Veiled humour
Shazia Mirza was supposed to be a teacher and marry a nice Muslim man -
but she prefers the loneliness of the mostly-male comedy circuit. Why?
Geraldine Bedell Sunday April 20, 2003 The Observer

Shazia Mirza is the only woman on a tour of stand-up comedians, and the only Muslim. That means that she's the only one who comes on stage wearing the hijab, who doesn't drink, who doesn't have members of the opposite sex trying to get off with her in the bar afterwards - and who, if she does, has to explain that she doesn't go out with people unless she has first married them.
'It's extremely lonely,' she says over lunch in Amsterdam, where she is based for a month while she's on this tour of Holland. 'I'm living in a flat on my own. I haven't spoken to another woman for a week.'
She has already played Denmark and Germany this year (urging audiences in the latter: 'Oh, come on, join the war. It isn't the same without you'). She puts up with the unsocial hours and the grim existence for the thrill of being on stage up to an hour each night making people laugh. And they do laugh, and the hard graft of the comedy circuit ('anyone with half a brain would try and get off the circuit as soon as possible, because it's horrible') is paying off: next month she goes to New York and San Francisco, in a bid to make the Americans see the funny side of her Muslim woman's take on 11 September, the Iraqi war, the divisions opening up between Islam and America. ('My name's Shazia Mirza. At least, that's what it says on my pilot's licence.')
Her audience in The Hague that evening is initially bemused, uncertain what to make of this woman with covered limbs and head. Shazia Mirza wears the same 'lucky' pair of trousers for every gig and a plain black shirt. 'If you're a woman up there, the first thing the men in the audience think is, "Do I want to shag her?" I deliberately dress down. I want people to listen to what I'm saying.'
You can see them trying to work it out: does she want them to laugh at Islam? Is that OK? Is she even for real, this deadpan person with a light, Brummie drawl? How should they respond to this small, neat, demure and self-confessedly devout woman telling them that all men are pigs, especially Muslim men, 'but that's no use to me because I don't eat pork'?
This wasn't meant to be what Shazia Mirza did with her life. Born to first-generation Pakistani immigrants in Birmingham, she was raised to be a doctor. (Her father was a car salesman, working for his cousin, and is now employed by an organisation engaged in setting up Asian businesses; her mother brought up five children and is a teacher.)
Shazia remembers sitting round with the family at Eid, the aunties and uncles asking the children what they wanted to be when they grew up 'and all the kids saying they wanted to be doctors. They were only six or seven, but they were really well trained. I said I wanted to be an actress. Afterwards, my mother told me I was on no account to show them up again.'
Until she was 19, she claims, 'I didn't do anything. I wasn't allowed to go to parties. It was totally unacceptable for an Asian girl to want to do ballet or drama. I had to wear trousers under my skirt at school. My father was a Saddam Hussein-type figure. He had this regime going at home. He told my mother, "You've got to get your daughter into the kitchen, to teach her to cook and clean, or no one will want to marry her." He told me: "The only way you're going to get a decent husband is if you're in a decent profession yourself." So I became a stand-up comedian.'
Now, three years into a career as a stand-up, she feels ready to start mining her background for material. 'I haven't really begun to talk about what it was like to be a Pakistani Muslim woman growing up in a white community in Birmingham. The autobiographical stuff, the in-depth stuff, the painful stuff, comes later, when you've developed as a comedian and you feel you can talk about it in a funny way.'
Dutifully, she first went to Manchester University to study biochemistry. 'Virtually everyone on my course was Asian. I used to look at them and think, "Why are you doing this? Are you really interested? Or are you doing it for your parents, or because you think it will get you respect in the community?"'
Despite hating her biochemistry course, she became a science teacher in Poplar, in east London, but never gave up on her ambition to be an entertainer. She put herself through drama school on her teacher's salary: part-time for the first two years and full-time for the third, and then enrolled on a stand-up comedy writing course at the City Lit.
