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

Later, I learned that he
 decided that if I asked such a question, I was going to be too nervous on stage, so he played it safe and booked an Arab comic instead. 

I guess that
 answered my questions about mysafety. But I decided, contrary to 
Joel's opinion, to proceed with the show in Bahrain, which neighbors Saudi Arabia, and use that as my introduction to performing in the Middle 
East.



I arrived in Manama in late September 2010 after a hugely successful four-city 
stand-up tour of India. I got interviewed by a lot of journalists all over 
India, and a lot of it was about my sexuality. One journalist asked me, "Do
 you have a boyfriend?"

When I answered, "Yes." The female reporter quickly asked, "Is he also a gay?" with an expressionless face.

So I replied, with a laugh: "NO! He's your 
husband!"

Bahrain was not nearly so open. Arriving in Manama from India
 was an experience in and of itself: I arrived with a plane full of
 disenfranchised Indians who were there to take up menial jobs in Bahrain because they can
 earn more than in India. The first thing that struck me at the 
airport was how poorly they were being treated at immigration. I had to get
a a visa on the spot and breezed through immigration, much to my relief. I was picked up by my producer Salman Bukhari,
 a 23-year-old Saudi guy in a 4-wheel drive.

He drove at least 100 miles an hour and, with my heart
 in my mouth, got me to my hotel in no time at all. He reassured me that the Middle East
 just gets a bad rep in the rest of the world and that I could talk about 
anything I wanted in Bahrain—as long as I didn¹t speak about religion or say 
anything about the Kingdom. "You should expect a large percentage of 
Indians and South Asians in the audience," he explained. 



Manama reminded me of Las
 Vegas, it was another desert city with modern buildings, fancy cars, plush
hotels and buildings, but lots of men in robes (called a "thobe") and women in burkhas. The morning of the show, we were driven to a shopping mall in Bahrain, which contained a swanky, glitzy movie 
theater and other extravagant entertainment options. There were Saudis who had  crossed the border to get 
their entertainment fix and drink alcohol. It was
 weird to see huge billboards with my face on them all over the mall,
 especially in a Virgin Megastore.

 I was pretty shocked when I saw the audience: contrary to what Salman had
 told me, the audiences were mainly Arab, and mainly Saudis.

There
 were a couple of men in "thobes" in the front row and several women in burkhas. Even the camera guy, "shooting" the show, was in a "thobe". My nerves were on edge, but there was no turning back. The crowd seemed so much more conservative than Middle Eastern audiences in
 the US and India: I felt like a one-man gay pride parade.

Finally, I was 
introduced and started with some topical humor about Saudis driving and 
how there were no rules on the road, comparing it to traffic in India. No
 response! They looked at me like I had two heads. They had all Googled me
 and watched me on YouTube, they knew I was gay and they wanted me to 
release the tension.  And then I just did it.

"OK! Let’s just get 
this out of the way: I'm Indian. I'm gay. I'm Fucked!"

And the room broke into
 immediate laughter and applause.

The rest of the show was OK, but I kept staring 
from the corner of my eye at the reactions of a prominent guy sitting in the 
front row, wearing a "thobe." I was so aware of his presence and had made 
up in my mind that he probably worked for the Kingdom and was policing my
 show for content.

There was a tangible tension for both me and the audience; I could feel that it was the first time for both of us. But I got through 
it, with some big laughs and applause breaks. It was a pretty decent first set 
in Bahrain.

 What shocked me was the reception I got after the show: people 
wanted to be photographed with me and ask me questions. But, the biggest surprise came from the 
guy in the "thobe," whose presence had intimidated me throughout the show.

He came up to me with 
the woman next to him (who was dressed in a pink hijab). I had assumed she was his wife all along. The guy said, "My name is Salman Darwish and this is my niece. And we have seen you on
 YouTube for years and are your biggest fans! It’s such an honor to see you in 
person!"

I was relieved. I made it through my set, I was alive, and the 
person I most feared turned out to be my biggest fan (I think he might be gay!). 
Both Salman and the woman in pink are Facebook friends now and they follow me on Twitter. They are two of my 
biggest cheerleaders.

I have since performed in Dubai and who knows, one day I might even
 consider performing in Saudi Arabia. Sure enough, several months 
later, with rioting and protests in Manama, my boyfriend says, "See, I 
told you not to go! You're insane! You are lucky you went at the right 
time."

Vidur Kapur will be featured October 26 on the Showtime special, Pauly Shore's Pauly-Tics, airing at 9 p.m.

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