“I want to get out there and be the image of the American you don’t think is American, and the Muslim you don’t think of when you think of a Muslim,” she said.
Zayid lives in a bright, plant-filled apartment in Cliffside Park, N.J., that she shares with her husband and their cat. She likes to keep her husband’s name under wraps, and publicly refers to him as Chefugee, for he is indeed both a refugee — they met while she was working with refugees in the Palestinian territories — and a chef.
Zayid’s parents, who are from a village outside Ramallah, also raised their family here. Zayid is the youngest of four daughters, and had an idyllic childhood despite a traumatic birth. The doctor botched her mother’s C-section, she said, smothering Zayid. Cerebral palsy is not genetic; it’s often caused by brain trauma before or during birth, and manifests differently in people. Zayid shakes all the time, though yoga has lessened the severity, and can walk but cannot stand for very long (she calls herself a sit-down stand-up comedian).
Her parents treated her no differently from her siblings. Her father, a gregarious salesman, taught her to walk by having her stand on his feet. She was sent to dance and piano lessons because the family could not afford physical or occupational therapy, and she became a popular high achiever. “I lived in a bubble,” she told me, “and that is very much related to who I am now.”
At college, her bubble burst. She went to Arizona State University on an academic scholarship, and on her first day in an English literature class, her professor stunned her by asking, “Can you read?” She majored in theater — her lifelong dream has been to appear on “General Hospital” — yet despite wowing teachers she was never cast in school productions. Even when the theater department mounted a play about a girl with cerebral palsy, a nondisabled student was chosen over Zayid for the part.
“It was devastating, because I knew I was good,” Zayid said. “The girl who got it was a great actress. But why would anyone want to see her fake cerebral palsy, when I’m sitting right here?”