Saad Haroon: Take a bow

Stand-up comedian Saad Haroon teaches people to laugh in the face of problems.

Hani Taha August 25, 2011


What’s that one thing that connects Muslims around the world? Umm no, not God, not Islam. Something that connects the two in a vicious way. Terrorism? Bingo! Being targeted as terrorists to be precise.

While many have perceived this label as derogatory, there is still a small fraction amongst us that has used this appellate as a weapon of mass hysteria of a different kind. Achmed the dead terrorist, anyone? “Silence! I keel you!” is his favourite rebuttal.

But while the American stand-up comedian-cum-ventriloquist Jeff Dunham (referring to audiences as ‘infidels’, spelling his name with ‘phelgm’, cussing as Allah damn-it instead of God damn-it) has bit of a harsh take, Saad Haroon takes a more communal approach to the issue in his video, “This is stand-up comedy” and ambitiously embarks on a journey to document what his fellow Muslim comedian brothers feel on this precarious subject (amongst a host of other subjects that will follow the nine episodes that are yet to hit cyber space).

“These videos are a quest for identity,” explains Haroon. “I wanted to document the beginning of Muslims getting into the genre of stand-up comedy, a trend that we have observed in the last 10 years or so.” From Pakistani stand-up acts like Sami Shah to Bangladeshi Allauddin Ullah to Lebanese Dean Obeidallah, Haroon goes across four continents to create this presentation of ‘who we are’. The project started off with interviewing the old and new talent in Pakistani comedy and then was taken international by Haroon who would lug his equipment around to create this personalised narrative.

“It was my way to show that we are no different than anyone else and that we too can talk about tricky subjects within our communities in a manner that would initiate dialogue as did the Cosby show, for instance, back in the day for the African-American community,” states Haroon. Seen in this light, the videos, which were intended for television initially as 11 episodes, are a documentary on a generation of stand-up comedians of similar ethnic backgrounds. “We would have to censor so much of it for television, that we then decided to just release it virally,” states Haroon.

Of the first two episodes released on YouTube, the focus is on the most critical subject of our times: terrorism and how it stereotypes and defines Muslims around the world.  While someone closer to home like Sami Shah felt that, “we should openly talk about and try to look for the funny in it” (akin to Dunham’s Achmed), someone like Ali A Saeed from Dubai, speaks of his the frustration he feels when his name is searched on the internet and all that pops up is a list of terrorists names. But across the board comedians, such as Allauddin Ullah, see comedy as their weapon. Ullah recounts the xenophobia and racism he encountered as a child and speaks of how painful it was growing up as the ‘other’, so, “Jokes have been my nonviolent way to prevent being beaten up at school.” And then there are comedians like Asif Mandvi, who like Haroon and Shah, see comedy as any other art that has the power to transform society. “As a comedian, you have this unique ability to be able to raise a mirror to society,” points out Mandvi.

While Haroon’s videos have the obvious entertainment value by projecting intelligent humour, they serve a more important purpose of showing linkages across various nations of young urbane Muslims who are trying to look for alternative ways to address their current identity crisis. Now, it’s done in a manner that is comic and credible for a new generation of Muslims who only see themselves on the defensive.

With the other episodes tackling subjects like women in comedy and showing a retrospective on local Pakistani comedians, “This is stand-up Comedy”, will make for a fun anthropological study. Kudos to Haroon, for putting the ‘geeky’ in him to effective use.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 26th,  2011.