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