From Per­sia with love

Af­ter 9/11 Bri­tish-Ira­nian co­me­dian Omid Djalili de­cided to stand up and be counted, turn­ing his act into an ag­gres­sive dis­sec­tion of Mid­dle East­ern is­sues. He talks nu­clear weapons and belly danc­ing with Brian Boyd

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Comedy -

IN Au­gust 2001 Bri­tish-Ira­nian comic Omid Djalili won the pres­ti­gious Time Out com­edy award and felt that, af­ter years on the mar­gins, he was be­gin­ning to get some mo­men­tum in his ca­reer. Weeks later, in the af­ter­math of 9/11, he was shocked by how quickly he was os­tracised.

“I’ve al­ways done a lot of ma­te­rial about the Mid­dle East in my act,” says the like­able 40-some­thing, “and I sup­pose I re­garded my­self as a voice of rea­son in try­ing to un­der­stand Mid­dle East­ern cul­ture and pol­i­tics. Im­me­di­ately af­ter 9/11, though, I was sud­denly dropped from a num­ber of cor­po­rate com­edy gigs. I was told at the time that the shows were be­ing can­celled be­cause they thought it was the wrong time for hu­mour, but I later found that the shows went ahead with a white English comic tak­ing my place.”

In­stead of soft­en­ing his act, Djalili delved even fur­ther into Mid­dle East­ern pol­i­tics for sub­se­quent shows – talk­ing about the na­ture of ji­had and why peo­ple were pre­pared to die for a cause. “If peo­ple thought that the cli­mate wasn’t right for my sort of ma­te­rial, they were very mis­taken,” he says. “I knew that my back­ground gave me a unique in­sight, so I cer­tainly wasn’t in a mood to hold back. I had a sim­ple point to make, which is that not ev­ery­one from the Mid­dle East is a sui­cide bomber or a ter­ror­ist.”

This new, ag­gres­sive approach and his re­fusal to sani­tise his­ma­te­rial reaped in­stant re­wards. He was nom­i­nated for a Per­rier award in 2002, got picked up by Amer­i­can TV and starred in the Whoopi Gold­berg sit­com Whoopi. He is cur­rently pre­par­ing for a sec­ond se­ries of The Omid Djalili show for the BBC.

Brought up in Lon­don, his first few com­edy shows – with ti­tles such as “The Short, Fat Ke­bab Shop Owner’s Son” and “The Arab and the Jew” saw him just skim the sur­face of his eth­nic­ity be­fore he says he truly found his voice.

He cred­its Ir­ish comic, Tommy Tier­nan, as an in­spi­ra­tion. “I worked with Tommy on a Chan­nel 4 show called Small Pota­toes and we used to spend a lot of time talk­ing about the na­ture of our acts. I think I was a bit too in­of­fen­sive in my approach and see­ing how Tommy – who I think is bet­ter than Ricky Ger­vais – ap­proached his ma­te­rial, showed me a dif­fer­ent way of do­ing things.”

Djalili is usu­ally taken for a Mus­lim, but he is, in fact, a Baha’i. “It’s a re­li­gion that most peo­ple know ab­so­lutely noth­ing about,” he says. “The way I ex­plain is it to show how it is re­lated to Is­lam the same way that Chris­tian­ity is re­lated to Ju­daism. It’s a sort of cud­dly and sweet re­li­gion. With Is­lam, though, I do de­fend as­pects of it in my act, sim­ply be­cause there is so much Is­lam­o­pho­bia around.”

One of the key mo­ments in his new approach to do­ing po­lit­i­cal ma­te­rial was an in­ci­dent im­me­di­ately af­ter 9/11 when he was booked to do a show at Lon­don’s Blooms­bury Theatre. When he ar­rived at the venue, he found two queues – one was made up of peo­ple re­turn­ing their tick­ets (“maybe they thought they were go­ing to be blown up,” he says) and the other was for peo­ple look­ing for last-minute tick­ets.

“In a sense that in­ci­dent summed up a lot of things for me: that sense of fear, that sense of not know­ing what was go­ing on, the idea that the theatre might be un­der at­tack be­cause I was play­ing there. It gave me loads to work with,” he says.

He’s aware of the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­volved in be­ing a cul­tural con­duit be­tween the West and the Mid­dle East. “I go from talk­ing about what it is like to grow up as a Bri­tish Per­sian into more gen­eral stuff about mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. And I keep get­ting handed stuff – for ex­am­ple now I can talk about Sharia law and what it ac­tu­ally means,” he says. “I do worry about peo­ple’s sen­si­tiv­i­ties. I used to have this joke about how ev­ery cul­ture has some­thing that they’re re­ally em­bar­rassed about – in Bri­tain it’s Lau­rence Llewe­lyn Bowen, in the Mid­dle East you’ve got sui­cide bombers – but there’s less of a mess left by sui­cide bombers than there is by a Lau­rence Llewe­lyn Bowen makeover. You have to be care­ful about what au­di­ences you can tell that joke to.”

He has never gigged in Iran, but says that the Ira­nian com­mu­nity sup­ports him. “Most of them are great, but there are a few who get up­set be­cause I do­ma­te­rial about Iran and nu­clear weapons. But the joke is about the per­cep­tion of Ira­nian peo­ple by the West – it’s play­ing on the stereo­type,” he says.

He still has fam­ily in Iran and keeps him­self well-in­formed about po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments. He says that when­ever there’s a story about Iran in the news he gets count­less re­quests from me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions for a com­ment, but he has long since stopped act­ing as a “spokesman” for a county he has vis­ited only a few times.

Other co­me­di­ans have com­plained to him that he can do ma­te­rial (such as on sui­cide bombers) that they can’t sim­ply be­cause of his eth­nic back­ground. “I’ve also had comics say­ing to me that 9/11 made my ca­reer,” he says.

On the back of his BBC se­ries, he is now play­ing larger the­atres in­stead of com­edy clubs, and he says he al­ters his ma­te­rial to suit the main­stream au­di­ence. “You have to be a lot sharper, you have to get to the gag quicker,” he says. “It’s very dif­fer­ent to the clubs where au­di­ences can al­low you away with stuff. The big sur­prise for me though now is how many peo­ple shout up for me to dance. I used to do this funny belly dance in my act to cover up any­thing that hadn’t gone down very well. Now I get asked to do it all the time. All the time I’m think­ing: I’m do­ing re­ally cut­ting, ob­ser­va­tional ma­te­rial and all some peo­ple want me to do is belly dance for them.”

Omid Djalili plays Vicar St, Dublin on

Thurs­day March 6th

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