Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Photography by: 
Pete Comparoni

When Marena Riyad ('15) was a student at UNT, she was reluctant to choose a major.

She would draw nudes in art class in the morning, then tackle international studies in the afternoon, constantly oscillating between creative endeavors and analytical thinking.

"My brain is fulfilled naturally in both, and that's when the opportunity for the integrative studies major came up. I literally made my own major," says Riyad, whose concentrations were in design, art and business marketing.

She still has her hand in several worlds -- running a henna salon during the workday and the Kufiya Comedy club after hours in Dallas. And drawing on her knowledge in business, she spearheaded the Kufiya Comedy Festival May 10-12, which brought acts from backgrounds that are not usually represented in the entertainment circuit.

Riyad notes the different cultures -- as well as henna and comedy -- are bonded by similar traits. Henna, which often takes place in holidays and weddings, is rooted in sharing stories, with chitchatting and laughing among women.

"And I feel the same thing when I'm onstage doing comedy. I'm just sharing my story. When the audience laughs, it's them acknowledging like, 'Oh, my God, I've also gone through that,'" she says. "People think those two things have nothing in common. I'm like, 'You actually have no idea how similar they are.'"

'The Most Exhilarating Feeling'

After graduating, Riyad hoped to pursue a career in fashion but couldn't find a job in Texas. Then, a friend brought over a henna cone one night, and Riyad fell in love with the art.

"I saw it as a way to prove my abilities as a business owner, as an artist and as a way to really represent my community."

The new venture fit with her philosophy: "You know your why, and God takes care of the how."

Marena Riyad
Marena Riyad ('15)

She opened her shop, The Haus of Henna, and it took off with Riyad's unique style -- "like jewelry on the body."

She also is pursuing a career in acting and, while attending a workshop around 2018, a fellow student recommended she try comedy because she was funny. It turned out she loved it.

It fell into her lifelong trait of curiosity and enthusiasm for language. When she came to the U.S. from Palestine at age 11, she didn't know a single word of English. By the seventh grade, she was winning competitions in poetry.

"For me, storytelling and sharing experiences is very much a part of my Palestinian customs. We're known for oral culture, and sharing our culture through generations and generations, through music and art and spoken word and poetry, is just such a part of us. I feel like comedy is such a natural thing for me to do."

Her salon becomes Kufiya Comedy Show -- named for the traditional head scarf and symbol of Palestinian resistance -- once a month. One of her favorite jokes: "I grew up in two Third World countries -- Palestine and East Texas."

"It's an honor to make people laugh," says Riyad, whose dream is to host a late-night TV talk show. "People spend their time and their money, and they're coming to you to kind of almost escape reality for a little bit and go on this journey with you. And when people are in the audience, they're open and they're willing to receive me in my stories and they resonate with the things that I'm talking about. It is the most exhilarating feeling you can think of."

A Gift to People

Riyad loves creating experiences as a gift to people. And her festival -- for which she drew on her knowledge in the experiential marketing field and event planning -- is her latest present.

While the Kufiya Comedy Show always brings in comedians from different backgrounds, Riyad wanted the festival to be as immersive as possible, and it featured food, music, films and panels during the days and comedy at night. Each night was devoted to an underrepresented population -- the Desi/South Asian, Middle East and North Africa, and East and Southeast Asia communities.

"I wanted to give people as many opportunities as possible to experience these different parts of the world and show them that there is so much more out there," she says. "Even though I can't show it all, hopefully it will entice them to be more open-minded."

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