Jay Jonroy: "The Hardest Thing to Do is Comedy"

By David D'Arcy

Jay JonroyFor those troubled by the seemingly eternal failure to find peace in the Middle East, one solution is suggested in David & Layla, the ecumenical New York sex comedy by the Iraqi Kurd Jay Jonroy, which has been making the rounds of theaters in the US since last July. It's now playing in New York City.

Jonroy's feature debut is a romantic farce with an American Jewish man and a Kurdish refugee of the Halabja gas attacks of 1988 as its protagonists. The script is based on a true Jewish-Kurdish romance, and the real David and Layla are happily married in Paris. In Jonroy's version, David (David Moscow, who played the child in Big) is a neurotic Jewish guy whose fitness-addict fiancée is predictably more interested in kick-boxing and stretching than in sex. He encounters Layla (Shiva Rose) on the street while filming for a cable show, and the ball gets rolling, with lots of meals and discourses on food and sexual pleasure. It will do wonders for your appetite.

With footage from Halabja mixed in, this story is quite the dramatic cocktail. Those who don't recognize the name might recall that Halabja was the village in northeastern Iraq whose inhabitants were gassed by Iraqi forces in 1988, during the Iran-Iraq War, a decade-long conflict started by Iraq in which the US was backing Saddam Hussein. That was when the Iraqis were actually using WMD, but we weren't so concerned back then. See an informative exchange of correspondence on Halabja in the New York Review of Books in 1990. It should be read by anyone interested in the roots of US policy in Iraq.

David converts to Islam for love, but it is not an Islam that you will recognize from any of Homeland Security's multi-colored alerts.

I spoke to Jonroy in New York, over Chinese food, about spice and politics.

David & LaylaWhy is the audience not going to see films about Iraq?

The documentaries - I've seen a few of them on DVD - they are not well-made. They're politically correct themes. In David & Layla, we've broken a few taboos. It's the first American film in which a Jew has converted to another religion.

Except for all those films about Jesus?

This is based on a real story - a Jew changing for love to Islam. And this film was written before 9/11. I didn't know there would be a 9/11, or an Iraq war, which has really made some liberals, film critics and some festival directors wary.

I thought you planned 9/11.

Ha, ha. Yeah, and with a shot in the opening credits of a statue of a bull seen from beneath and behind - we must also have predicted the stock market crash. From the opening credits, we wanted to set up the idea that this film has comedy.

What part of Islam did you grow up with?

I grew up with moderate Sunni Islam, the Kurdish version.

Did you go to the mosque every week?

As a teenager, I went on Fridays with my dad, until my older brother discovered films. We would say we were going to the mosque, and watch films instead.

What was your father's job?

He was an entrepreneur. He owned a flour mill and some real estate.

Did your mother work?

No. But she was the wisest among us, and the most liberal. For example, she allowed my sisters to study in Baghdad, which was rarely done at that time. I have the impression, surprisingly, that American liberals, including some critics and festivals, they become defensive about the Muslim world. Even though the Muslim religion is only 1400 years old, we're supposed to forget about all the old traditions of Kurds, Iranians, Syrians and Lebanese, which were liberal and wine-drinking. These critics think women are supposed to be following their religion. In Christian films, you don't do that. You don't expect all Christians to follow the edicts of religion until they are married. Somehow the critics are being pushed around by Al-Jazeera and the pushy Saudi Wahabis, who are the most conservative.

How would the Saudis feel about a comedy like this?

Jack Nicholson said, "From 9/11 on, I'll only do comedies." It's the most honest - you either make people laugh, or you don't. Comedy is harder to write, act or direct. Festivals expect these serious subjects to be treated dramatically. People ask you to go for "a little more depth" and seriousness. There are so many documentaries, you see so many war images. It's time for comic relief, and you get away with a lot more.

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