Do you remember when we did the things we were supposed to do? The things that brought us all respect, status, money and a good quality husband or wife? The things that on the outside made everyone else happy but never us? The things that bought us a five bedroomed semi-detached with concrete driveway, a top of the class Mercedes and twelve other houses that we rented out with no mortgage. We really were, as my dad would say, ‘Top of the Pops’.
But then a few of us decided to throw a shovel into this bullshit. The twaddle and balderdash that enhanced everyone else’s ego but did nothing for ourselves. We didn’t want to be Doctors, dentists, lawyers, pharmacists, and engineers. You know those Asians who proudly stand in the middle of a party with death behind their eyes and regurgitate the tedious insipid line, ‘I’m a Doctor you know’, as though they were some kind of pussy magnet and that alone would make me want to jump into bed with them. Little do they know that it takes more than a ninety-six-hour shift and an MBBS to get me jumping.
Some of us had the ground-breaking, life sabotaging, marriage terminating idea of becoming stand-up comedians. I started doing comedy at a time when there were no other Asian female comedians, and no Muslim female comedians in this country (UK). I was the first, and I had to take some serious flack for it. The white males running the comedy industry, the critics, reviewers, ‘experts’, club bookers, promoters, TV and radio producers didn’t see me as a comedian, they saw me as a professional full-time twenty-four-hour Muslim. They wanted me to go on stage and talk about terrorism, bombs, burkhas, bullets, arranged marriages, forced marriages, no marriages, women’s oppression, hairy men, hairy women, Islamophobia, Muslims, Mexicans, lesbians whilst at the same time explaining 9/11, and ‘Who was Osama Bin Laden?’ Did I know him? Where was I when 7/7 happened? What do I think of Boko Haram? Do I know any girls that went missing? What do I think of Tony Blair taking us to war with Iraq? Would you die for your religion? And ‘If you blow yourself up, will you get 72 Virgins,’ a German journalist once asked me.
I wanted to talk about my friend Julie, and how I lost my knickers whilst going through security at JFK. But they weren’t interested. They want you to talk about what they want you to talk about. As a Muslim person, in their eyes it’s your job to represent all other Muslims and people that look like you, think like you, and come from your part of the world. They may want me to represent my lot, but it’s never ‘my lot’ that want me to represent. While my lot just want me to shut up and get married.
We are forced to explain the actions and debauchery of terrorists and dictators, who are primarily identified as Muslim but never invited to publicly rejoice in the triumphs of people who achieve great things and who are then not identified as Muslim – Mo Farah, Marat Safin, Zinedine Zidane, Mohamed Salah.
If you stray away from your job description and talk about white people things like sex, travel and traffic, then you are a ‘Waste of a good Muslim’. If you talk about being Muslim then, ‘That’s all you ever talk about’. Once again it is a way of white power controlling a minority. They want you but only on their terms.
When I read the reviews of white comedians, the words creative, inventive, imaginative, artfully conceived, highfalutin, brilliant career often crop up. When I read the reviews of Muslim comedians the words hack, obvious, lazy, race, religion, predictable often spring up. They see us talking about our skin colour or background as cheating, having a head start, not being creative. Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy they told that story, does it really need to be reiterated again and again?
When a new Muslim comic comes along he/she is compared to the last one, and the one before that. We are measured by the standard of other Muslims not by the standard set as normal including all kinds of comedians. Many times I have been lumped in with reviews and articles with Omid Djalili and Shappi Khorsandi – they are not even Muslim. Once a reviewer came to my show thinking I was Omid Djalili.
There are constant lists in the mainstream media ‘100 best comedians’, ‘50 funniest women’, ‘30 best comedians working in the world today’. Nobody that looks like me is ever on those lists. Nobody on those lists reflects my life experience. The people on those lists reflect the lives of the people writing them. The people they admire and wish to be.
Most of the white men writing these lists have probably never known a Muslim man or more likely a Muslim woman in their life. They don’t know, or understand our experience so how can they relate to it and find it funny?
As a result of this clash of understanding, I have often received reviews, which are racism disguised as criticism, bullying, subconscious discrimination, taunting and harsh judgements on my religion and way of life. I have learnt that in order to progress you have to ‘whiten up’, make your comedy accessible to the white audience. That way you are inclusive of a large majority and once they accept you, everything will be ok. You’ll get awards, be on TV, and be acknowledged and validated or you can talk about all things Muslim, serve your purpose, stay in your lane, and don’t you dare try to move out of it. Either way you lose. The only way to win is to be the individual you. Comedy is about truth and we can only speak our truth. As the Prophet said, when asked that he joked: ‘I only tell the truth’.
So, to tell you the truth, I don’t want to write about the top ten Muslim comedians in the world. I refuse to compile a list of who I think is good. It is divisive, exclusive, conflicting and alienating. I know how I feel when I read lists that I am not on. I know how it feels to be excluded from lists that I feel I should have been on, I know how it feels to be considered not worthy enough because my worldview is not as celebrated. I don’t want to do that to my brothers and sisters at a time in our history when we are being persecuted on a daily basis in our personal and worldly lives. We are mocked by politicians for the way we dress, far right Muslim hating leaders are labelled ‘heroes’ for opposing what we believe, we are being banned from entering into countries because of our religion, and our Prophet is being denounced as a predator in the name of freedom of speech.
What I want is to applaud and celebrate all working comedians who come from a Muslim background. I refuse to call them ‘Muslim comedians’ because they are not that. They are individuals who have many facets to their lives and personalities and Islam is just one part of that.
So all rise. Dave Chappell, Negin Farad, Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, Dean Obeidallah, Imran Yusuf, Guz Khan, Omar Hamdi, Tez Ilyas, Shazia Mirza, Nabil AbdulRashid, Prince Abdi, MoAmer, Preacher Moss, Aamer Rahman, Naz, Abdullah Afzal, Nazeem Hussain, Omar Regan, Aatif Nawaz, Aman Ali, Azhar Usman, Humza Arshad, Ali official, Rahim Pardesi, Max Amini, Adil Ray, Umar Rana, Maysoon Zayid, Fawzia Mirza, Nisti Sterk, Zinat Perzadeh, Laila Sari, Nasim Pedrad, Soimah Pancawati, Mona Shaikh, Bilal Zaffer, Jeff Mirza, Riaad Moosa, Aman Ali, and Prince Abdi.
There are probably many others that I don’t know about in the many different countries around the world. I am so sorry if I have missed your name off the list.
May they all prosper and not pander to the wants and needs of a narrative dictated to us by those in power with an agenda. May it be our narrative that is true to us and represents us as we are. And may we stand at parties and gatherings and be proud to say we are comedians, may people be impressed with us as they are with doctors, engineers and lawyers, may men and women want to marry us, feed us, love us, and keep us.
In the future, we will become the new Jews of comedy. They were once a persecuted minority who had to change their names to disguise themselves against further abuse. They were taunted, mistreated, alienated, mocked. But they used their situation to retaliate with humour. There came a thing called, ‘Jewish humour’; it made the world laugh. Joan Rivers, Mel Brookes, Groucho Marx, Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny, Gilda Radna, Larry David, Gene Wilder, Billy Crystal, Bette Midler. Albert Brookes, Mort Sahl, Peter Sellers, Andy Kaufman. That will be us very soon. Inshallah.