'I'm not the cleaner': Israeli stand-up comedian brings new meaning to ‘Black comedy’ (2023)

Comedian Barko Zaro has his finger on the pulse of the nation. Whenever something of interest happens in Israel, you can always count on him to post a video in response.

Earlier this month, when the owner of a Tel Aviv café threw right-wing model/TV personality Nataly Dadon out of his joint, Zaro posted a video on Facebook in which he welcomed Dadon to the club of those denied entry.

“Even though this café is the only place that always lets me enter,” he joked, “afterward the customers yelled at me a little: ‘What is this? Why the bad service?’ But it doesn’t matter.”

He then invited Dadon to an upcoming stand-up gig. The video got 9,500 likes and 156,000 views.

'Once, they invited me to a morning talk show in order to promote the TV series ‘Nevsu’ and I wasn’t even in it. They just said: ‘Let’s bring in an Ethiopian to talk about it.’'

“I always say that anyone who follows me should be pitied,” he laughs. “I market my performances in such a way that they don’t expect it. The Nataly video was totally lame but it exploded. Nataly also responded and wrote that I’m a king.”

This isn’t the first time one of Zaro’s videos has gone viral, but it usually catches him unawares.

Barko Zaro. 'There are stigmas attached to us Ethiopians; people think we’re needy.'Credit: Jonathan Bloom

The most famous example occurred with a video at a stand-up gig of his in early March 2020. That clip was watched 1.6 million times, and there was the sense that his career was about to take off. But we all know what happened shortly after with the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“A ton of performances, a ton of things, were beginning at that time – and then the coronavirus showed up,” he says. “This was a time when I really felt that my career was taking off, but the pandemic destroyed everything. Now, I’m at that point where I feel it’s starting to take off again.”

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His rise hasn’t happened by chance. For a long time, Zaro has been careful to be filmed and to post videos – especially those where he directly addresses the camera or mocks other viral videos. He’s busy on all the main platforms: Facebook, Instagram, TikTok.

It’s easy to get the impression, though, that he isn’t particularly interested in the numbers. He mainly wants to reach an audience – and, if possible, not just members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community.

'Over time, we’ve learned to be proud of our Ethiopian heritage – and it’s not by chance that some people now choose to give their children Amharic names.'

“If someone is scrolling through their feed and some content pops up, they’ll suddenly see my face. They’ll pause on me because I’m Black. They’ll look because it’s a little different for them,” he says. “But that lasts for exactly 2 seconds. Ultimately, it’s like a TV star who gets up and does some comedy: they have a few seconds’ grace, and then they have to prove they can deliver.”

Do you feel you have more to prove?

“It’s not that I have more to prove, but if they were drawn to my video because they saw an Ethiopian guy, I want the content to hold them.”

Zaro is one of just two stand-ups from the Ethiopian community currently plying their trade in Israel, along with Shlomo Babybaby. Since Zaro started performing eight years ago, very few members of his community have tried their luck as stand-ups – especially women (“I think stage fright holds them back,” is his explanation).

Protesters being arrested on the streets of Tel Aviv following the death of Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Teka in 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Before Zaro and Babybaby, Shmuel Baro and Yossi Vasa performed as a duo in the 1990s, creating sketches mainly in Amharic. Baro continued, still occasionally performing stand-up to this day. “They were the Eli & Mariano of our community,” says Zaro, referring to comedians Eli Finish and Mariano Edelman. “They were real stand-ups, at a time when VHS tapes were still being sold. There’s not a single sketch of theirs we didn’t have at our home.”

‘Look at the main issues’

Zaro’s stand-up routines often focus on the racism his community encounters, discussing police violence and the stigmas that have surrounded him ever since he immigrated to Israel.

“What looks! Everyone’s looking at me as if the cleaner just walked onto the stage,” he used to say at the start of his set. “There are stigmas attached to us Ethiopians; people think we’re needy. You see an Ethiopian driving an expensive car and say: ‘Great, see how he’s advanced – he’s now the boss’ driver.’”

