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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 October, 2004, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Dark humour for dark times

By Stephen Evans
North America business correspondent

One of the unexpected consequences of the 9/11 attacks in the United States is an upsurge in humour by and about Muslims, which has begun to be enjoyed by a wider American audience.

Azhar Usman
Azhar Usman is a lecturer, community activist and an attorney

Is there such a thing as Muslim humour?

I wondered this in the lobby of the Keenan Theatre in Columbia, South Carolina, as I waited to see a show called Allah Made Me Funny.

It was an unlikely venue for one of the stops on a tour by three Muslim stand-up comics.

Unlikely because Columbia, South Carolina, is the heart of the Old South, with a statue of a Confederate soldier and a Confederate flag - that symbol of slavery, fluttering above it, and a flag which I saw a white man salute.

All the same, there is - a measure of the changing South - a Muslim community in Columbia, and its members turned out for the Allah Made Me Funny show, some of them black Muslims, some of them with their roots back in Asia. All of them American.

The gags divide into two. One type are in-jokes for other Muslims; jokes about the foibles and quirks of the man praying next to you in the mosque, or being caught at work performing Islamic rituals, say washing your feet in the sink when the boss walks in before praying in a store room.

And then there are the jokes with wider appeal, invariably about the absurdities of security.

Map of South Carolina

Preacher Moss, the ebullient master of ceremonies, joked about the airport security guard who thought the ornate, raised Arabic in his Koran was Braille.

Azhar Usman, who was born in Chicago of Indian background and who wears the full black robe with the full black beard, tells how faces drop when he gets on a plane and the sighs of relief when it lands.

In Columbia, South Carolina, they loved it.

It was like a great release of tension, the laughter rattling the roof.

Just as other minorities have found - Jews in New York in particular - humour is a way for them to band together and laugh at their own quirks and those of the dominant people.

Cultural diversity

Now, it was Sigmund Freud - not an obvious prankster - who pointed out that our humour says much about who we are. If you tell dirty jokes, that says something about your pre-occupations, or racist jokes.

It is the same with cultures.

Welsh humour - and I am Welsh - is often about us getting above ourselves, about us putting on airs and graces but laughing at ourselves for doing it.

Characters from BBC sitcom The Office
English middle classes in particular see the funny side of The Office

English humour, from Chaucer on, is so often about class, and if you doubt me, try thinking of a sitcom from Hancock through to Dad's Army to the Office which is not about class.

Now, traditional American humour is quite different.

As Professor John Bird, the vice-president of the rather grand American Humor Studies Association, explained to me, American humour is about gender and about race, but not about class - and that says something.

It is also often, by the way, about the telling of the story rather than the punch line.

Mark Twain reckoned Americans would string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way and make people laugh in the telling. The journey was important, while for the English, he said, stories are short and sharp with a punch line.

Well, maybe.

Bold comedy

Anyway, American Muslim humour is about being misunderstood, about the clash of stereotypes.

Tissa Hami
Iranian-American Tissa Hami leaves audiences in shock and awe

One of the best of the Muslim comics is a woman called Tissa Hami who was born in Iran but who lives and works in Boston.

She took to the stage after 11 September, 2001, to buck the stereotype of Muslim women as voiceless and weak.

Now when she performs she wears traditional black garments from head to toe. Sometimes, she wears a slightly less full black robe if, as she puts it, she is feeling kind of "slutty".

When she walks on stage, the audience is often stunned and silent.

Some wonder whether she might be the cleaner who has wandered into the wrong place.

Then she starts her routine, perhaps with that "slutty" remark... and the ice breaks completely.

Her act, too, has the absurdities of security at its core. She describes how guards at airports look at her garb and then at her passport, before wondering whether the passport is fake.

She asks dryly if it would be clever to fake a passport but then put on it "Birthplace: Iran."

She also makes light of her burning anger at full body searches at airports: "I was hoping to save that for the honeymoon," she says.

Dark times do demand dark humour.

Tissa Hami, an Iranian American, warns with a hint of a smile that if people do not laugh she will take them hostage.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 16 October 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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15 Jun 04 |  Americas
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19 Oct 01 |  Entertainment


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