'The teacher said, "Comedy is about truth; you don't have to make it up, because all the material is inside you." And I was thinking, there's nothing funny about my life. I was just an Asian woman with excess facial hair and my parents were trying to arrange a marriage for me.'
Tentatively, she began to write about herself, especially about the facial hair. Even so, there remained no-go areas: 'There were times when I hated being a Muslim because I was never allowed out of the house. I couldn't go to drama classes like I wanted. But I felt I didn't want to tell people about that.'
It is these painful experiences that she says she now feels ready to explore - but there still remains a problem of how far to go. 'I'm quite devout. I would never make jokes about the Koran. I really believe in my faith.' But then she tells a story in her act about having her bottom pinched at Mecca ('I thought it was the hand of God. Then it happened again. Clearly, my prayers had been answered') which might be considered by some to bring the pilgrimage into disrepute in what is, after all, already a pretty hostile environment. 'It happened to me,' she says simply. 'It really happened.'
She is reluctant to get too deeply into this area of what is acceptable for comedy and what isn't, recognising that she'd be on a hiding to nothing, and wanting to let her performances speak for themselves. She does draw a distinction between the 'cultural things I don't believe in, like arranged marriages', and her faith. But, as she also accepts, faith is a personal matter, and the distinctions she makes are subtle and individual.
'I've had guys come up and ask me out after gigs. I say, "No, I'm a Muslim and I don't go out with people unless I'm married", and they think it's a joke.' Yet she later raises her eyebrows to the ceiling at the recollection of a man who came up to her after a gig in Eastbourne and asked if it was OK for him to talk to her. And she says that when she looks at George Clooney, 'I feel all my Muslimness going out of the window.' She is allowed, as a comedian, to have it all ways, but it's not altogether surprising that both within her community and beyond it, some people have found it hard to get a handle on her.
By the time she told her parents what she was up to, she had already been working as a stand-up for two years, often doing two or three gigs a night in 'horrible pubs and basements'. She'd won the London Comedy Festival 'and I was doing the Palladium, and I thought, I'd better tell my mum because I'm on Have I Got News For You next week'.
Her mother came to see her at the Palladium, 'and I think secretly she's very proud of me, but she still has to take criticism from the community'. It's slightly easier now that her daughter is famous. 'The Pakistani community only like you when you're successful. The last thing they want is to be shown up. I'm taking a risk that if it all goes wrong the whole community will turn on me. I've risked a lot really. I couldn't get a man before I was a stand-up. How am I going to get one now?'
Her father, she says, has never really got the jokes. I don't know how disingenuous she is being here, because she grew up watching Dave Allen, whose comedy her father loved, and with whose love-hate relationship with his background she has much in common. 'He just wants me to get married. It must be devastating for my parents. I've got three brothers and one sister and none of us is married.' (She says she would like to marry, but she would never give up performing, and she is sceptical of finding a man who would be comfortable with her continuing to work, 'and with being the butt of my jokes'.)
Mirza has had death threats and vicious emails, but she is also, as one of the few visible Muslim women in Britain, invited to comment publicly on all and sundry. 'I was asked to go on the radio to talk about the GCSE results from a Muslim point of view. So I said, "Obviously the boys are doing well at chemistry, because they've got to make the bombs."'
When she was touring Denmark a few weeks ago, she was invited on to Deadline, their version of Newsnight . 'They asked me where I thought Saddam was hiding his weapons of mass destruction. As if I'd know. I said up his wife's burkha, because no one would think of looking there.'
There is an element of frustration (as well as pleasure) in her response to all this. While she acknowledges that there is a dearth of Muslim spokespeople - 'they think, "We've got a man with one eye and one hook, who else have we got? Oh, a female comedian"' - she also sees it as lazy journalism. 'The real challenge would be to see me as a great British entertainer.'
And this is what she really wants to be. She is restlessly ambitious. 'I'd like to go to Hollywood, to be in a sitcom, to write a book, to do theatre in the West End. I'd like to do all the things people said I couldn't do.'
