Shazia Mirza is a Muslim woman from Birmingham who is a stand-up comic. She has been invited by the British Council to go to India to try and convince Muslims there that there is such a thing as a sense of humour. A similar trip to Pakistan was cancelled when the Pakistani authorities decided it was too likely to stir up violent reactions. It seems that while most non Muslim audiences of both sexes warm to Ms Mirza, the reaction from Muslim men is less enthusiastic to the point where she has been attacked while on stage. It appears, too, that her appearances in the States caused a certain amount of unease. With statements like ‘Americans love to ask questions and not learn anything.’ it’s not surprising. Although Ms Mirza does not like being branded as a Muslim woman comic, she might not be quite so successful if she weren’t and it’s clear that that’s where the source of her material lies. Add to that a style that seems to owe something to Jasper Carrott and Dave Allen and you get lines like these which definitely seem more Birmingham than Islamabad:
“I was walking past this building site in Mecca when a group of Muslim builders shouted, ‘Show us your . . . face.’ “

—  On arranged marriages:“My friend Julie says, ‘How can you sleep with someone you don’t know?’ – but she does it all the time.”

— On the search in Iraq for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction: “Look up his wife’s purdah , because nobody looks up there.”

— Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mirza captured laughs this way: “My name is Shazia Mirza. . . . At least that’s what it says on my pilot’s license.”

— She recounted the time in Mecca when a man touched her inappropriately: “I felt a hand on my bottom. I ignored it. I thought, ‘I’m in Mecca. It must be the hand of God.’ It was great, I’m going back there”
— “Anyone with a moustache is now a target,” she says, poking fun at strained Anglo-Muslim relations. “My mum’s been attacked.”
“Muslims in America are the new blacks. Great, they’re going to be playing our music, wearing our  clothes…”
“Afghanistan has banned high heels because the click is sexually attractive to men. All goats have been locked up.”
“The news that there are British bombers means that they’re going to blow us up but they’ll do it politely”

She recounts her experience with American customs when she was asked for her profession and said ‘comic’. “Prove it,” was the officer’s reply. She was then asked a series of questions including “Have you ever grown a beard?” to which she replied  “yes I’m a South Asian woman of course I have.”

The Ayatollah Khomeini maintained that “there are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam.” but the average Muslim’s humour continues to exist in spite of their unfunny Islamic faith. Humour has long flourished in the Arab world both in its literature and in everyday life. Your average Muslim enjoys a good joke as much as the next man, and I suspect the differences with Western humour are not that great. I got the impression that humour was not quite as prominent in Muslim South East Asia but have absolutely no evidence to support this feeling. The Muslim firends I’ve had certainly loved telling jokes, much of the humour being directed against Egyptians unless the speaker was from Egypt when it was either against Israel or Saudi Arabia.  Their jokes included laughing at themselves (as long as it’s not an outsider making fun of them) but also a fair amount of cruelty. Religion was almost but not quite off limits-I’ve often heard Mulsims say that they don’t drink wine but they can drink whisky because it is not expressly forbidden in the Koran. In this sense the Thais, who can respond to the most unfunny of situations with gentle humour, are less liberated as their religion, the King and even, as I have been told on several occasions, the spirits are taboo topics for jokes. I imagine we all have our taboos as far as jokes are concerned- either the topic, the language or the occasion. I think I have a pretty good idea what mine are. Do you?
Back to the Muslims, we are told here that “both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of “laughing at religion,” at times to the point of irreverence.”

In present-day Iraq there’s even more humour, most of it, as one might expect, a grim attempt to make light of the rather unfunny events around them. Some examples, quoted here:
Nearly every night here for the past month, Iraqis weary of the tumult around them have been turning on the television to watch a wacky-looking man with a giant Afro wig and star-shaped glasses deliver the grim news of the day. In a recent episode, the host, Saaed Khalifa, reported that Iraq’s Ministry of Water and Sewage had decided to change its name to simply the Ministry of Sewage — because it had given up on the water part.
Another show’s raucous theme song, which has become a popular cellphone ring tone here and is sung by children in schoolyards, laments that it would be better to be a lowly cat on the street than an Iraqi: “No one asks the cat where you are from, which party you’re from, whether you are an Arab, a Kurd, a Sunni or a Shiite.” He sings on, “I am the last Iraqi alive, but I still do not own a house,” a reference to the country’s acute housing shortage‘.

