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Stand-Up Bridges Decades-Long Boundaries — By Crossing The Line

Feb 20, 2016
Originally published on February 22, 2016 11:49 am

In Pakistan, there aren't a whole lot of stand-up comics.

"When it comes to satire, I think as a culture, we kind of struggle with it," says Pakistani stand-up pioneer Saad Haroon.

His humor shines a light into some delicate areas.

"I wrote this song called 'Burqa Woman,' which is a parody of 'Pretty Woman,' " Harron says.

He gives the audience a taste of his act:

Burqa woman, in your black sheet

Burqa woman, with your sexy feet

Burqa woman, my love for you, it grows

Every time I see your nose

Haroon's presenting a talk about comedy at the city of Karachi's literature festival along with Sanjay Rajoura, a writer and comedian from neighboring India. Hundreds of people are crammed into a hall to learn about something they rarely see.

"By definition, you know, comedy has to offend someone," Rajoura says.

India and Pakistan have a seven-decade history of animosity. It isn't long before a man in the audience starts heckling Rajoura over Kashmir, a core part of the dispute between the two nations.

Rajoura responds with a joke, then Haroon steps in.

"What is your problem, sir? He's a guest in our country! Let's show him a little welcome," Haroon says.

This audience, a mostly young crowd, responds with thunderous applause. They want to know how the comics prepare their acts and how far they can push their comedy.

"I want to ask you: Where do you draw a line between what is a joke and what isn't a joke — and if there is a line?" says a young woman.

Some subjects do require careful handling, especially in a country like Pakistan where the military wields great power.

"I was just saying that whenever you start cracking jokes about the army, the plot thickens," says Haroon.

Haroon, who spends a lot of time in the U.S., is asked if it's different performing stand-up there.

He says he did a gig not long after the Paris terrorist attacks, and afterwards, a man came up to him.

"He's like: "Saad. You're a Muslim and the terrorists are Muslims, do you condemn this attack? I said: "Excuse Me! You're an ****** and the terrorists are ********. You are more closely linked to them than I will ever be! So you have to have your own narrative of what's going on."

I ask Rajoura why he, an Indian, came to Pakistan.

To see friends, he says casually. He adds, "I like to come to Pakistan and talk about peace and a lot of other stuff. Somehow or the other I am doing my bit. I dunno whether it is going to help or not."

Working for peace through comedy's an ambitious undertaking in South Asia.

Extreme religious and social conservatism is widespread.

Risqué or politically edgy humor can land you in trouble in India as well as Pakistan. Rajoura shrugs this off.

"If they want to shoot me, they shoot me. But I won't stop talking, because this is where the next nuclear war will happen. We have to fight it, and if we just sit in your living rooms saying — I don't want to say this — I'm gonna get shot. You'll die anywhere you know, so I am not scared."

Saad Haroon doesn't seem at all scared either. He says there's no shortage of comedy material to work with in South Asia.

After all, Indians and Pakistanis often laugh at the same jokes.

"Like, I can't even start to get into it, the similarities. I mean, I think our people literally try to keep each other apart. We need boundaries, we need fences, we need visas, we need planes," Haroon says.

If the warm reception given here to these two comedians is anything to go by, maybe comedy might just bring down a few of those boundaries and fences.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Humor has power, but can it heal communities and bring people together in divided societies? NPR's Philip Reeves reports that's the goal of two comedians in Pakistan.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hundreds of people are crammed into a hall. They've come to learn about something they rarely see. In Pakistan, there are not a lot of stand-up comedians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAAD HAROON: When it comes to satire, I think that as a culture we kind of struggle with it.

REEVES: Saad Haroon is a pioneer of Pakistani stand-up. His humor shines a light into some delicate areas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAROON: I wrote this song called, "Burqa Woman," which is a parody of "Pretty Woman."

REEVES: He gives the audience a taste of his act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAROON: (Singing) Burqa woman in your black sheet, burqa woman with your sexy feet.

(LAUGHTER)

HAROON: (Singing) Burqa woman, my love for you it grows every time I see your nose.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What we are going to do is I'm going to sort of get in the audience early in the piece.

REEVES: We are the city of Karachi's literature festival. Haroon's presenting a talk about comedy along with this man.

SANJAY RAJOURA: By definition, you know, comedy has to offend someone. (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Sanjay Rajoura, a writer and comedian from neighboring India, India and Pakistan have a seven-decade history of animosity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

RAJOURA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: It isn't long before a man in the audience starts heckling Rajoura over Kashmir, a core part of the dispute between the two nations. Rajoura responds with a joke. Eventually, Haroon steps in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAROON: What is your problem, sir?

(LAUGHTER)

HAROON: He is a guest in our country. Let's show him a little welcome and a little...

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Thank you so much. Thank you.

REEVES: This audience is a mostly young crowd. They seem intrigued by these two comedians. They want to know how they prepare their acts and how far they can push their comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I want to ask you, where do you draw the line between a joke and not a joke? And if there is a line...

REEVES: Some subjects do require careful handling, especially in a country like Pakistan where the military wields great power, Haroon again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAROON: I will just say that, you know, whenever you start cracking jokes about the army, the plot thickens.

(LAUGHTER)

REEVES: Haroon spent a lot of time in the U.S. He's asked if it's different performing stand-up there in the West. He says he did a gig not long after the Paris terrorist attacks. And afterwards, a man came up to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAROON: He's like, Saad, you're a Muslim, and the terrorists are Muslim. Do you condemn this attack? I said, excuse me. You're an [expletive].

(LAUGHTER)

HAROON: And the terrorists are [expletive].

(LAUGHTER)

HAROON: You're more closely linked to them than I will ever be.

(LAUGHTER)

HAROON: So you're going to have your own narrative of what's going on.

(APPLAUSE)

REEVES: The talk ends.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK.

REEVES: Young women crowd around Haroon and Rajoura taking selfies. I ask Rajoura why he, an Indian, came to Pakistan. To see friends, he says casually. Then he adds...

RAJOURA: I like to come Pakistan and talk about peace and a lot of other stuff. In some way or the other, I'm doing my bit. I don't know it's going to help or not.

REEVES: Working for peace through comedy is an ambitious undertaking in Asia. Extreme religious and social conservativism is widespread. Risque or politically edgy humor can land you in trouble in India as well as Pakistan. Rajoura shrugs this off.

RAJOURA: If they want to shoot me, they shoot me. But I won't stop talking because this is where the next nuclear war will happen. We have to fight it. And if we just sit in our living rooms or - I don't want to say this - but I'm going to get shot. You'll die anyway, you know. So I'm not scared.

REEVES: Saad Haroon doesn't seem at all scared either. He says there's no shortage of comedy material to work within South Asia. After all, Indians and Pakistanis often laugh at the same jokes.

HAROON: Like, I can't even start to get into it, the similarities. I mean, I think our people literally try to keep each other apart. We need boundaries. We need fences. We need visas. We need planes.

REEVES: If the warm reception given here to these two comedians is anything to go by, maybe comedy might just bring down a few of those boundaries and fences. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.