The funny side of being Muslim

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SHAFAQNA – Yaseen Barnes has gone where few comedians have dared: Muslims jokes – about the people, not the religion, of course, writes Gasant Abarder.

Cape Town – Perhaps we’ve been quiet for too long because our kind have been getting a bad rep for some time. But we’re just like you and we have a deep desire to play a meaningful role in society.

Comedian Yaseen Barnes will be performing at the 2016 Cape Town Funny Festival at the Baxter from Monday until August 7. Picture: David Ritchie. Credit: CAPE ARGUS

We don’t go around plotting terror attacks or praying all day. Here in the Western Cape, there’s an “over-concentration” (phrase borrowed by Jimmy Manyi) of us, thanks to the province’s slave trade history.

We’re doctors, journalists, lawyers, accountants, politicians, husbands, brothers, sports stars, businesspeople, TV and radio personalities, sisters and mothers.

At least two I know of are comedians.

When one of them, Yaseen Barnes, breaks into material about Muslims, it’s hilariously funny.

Yaseen, 28, is the funny man to watch as he has been on a meteoric rise in South African stand-up comedy circles over the past two years. Next week, he joins a line-up of South Africa’s finest, with a few international acts, at the annual Jive Funny Festival at the Baxter Theatre.

He has the beard. Stereotype! But is it hipster or Mustajaab (religious), I ask Yaseen.

“Blades are expensive. I don’t understand how men shave every day. I’m way too lazy for this. I can have a beard and still be funny, be funny about Muslim stuff, funny about the news and about anything. I think about everything, like everyone else does.

“So what I’ve brought into my comedy is just thoughts. Stupid things I think of – not necessarily jokes. I want to bring people into the way I see things.”

He cracks a quick joke – his brand he calls “dry dad jokes”.

What Yaseen has done is package the kind of thing Muslims do all the time – laugh at ourselves. Not at the religion, but at some of the cultural nuances that’s ready for sending up and which are great for comedic material.

“I go on stage and people say: But you’re not Riaad Moosa. Don’t do Riaad Moosa jokes’.

“So for the next five minutes no one laughs. Then I tell Muslim jokes because you want Muslim jokes: Two Muslims go into a bar…’

“Then I just go quiet, we don’t go into bars.”

Yaseen has been collaborating on a hit online satire series called Daltjies & Kapparangs, making light of people during Ramadaan. I can’t really say too much about it because it was created by my brother, Malick Abarder, and I’d rather not be accused of shamelessly punting him.

But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time, thanks to the stereotypes he now jokes about, when Yaseen cringed at the thought of identifying himself as coloured and Muslim in the comedy space.

Also, he wasn’t really destined to make people laugh, as he found out as a kid at Livingstone High School.

“I was never the funny guy at school. I was the guy at the back, when on a Monday morning, when all the guys told their stories at school, they’d go: I did this, I did that’.

“At the end of the story I made the junk joke. No one laughed. They started calling bad jokes Yaseens’. Other people and the teachers would make bad jokes and they’d say: That’s a Yaseen’, not knowing who I was. I felt so bad about making jokes that I stopped.

“I went to UWC for a BA, not knowing what I wanted to do. The problem is, the cafeteria at UWC is like the Holiday Inn because you just sit there, skip class and you eventually drop out.

“But seriously, I wasn’t passionate about what I wanted to do. At one point I wanted to be a teacher, but then I dropped out and started a Twitter account. I learnt how to tell a joke in 140 characters, and that is where I found my passion.

“In the first year, my Twitter account picked up and one of the comedians on Twitter asked me why didn’t I do this on stage.

“Naively, I went on stage to do it and told normal jokes. After that he was like, don’t do that ever again. Just go out and read your tweets out on stage like they’re short jokes.”

After a two-month break, Yaseen was egged on to enter a stand-up routine competition.

“I was meant to do five minutes of stand-up but only managed two minutes. Then I thought this wasn’t my thing. As I walked out, I was announced as the winner.

“It was an open mic competition at some seedy place in Obs. Obs is dodgy but it’s a home for comedy. One of the prizes was to perform at the Jou Ma Se Comedy Club at the River Club.

“I got spotted there because all the big guys were there that night and they really liked my stuff. I just went to tell jokes. It wasn’t about me. I tell dad jokes – droeg jokes – that make you cringe. But that’s my thing.”

But recently Yaseen has gone where few comedians have dared: Muslims jokes – about the people, not the religion, of course.