Conversely, today he’s worried that this entire interview will be about racism. “The tendency is to interview people from our community and focus on that issue, on racism. That’s part of me, but it’s not the main thing. Do you understand? I want people to look at the main issues.”

What looks! Everyone’s looking at me as if the cleaner just walked onto the stage

Do you feel this is another form of racism – that people want to talk to Ethiopians only about the racism they suffer?

“There’s something to that. I’ve never thought of it that way. But the feeling is that people say ‘Let’s talk about racism and bring in some Ethiopian.’ Once, they invited me onto a morning talk show in order to promote the TV series ‘Nevsu’ [about an Israeli-Ethiopian man married to a white woman] and I wasn’t even in it. They just said: ‘Let’s bring in an Ethiopian to talk about it.’ I didn’t go, as I wasn’t connected to the show.”

'My color isn’t changing anytime soon, I’ve checked. It will always be there. It doesn’t bother me when people say ‘There’s the Ethiopian stand-up guy’ when they brand me.'

Comedian Barko Zaro.Credit: Jonathan Bloom

How else does that manifest itself?

“I’m frequently invited to events that I know in advance are connected to Ethiopians, such as the Sigd holiday. They also invited me to appear on International Women’s Day. I told them this was an excellent choice as they’d invited the one person who earns less than a woman [laughs]. But there aren’t that many Ethiopian holidays or events. When there’s something like Sigd, or we’re marking X years to our immigration, I know I’ll be approached – then told that I’m asking too much and should lower my price. It’s for Ethiopians, after all.”

'There is racism, it’s just structured differently. Today, in order not to hire an Arab, you don’t say you don’t hire Arabs. You say you’re looking for someone who served in the army. That’s how it works.'

Is there really an expectation that you’ll ask for less money?

“Sure, it’s unreal. It’s funny that they ask me to take less money for events associated with Sigd. I tell them it’s like Independence Day – that I should be earning double. But the expectation is that it’s ‘an event meant for you, so take less.’ I joke about it in my show. I say I like to appear before an Ashkenazi crowd because, unlike Ethiopians, Ashkenazi Jews pay. Even Ethiopian nonprofits ask me to perform for free, saying they’re working to promote Ethiopian Jews. So promote me!”

In a sense, aren’t you supporting the stereotype with these jokes?

“I don’t support it, I talk about it – because it’s not like Ethiopians don’t have money. My goal is for my performance to be not just for Ethiopians, and that the audience understands that I’m making some criticisms of society.”

A Sigd festival celebration in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

As a member of the Ethiopian community, Zaro faces a challenge that few other stand-ups encounter.

“I deal with two types of audience. The first are the Ethiopians, who aren’t used to going out to shows or gigs. In Ethiopia, we had land to work; it wasn’t customary to be consumers of culture. Here there’s a new generation, but they aren’t the age group my audience belongs to.

“The second type are the non-Ethiopians, and my concern is always whether they’ll connect to the material and if it speaks to them too; that maybe it’s suitable only for Ethiopians. I need to persuade them to come, to tell them: come, you can laugh as well. Recently, I’ve felt that there’s more diversity in the audiences, that something has opened up.”

When he first started doing solo gigs, Zaro made sure to perform only in locations where he felt comfortable. Places like Rehovot or Kiryat Malakhi, “where there are large Ethiopian communities. I told myself: I need a stage and I need an audience. If I perform in Tel Aviv, who would know me there? With all the difficulties in attracting an audience, at the last minute many people bought tickets and came. Now I go to places the community isn’t really represented in, to see how the audience reacts.

“Sometimes during a gig, I feel I might be talking to the audience too much about racism, though I have no problem pushing this issue in their faces. Someone told me the audience consists of people in their 70s or older, people who were the biggest racists. So I do it in a certain way so they understand that this is what they look like and they know it’s like that – otherwise it wouldn’t make them laugh. If I’d just accuse them of something they aren’t guilty of, they wouldn’t be laughing.”

