Looking for Gay Comedy in the Muslim World?

10.23.2012

By Vidur Kapur

A search for what it means to perform in the Middle East as a gay, Indian comic

I know this may sound like an oxymoron, but I may be the first openly gay 
(Indian) stand-up comedian to be asked to perform in the Kingdoms of Bahrain 
and Saudi Arabia. As a stand-up comic, I define myself as an inherent risk-taker, but being asked to perform in the Middle East really threw me for a loop as I struggled to assess how
 much risk I was actually comfortable with.

My partner of nine years, Joel, a Jewish, all-accepting native New Yorker, was outraged that I would even consider this offer. "Are you insane?!" he asked. "We are obviously VERY different people: I 
wouldn't dream of ever even visiting that part of the world, let alone
 performing there as a gay comedian. The fact that you would even consider
 it scares me! If you do this, then find another boyfriend !"

To be honest, he is 
a bit neurotic.

To his credit, however, he has been OK with me performing 
for mainstream audiences in India, the Caribbean, and South Africa—to name a 
few countries that were not exactly “free of challenges” on the queer front. 
As I thought more and more about performing in the Middle East, I realized I had already performed was totally comfortable performing for many Middle Eastern crowds in the US. Palestinians, Egyptians,
 Saudis, Iranians—I've even performed at an all-male event for orthodox
 Persian Jews!

I have always connected effortlessly with these audiences, 
probably more because I am "brown" than gay and also because comedy breaks down barriers and borders. The juxtaposition of both 
these identities—brown and gay—has helped create a compelling character that tickles 
the funny bone of crowds and makes culturally controversial
 material somewhat non-threatening. That's probably why I'm regularly booked as
a headliner at the "Big Brown Comedy Hour" in NYC at the Broadway Comedy
Club, hosted by Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show and produced by comedian (and CNN commentator) Dean
 Obeidallah.  

In fact, the reason I got offered
 these gigs in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the first place is because I was an opening act for
 Maz Jobrani (Iranian stand-up comic/superstar for Middle Eastern people
 worldwide) at Caroline's on Broadway. His producer for the Middle East,
 Peter Howarth-Lees, a Brit  who lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, saw me rock 
the crowd and said he would love for me to come perform in Saudi Arabia.



But performing stand-up comedy internationally is always fraught with 
challenging experiences. When I was  performing in Trinidad and 
Tobago, the producer told me just a few minutes before I got on stage,: "Do not mention you are gay; the audiences will turn on you!"

Shaking with 
discomfort, I followed his advice—and it was a disaster. The elephant in the 
room was so obvious that I bombed in front of a stadium full of 3,000 people. I was literally booed off the stage.

After that experience, I learned to never let a 
producer tell me what I can and cannot say on stage: this is my art, my act, my comedy.

 Saudi Arabia, however, was a whole new league in terms of risk and danger.

When I googled "LGBT rights in Saudi Arabia," this is what I found on Wikipedia: "LGBT
 rights in Saudi Arabia
 are unrecognized. Homosexuality
 is frequently a taboo subject 
in Saudi Arabian society and is punished with imprisonment, corporal
 punishment and capital
punishment.
 Transgenderism is generally associated with homosexuality."

Now, I am all
 over YouTube, clearly "out" and have had plenty of hateful comments directed
 at me. How could I possibly be safe in Saudi Arabia? Yet there was a part of
 me that was curious. I've always been attracted to adventure and to being
 the first to do something.

My boyfriend Joel said, "Of course you will risk your life—so
 you can get in the news."

But the decision triggered some of the most anxiety-inducing few days of my life. All of a sudden I 
became more aware of Arabs in New York City. Articles on Saudi Arabia seemed to suddenly appear out of nowhere.

I read Maureen Dowd's Vanity Fair article, titled "Sex and the Saudis," which outlined her harrowing experiences as a woman in Saudi
 Arabia. I became even more curious—and more fearful—and 
started having nightmares of being arrested by the religious police and
 getting lashes in a jail cell in Riyadh. What if I went and could never return?

The producers were pushing me for an answer. The comedy sets they wanted me to do were in Manama, Bahrain, followed by Riyadh 
and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I checked
 with my fellow "brown" comics that had performed there. I talked to Maz Jobrani
 and all the other Arab comics I know. None of them could give me a
 "straight" answer. They were like, "Well, in general you should be fine! But you
 never know. If there's one crazy person in the audience who takes offense to
 something you say, they might want to get you arrested. Or kill you."


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not even have movie theaters, I discovered. In fact, any
 type of public entertainment is typically banned. Peter reassured me that the show
 would not be advertised. "It’s by word of mouth only, and it will be held at an
 undisclosed location so that the religious police do not get wind of it." OK, that was not completely reassuring.


Becoming increasingly nervous, I sent Peter an email with my findings on 
LGBT rights (or the lack thereof) in Saudi Arabia, and I asked him if he was going to
 guarantee my safety.

I never heard back from him.

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