To people who know nothing about it, the term Muslim humour may seem like an oxymoron, but not all followers of the Islamic faith are sour and dour religious fanatics. There were plenty of women in headscarves at the performance of Allah made me Funny in the City Hall on Thursday night, and plenty of men in beards wearing kufi, the traditional head dress in many countries, but even those in the long loose garment known either as galabia or dishdash were enjoying the jokes as much as the non-Muslims were. Of course I missed some of the in-jokes , but the stylish young woman sitting next to me explained them to me in between giggles.
We hear plenty of anti-Muslim humour, much of which is very offensive, but perhaps only a Muslim comic call tell a joke like the following and get away with it. For those of you who haven’t heard it, it goes like this: A Muslim man walks into a club and asks to see the manager. “What do you want?” the manager asks him. “To tell jokes about terrorism,” says the Muslim. That night he leaves the stage to tumultuous applause.
I took a deep breath, not knowing how to react, but the big crowd loved it, and soon I relaxed and was laughing away with everyone else at jokes against George Dubya and Little Johnny Howard, who was described as “George W. Bush with a black man’s lips”.
What was surprising was the number of terrorist jokes – A veiled Muslim women was sitting in front of two young white Australian lads on a bus. One of them reached out his hand to tweak off her veil, but was restrained by his friend. “Don’t do that,” he said. “She’ll kill us all!”
The sophisticated Muslim audience loved this, for they have learned, just as Jews, Aborigines and other minority groups have had to do, to laugh at the prejudices against them, but for me it was a sobering experience, and I wondered how a mainstream Australian audience would have reacted – probably with guffaws of recognition at what they regarded as truth. You need to be in a minority (as the non-Muslims were in this audience) to know how it feels.
What this show did prove was that humour is cultural rather than strictly religious. Both the comics, Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman, are American, Moss from an Afro-American background, and Usman an American of Indian background (i.e. the Asian sub-continent as opposed to native Americans). Both are coloured, and much of the humour revolved around appearance, and perhaps for an Australian audience the jokes seemed to be more about being black in a mainly white USA. “At least in Australia I’m hated for being American, not for being Muslim,” said Usman, while Preacher Moss made the quip that Americans were afraid of only two kinds of people, blacks and Muslims, and he qualified on both counts.
So it was a show about prejudice, rather than being specifically Muslim, for you could substitute any racial or religious minority in many of the jokes and they would still make uncomfortable sense in any context.
There were no religious or sexual jokes such as you find in Western comedy, and no swearing, but that just shows that these are not essential elements of comedy, for most of the show was excruciatingly funny. It was very much a family show but, as Preacher Moss remarked, it couldn’t possibly be a Muslim gig, for there were no hordes of children running around unsupervised.
Each comic approached his subject in a different way, Preacher Moss much more light-hearted than Usman, who made no attempt to hide his strong anti-American and anti-Western bias. His jokes had a more cutting edge, and that made them, for me, less funny, because his appearance was more stereotypal, and made me uncomfortably aware of how our perceptions are shaped by the media.
His question “Do you know that the country of Niger is named after a racist slur” had an edge of paranoia on the humour, as did his word-play about the India-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir really being about Mere Cash. You can appreciate the sentiment, as you can appreciate his suggestion that Operation Iraqi Freedom should be renamed Operation Iraqi Liberation, with its acronym OIL, but it was rather a case of overkill.
This stand-up comedy show is, in the words of its producers, “an attempt by a group of American Muslim comics to counter the negative stereotypes and attitudes about Muslims and Arabs by poking fun at themselves, their communities and the prejudices they face”. My problem with it was that it didn’t really come to grips with specifically Arab humour, and when I asked one of the non-Arab organisers afterwards why not, he replied with a grin that perhaps it’s Middle Eastern humour that’s the oxymoron. I have to disagree, for I’ve just returned from Syria and Jordan, and found that once the locals felt relaxed with Westerners, they had as many jokes against themselves and their government as we do.
I didn’t know quite to make of his remark, for certainly there were very few Arabs in the audience only one man put his hand up and declared himself an Iranian. The rest were Turks, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Lebanese and Indians.
But that’s a cultural question for another time and place. My only disappointment with this show that it was too American in its focus, and I’m eager to see more home-grown Muslin comics. But as a barrier-breaking experience it could have done with a wider audience, because it’s a show about prejudice rather than religion, and these issues are better tackled through comedy than by confrontation.
Played Thursday 23 November 2006
Duration : 2 hours, including a 20 minute interval