One of 13 or 14

Zaro is 40 (“I’m at that age where policemen maybe stop beating people, but I still look young enough for them to carry on doing so”), married to Mali and the father of two girls. He came to Israel in 1991. He doesn’t really remember his childhood in Ethiopia, only recalling that it wasn’t so bad. “When I look now at people living in Ethiopia, I see people with nothing – but that’s the thing. We look at what’s happening there through different eyes – I didn’t lack a thing. I’d go out and play with friends; I lived in a village. My house was not an apartment in Givatayim, but there was space for sleeping. I didn’t feel there was anything missing.”

Fellow comedian Shlomo Babybaby.Credit: Guy Nahum Halevi

His parents divorced (“That doesn’t happen a lot”) and he grew up with his mother and three older sisters. His father remarried, resulting in Zaro having plenty of half-sibs (“Altogether we are 13 or 14; it branches out”). Both his parents died last year and he says 2022 was the hardest year of his life. Stand-up helped him cope, he adds.

When he came to Israel, he and his family were sent to an absorption center in Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee. From there they moved to a trailer park near Elad, later moving to Rosh Ha’ayin. His childhood in Tiberias was a period of acclimatization. “We came from a village with nothing. Jews lived in isolated villages, where in order to see a car or other forms of transportation you’d have to walk a long distance – to a place where you saw cars from your window. The greatest initial shock was seeing people desecrating the Sabbath. In Ethiopia, we observed the Sabbath religiously.”

His mother didn’t work and they lived off government benefits. He experienced racism differently than what was expected. “I don’t remember anything I would have defined as racism at the time. You experience it, but you don’t know you are. Things are different now; everyone’s talking about it and no one’s ashamed of it, so it’s much easier to see racism and say: okay, that’s racism.

“When I was little, if someone didn’t want to sit beside me, I didn’t see it as, let’s say, someone not wanting to sit next to me because I’m Ethiopian. Later, you slowly begin to understand. My desire to integrate was so great that I would put up with anything. Only when you grow older do you become less of a sucker with more to say. You’re not ashamed of saying what you think.”

He continues: “My oldest girl, who’s 6, will suffer more than me since we came into a situation and had to contend with it. We weren’t born into it. She grew up like everyone else; she doesn’t feel different. At some point, the issue of color came up at home – she even teased me about it. She asked me why everyone is white and she’s brown. So I told her that the kids in kindergarten are white because their parents are white and she’s brown because her mother and father are brown. Then she said, ‘But you’re not brown, you’re Black.’ She’s now in a new school, the only Ethiopian there, so she immediately recognizes the difference. But the other children are okay with her, and she’s no sucker.”

Actor Shalom Assayag. Has a Border Police joke.Credit: Hadas Parush

Zaro did his military service in the Border Police. “It’s the most cliché thing about Ethiopians,” he says. “Actor Shalom Assayag has a joke: An Ethiopian dies and is asked if he wants to go to heaven or hell. He replies: ‘What, isn’t there a Border Police option?’

“I went there because those around me did. If they’d gone to a pilot training course, I would have tried for that. That’s one of the things I talk about in my shows, in the context of racism: the fact that Ethiopians were always concentrated in certain neighborhoods, ones that were disadvantaged anyway. This exacerbated the situation instead of improving it. When you take a disadvantaged population and mix it with another one, you further weaken both of them. You don’t allow us, as people who came in order to grow, an opportunity to do so. If they’d put us in another city with a higher socioeconomic standing, I would have strived to attain it too. But you’re impacted by the environment you’re in.”

