I’m in Pakistan, invited by the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop in Lahore as part of its 25th festival of performing arts. Before I arrived, there were obviously concerns that I might not come back. So my manager rang up the organisers with the predictable questions: “You want her to perform comedy in Pakistan? Really? Do you have security? Will they get it? Do they speak English? Aren’t there more suicide bombers than telephone boxes? Will people be offended?”
“What kind of country do you think this is?” the organiser shouted. “Our people are dying to laugh!” I know they’re dying, but to laugh?
On arriving, I was impressed to find such a well-organised and entertaining festival, the best I have ever performed at. But obviously, this being Pakistan, I expected some kind of censorship. Before my first show I was told: “You can talk about anything you like – drugs, religion, politics – but just don’t expose the sex.”
Pakistan is a sexually repressed country where everyone is at it, more than Russell Brand, and yet no one talks about it. Lahore is a city in which the red-light area is at the back of the mosque; less King’s Cross, more the halal version of Amsterdam.
My first show took place in a great venue that looked like an old cinema. It was packed with an untypical comedy audience, their ages ranging from eight months to 90 years. A British comedian had never performed in Pakistan before; some of these people didn’t know what stand-up was, and there were teenage boys running into the venue shouting: “It’s a woman comedian!” Outside, there were security men with AK-47s.
The audiences turned out to be great. Even better than in England, where many people need to be plastered to laugh. Here in Pakistan they were drinking tea. They understood everything, and laughed consistently for an hour and a half. I took this as a sign that I could now do what I normally do, so I told my one and only anal sex joke. Eight people walked out. Yet word obviously got round, because the next three performances were sold out; I even put on an extra show. Even though everyone is doing it and no one is talking about it, they do want someone to initiate the conversation.
I was asked to appear on the Pakistani version of Newsnight. The Pakistani Jeremy Paxman was a pin-up. He had a dyed golden-brown bouffant, perfectly groomed fingernails and a dazzling set of veneered teeth. I had to speak in Urdu (my Urdu is the equivalent of Jade Goody’s English). I got by speaking a concoction of English and Urdu words, in a Brummie accent, which to them sounded exotic. Was I worried about coming to Pakistan to perform? Where was I staying?
“Well, I’m not staying at the Marriott,” I replied, in reference to the hotel that was recently blown up in a terrorist attack. I was then asked to translate a few of my jokes into Urdu. Jokes in Urdu on Newsnight will never work, no matter how funny they are. It’s the broadcasting equivalent of Dame Edna Everage presenting Crimewatch. But I went ahead and performed the jokes. At the end, the presenter looked at me and said, “Thank you,” as though I’d provided more of a service than entertainment.
Pakistan is an anxious and dangerous country; it has a shortage of electricity and wheat. Next there’ll be a shortage of suicide bombers. But there are still laser hair removal and liposuction clinics on every corner. I am so glad the people of Pakistan have got their priorities right: “I can’t make enough chapattis, but my legs are smooth!”
And just like the American dream, there is the Pakistani dream, too – or so everyone in Lahore has been telling me since I got here: “If you kill your wife, you get to be president.”