The mainly student audience in The Hague warms to her quickly, liking best the edgier jokes, the ones about Islam, bombs and terrorists. Afterwards, though, it is just as she predicted: women drape themselves around her male colleagues at the bar while she hangs around in the background waiting for them to decide they're ready to drive back to Amsterdam. The one man who does approach her says she reminds him of Dobby, the house elf in Harry Potter.
Shazia Mirza has tried to do different kinds of material, but she acknowledges that audiences weren't nearly as interested when she talked about her time as a teacher as they are when she talks about Islam. This begs the question of how much comedy there really is in growing up as a Muslim girl who isn't allowed out of the house (though of course no one would dream of asking whether there's comedy in growing up Jewish). She, however, is in no doubt.
'If I'd played the game, if I'd got married to a nice Muslim guy introduced to me by my parents, it would have all looked nice from the outside, as it did for my mother's generation. But I'd say my mum had a terrible life, and she'd admit it. I saw it all the time when I was growing up: the women wore lovely clothes and jewellery, they had holidays. But the only reason they had a nice life was that they did what their husbands told them. I could have had that: I could have lived in a big house, had kids and been extremely unhappy. Comedians write best about sorrow, misery, loneliness. And I am still developing. I know the best is yet to come.'
The funny side of Islam
Shappi Khorsandi, 31, is an Iranian-British comedian for whom comedy runs in the family. She has toured America supporting her father's comic act, and her brother Peyvand co-starred with her in her show How To Be An Iranian in the UK and in Los Angeles. Her observational humour touches on her ethnic background but is not the sole focus of her shows.
In Canada, Rasul Somji has been tagged as 'the funniest Muslim comic on the stage'. From Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Somji originally went to Canada in 1996 in pursuit of a better education, but soon built up a reputation as a comic with a rapid-fire show about religion, family and being hungry. Career highpoint to date was a comedy night last year called The Mideast Optimist, in which he shared billing with prominent Muslim and Jewish stand-ups.
On the American comedy circuit, Ahmed Ahmed and Bob Alper are a very distinct double-act: Ahmed is a Muslim Egyptian, and Alper a part-time rabbi. Before 11 September, the highlight of Ahmed's career was playing Terrorist Number 4 in the 1996 film Executive Decision. Since then he and his partner have been on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, featured in Newsweek and CNN, ABC World News and 20/20. 'There's a sort of spiritual gap,' he says, 'that's being bridged through Bob and I working together.'
Shebana Rehman, 26, a Scandinavian of Pakistani origin living in Norway, is part comedian part women's rights activist. She mocks mullahs and Norwegian 'multiculturalist' do-gooders and campaigns against forced marriages and female circumcision. Her act has provoked hate-mail from the conservative Muslim community. In retaliation, Shabana posed nude painted in the colours of the Norwegian flag for a political magazine. She has translated her show into English and plans to tour the UK.
Another Mideast Optimist was Enis Esmer, who was born in Turkey and moved to Canada at the age of three. 'Osama bin Laden says all good Muslims should kill Americans,' he says. 'I feel guilty telling the guy behind me in the movie theatre to stop talking. Where does Osama think I would find the confidence to kill someone?'
Though he is not a Muslim, British-Iranian Omid Djalili, 37, tackles cultural stereotypes at every turn. He is a Fringe favourite at the Edinburgh Festival. Shows include Short Fat Kebab Shop Owner's Son, Arab & The Jew and Omid Djalili Is Ethnic. Prizes include both LWT's and Time Out 's Best Stand-Up Awards.
Azhar Usman is another Muslim American who took to stand-up following 11 September. Born in Chicago to Indian immigrants, he is a former lawyer who now uses comedy as a means of defusing Americans' anxiety about Islamic culture. On a typical night he takes to the stage in flowing robes and a bushy beard. 'Everywhere I go these days the FBI follow,' his act typically begins. 'In fact, I think I just saw them take down all your licence plate numbers in the parking lot.'
