The world is easily becoming a less and less funny place, especially for Muslims. In an era of racial profiling, stereotypes and the media networks of Rupert Murdoch, we can`t say there`s much to laugh about. Or is there?
A new wave of Muslim humorists are soundly descending into the popular cultures of the west, tackling uncomfortable subjects of discrimination, hatred and the simple crime of being different — and making people laugh about it. A clear distinction that must be provided to counter any misunderstandings are that these Muslim comedians are poking fun at their own selves, fellow Muslims and the modern society in general — and not Islam. Though there is no lack of individuals who are involved with the latter, comedians like Preacher Moss, Azhar Usman and Ahmed Ahmed are showing a different side of being Muslim in today`s world.
The Axis of Evil comedy tour includes three Americans of middle-eastern descent Maz Jobrani (Iranian), Ahmed Ahmed (Egyptian) and Aron Kader (Palestinian), who are finding new ways to make people laugh. The group first worked together under the title of The Arabian Knights in 2000, and later switched to the moniker Axis of Evil — the well-known term used by President George Bush to describe the regions of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. “We`re still looking for a North Korean though!” the group likes to joke.
Having been granted a one-hour Comedy Central special in March of last year, the comics started off the first ever TV-show granted to Middle Eastern comics, by walking on stage passing through a metal detector, being frisked by security. “I do a joke where I say, now I just show up in a G-string!” says Ahmed Ahmed, “I`m going to get strip searched anyway so I might as well save everybody some time!”
Describing the crowds coming in for the shows, the trio says there are a lot of non-Arabs who show up. “They`re always curious and they want to hear a voice from that region of the world,” explained Ahmed on a recent radio show, “It`s like finally we`ve been able to have that voice. And Middle Easterners and non-Middle Easterners are laughing with us because it`s a breath of fresh air. They`ve never heard it.”
And that is exactly what the Axis of Evil tour delivers, poking fun at the stereotypical images of Muslims, from begging the news media to show Middle Easterners doing something positive for a change (“like baking a cookie or something!”), to playing up on Ahmed Ahmed being stopped regularly at airports for sharing the name of a terrorist on FBI`s Most Wanted list. Aron Kader complains that even after so much media coverage, it`s a shame people still come up to him mispronouncing “Palestine”. “Come on! We`re responsible for half the terrorism in the last 50 years!” he insists, “How many rocks do we have to throw?”
“Comedy is a possibility for young Muslims now,” Preacher Moss once stated in an interview right before one of his performances. “It didn`t use to be — it used to be that comedy and Muslim go together like George Bush and smart.”
Performing in front of sell-out crowds across the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, is perhaps the most influential of all Muslim comedy tours dubbed Allah Made Me Funny. Consisting of Preacher Moss, an anti-racism activist and recent convert, who has also written for the likes of Saturday Night Live hosts George Lopez and Darrell Hammond, and co-founded the tour with Azhar Usman, a lawyer born and bred in Chicago (who still thinks being a lawyer is much funnier of the two jobs). Rounding up the group is young Mohammad Amer of Palestinian descent.
“Humor is such a wonderful tension reliever. It`s hard to hate somebody who makes you laugh,” said Azhar Usman in an interview. Usman — dubbed as “Bin Laughin” — along with the rest of the trio, toes the line of when to make a joke and when not too. They strictly restrict themselves to pulling wholehearted fun at fellow Muslims (especially about our whole deal with loud cellphones in mosques). Audience favorites include jokes on regional dialects, differences in pronouncing salaam in various regions, the inane lack of punctuality in the subcontinent (having to do with the confusion in our language where kal means both `tomorrow` and `yesterday`, while parsoon means `the day before yesterday`, and `the day after tomorrow`). There are laughs over the much less discussed male repression from their more stout and loud counterparts (wives and mothers!) and Mohammed Amer regaling with the crowd how worried he was when he once lost his nine-year-old cousin Osama in Wal-Mart “Imagine. I couldn`t even call for him!”
Not only are these comedians working hard at making us laugh, but they`re working at revamping the image of Muslims, and building bridges on the supposed West/East divide Preacher Moss is an activist against racism, and Azhar Usman, the director of a Muslim think tank. Most Muslim comedians are regularly called into conferences and lectures, and Mohammad Amer regularly opens for Sami Yusuf.
Dave Chappelle, the irresistibly hilarious man behind the ingenious Chappelle`s Show is working with the Allah Made Me Funny trio to produce a feature-length concert film which will include on-stage performances in the form of a documentary. Chappelle has been a guest performer with the tour — and a lesser known fact is that he converted to Islam years ago.
So the bottom line is, if we can`t come to the tours, the tours are certainly coming to us. But what do the local comedians have to say about this growth spur in Muslim comedy tours?
“They are great!” thinks Saad Haroon, one of the brains behind ventures such as Black Fish and the TV show, The Real News. “I think it`s wonderful that comedians like Ahmed Ahmed have achieved such fame, it brings credibility to the process and creates new possibilities for other Muslim comedians. I know when Axis of Evil went on tour they were looking out for other comedians in the Middle East, and that made me happy — they were there to develop new talent, and not just for a show.”
“One of the changes going on in America and Europe right now is that the Muslim communities there, who have in the past kept a low profile and tried to become the best damned taxi drivers in the world, have now started doing comedy,” opines Comedian Sami Shah. “Muslim Comedy is an odd creature. At first glance, many would consider that phrase to be a contradiction in terms. Muslim`s aren`t funny. They don`t laugh. That`s the general perception anyway. And it wasn`t helped by that awful Albert Brooks movie that came out two years ago (Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World). When he says, “I`m going to do the first improv comedy show in Pakistan!” I almost kicked the screen in (forgive my rage, but after all, I am a Black Fish alum). Muslims are funny. Our religion and our sense of humor have nothing to do with each other (unless the two intersect and even then most of us will enjoy a laugh in private). And that`s the key; we aren`t as public with our comedy as the West is. Pakistanis for instance, tend to have a dark sense of what`s funny. I have heard jokes about suicide bombers the day after the October 18 2007 attack. I have even — and don`t be shocked when I say this — heard people making jokes about recently deceased politicians. It is how we deal with trauma. And there is a lot of trauma to deal with.”
One wonders just how far into the hearts of non-Muslims, Muslim Comedians can penetrate. “These people”, Saad Haroon goes on to elucidate, “Preacher Moss, Azhar Usman, Ahmed Ahmed — Keep in mind first and foremost that these people are all Americans. Their humor will target Arab-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, Muslim-Americans. Touring the East might be a big plus for them but it`s not their target audience, America is. But none of them have been able to break into mainstream American media yet, and that is where we really need, a Muslim comedian breaking down cultural barriers. African Americans had Bill Cosby, and we need someone just as big.”
“All of this is good,” thinks Sami Shah, “Different styles of comedy and more comedians. This is good. People are rarely united in anything except maybe hate. But now, by showing those who don`t understand us, that we are also united by laughter, maybe we can change their understanding of us. And if not, well as long as we get a good laugh along the way, it`s all good.”
Whether or not we break down media perceptions and differences created on our lack of understanding of one another, only time will tell. In the meantime “We want you to clap,” like Preacher Moss jokes at the end of his shows, “like it`s the end of Ramadan and you can eat again.”