It’s good to know that “since the fall of Saddam Hussein, comedies have proliferated on Iraqi television.” Shame that humour and chaos often go hand in hand.
Azhar Usman, one of the many Arab-American comics in the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, who has very similar material to Ms Mirza, says: “Just about anything is fair game, just as long as it’s done tastefully and artfully,” he said. “I have some boundaries, based on religion. I won’t do any sacrilegious material, make fun of God or the prophet.” One of his gags goes: “I’m a Muslim, but I’m an American Muslim. That’s right, I consider myself a very patriotic American Muslim, which means I would die for my country. By blowing myself up. Inside a Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Back to Ms Mirza, at least her jokes are better than the one joke with which Mohammed is credited: “On one occasion, the prophet Muhammad told an elderly woman that her likes will not go to paradise; she was obviously astounded by the Prophet’s remark… But he explained that this is so because in paradise people are forever youthful…” But then, I don’t imagine Jesus would have had them rolling in the aisles in the Comedy Store and the Bible, whatever its other merits, does fall a bit short in the jokes department. Will Ms Mirza’s humour offensive prove successful in bringing extreme Muslims more into line with the West?  Will waving a red rag with ‘did you hear the one about…’ scrawled on it endear you to the bull?

Here’s a nice cartoon by the Syrian  Ali Farzat

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just a kiss

October 17, 2006

there’s more to kissing than meets the eye…
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“Thai snake charmer kisses cobras for world record attempt”
This for all those who have arrived at this blog after a search for ‘sex with animals’. “A Thai snake charmer kissed 19 highly poisonous king cobras in an attempt to set a world record last Saturday. Each ‘kiss’ involved placing the lips on the snake’s head in the event which was billed as the “Dangerous Kiss”. So clearly not a particularly torrid encounter, it seems, but then kissing is something that is really not part of Thais’ sexual armoury. A lip-to-lip kiss is rare even in the most intimate situations, the most amorous being the occasional lip to cheek peck. The normal Thai kiss is a sign of affection rather than sexual arousal and involves a cheek to cheek contact with a certain amount of audible sniffing and again only between close relatives or with children.  The sort of social kissing between members of the opposite sex, which as a middle class phenomenon seems to have invaded Britain in the 1970’s is regarded with distaste. The intense mouth to mouth kissing seen in most films from the West is seen as disgusting. Many Thais I know shrink from meeting a Westerner in the fear that they will be seized and subjected to an unwelcome embrace. Kissing is one of the few things on which I have unshakable convictions, born no doubt of unfortunate childhood experiences, and I would rather brush lips with a cobra than be forced to participate in the sort of  promiscuous osculation indulged in in certain countries.

dance of the veils

October 6, 2006

Oh dear, cuddly Muslim-friendly Mr Straw has got into hot water over his request to Muslim women to remove their veils when coming into his surgery. personally, I think wearing veils is one of the least offensive things that Muslims do and I would much rather see the features of quite a lot of people a little less exposed than they are currently. There’s a wonderful picture which makes this point on the Spine. Mr Straw apparently denied requiring Muslim women coming to see him to do Salomé’s dance, saying removing one veil would satisfy him. He pointed out that ‘asking women to consider showing the mouths and noses could lead to true “face-to-face” conversations with constituents, enabling him to “see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say.”‘ Mr Straw has clearly made a major discovery in paralinguistics here, that meaning is actually conveyed by using the nose. Why, I wonder has SOAS not published any papers on ‘Nasally conveyed connotative sense and denotative reference in northern dialects of Wolof’? Fiction writers will, I am sure be able to make use of this discovery: “I see what you mean, darling, said Jack as he gazed intently at the expression that crossed her nose.” “Mabel’s words were serious but there was a mischievous glint in her nose”.

Fortunately we are not obliged to view the part of the anatomy used by politicians to communicate.

Labour chairman Hazel Blears, in a shocking display of cowardice, said “I do not think it’s right for government to lay down laws about what people should wear and what they shouldn’t,” she said. Why ever not? Of course government should decree what may and may not be worn. They should start by banning sleeveless vests in public places and laying down maximum size restrictions on hats.

Now, it should be pretty obvious who these hooters belong to as well as their semantic function. If not, you’ll have to look in the comments.

