SHAPPI KHORSANDI reflects on the glamorous life of an atheist stand-up
Afew days ago I carried an elderly neighbour's shopping up three flights of stairs. Even when the lift in our block of flats works, it is so rickety that I mentally distribute my worldly goods. Actually, my (heavily mortgaged) flat is my only worldly good so I'd better see the lift gets sorted so my loved ones don't stand at the Pearly Gates before their time. Oh, look at me, I'm writing for New Humanist and already I've made a religious reference. Jesus! Damn! I mean oops. My neighbour was very grateful and as I bade her goodbye, she thanked me again then spoiled our beautiful moment by saying, “That was very Christian of you.” Was it? Is it just Christians who help with shopping? Do Muslims have a clause that forbids the carrying of Tesco bags? Is it written in the Torah, “Carry it yourself, what am I? Your butler?” What about Buddhists… too busy meditating to heave three bags of cat food up the stairwell? I wanted to explain to her that I worked out all by myself that walking past a struggling neighbour wasn’t very nice. I've been known to put myself out occasionally. My parents never even had to warn me of eternal damnation for me to do a good deed. I wanted to reassure my neighbour that, despite not being a Christian or any other religion, I have managed to steer clear of murder and adultery. I have never coveted my other neighbour's wife. Of course, I said none of these things and instead smiled Christianly and said it was no problem. I don't have a religion. That's not to say I'd call myself an atheist. Most atheists I know seem to have been raised with a religion, then, after considerable thought and discussion, gone, “Nahhhh, you're all bonkers” and rejected it. Some are so militant that they all but knock on people's doors on Saturday mornings and try to convert them to non-believing. I wasn't raised with a religion or
notion of God so have never had to explain to my parents that I wasn't going to Mass, Mosque or Synagogue any more. When I asked if my hamster was going to heaven, my grandma told me, “No, he'll become dust and be made into pots.” Poor Fifi. If you are beige, though, people often can't accept that you were not raised in religion. The amount of times I have been asked by journalists my views on something “as a Muslim”. I bet Jo Brand is never asked to comment “as a Christian”. Yet it was Christianity I was the most exposed to as a child through school. I sang hymns every morning in assembly and promised “to do my duty to God” in Brownies. In the nativity plays I was not allowed to be an angel: little blonde girls were angels, little brown girls were shepherds. The slightly slower kids were Wise Men to boost their self-confidence.
I loved Christmas carols and hymn practice and the “tea and biscuits” which seemed to be at the core of every Christian event. I never got past the refreshment stage, though. No amount of custard creams seems to make me see the light. I managed to learn very little about the nuts and bolts of the religion despite the best efforts of, well, pretty much the whole of my schooling. When I was sixteen, a devout Christian friend of mine told me she was going to Eucharist one Saturday. I nearly went with her. I thought it was a trendy club night. An Asian cab driver once asked me where I am from. I never say “London” in that hoity-toity way that second-generation immigrants sometimes do. The question can be a useful start to a friendly conversation. I find it more interesting than “what do you do for a living?” Nine times out of ten these days the answer to that is “I work in IT” and that's pretty much the end of the conversation. Seeing as I was born in Iran, I told him, “I'm from Iran.” “Ah!” he said, “you are my Muslim sister.” It was early in the morning. I didn't want to get into this. I told him I was Jewish. He didn't seem as keen for me to be his sister after that. The rest of the journey was in silence. I could have been Jewish; there are lots of Jewish Iranians (or 'Jeranians' as I call them). I was once asked to perform at a Jewish Iranian singles night in LA. The second I was off stage, I was paid, bundled into a cab and whisked home. I wasn't allowed to stay and flirt. I guess they didn't want me as their sister-in-law. The other day, when the lift was mended, my nice old neighbour held the door open for me as I heaved my shopping bags in. I was tempted to say, “That was very Humanist of you,” but I held my tongue. She might have thought I'd eat her up then run outside to howl at the moon. ■
Shappi Khorsandi is a stand-up comedian. Her latest show “Asylum Speaker” is at the Soho Theatre
6 NEWHUMANISTJANUARY/FEBRUARY 2007 PARISH NEWS
Tune in,turn on,suffer the little children...
