Thursday, April 22nd, 2010
By Mona Eltahawy
The Jerusalem Report
April 26, 2010
“You’re beginning to look like them,” an Egyptian policeman told me one day at Cairo airport during the year I lived in Israel. As had become routine upon my arrival to or departure from Cairo, I had to clear security. As I waited, chats with police officers were usually a variation of the following:
“Why do you live in Israel?”
“What’s it like in Israel?”
“Aren’t you scared to live there?”
But this time, at the end of that usual string, one of the policemen took me aback with his comment about my how I was beginning to look like them.
“Who’s them?” I asked.
“The Israelis. You’re beginning to look like them,” he elaborated. “I see the tourists who come through the airport. You look just like them”
During my year in Jerusalem, I had lost count of the number of times people had talked to me in Hebrew. I knew I could easily pass for a Moroccan or a Yemeni Jew. So I guess I did “look like them.”
It is that “passing” – that “looking like them” – that lies at the heart of the new British film “The Infidel,” written by comedian David Baddiel. The film stars Omid Djalili as a British Muslim cab driver who finds out he’s actually Jewish.
To add to the ethnic mirroring the film tries to explore, Djalili is actually Bahai and is the British-born son of Iranians. Baddiel is himself from a Jewish family but identifies as atheist. In interviews, he has said that the two times he has been beaten up served as inspirations for the kind of ethnic confusion his screenplay explores – the first beating came for being Jewish and the second was when he was mistaken for being Pakistani.
“It did occur to me to tell the people who were punching me: ‘No, you don’t understand, I’m actually Jewish,’ like that would make a big difference,” he has said.
I am eager to see the film which went on general release in the UK on April 9. I was on a BBC World Service Radio program on which Baddiel was also a guest and during our conversation around the film he said Israel was the only country in the Middle East that hadn’t scheduled a release for “The Infidel.” According to Baddiel it apparently was in reaction to views on Israel he expresses in the film
In case you hadn’t heard – and I wouldn’t blame you after the disastrous overreactions of some of my coreligionists over the past few years to everything from cartoons to plays to paintings – Muslims have a sense of humor.
And if you don’t believe me, I say, thank God for the Axis of Evil guys – a group of American-Muslim comedians whose ability to skewer themselves, their fellow Muslims and bigots everywhere has been one of the good things to come out of the post-9/11 hysteria around all things Muslim.
Laughing at oneself is both a rite a passage for immigrant groups and ethnic minorities but it is also one of the most deliciously and simultaneously subversive and creative tools against the powers that be.
For the uninitiated, the Axis of Evil comedy troupe is made up of four artists – Iranian-American Maz Jobrani, Palestinian-Americans Aaron Kader and Dean Obaidallah and Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed. They’ve brought tears of comedic delight to audiences across the U.S. as well as the Middle East. During a visit to Egypt in March, I learned they’d sold out the Cairo Conference Center, no mean feat considering their targets are both “us” and “them” and that they liberally sprinkle salty language across their routines and smash political, social as well as religious taboos.
A little less salty are the Allah Made Me Funny guys, another American-Muslim comedy troupe which includes the irrepressible Azhar Usman whose beard is big enough to scare the wits out of you – and he knows it. He jokes about how he’s profiled by non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
And it’s not just Muslim men who are making us laugh, albeit uncomfortably at times. British-Muslim comedienne Shazia Mirza was doing the rounds of comedy clubs long before the Axis of Evil formed. As someone who was aghast at being groped during a pilgrimage to Mecca, I was especially delighted by her joke about feeling a hand on her backside while performing the rites at Islam’s holiest sites and thinking that it must be the hand of God.
A comedian I saw on a U.S. news segment on Muslim comedy – whose name I’m embarrassed to say I’ve forgotten – beautifully expressed the irony of being Muslim in post-9/11 America when he reminisced over how times had changed from the days when as a skinny kid at school he was often the target of quite a bit of bullying and yet here he was – the same skinny kid whose mere presence as a Muslim strikes fear into those around him.
Which brings me back nicely to David Baddiel being beaten up for being Jewish and for being mistaken for a Pakistani. It’s good to see the skinny wimp fight back with comedy.
I’m not so skinny but I live to confuse. “The Infidel” sounds like it does too.