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
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