'Nothing is sacred,' says Sabrina Jalees, only 17 years old and already taking the Ontario comedy circuit by storm. 'I am just a half white, half brown Muslim girl with no veil and a big mouth.' Born in Canada to a Christian Swiss mother and a Muslim Pakistani father, she is as easy discussing her Muslim grandmother's views on white folks as her classmates' views on brown folks.
· Additional reporting by Rosalind Miles and Bulent Yusef

Shazia Mirza - Le Monde
Shazia Mirza, la comédie de l'islam
L'humoriste britannique, d'origine pakistanaise, exaspère les fondamentalistes
avec ses sketches iconoclastes inspirés de son expérience

ELLE n'est pas une fan de cuisine au curry. Et à l'Earl Grey, elle préfère le chocolat chaud qu'elle déguste, ce jour-là, cheveux flottants et veste rouge, assise au bar du très sélect Groucho Club, dans le quartier de Soho. " Je ne me sens pas pakistanaise. Pas tout à fait anglaise non plus ", admet-elle. Ni arabe, d'ailleurs : rien ne l'agace autant que ces Britanniques qui la " prennent pour une Egyptienne ". Son seul drapeau, au fond, c'est l'islam. Mais un islam nouveau : qui sait rire de lui-même..
1975 Naissance à Birmingham (Grande-Bretagne).
2000 Premier spectacle dans un club de Brixton, à Londres.
2001 Elue "meillure comédienne de Londres" par le London Comedy Festival.
2003 Premières tournées: Etats-Unis en mai, Afrique du Sud en septembre.

Celle que la presse anglaise a baptisée la " première comique musulmane du monde " a trouvé, au lendemain des attentats du 11 septembre 2001, la manière la plus elliptique de se présenter. " Bonsoir. Je m'appelle Shazia Mirza. Du moins, c'est le nom qui figure sur mon brevet de pilote... ", lance-t-elle au public, le visage enchâssé dans un hidjab noir. Explosion (de rires) garantie. Les buveurs de bière des pubs londoniens, comme le public des festivals, applaudissent à deux mains. Cela n'a pas toujours été si simple. " Au début, les gens n'osaient pas. A l'idée de rire, ils étaient gênés, ils avaient peur d'être traités de racistes. " C'était avant le drame du World Trade Center et bien avant que ne s'élèvent les rumeurs de la guerre en Irak. A l'époque, elle non plus n'en menait pas large. Quand elle monte sur scène pour la première fois, à l'âge de 25 ans, Shazia Mirza le fait en catimini : la petite musulmane de Birmingham,
professeur de biochimie dans un collège de l'East End, mettra des mois avant d'annoncer à ses parents qu'elle est devenue comédienne.
Son père, un commerçant en gros, moustache épaisse et oeil sévère, " a du mal à comprendre qu'une femme puisse faire autre chose de sa vie que de s'occuper de la maison, de la cuisine et des enfants. Je ne sais pas si j'arriverai un jour à le faire rire. Ce sera dur ! ", soupire-t-elle. Quant à sa mère, elle s'obstine à rêver de voir sa fille enfin mariée - " avec un musulman, bien sûr, pakistanais de préférence ". La mère de Shazia, dont les parents ont été tués pendant la guerre entre le Bangladesh et le Pakistan, a été adoptée par une famille assez aisée, qui, plus tard, selon la coutume, a " arrangé " son mariage.Les parents de Shazia Mirza, arrivés en Grande-Bretagne dans les années 1960, se sont vite intégrés dans la communauté des " Asians " (Indo-Pakistanais) de Birmingham. A la maison, l'ambiance est normalement stricte et morose - surtout pour les filles : Shazia et sa soeur n'ont pas le droit de sortir, de porter des jupes courtes ou de fréquenter des garçons.Shazia, futur vilain petit canard, ne se rebelle pas ouvertement. Pour respirer, elle fait le pitre, invente des blagues. Elle s'inscrit au club de théâtre du collège. Plus tard, c'est grâce à ses plaisanteries de potache qu'elle réussit à séduire ses (turbulents) élèves de biochimie. " La clé de l'humour, c'est la tragédie ", note-t-elle nonchalamment.