●Jesus Christ has joined fellow misunderstood rebels Tommy Sheridan and George Galloway in landing his own radio phone-in show. The Jesus Christ Show,a threehour Sunday morning phone-in on Los Angeles's KFI-AM,is the brainchild of radio producer Neil Saavedra. Saavedra first tried playing Jesus on another show on the station, before landing his own agony uncle programme,which he hosts entirely in character as Jesus,answering
questions,complaints and petitions from Christians. “Do I feel qualified to answer this stuff?” asks Saavedra. “No way. But sometimes these people are so desperate for help. My God,I've got to do something.” To those who suggest that it might be a little unusual for a Christian to be impersonating the messiah,on radio,for money, Saavedra is unrepentant,placing himself in a long line of ecclesiastical eccentrics: “Elijah was suicidal; Isaiah preached naked. Job went bankrupt; John the Baptist ate bugs. These are not perfect people.” ■
●Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a computer game recently released in the US,based upon the bestsellingLeft Behindbook series which imagines a postholocaust world where gun-toting Christian rednecks triumph over all us corrupt sinners. To “win” the game players have to either convert all non-Christians or kill them. Players can choose to join the Antichrist’s team,but of course they can never win on the side which is led by Nicolae Carpathia,the sinister Secretary General of the UN. Among the other baddies are fictional rock stars and people with Muslimsounding names,while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries,healers and medics. Every character comes with a life story. When asked about the Muslim-sounding names the game’s developers said that it does not endorse prejudice. But “Muslims are not believers in Jesus Christ” -- and thus can’t be on the wining team. Plugged In,the publication of the ever-reliable conservative Christian group Focus on the Family,gave the game a “thumbs-up”. The reviewer
called it “the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior -- and use to raise some interesting questions along the way.”
●Glad to hear that Harvard University – in the midst of a major shake-up of their core curriculum – have abandoned plans to introduce a mandatory core course focused specifically on religion. The “Reason and Faith” course – not a bad idea in principle but,argued many,more likely to concentrate on the faith than the reason part – has been deemed unnecessary because “courses dealing with religion can be readily accommodated in other categories.” At least that’s according to Professor Louis Menard who chairs the drafting committee, which can't be easy as, according to CNN, the process has faced lots of criticism for proposals which “focus too narrowly on academic topics instead of real-life issues.” Don’t you just hate it when universities focus on academic issues?
●Word reaches us,via his friend Asad Abbas,of the sad death of Anwar Shaikh at
his home in Wales. Shaikh,one of the most rigorous critics of Islam,was raised a devout Muslim in India,even helping to found a Madrassah there. At the time of partition he engaged in sectarian violence and,as he later admitted,was involved in the murder of three Sikhs – something which haunted him in later life. He moved to Britain,settling in Cardiff,where he began his gradual reteat from belief and towards humanism. In a series of books including Islam: Sex and Violence,This is Jihadand Islam: The Arab Imperialismhe launched a stinging critique of
political Islam and anticipated many of the themes which have become common currency since 9/11. Shaikh also single-handedly edited and produced the journal Liberty,which was published in both English and Urdu.
●Malicious gossips report that a serious argument broke out at the New Humanist winterval bash between two regular contributors to the magazine. One party insisted that we would soon find the material basis for all emotions. “We will,” he insisted,“be able to point to physiological changes in the body and say ‘Look,that's anger and that’s fear.’” His opponent was unimpressed. “It strikes me,” he said,glancing around for a possible conversational alternative,“that we have as much chance of fully understanding emotions materially,as we have of proving the roundness of the world musically.” Boom boom. ■
Schism-ism We are all saddened by the split in the Anglican communion, aren’t we? It now looks inevitable that at least two US Episcopal Churches will break with Anglicanism and align with anti-gay Nigerian Bishop Peter Akinola. I guess “love thy neighbour” only goes so far with these guys. Anyway for those of you as devastated as we are, a comforting thought – remember when Take That split and we thought that was the end of the world? And now they’re back and with a recent number One to boot. Never stop believing!
God saves... Because the Vatican is technically a state (see page 8) it gets the right to field a national football team. Though hitherto not something they have shown particular interest in, this is set to change with the promotion of soccer-mad Cardinal Tarcisco Bettone to Secretary of State, in effect the Pope's first team coach. Tarcisco seems keen to field a Vatican team. Already displaying true managerial guile, he has suggested that if he draws his players from the Brazilian contingent at the Pontifical Universities he could have a very strong team. The only problem is that since Vatican City is only 0.2 miles square, in order to build a stadium they would need to demolish St Peter’s. Come on you papists!
It’s what we do,too
Heart-warming reports of bad behaviour by numerous renowned atheists over New Year have confirmed that you don’t have to be a bishop to be a drunken buffoon. Though, obviously, it helps. ■
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