Comedians in a precarious position are the funniest. Photo: Flickr/wonderferret
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HaLOL: can the UK have a laugh about Islam?

The Comedy Store in London held a rare showcase of Muslim comedians this week, who gave sharp insights into navigating Islam in the UK.

We’ve seen some new faces popping up in British comedy over the past couple of years. A few more women pepper the stand-up circuit now, and there are a handful of comedians with disabilities who are gaining popularity. Plus acts that were once simply filed under “LGBT comedy” are making it to mainstream stages.

But the perception, too often a reality, of stand-up comedy as a beery pastime for middle-aged white men exasperated with their wives/jobs/hair loss persists. And it’s telling that the most high-profile stand-up who specialises in political satire is Al Murray, whose mock-bigot Pub Landlord alter ego has known to appeal to genuinely xenophobic audiences.

So what happens when the country’s best-known comedy venue hosts an evening of solely Muslim comedians? Are UK audiences able to laugh about Islam?
 

Watch Imran Yusuf:

 

The Comedy Store just off Piccadilly Circus in London showcased six Muslim comedians in a beautifully-named comedy set, HaLOL, this week to a packed venue. And their routines – at once risqué, affectionate, edgy and daring – proved that the best comedy springs from a precarious standpoint.

As the journalist Caitlin Moran recently told the Guardian in an interview, “men have made all their jokes; now all the jokes are in the ladies’ corner”, there is a definite feeling that the old high command of comedy (usually respected middle-aged white male comedians for whom the Comedy Store is a spiritual home) are far too comfortable to hog all the jokes any more. And could there be a less naturally comfortable subject to have a laugh about than Islam, and the experience of British Muslims today?
 

Watch Tez Ilyas:

 

HaLOL is slickly compered by Imran Yusuf, an energetic young thing who bounds about the stage and gently ribs the audience (“these are my three wives”, he says gesturing to some women in the front row, and “I love Celtic people, they are the Palestinians of the British Isles,” he shouts, fist raised, when he hears from some Irish audience members).

Yusuf, who has been nominated for Edinburgh Best Newcomer and appeared on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, talks a bit about his Kenyan-Indian roots, and informs the audience before the show begins that life is “not easy for Muslims” in Britain at the moment – a statement that is brought to life by the acts he hosts.

The biggest laughs by far – but also the most extreme periods of shocked silence – are elicited by the only woman in the line-up, Shazia Mirza, a comedian and writer of Pakistani descent from Birmingham. “It’s a woman,” she says in mock-awe when she takes the stage, “turn your face the other way, it’s all Haram now.”
 

Watch Shazia Mirza:

 

Her set is by far the most daring, veering from giving audience members in hijabs a dubious welcome – “good to see you out of the house” – to explaining Grindr to an elderly Muslim man in the front row, and from an excruciating punch line linking bikini waxes with FGM to being mistaken for Malala. “That’s right,” she deadpans. “I got shot in the head and now I tell jokes”.

Ironically, the theme of her set is her dismissal of people who get offended. She also laments the media’s insistence that she represents “my lot”, a frustration voiced by many writers, entertainers and public figures of a minority background.
 

Watch Prince Abdi:

 

Over and over, stories of discrimination, casual racism, and rising misinformation and hysteria about Islam in Britain supply each performer with rich comic material. British Nigerian comedian Nabil Abdulrashid opens his set with a description of performing in Kent, and how terrified he was of his audience of "22 bald white guys". "Are they naturally bald?" he asks, "or do they just have strong opinions about immigration?"

The cheeky, sharp-suited Tez Ilyas’s confessions about life as a young British Muslim man – staying sober on a Benidorm stag weekend, receiving sexts from a potential date who uses the word “Paki” – are a painfully hilarious illustration of the difficulties of growing up as a Muslim in the UK.

The Somali-born Prince Abdi’s impressions of characters encountered by a black man going about his life in London – a cockney, rudeboys, a strict Jamaican father, night bus maniacs and gang members – are searingly accurate, matched only by Abdulrashid’s impersonation of a fey TV executive telling him his name’s “too Muslim”.

Unusually for a two-hour comedy run, all the material is high quality and very few of the jokes fall flat. But the loudest cheer all evening is in response to Yusuf’s simple declaration at the end of the night: “Fuck Isis”.
 

Watch Nabil Abdulrashid:

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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