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more on bidets

September 27, 2006

The first year I lived in France I rented a room in a flat that had no bathroom. My landlady washed in her bedroom using a large jug which she periodically filled with hot water from the kitchen. I washed in my bedroom, using a large jug which she periodically filled with cold water from the kitchen. Not a bidet in sight. If I needed to obey a call of nature, I scrambled onto the balcony and into a box shaped like a phone kiosk designed for midgets. On completion, you pulled a lever which, on a good day, made an opening through which  whatever you had deposited trundled noisily down the ageing pipes. This was, mind you, a long time ago, shortly, I imagine, after the invention of perfume. Doubtless nowadays the French are amongst  the most thoroughly washed nations on the globe.

When I left, my landlady sent me a postcard on which she had written ‘partir, c’est mourir un peu.’ I sent her one on which I wrote ‘mourir, c’est partir beaucoup.’

The Daily Mail has an article on a book called ‘The English Model, A French Illusion’ by Agnès Poirier which has some interesting things to say about the British (one can forgive someone from across the Channel for not being too clear about the difference). Showing a love of stereotypes shared by quite a number of her compatriots, Ms Peartree, who lives in London, makes some good points:

Education and Culture: “They have no understanding of philosophy, beauty or art. They do not even have any intellectuals…It is a kingdom of narrowly educated specialists on the one hand and those lacking general culture on the other…. This makes for boring conversation. People talk only about what they know about or else limit themselves to comments on the weather, the property market or the cost of educating children.” The British are not interested in art or culture unless it sells and is ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’.
The countryside: resembles an “immense theme park”

Manners: “customs are characterised less by gallantry and more by virility, cruelty and aggressiveness”.

She urges France not to follow the Anglo-Saxon free market ideas and globalisation and reject the corporate chains that have strangled Britain’s high streets and made them all look the same.

On Ms Poirier’s website there’s an even more savage indictment of the Anglo-Saxon world: “The French and le bidet. In fact, this hygienic French invention of the 18th century has taken the world by storm. Only the USA and Britain are bidet-illiterate. The bidet now adorns 60 per cent of Japanese homes and 90 per cent of
Argentine households.” Maybe this is what is at the root of Ms Poirier’s distaste for our way of life? Anyway, I’m glad to say this anachronistic invention (about the only thing the French have invented) has not reached Thailand, where we have much more sensible hygiene arrangements. On the same website there’s also a pretty strong reaction from one Brit living in France, who retaliates: “At least the British, by and large, don’t take their dogs outside and have them defecate in the middle of the pavement for everybody to walk in… and what can we say about a nation that sees nothing wrong with trudging through excrement on its daily round?” Not wishing to engage in this mud(?)-slinging I think we should perhaps recognise that Ms Poirier has perhaps hit le clou sur la tête, as the French say. Then we deport her.

One final snippet of Ms Poirier’s which I enjoyed: “The French use English words instead of cosmetic surgery. They think using franglais makes them seem younger, eg ‘C’est top’ for ‘It’s great’, or ‘Il est totalement speedé’ meaning ‘He is anxious’.” But then she also laments the fact that “the rampant imperialism of the English language contributes to the building of an ivory tower invisible to its inhabitants. They are so convinced that no serious thoughts can be conceived outside their culture they deem it unnecessary to learn other languages.” If the French weren’t so keen on contaminating their own elegant language with garbled imported slang, we might have more incentive.

Anyway, to finish off this series of non sequiturs, I understand ‘faire le poirier’ means to do a headstand. And finally, on the subject of Ms Poirier’s head why does she seem to have spikes stuck in it? Are they, by any chance, arrows?

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don’t offend the tourists

September 15, 2006

London Assemblyman Brian Coleman says protests in Parliament Square should be banned because they will drive away tourists. The trouble with these mealy-mouthed politicians is that they don’t go far enough. Noisy protesters with their shoddy placards are only the tip of the iceberg. Other people who, in my view, are likely to have a deleterious effect on tourism and should therefore be banned are people with BO, naff T shirts, unkempt beards (notice how I skillfully avoided charges of sexism there- I’m against unkempt beards whatever the gender of the wearer), people with silly grins on their faces or unintelligible Glaswegian accents. Perhaps a simpler solution would just be to have an exclusion zone from which Londoners were banned, except for essential services including taxi-drivers, prostitutes and traffic wardens. This could be fairly simply policed with an electrified perimeter fence and guards at a couple of checkpoints. No doubt a few foul-smelling hairy Glaswegians and the odd Londoner will jump up and down muttering things about human rights and freedom of speech. I would just say this: where would we be now if our forefathers had allowed any Tom, Dick or Harry to have freedom of speech?