In the face of recent terrorist attacks by radical extremists, this year’s Fringe features a group of Muslim comedians talking about their faith (or, in some cases, lack of it) and tackling Islamophobia head-on. Thanks to the scaremongering tactics of certain sections within a popular media which has wielded an ignorance of facts, statistics and the religion itself, the last two decades seem to have rendered Muslims as ‘the other’, an unknown to be feared.
Sajeela Kershi and Aatif Nawaz both perceived a change post-9/11. Kershi considers herself ‘Muslim agnostic’ and a couple of days after the US attacks, a taxi driver ranted to the bemused comic: ‘it’s your lot!’ Her response this year is Shallow Halal, which traces a journey through the religion she was brought up in and how, initially, growing up in the only Asian family within a white area, she didn’t see herself as different. ‘I’d walk into a pub and heads would turn. I’d be thinking: “oh yeah, I’m looking fly!”’ she laughs.
Kershi also runs Immigrant Diaries which gives voice to performers who grew up in immigrant families. ‘It was born of anger and frustration,’ she insists. ‘In 2012 there was all this anti-immigration stuff and I was having a rant with someone saying “statistics don’t tell stories, people do!” I then thought that there must be something in this.’
Sajeela Kershi Presenter of the Islam Channel’s Living the Life, stand-up Aatif Nawaz’s show is his Fringe debut. Its first incarnation was a light-hearted affair that he performed in the West End last year, but following a conversation with a fellow comic he decided to dig deeper and tackle some bigger questions.
‘I’m one of those people who was born into an Islam that I passively practised. It was only when Muslims started to get a bad press around the world for 9/11, 7/7 and ISIS that people got angry and tried to find a place for that anger. They look at me and they’ll ask “what does this chapter of the Koran say?” So I’ve had a chance to look into it more, engage with it. I’m closer to my faith now than I ever have been.’
Tez Ilyas is also making his Fringe debut and, like Nawaz, he ‘converts’ all his audience to Islam then proceeds to teach them how to integrate into British society. He says it’s a humorous response to ‘the amount of scrutiny that seems to be on British Muslims at the moment’, and addresses the frustration at being called upon to condemn terrorist attacks just because you happen to share the same faith. ‘That double standard is extremely frustrating. It’s there and there’s only so much you can speak out against.’
Omar Hamdi grew up in Wales to Egyptian parents. His debut show explores that experience as well as his adventures in a spirituality brought to the fore by reading about acts conducted by extremists. ‘That whole clash of civilisations thing is something I can relate to. When I read a piece about ISIS, I think about my attempts at being somewhat spiritual and the different friends I’ve got, from the completely godless to others who are quite switched-on to religion. My parents were really different: my mum was very spiritual but my dad was quite the opposite, a scientist.’
Hamdi has had chastising reactions to some of his material. ‘There were two Saudi guys in the front row at a gig and I was joking about censorship in Saudi Arabia. They were laughing a lot, but at the end they ran out after me and said, “look, you were really funny but you can’t joke about religion”.’
Imran Yusuf Imran Yusuf, whose award-winning 2010 show tackled perceptions of his faith and heritage, has had polar reactions to his material over the years, ‘from having a shower of chocolate coins being thrown at me to references to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq shouted out. Any minority group knows to expect this and at home, many of us were taught to turn the other cheek.’ But for all the negativity there’s also some inspiring moments: ‘every now and then someone will understand that, in some way, my presence in this arena helps humanise me and my community.’
All of these comedians generally agree that there isn’t one topic within their religion or culture that they wouldn’t joke about; it’s the approach that makes all the difference. As Hamdi considers, ‘I think people can joke about anything they want as long as they are funny’. Ilyas agrees: ‘I know there are debates on comedy about what people should or shouldn’t talk about but if you can make something funny then I think you should.’
Though Kershi adds the caveat that you shouldn’t put yourself out there aiming to simply cause offence as ‘there’s freedom of speech but there’s also a responsibility. I can say to a friend, “you look fat in that dress” but I’m not going to because it’ll hurt her feelings.’ Indeed, Yusuf is very careful when choosing his targets. ‘In general, I don’t insult any faith itself. Organised religion as a business is fair game, but I see no value in insulting the core inspiration of anyone’s faith.’ With these comedians, it’s going to be as fascinating a Fringe as it is funny.
Aatif Nawaz: Muslims Do it Five Times a Day, The Caves, 0330 220 1212, 7–29 Aug, 10.15pm, free
Imran Yusuf: Super Roar of the Underdog Turbo X – HD Remix, The Stand 3, 558 7272, 21–30 Aug, 7.40pm, £12 (£10)
Omar Hamdi: In the Valleys of the Kings, Assembly George Square Gardens, 623 3030, 8–30 Aug, 10.20pm, £10–£12 (£8–£10). Previews 5–7 Aug, £6
Sajeela Kershi: Shallow Halal, The Newsroom, 557 5830, 6–30 Aug (not 12, 17, 24), 2.30pm, free; Immigrant Diaries: Sajeela Kershi and Guests, Assembly Rooms, 0844 693 3008, 7–30 Aug (not 17), 10pm, £10 (£9). Preview 6 Aug, £9 (£8)
Tez Ilyas: TEZ Talks, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 8–30 Aug (not 17), 7.15pm, £10–£12 (£8–£10). 5–7 Aug, £6
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