Omid Djalili performs in Dubai this weekend, but it's not all laughs for the British-Iranian actor and comedian.
Comedian Omid Djalili admits going too far in his early career
The comedian Omid Djalili has made a career out of highlighting cultural absurdities, but during his previous UAE tour, in 2009, Djalili found the indoor slopes of Ski Dubai more than a match even for his rapier wit.
“I remember seeing these women in niqab flying down the slopes like Olympic skiers and thinking this so great,” he chuckles. “The slopes were so good that I couldn’t get enough of it. People were telling me that we had to go, but I had to do at least 12 or 13 runs.”
The UK-born Iranian comic returns to Dubai to headline the Comedy Social at Madinat Jumeirah Amphitheatre tomorrow. The tour builds on Djalili’s growing fame in the Middle East with performances in Qatar, Lebanon and Jordan. He explains that the success of these shows is not simply due to his growing fan base, but also comes from tapping into the rich comedy tradition the region has always had.
He points to his previous UAE tour, when he ran workshops for fledgling local comedians, as proof that people from the Middle East have always had a funny bone.
“Stand-up comedy seems to have been claimed by the West when in fact it is pretty much rooted in Middle Eastern traditions,” he says. The workshops were “about encouraging Middle Eastern people to do stand-up comedy and to bring something new to the table, where in the West it has become quite dark and very much laced with looking at man’s animal side”.
Although he never planned to be a comic, Djalili knew his career would involve the stage. Born in Chelsea, London, to Iranian Baha’i parents, Djalili, who is a Baha’i himself, graduated in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, but he traces his artistic flair more to his heritage than to his studies.
“I always thought I was born with it,” he says. “My ancestors were a band of poets and troubadours who travelled around Iran at the turn of the 20th century. They would pitch up and there would be poetry which had a comedic bent.”
Ironically, it was the dearth of comic talent in London’s Iranian community that prompted Djalili to take up comedy in the early 1990s.
“I was raised by people in my community who were doing comedy that was really awful,” he says. “And that sense of embarrassment and shame for them is what made me get up and say ‘I could certainly do this’.”
Djalili’s first comedy show, Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son, at the 1995 Edinburgh Comedy Festival, was a critically acclaimed success. His star rose higher with each show and a decade later he had become one of the festival’s biggest draws, selling out a 720-seat theatre over 23 nights.
He also performed in international comedy festivals in America, Canada and Australia, and in recent years has been reaching an even wider audience with small roles in high-profile films such as The Mummy, Gladiator and, most recently, in the interfaith comedy The Infidel. In 2009, he took over the role of Fagin from Rowan Atkinson in the West End production of the musical Oliver!.
Djalili has been praised by critics for refreshing the UK comedy circuit by fearlessly tackling touchy subjects, such as multiculturalism, terrorism and the Middle East. But it was really the irrepressible optimism of his gigs that made him a crowd favourite. His sharp observations are always tempered with sweet recollections from childhood and married life, allowing audiences everywhere to identify with him.
Djalili, who thinks of himself as a performer rather than as a comedian, say many of his fellow UK comics are wary of being perceived as crowd favourites, afraid of being judged by what he calls “the comedy police”, people who are “very critical of you no matter what, even if the audience are full of laughter and enjoying themselves”.
He adds: “This is something that actually disempowers a lot of comedians because they start playing less to the crowd and more to the critic. That is something you don’t have when you come to the Middle East because there is joy and people just want to come together.”
However, Djalili admits it was harder to fend off critics from his own community, recalling the backlash during his early career when fellow British Iranians accused him of denigrating their culture. While not getting into specifics, Djalili accepts that some of his early material went too far.
“I have looked back at some of my tapes from 12 years ago and been utterly horrified. I sat there tutting loudly at a young 29-year-old Omid trying stuff and thinking I became much better when I became bald,” he says. “A lot of what I was doing and saying came out as confused, damaged and possibly offensive. But I think I got away with it because people always saw my intentions were good and they thought ‘he was quite joyful’ and they turned a blind eye to it.”
It was two separate events in 2001 that pushed Djalili to become more “conscious” of his comedy. The first was winning the Time Out Comedy Award in February, a prestigious accolade voted by London’s comedy club owners. The other was the September 11 attacks in the US.
In an attempt to stem the backlash against America’s Middle Eastern communities, Djalili was asked by the United Nations to travel to New York for a series of shows in 2003. He described stepping on stage in-front of New Yorkers still seething and traumatised by the attacks as one of the most nerve-wracking moments of his career.
“Thankfully, when the reviews came back so good it gave me a purpose to what I was doing,” he says. “They thought, ‘Hey, not every Middle Easterner wants to blow us up.’ I know it’s a basic, old-hat thing to say but back then in 2003 that was a healing thing.”
Healing and redemption are the motives behind Djalili’s latest world tour, branded The Tour of Duty. Djalili says the content is a mixture of new material and old favourites – and that he is attempting to redress some of the mistakes of his early career.
“I feel it is my duty to perform, give a proper message and do it properly,” he says. “And by doing it I am healing the wounds of my past, of all the past gigs, all the wounds of my childhood and anything I did wrong.”
While Djalili can see his audience swelling with each Middle Eastern tour, he remains in the dark regarding his popularity in his native Iran. “All I know is I get a lot of support on my website and my Twitter and they also seem to be aware of me on YouTube,” he says. “But somebody told me I am very well known. But then again, Charlie Sheen is very well known, so that doesn’t mean anything.”
The Comedy Social featuring Omid Djalili will take place at Madinat Jumeirah Amphitheatre tomorrow at 7.30pm. Tickets available at www.itp.net.
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