As I continue to cast my Islamic eye upon the cultural landscape, the annual New York Comic Con caught my attention. The Comic Con is an annual fan convention held in the Big Apple and is dedicated to all the latest that the entire world of geek has to offer: comics, graphic novels, anime, mange, movies, toys, cosplay, and the rest. According to some estimates, the event that just took place in early October this year drew over 250,000 people and brought in over $100 million dollars to the city economy over a 3 day period.
One of the big differences this year compared to previous years is the growing presence of Muslims. There are many myths and misconceptions about Muslims. For one, there are many Muslims who are active in fan culture such as cosplaying. Case is point are the hijabi heroes who caused quite a stir this year. It is indeed refreshing to see these Muslim Avengers not only become a part of the culture they are in, but to also shape it by setting new trends and directions.
Another case in point is a Muslim family all of whom seem to be well into their cosplay. I guess a Muslim family that cosplays together insha-Allah stays together. May the halal force be with them.
And for the first time in the convention’s history there was an all-Muslim panel discussing anime, comics, fandom, and Muslim culture. The “Salaam Nerds & Geeks: Islam, Fandom, Comics & Popular Culture” panel hosted a range of artists and cultural critics sharing their perspectives on US Muslim creative culture.
Muslim comic book artist Omar Mirza, creator of the comic book series Zindan: The Last Ansaars, explained that: “There’s so much misrepresentation about Islam and Muslims in the media. I think a very good vehicle to address or combat that is through fandom pop culture and try to normalize and maybe even humanize the Islamic experience so that people don’t see us as foreign and scary.”
Another area of culture that Muslims seem to be using to combat Islamic misrepresentation is the world of comedy. Right now the comedy world is in a tumultuous period. While some performers feel uneasy about what they can or cannot say onstage, several prominent stars have been disgraced by scandals of their own making. Bill Cosby was convicted of sexual assault in April and sentenced to prison in September. Roseanne Barr had her resuscitated ABC sitcom cancelled in May after she posted a racist tweet. Louis CK, who last year admitted to several acts of sexual misconduct, has resumed performing in clubs again, prompting an outcry from some audience members and rebukes from fellow comics. Sarah Silverman, a long-time friend of CK, recently got herself in trouble by admitting to some rather unsavoury acts that she got up to with CK (she has profusely apologised since).
In a recent interview comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld tried to address some of these complicated and uncomfortable issues, issues that he knows someone of his stature cannot avoid talking about. Like many others Seinfeld himself is still thinking through and processing in real time all that is going on. Speaking about the whole of the comedy industry, he said: “We’re figuring it out as we go along. And there’s something very stimulating and empowering about that. We don’t really know what the rules are. We’re trying to make them up, other people make up rules and want everybody else to go by their rules.”
Having said all that, comedy still has power to change and influence a wide audience. The Venn diagram overlap between Islam and comedy is growing day-by-day, punchline-by-punchline. Genuine comedy delights in the wonder and absurdity of being human, and who better than a professional comedian to use their imagination as a springboard to an exploration of the human mind. And by exaggerating reality, Muslim comedians can highlight what they think is important to them. Echoing a similar thought, Academy Award winning author and documentary film maker Michael Moore recently said that: “Humour is one of the best vehicles by which to deliver the things you want to say.”
Another Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali, the first Muslim to win an Academy Award for acting, also understands the power of humour. From the trailer and many humorous moments in his new movie Green Book, you could easily mistake it for a classic buddy road movie, but beneath the comedy is a stark message for our increasingly divided times. Speaking about the underlying tone of the movie, Ali said in a recent interview:
“I think it is an extraordinarily effective way to deal with issues that are traditionally very serious. If you think about Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, people go to see them because they know they’re going to have a great time and laugh, but they also know underneath that they’re going to hear a message that has real substance in it. You set the audience up for being able to have a good time but also slip a message in there that they need to hear.”
Robin Ince, arguably one of the best British comedians currently touring, made an even more important point about the power that humour can have, a point that I believe relates to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan: “If jokes are so unimportant, why do people get so exercised by them, and why do certain dictatorships ban them and imprison the tellers?”
