Comedy, Muslim style
With the exception of cigarettes, which bring no benefit of any kind to anyone, there is nothing under the sun that does not produce some good.
Of course it put everyone living in the West with a Muslim name and what are euphemistically called “Middle Eastern looks” under suspicion as possibly being a distant cousin of the uncle of the man who had a brother-in-law, whose wife’s sister’s husband’s maternal uncle once shook hands with Osama bin Laden’s driver when OBL was living in Peshawar under the CIA’s benign care back in the Mujahideen’s heroic jihad against the infidel Russkies.
That was the bad news.
So here is the good news.
In brisk business and in a good deal of demand is an outcropping of Muslim comedians in the United States, Canada and England. Some time ago, three of them went on an Axis of Evil tour of Europe and were a sell-out.
Even the staid Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has run a documentary featuring Muslim comedians and some of their acts. Not all the faithful think what these people are doing is funny. Some of them consider these fellows — and there are a couple of very funny girls too — traitors to the faith, never missing a chance to rile against them, accusing them of denigrating Islam and making fun of their own people. One bearded gentleman, who spotted one of these comedians boarding a flight, shouted after him, “You are going to hell. That is where you’re going.” The man ended up in London, which, despite its wet summers and double-decker buses, is not quite the site of that great bonfire in the sky.
The American Muslim stand-up comedians — which means guys and gals who stand out there and make jokes, just as our own Omar Sharif does — who have become famous — or infamous as some of the brothers would have it — are: Ahmed Ahmed, Azhar Usman, Dean Obeidallah, Maysoon Zayid, and Tissa Hami. The PBS documentary pointed out that “many of these comedians do jokes about misconceptions of Islam and Middle Eastern and South Asian groups, using their humour as activism for their races and faith.”
Racial profiling and the going over given to Muslims at American airports is the staple of most of their jokes. Maysoon and Tissa, the two women, joke about their experiences as Muslim women. One of them wears a headscarf while she performs, which also serves as a prop for some of her jokes.
Azhar Usman, who is of South Asian origin, takes the stage and greets his audience with a resounding Assalam Alekum, then asks if they know what that means. “It means,” he goes on, “that I am gonna kill you.” His show, billed Allah Made Me Funny, has toured major US and Canadian cities, as well as Europe. There have been invitations from several Arab countries.
One popular stand-up woman comedian is Shazia Mirza, whose family is from Pakistan, though she grew up in England. She jokes about 9/11, sex-hungry Muslim men and the fact that she remains a certified virgin. Some of Shazia’s jokes run like this: “The women in my family all use the same passport.” “I said, Oh, come on, Germany, join the war, it’s not the same without you.” “My name is Shazia Mirza — at least that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence.”
She has received many death threats from “pious God-fearing Muslims”. One of her routines, “The Last Temptation of Shazia”, has her performing in front of a board plastered with printouts of the hate mail she receives some of which she pulls down and reads from. She says in her travels through Europe, she has been mistaken for everything ranging from suicide bomber to a character in a Harry Potter book.
In an interview with Priya Jain for Solan.com, Shazia said, “I stand up onstage for an hour and a half and make people laugh and tell them mostly the truth — most of the stuff is true, it happened to me — and then I go home and pray. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs, I don’t eat pork, and I’m a good Muslim. I don’t understand why people say I can’t be a comedian. I don’t relate the two at all.”
In one of her shows in Texas, Shazia said, “If nuns are all married to God, then God must be a polygamist.” It did not go down very well with the very Christian crowd.
The three Axis of Evil comedians — Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-Italian American, Ahmed Ahmed, a Muslim Egyptian American actor who couldn’t land “terrorist” roles because of his excellent English, Aron Kader, a Palestinian-Mormon American actor and Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American who bunked a PhD programme — spoke to Wajahat Ali of Altmuslim.com.
Obaidullah told Ali, “I’m surprised Fox News doesn’t give hurricanes Muslim names at this point just to screw with us even more. Why not? Just pretend. Just blame us for a tornado, ‘Today they say it’s due to hot and cold air, but I think it’s due to Al Qaeda’.”
On a serious note, he said, “I hope it encourages and inspires more Middle Easterners, Arabs, and Muslims to get involved in the entertainment field, and all forms of the media. So often we sit and complain how we are demonised and portrayed horribly, the only ones who will ever clear our name is us. The burden is on us. No one is going to do us a favour.”
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent. His e-mail is email@example.com