Looking for Gay Comedy in the Muslim World?

Looking for Gay Comedy in the Muslim World?

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

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
 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.

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 

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 

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.

 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 

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 

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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