Also touring in Britain at the moment is a comedy show called the Super Muslim Comedy Tour. The tour features American comedians Salma Hindy and Yasmin Elhady, the UK’s very own Guz Khan from the BBC 3 series Man Like Mobeen, the recognisable face of Citizen Khan’s Abdullah Afzal, Azeem M, British stand-up comedian Jeff Mirza (a finalist in the BBC Open Mic Award for The Stand-Up Show), and the American film and comedy star Omar Regan. Muslims are rarely given mainstream spaces to speak about their experiences, much less make a joke out of it. But hopefully a comedy show like this can provide such a necessary and much needed space.
Now in its third year and following the success of 2017’s tour, this year the tour is visiting 11 venues across the UK. All proceeds from the tour go towards Penny Appeal’s Education First programme, which helps to open new schools in countries around the world, giving children access to education and allowing them to build brighter futures.
Yasmin Elhady, a federal attorney by day and comedian by night who is smashing stereotypes for both the legal and Muslim community, said: “Finally, an Egyptian-born Muslim woman who was raised in Kentucky gets to crack her jokes in Europe about Kenexit! This tour comes at a great time for the UK. With Islamophobia on the rise, it’s nice to be part of a positive message. Penny Appeal does some incredible work, and it’s amazing to think that we can have fun together while being there for children who so desperately need our help.”
Over in the States another comedy tour is currently doing the rounds, and this one is multi-faith. For the past 15 years comedians Scott Blakeman and Dean Obeidallah have been finding humour in building bridges. Specifically, they’ve put a humorous and heartfelt spin on closing the gap in relationships between Jews and Muslims both in America and abroad. Considering ongoing news stories of the continual unrest between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, the idea of finding levity in what can seem like a hopeless situation has turned Jewish-American Blakeman and Muslim-American Obeidallah into de facto ambassadors of both humour and hope.
Blakeman said: “Initially Dean and I knew each other from the comedy world and did some shows together. We both lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and we’d both take the crosstown bus, and literally one day by the end of the ride we came up with the idea of having Jewish and Arab comedians and calling it StandUp For Peace.”
Putting their idea into action, the pair soon organized and performed at a comedy fund raiser for Seeds Of Peace, a summer camp in the state of Maine that brings together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to foster awareness and unity. “After that performance we started getting inquiries from similar organizations and community groups and it really took off from there.” Since then, StandUp For Peace has been presented at several colleges, Jewish community centres, mosques, and theatres all over America. The tour will hopefully challenge anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic sentiment that is currently on the rise in America, especially in the lead up to the November mid-term elections.
Even as I write this blog news is coming through of a horrific mass shooting on a synagogue in the US city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people have been killed and the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish non-governmental organisation that fights anti-Semitism, said: “We believe this is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.”
And how can a comedy show even begin to hopefully challenge such hatred? According to Blakeman: “Dean and I always say if you can get people together in a room, we can laugh together. And if we can laugh together, we can live together.”
And just in case I have not hammered home just how important humour is in changing cultural perceptions, I shall end with the a quote from British comedian Cariad Lloyd. Lloyd was nominated for an Edinburgh comedy award in 2011 for her solo show Lady Cariad’s Characters. She has also appeared in countless TV comedies and panel shows but she has found her biggest and most unexpected success with Griefcast, a series of conversations with fellow comedians about their experiences of bereavement. What launched as a low-key personal project, Lloyd lost her father to cancer when she was 15, has amassed a huge following and won podcast of the year at this year’s British Podcast Awards.
Lloyd struggled to process grief for 20 years after her father’s death, hiding it behind a funny-girl persona. That has all changed now, partly because of Griefcast, which helped “everyone understand why I am like I am.” Her grief used to be corrosive because it was unspoken. “But when people meet me now, they know my story, and that’s a comfortable place to be. I feel like I’m the most ‘me’ I’ve ever been.” Her podcast radiates faith in the redeeming power of gallows humour, a redemption she describes as follows:
Laughter is about survival. It’s about living. When you’re surrounded by death and someone’s dying in front of you, it’s quite hard to breathe. Laughter is a way of getting more oxygen into you – and reminding you you’re not dying. You’re not dying. You’re alive. Comedians don’t have a monopoly on that laughter. But whereas a normal person might say ‘Are we wrong to laugh?’ a comedian doesn’t panic about it. – Cariad Lloyd