Looking for Gay Comedy in the Muslim World?
By Vidur Kapur
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.