“I’m a practising Muslim and I’m proud of it. But we don’t just sit on our mats and pray every day. We don’t speak in Arabic… a lot of the media shows that we look like that. It’s part of my job on stage to go: Yes, I’m a Muslim, but I think about things’.

“The great thing about comedy is that it takes you to weird and wonderful places – places I’d never go, but because there is a gig, you go. Then you get people coming to you afterwards saying some racist things, but they don’t intend it. That’s the world.

“I had this one guy say: Your jokes are smart for a coloured guy’. I get that was a compliment, but you’re actually insulting me! Because his world doesn’t touch Muslims or coloureds and that’s the stereotypes that were fed to him, I figured I needed to speak to him so he can tell people that this Muslim guy is a normal guy.

“So that’s now, I’d say, a mission: to teach people that coloureds and Muslims are like everyone else, not the stereotypes we see on TV and everywhere else.”

But there are obvious sensitivities. Yaseen and I know there are people doing things in the name of the religion we practise that go against all its principles.

Recently, there has been a spate of suicide blasts and attacks, wantonly killing innocent people in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Bangladesh and Medina, perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS).

Muslims abhor this violence and condemn it in the strongest terms. There isn’t a Friday Jumuah sermon at mosques around the city where an imam isn’t condemning IS.

But it’s tough to shake the stereotypes.

“I was in a space in my mid-20s where I wasn’t proud and I didn’t want to identify with being coloured and being Muslim. Now I love the culture. These are my people and they made me who I am,” says Yaseen, who grew up in Garlandale, Athlone.

“I will look at them and mock them, but I love them. It’s always said in comedy that you roast the ones you love. Now I want to get into the culture.

“When I do comedy in Cape Town there are jokes you can tell here that don’t work in the rest of the country. That’s the nice thing about the Jive Funny Festival because it’s mostly Capetonians in the audience and we can do Cape Town jokes.

“There are some Muslim jokes that I only do at Muslim gigs as well. I want to celebrate the identities that make me.

“I did a personality test while doing insurance for two years. One of the tests they did showed that an entertainer has the same personality traits as a teacher. I wanted to become a teacher as well.

“It’s the thing of standing in front of people, taking information, repurposing it and you deliver it so that they can understand it. That’s what a comedian does.

“I think it’s different in Cape Town with regard to how people see Muslims, but there’s a greater part of this country that has never mixed with Muslims because of the way apartheid worked.

“They’re fed what Muslims are because… “

“Because of Fox News?” I ask.

And Yaseen looks at me with wide eyes: “I thought you swore now! Ja, Fox them!”

But as quickly as he cracked his joke, Yaseen is serious again about the objective of his comedy.

“It’s our duty as Muslims to go into the world and into professional spaces where we can occupy normal jobs. We can be teachers and comedians and teach your children and you about the world, not just about Muslim ways.

“There’s a big responsibility that sits with me as well. It’s another reason why I don’t do touchy material, because I know that if I get it wrong, I represent a community, I represent my parents and family first.

“I would never want someone to go to them to tell them: Tell your son to stop his nonsense’. There’s a religion you represent as well. If you go up and you start offending people, they’ll say Muslims are offensive.

“And as a coloured man you’ll perform and people will say all coloured people are like this. All Muslims are like this. So you represent everyone in a scary space. If I make people believe that Muslims can laugh, they will realise Muslims are okay, then my job is done. They’ll say Muslims are okay. They don’t need to have this fear about us.

“People will come up to me after a show and say: You’re not like other Muslims’, and I’m like: None of the Muslims are like the other Muslims!’

“Or they’ll ask me whether I believe in the Islamic State? That’s actually a hectic question, but it’s fine. I don’t believe in IS. This country does not believe in IS, let’s just calm down with the IS talk.”

So what does a comedian do when he’s not telling jokes? While his friends are putting in 9-to-5ers, Yaseen can be found on the beach or having leisurely lunches dreaming up new material.

For Yaseen there is no going back. His wife is fully behind his journey and there are big plans on the horizon.

“You can’t follow anyone else’s plan. Someone who has an office job knows the steps you take to success. But with comedy it’s weird. I might get opportunities no one else would get. There are international things coming about. I don’t know where this thing is going.

“I’m just enjoying it right now and I’m still getting into it. But it pays the bills, it’s my full-time job and I do nothing right now except tell jokes. Sometimes I write jokes for other people or TV shows.

“I’m still waking up and thinking someone is going to say: Go get an office job and stop this k*k… this is a joke now’.”

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