Religion is a laughing matter

The Infidel shows how comedy can fight prejudice.

Heard the one about the funny Muslim and Jew? Thought not; the concepts of religion and comedy rarely sit well together, let alone comedy that involves two cultures. But although Islam and Judaism seem unlikely comic bedfellows, there is a small but vibrant interfaith comedy scene on the circuit. I'm a performing member and trustee of MUJU, the Muslim-Jewish collective housed at the Tricycle theatre, where we devise and perform comedy and drama that not only satirises both cultures, but also the "mainstream" perception of them.

As MUJU embarks on its first tour, the comedy has extended beyond gags about Muslim and Jewish dating to satirising the governments "preventing violent extremism" strategy. Against a backdrop that includes radio campaigns warning us "if you suspect it, report it", to school teachers being trained to identify "extremist children", MUJU's sketches include the reformed extremist desperate to educate the Muslim community on how not to be a fundamentalist, to the doctor reviewing a pregnant Muslim's ultrasound scan for signs of a radicalised baby.

MUJU recently acted as community partners to David Baddiel's new film The Infidel, a comedy starring Omid Djalili. The film centres on Mahmud, an east end British Asian Muslim taxi driver who discovers he was adopted and was actually born a Jew. Cue cultural gags, including lessons on the correct way to say "oy", in what is ultimately a body-swap movie. MUJU advised on cultural aspects of the script and provided support in casting. While a Muslim-Jewish comedy sounds controversial, none of this was reflected on set; for many of the Muslim extras it was a chance to be part of something that attempted to portray an "everyday" Muslim family, albeit one that comes across extremists when Mahmud's son falls for the daughter of a fundamentalist.

The need to be perceived as "normal" remains key for many British Muslims. Referring to a scene in the film in which a burqa-clad woman is reading celebrity gossip, depressingly one journalist asked the co-chair of MUJU whether British Muslim's "Really do read Heat magazine?"

Baddiel claims that The Infidel is not designed to promote interfaith dialogue but is a buddy movie that comes from a place of affection. He does believe that political correctness has made people afraid to make comedies that deal with race and religion, and claims that the BBC dropped out of the project over concerns about a backlash.

For MUJU, writing and performing is an obvious way to give voice to members' opinions; an opportunity for some of the so-called silent majority to shout as loud as the roofs of fringe theatres and comedy clubs will allow. But the gulf between fringe arts and mainstream film and television is as vast as the one between fundamentalists and moderate Muslims, and it is one that can only be narrowed by those brave enough to commission projects that don't shy away from culture and faith.

"The Infidel" is in cinemas from today
www.muju.org.uk

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution