The Guardian- Halal comedy? You might as well ask for halal bacon
12 April 2010In all the countries that I have travelled to to perform stand up comedy - the United States being a regular destination - I have never been held up or interrogated at customs. Or I hadn't, until I arrived in Pakistan last week. I spent six hours at Lahore customs, as I did not have a visa in my British passport to enter the country. The people who organised my gig had mistakenly assumed that because my parents were born in Pakistan and I too am brown, they would automatically let me in.
The customs officer asked: "Are you Pakistani?" Yes. "Where were you born?" England. "That makes you a foreigner." I get called a foreigner in my parents' country of birth, and I get called a foreigner in my own country of birth.
He looked through my passport, which is filled with US visas. He said: "Are you a spy?" No, I'm a stand up comedian. "What's that?" I tell jokes. "And will you be doing that in this country?" Yes. "Oh, is this the entertainment for the Taliban?" he asked, quite seriously. No, I replied.
He said: "What I should do is deport you, but if you give me $100, I'llsee what I can do."
I paid it. I got in.
My first performance took place at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums). The audience was made up mainly of lecturers and students, and as I arrived I was told: "Don't worry about performing - we've stepped up security because people knew you were coming."
The fact that there needed to be security at all to tell jokes indicated danger. Pakistan is a sexually repressed country, and that is the root of many of its problems.
The last time I performed in Lahore I was told: "You can talk about anything you like - religion, politics, drugs, you can swear and curse, just don't mention 'The Sex'."
Any sexual words or connotations were banned - because in Pakistan there is no mention of sex on television, radio, or in public.
In Lahore this time I am told by armed security personnel before going on stage: "Be careful, it's best you only do halal comedy." Halal comedy? Thereis no such thing. That's like saying, I only eat halal bacon.
I had some requests from members of the audience who came to my dressing room before the show to ask me specifically to do jokes about sex and religion. Which is what I had intended to do, anyway.
After the gig I had to have two armed bodyguards outside my bedroom while I slept. (That's no use: I need uniformed men in my bed, not outside it.)
I then went to perform two hours away in Karachi. The audience consisted of young people, old people, women in burqas and groups of men - all sitting on the floor together. The doors were locked as soon as all the audience were in, and once again armed security guards stood outside.
On arrival I was told by the organiser: "The Pakistani Taliban are infiltrating down to the outskirts of Karachi now, so be careful with what you say. It's best not to talk about religion, or sex, and don't mention the word "gay"." Why? "Because gay doesn't exist in Pakistan," she explained.
Pakistan believes it has freedom of speech, but the only freedom you have is to comply with the speech they want to hear. She continued: "There is a lawagainst making any jokes about President Zardari. You cannot make any jokes about him in public and you are not allowed to text any jokes to your friends about him, otherwise you will be put in prison."
When you tell a comedian not to do something, well. I made a joke about President Zardari. The audience loved it.They laughed like they had never laughed before.
The people in authority in Pakistan are telling the public what they can and cannot say, how to behave and what to wear - and this is totally incongruous with what the people really want. All the things the audience laughed at are the things they are most repressed about. Jokes about sex, religion and politics got the most laughter.
After the show I was invited to a party. I walked in, to be offered a joint of marijuana, followed by a joint of opium, followed by vodka and then a discussion on porn.
I was asked: "What's your favourite porn film?" I have never watched porn. I tried to lie but I couldn't think of a porn movie, so I told the truth: I've never watched porn. This was met with "You've never watched porn? Let us show you some!"
A collection of 600 films was pulled out from behind the bookcase. I was then offered a male Russian hooker for the night.
There it is - the hypocrisy of a sexually repressed, censored society: I can't say "gay" on stage, but after the show, opium and prostitutes are on offer.