IN ALL the countries that I have travelled to to perform stand-up comedy – the US being a regular destination – I have never been held up or interrogated at customs. Or I hadn’t, until I arrived in Pakistan.
I spent six hours at Lahore customs, as I did not have a visa in my British passport to enter the country. The people who organised my gig had mistakenly assumed that because my parents were born in Pakistan and I, too, am brown, they would automatically let me in.
The customs officer asked: “Are you Pakistani?” Yes. “Where were you born?” England. “That makes you a foreigner.”
He looked through my passport, which is filled with US visas. He said: “Are you a spy?” No, I’m a stand-up comedian. “What’s that?” I tell jokes. “And will you be doing that in this country?” Yes. “Oh, is this the entertainment for the Taliban?” he asked, quite seriously. No, I replied.
My first performance took place at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. I was told: “Don’t worry about performing – we’ve stepped up security because people knew you were coming.”
The fact that there needed to be security at all to tell jokes indicated danger. Pakistan is a sexually repressed country, and that is the root of many of its problems.
The last time I performed in Lahore I was told: “You can talk about anything you like – religion, politics, drugs, you can swear and curse, just don’t mention ‘The Sex’.”
In Lahore this time I am told by armed security personnel before going on stage: “Be careful, it’s best you only do halal comedy.” Halal comedy? There is no such thing. That’s like saying, I only eat halal bacon.
After the gig I had to have two armed bodyguards outside my bedroom while I slept.
I then went to perform two hours away in Karachi. The doors were locked and once again armed security guards stood outside.
I was told by the organiser: “The Pakistani Taliban are infiltrating down to the outskirts of Karachi now, so be careful with what you say. It’s best not to talk about religion, or sex, and don’t mention the word ‘gay’.” Why? “Because gay doesn’t exist in Pakistan,” she explained.
She continued: “There is a law against making any jokes about President Zardari.”
I made a joke about President Zardari. The audience laughed like they had never laughed before.
All the things the audience laughed at are the things they are most repressed about. Jokes about sex, religion and politics got the most laughter.
After the show I was invited to a party and offered a joint of marijuana, followed by a joint of opium, followed by vodka and then a discussion on porn.
I was then offered a male Russian hooker for the night.
There it is – the hypocrisy of a sexually repressed, censored society: I can’t say “gay” on stage, but after the show, opium and prostitutes are on offer.
Guardian News & Media