, had just made a career switch to give screenwriting and comedy a shot.
When they began dating in 2011, it was a year-long process for El-Husseini to come out.
“Eman wasn’t in any relationships before ours and she wasn’t with any women before me,” says Salomon, “so it took a minute for her to come around to the idea of being in a committed relationship [and] being in love with a woman [for] life in a same-sex relationship.”
“That’s why I thought she might have been a Mossad agent sent to destroy my career,” she adds.
They do it again: cause laughter with a funny and uncomfortable joke made at their own expense.
The two laugh, but El-Husseini says it did take her time to come to terms with the relationship. Once they were serious, and eventually decided to move to New York to pursue their careers in comedy, it just came down to telling her parents.
“They weren’t happy. They cried and they were so sad,” says El-Husseini. “[But] they never disowned me or even threatened to stop talking to me.”
They’ve since come around to their relationship, but are not yet able to publicly acknowledge the marriage.
“They’re really friendly and they seem like they’re 100 percent on board but they worry about what people have to say,” says Salomon.
For El-Husseini’s family, Salomon’s Jewish identity didn’t matter.
“It’s not like if I brought a Muslim woman home they would’ve been like ‘fantastic,’” says El-Husseini. “They stopped at gay, they never looked further.”
Meanwhile, Salomon, who was already out to her family, faced challenges about marrying a Palestinian Muslim woman.
“Yeah we were like now that you’re okay with me being gay, let me bring you a Palestinian woman,” says El-Husseini.
“[The announcement] also coincided with the last big war in Gaza and I feel like they just thought I was going to join Hamas,” says Salomon.
Her mother has since come to accept the couple.
Now, they spend the Jewish holidays together. Salomon’s mother even threw them a wedding party recently.
Beyond initially having concerns about the partners their daughters chose, both families also worried how they would make their earning in a field that can be unstable.
“My mother-in-law joining Instagram is the best thing that happened to us,” says El-Husseini. “Because she really sees how much we work and hustle.”
While Salomon quit her career as a lawyer and El-Husseini dropped out of school, those challenges take a backseat compared to what they have to fight onstage.
“Comedy clubs are safe havens for male comics,” says El-Husseini. “They’re made for male comedians so it’s really, really difficult.”
She remembers a former boss who, though very nice to her, genuinely believed male comics were funnier.
“Having to make audiences comfortable with you [is] something that straight white men never have to think about,” says Salomon. “And then if you’re talking about your dating life, people are like ‘Why are you doing all that gay material?’”
The two recently performed as part of a lineup of all gay comedians, which was unplanned. By the time El-Husseini got to the stage, a man stood up and demanded he be refunded for his tickets because he was tired of all the “gay material,” El-Husseini recalls.
“There’s constant small and big reminders that it’s not an equal playing field in any respect,” says Salomon. “It happens less but it definitely happens where you walk up and you’re starting at a deficit.”
El-Husseini also faces challenges as a Muslim Palestinian on stage.
While New York may be a more progressive scene, she still gets heckled. She remembers a recent show where after introducing herself as a Palestinian, an Israeli man got on stage and took the mic from her.
As a comedian, she chose to address it with humor.
“I was just like, ‘Why do you guys have to take everything? That is so unfair,’” she recalls, adding that the rest of the audience cheered her on. Another Israeli man came up to her after the show and apologized on the heckler’s behalf.
“I feel like people have a lot of resistance believing that a Muslim woman can be openly gay,” she says. Many times, audiences don’t believe they are married.
El-Husseini says she receives a lot of messages from closeted Muslim women after her shows. The couple also gets messages from interfaith couples or other couples who are facing historical barriers to their relationship — including Pakistani-Indian couples and other Jewish-Muslim couples.
The El Salomons pose to their audience a joint face of ultimate resistance. Their journey — whether with coming out, marrying someone from a different religion or working in an industry that is traditionally unkind to women — will likely continue to face hecklers along the way, but for now, the two are looking to take over the New York comedy scene one uncomfortable joke at a time.