MUMBAI: A Chicago-born Muslim of Indian origin, American comedian Azhar Usman is not easily pigeonholed. He is in the city this week, on a mission of “waging peace through comedy”, and will bring his stand-up comedy act to the American Centre on November 13.
Given the unfortunate image of Islam in recent years, particularly in the West, Usman’s American and European audiences are not used to finding a man with a full black beard and a skullcap funny__a fact Usman uses to great effect (”Have you ever seen someone that looked like me smile before?” he asks).
To find oneself publicly laughing with, rather than privately laughing at, someone so obviously identified as a Muslim is initially disturbing, but immediately afterwards cathartic. To laugh at the tensions that genuinely scare us is like setting down a heavy burden.
Comedy draws on the silliness inherent in human endeavour. The more serious we are, the more vulnerable we are to parody. In the wake of 9/11, Azhar Usman and his colleagues in the `Allah Made Me Funny’ comedy tour were able to mine a rich vein of solemn prejudice in both America and the Arab world. This prejudice has fed the careers of many Muslim comedians in the US in recent years.
But the aim of the `Allah Made Me Funny’ tour and Usman’s routines is not simply to get a laugh. Through laughter, many comedians seek to encourage greater understanding of Muslims and their ways of life, especially where popular perceptions of Islam are dominated by cliches like female oppression and rigid thinking. But Usman saves his sharpest lines for Muslim audiences, and as a patriotic American, he is quite an unconventional embodiment of a Westerner.
For Westerners these days, anything that shows Muslims as normal human beings is a start, and for some in the Middle East, anything that shows Westerners as reasonable and decent is positive. Such multicultural comedy leaves no excuse for remaining ignorant about the humanity of those different from oneself.
Usman’s trip to the city coincides with headlines about communally motivated violence. Whilst cultural ignorance is not as much of an issue in India as in the west, the well of intolerance is as rich as anything Usman has known in America.
So can Usman make Indians laugh at the absurdity of intolerance in a nation of such great diversity? Ash Chandler, India’s first English-language stand-up comic, has been trying for a few years now. He says, “Indians don’t like laughing at Indians…every joke in India is about someone else”.
The test for Usman is to pull off what he managed in the US: creating an atmosphere that’s inclusive rather than exclusive, and using self-deprecating humour to make audiences laugh and, more importantly, think about their own prejudice.