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(Photographer: Nicole Cleary)

Pakistani-Australian stand-up comedian Sami Shah opens up to SBS Urdu about his conversion to atheism, his latest book 'The Islamic Republic of Australia', the backlash from the local Muslim community, and being referred to a speech therapist for his accent by his employer.

By
Ayesha Hasan
Presented by
Ayesha Hasan
Published on
Friday, January 11, 2019 - 09:39
File size
27.39 MB
Duration
14 min 57 sec

Comedian Sami Shah rose to prominence at a time when Pakistani audiences were still getting the sense of what stand-up comedy was.

How can one very simple and normal looking young man, without props and just a mic in his hand, make people laugh so hard?

Shah offered them an answer.

Today, he not only hosts a radio show with the ABC, but also performs around Australia and the world at comedy festivals and venues big and small. 

His jokes are simple but hilarious and he makes sure that no one is offended.  

“When I fail to make people laugh,” he says, “it makes me very, very sad.”

Shah moved to Australia six years ago and settled in Perth with his family, before relocating to Melbourne.

These days, he is looking for an answer to a very serious question: “Which one is better: Tim Tams or Oreos?”

What makes the funny man sad?

Shah travels around the county making people laugh – something we all seem to be forgetting to do as we grow.

But, there is one thing that makes the comedy man sad.

“When I fail to make people laugh,” he says, “it makes me very, very sad.”

[Serious looking] Pakistani uncles, he says, disappointed him the most.

“I remember getting very uncomfortable then. I find racist jokes utterly disrespectful.”

“They don’t want to laugh, and this is contagious. So if I spot one in my audience, I will try starting the show with a joke on him, just to lighten up the mood,” he says.  

Referring to human psychology, Shah says, it is unfortunate that people like to make fun of others and laugh at them instead of with them. At sometimes, he says, “it’s done ruthlessly”.

He remembers his time in the US when at a mosque; a Pakistani cleric started making fun of Bangladeshi migrants present at the mosque.

“I remember getting very uncomfortable then. I find racist jokes utterly disrespectful,” he said.

Shah says, however, the same people get highly offended if similar jokes are thrown back at them.

He says his experiences in this regard in Australia weren’t any different.

“It isn’t uncommon for a white person to make politically incorrect jokes [about Muslims and Islam], which makes these people very upset and angry. But when they go back to Pakistan, they do the same with people from other ethnicities, castes and religious sects,” he says.

'The Islamic Republic of Australia'

In 2017, Shah published a book about his experiences around the religious and racist divide between Muslim migrants and non-Muslim Australians.

“I wanted to do my own research about the diversity among the Muslim community in Australia and explain to the people," he says.

"The Islamic Republic of Australia is about the idea of this diversity of belief, social understanding and lifestyle within the Muslim community in Australia.”

“They ignored the nuances, the details, my investigation, arguments and research in the book and just focused on one thing: Shah is a non-believer, so kill him.”

Shah laments that he received a lot of hate and threats from the [conservative] Muslim community in Australia after the launch of the book.

“They ignored the nuances, the details, my investigation, arguments and research in the book and just focused on one thing: Shah is a non-believer, so kill him.”

‘In Australia, I have the freedom to speak’

Born to a practising Muslim family in Karachi, Pakistan, Shah left Islam and became an atheist a few years ago – a transformation for which could result in death back home.

“I feel safe here. I have the freedom to speak in Australia,” he says.

He says the book also contains his reasoning for this transformation and about many other former-Muslims who found the safety of self and freedom of expression in Australia – now their new home.

“I feel safe here. I have the freedom to speak in Australia.”

“There is nothing wrong with this. People change all the time and must not be harassed or executed for their religious inclinations and beliefs,” he says.

Shah says, during the research for his latest book, he met many interesting people from both sides of the religious fence. Many introduced to him through online communities such as The Progressive Muslims of Australia and Conservative Muslims of Australia.

ABC and speech therapy

Shah hosts a breakfast show for ABC Radio Melbourne.

He says while radio hosts receive some kind of voice and speech training, he was referred to a speech therapist to “Australise” his Pakistani accent. He resisted.

“This Pakistani accent is my identity and I refused to change it,” he says.

“Now I get text messages from people saying they didn’t want to listen to me because of my accent and nationality, but when they did, now they listen to me for the same reason; and love it.”

He says ABC was considerate enough to understand and they let him carry on, and now he has a huge fan following for who he is.

“Now I get text messages from people saying they didn’t want to listen to me because of my accent and nationality, but when they did, now they listen to me for the same reason; and love it.”

Shah explains that listening to a brown performer live on stage is different from listening to the same person on the radio. Looking at him, he says, gives context to the jokes and content; which is very important.           

Shah is due to perform at the Melbourne Comedy Festival which will go on from 27 March to 21 April 2019. 

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