Guerre des sexes et des religions Ses cibles, elle les choisit dans sa propre expérience. Il y a l'histoire
de La Mecque (où elle-même s'est rendue en pèlerinage), qui rend fous les fondamentalistes : " J'étais donc à La Mecque et, soudain, je sens une main se poser sur mes fesses. Je me dis : Shazia, ici, c'est un lieu sacré, ce ne peut être que la main de Dieu... " Ou celle des terroristes : " Pour faire la différence entre eux et les simples musulmans comme moi, il suffit de regarder la moustache. La mienne est beaucoup moins épaisse... ".
Ou encore celle de sa copine Julie : " Les mariages arrangés, comme on fait chez les musulmans, Julie trouve ça dégoûtant. Coucher avec un type que tu ne connais même pas, c'est immonde ! elle me dit. Mais, je lui réponds, c'est ce que tu fais tous les samedis soir ! " Guerre des sexes, guerre des religions, guerre tout court : c'est de cette " tragédie ", mille fois déclinée, que Shazia Mirza s'inspire. Les bombes qui ont dévasté l'Irak devraient lui fournir matière à de cruelles répliques pour sa tournée - la première - aux Etats-Unis, en mai : lors de ses spectacles à New York et à San Francisco, le premier ministre britannique Tony Blair et le président américain George W. Bush, ces " aveugles guidant des aveugles ", devraient en prendre pour leur grade. Littéralement, car Shazia Mirza, bien que farouchement opposée à l'intervention militaire en Irak, préfère, pour le moment, ne pas s'en prendre aux simples soldats - "
Vous avez vu les prisonniers ? C'est atroce. Rien que de penser à ce qu'ils risquent de subir... "
Toutes les guerres, cependant, ne se ressemblent pas. " Le Coran interdit le suicide, il interdit aussi de tuer des innocents ", dit la jeune
Londonienne, évoquant les terroristes-kamikazes et leurs victimes du 11 septembre 2001. Mais ce qui se passe en Irak est différent, estime-t-elle : " C'est un pays islamique qui se trouve attaqué. Et, dans ce cas, le djihad est légitime. Moi-même, dans cette guerre, je me sens attaquée par les Américains. " La communauté musulmane de Grande-Bretagne n'en a pas moins du mal à
applaudir les sketches de son iconoclaste égérie. " Les hommes, surtout, se sentent menacés : que les femmes puissent avoir leur place sur la scène publique, c'est une idée qu'ils ne supportent pas ", remarque Shazia Mirza.
Agressée plusieurs fois, la jeune suffragette en hidjab a déjà dû jouer encadrée par des gardes du corps. Elle en a tiré les leçons. Quand elle s'est produite, il y a quelques mois, devant les Indo-Pakistanais musulmans de la ville de Leicester - " même l'imam de la mosquée est venu à mon show ! ", souligne-t-elle fièrement -, elle a pris soin de modifier son répertoire, expurgeant les blagues les plus provocantes. " Je me suis autocensurée. Je ne le regrette qu'à moitié : ce sont des gens qui ne se sont jamais moqués d'eux-mêmes, il faut y aller doucement. La prochaine fois, je monterai d'un cran ", assure-t-elle.Prise entre deux feux, elle n'en continue pas moins à rêver. Elle
adorerait faire du cinéma et jouer, " pourquoi pas ? ", dans un film à Hollywood. Elle s'est juré, lors de sa tournée en Afrique du Sud, de
rencontrer Nelson Mandela - une des personnes qu'elle admire le plus au monde, avec Madonna. Et déjà lui trotte dans la tête une idée mirifique, impossible : pouvoir, un jour, faire une tournée en Afghanistan. Elle sourit, l'oeil mi-clos. Shazia au pays des burkas ? " Que Dieu me protège ! Jusque-là, je n'ai jamais eu assez peur pour arrêter la comédie. "
P/ P/
Catherine Simon