Showing a different angle

After the army, Zaro signed up for a communications degree at Ariel University (“Amir Hetsroni was my teacher,” he says, referring to the novelist and media personality) and dreamed of working in an advertising agency. He later took a copywriting course, where he met comedian Eyal Brigg, who suggested that he do stand-up – something that had never occurred to him beforehand. He describes himself as shy, but adds that he always made his friends laugh and that he likes black humor. “Not that kind of black … you understand what I mean.”

One evening, he performed at an open mic night at a recently opened comedy club. The buzz was so great that he was determined to pursue it further.

Do you feel that audiences respond differently to an Ethiopian comedian?

“Sure. I get on the stage and there’s quiet. You feel people are saying to themselves: let’s hear who this is. That’s an advantage. When another stand-up goes onstage, that doesn’t happen. The ones coming after Shlomo [Babybaby] and myself will have it much easier. There’s a new comedian called Lev Nigatu, who’s amazing. He’s a soldier and has a style all his own. On TikTok you have Aster Aweke, who’s doing really well there – though I don’t know whether she’ll translate that into stand-up at some point.

“I don’t know if my stand-up act will produce any change, but I put things on the table and people talk about it. I post some joke and people talk; you see it in their reactions. Sometimes I generate discussions and arguments. Today, when I do improv in places where there are no Ethiopians, it seems as if they’ve never talked to an Ethiopian. In those places, I feel that I suddenly show them a different angle. When they show an Ethiopian on TV, it’s always in connection with some disaster or when someone’s succeeded at something.

“This year, they brought an Ethiopian woman [Yehudit Negosa, who founded the Chance for Change pre-military academy] to light a torch on Independence Day. I commented that when an Ethiopian succeeds, it’s so exceptional that they [get to] light a torch. I wouldn’t want to light a torch just because I’m Ethiopian but because I’d done something significant, rising above others – not because I’d done better than other Ethiopians.”

He routinely addresses police racism in his videos and stand-up routines. He notes that police vans are the ride-hailing Gett Taxi service for Ethiopians and that police stations are commonly used as a point of reference when giving directions to Ethiopian friends.

“I was at the protest, and so was my mother,” he said after Ethiopian Jews demonstrated in July 2019 following the death of an Ethiopian man at the hands of an off-duty police officer. “What didn’t the police throw at us? Tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades, flour. My mother collected it and made Ethiopian bread with it.”

Have you personally experienced police racism?

“It’s there. I once traveled with Shlomo Babybaby. He was driving. We were stopped for a Breathalyzer test. The policeman asked for my ID as well. I didn’t mind giving it to him, but I wanted to understand why he was asking for it. Why do you need it? What will you find there? So, there is racism, it’s just structured differently. Today, in order not to hire an Arab, you don’t say you don’t hire Arabs. You say you’re looking for someone who served in the army. That’s how it works.”

Does humor help you cope?

“Sure. There’s a story I tell at my gigs of how I went to the superstore and someone approached me – we’re used to the fact that people always think we work there – but she didn’t ask if I worked there. She just said: ‘What, isn’t there any celery?’ She was coming to me with complaints. I ignored her and continued walking. She followed me, sure I was getting her some celery. The end of the joke is that I tried to help her but didn’t know what celery looked like, so I found an Arab worker.”

Would you prefer it if you weren’t labeled the “Ethiopian stand-up?”

“My color isn’t changing anytime soon, I’ve checked. It will always be there. It doesn’t bother me when people say ‘There’s the Ethiopian stand-up guy’ when they brand me. It’s part of who I am, and I talk about this in my shows. I was invited to perform in Eilat recently. Everything was settled, and the person who had invited me called to ask if my show was about Ethiopians. I explained that it was: ‘I talk about my wife; she’s Ethiopian. I talk about work; that’s connected to Ethiopians as well.’

“The show took place and it was one of my best ones ever. Over time, we’ve learned to be proud of our Ethiopian heritage – and it’s not by chance that some people now choose to give their children Amharic names, returning to original Ethiopian names that were changed when they arrived in Israel. Your past is your power.”

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