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Shappi Khorsandi: “I have the privilege of being an insider and an outsider…”

2016 marked the 40th anniversary of Iranian-born Shappi Khorsandi’s arrival in Britain, and she’s celebrating with a brand new show. ‘Oh my country! From Morris dancing to Morrissey’ (Vivacity’s Key Theatre, 29 June) sets out to reclaim patriotism and send a love letter to her adopted land – but it also paints a portrait that is a world away from the lazy stereotyping of tabloids. She was raised in a secular household, is President of the Humanist Assosciation and her father is a journalist and satirist who was himself forced to flee Iran’s fundamentalist regime. The Moment editor Toby Venables talked to her about dictators, death threats and arriving at demonstrations in style...

The tour is now well underway – tell us a little about it…
Well, it’s quite dramatic this show… And the title – From Morris Dancing to Morrissey – I have nicked from the Billy Bragg song England Half English. Billy Bragg is a singer I got into when I was 16. On paper, he sounded exactly like the skinheads who would be mean to us in the street, but actually he was a man from Barking, Essex, who got it. He saw the bigger picture and sang songs that made me feel very reassured that I was welcome. I love his idea of patriotism. I’m a very patriotic person – naturally so. If we’d become refugees in France I’d have loved France and perhaps the show would have been a bit slicker… But his idea about loving your country – space, not race – is the springboard fromwhich I started writing this show.

Did all the hullabaloo about Brexit feed into that?
It was during the referendum and there were all these hashtags: #proudtobeenglish. I thought that hashtag was written by the sort of people who would exclude me, but after years of living here in England, why can’t it be my country? Some people might say: ‘Because you weren’t born here.’ But my point is ‘Well, neither is tea… And neither was Joanna Lumley.’ Then there’s this whole debate about genetics, which I unpick as unscientific, because that cluster of cells we call the Celtic gene is not unique to England, and actually we’re a whole mixture of things. It’s about this idea that when in Scotland, I feel English, and when I’m in Cornwall I feel like a pasty. So, it’s taking delight in feeling patriotic, in a good way!

And you are literally waving the flag…
We need to reclaim the flag of St George. It’s a beautiful symbol of multiculturalism, if you consider that St George never set foot on English soil. I think England was first in line when it came to flag picking: ‘What do you want?’ ‘White with red stripes, please.’ Wales was obviously further down the line. ‘They’ve run out of stripes Dai!’ ‘Oh, we’ll have a dragon then…’ But I take my flag on stage with me. Some people in the audience tend to be a bit against this whole idea of being patriotic, but for me patriotism isn’t excluding others, it’s just looking after those around you in the geographical space that you all share, and taking a real interest in where you live, and its history and culture. And all of this, obviously, is wrapped up with very funny jokes. I really appreciate Englishness as an outsider as well. I have the privilege of being an insider and an outsider, and there are all sorts of things that people say, such as the English being very reserved. But that’s such a blessing when you’ve got something to hide! Iranians would be right up in your face.

You do lots of other things in addition to standup – TV and radio shows, writing books, political activity… And you were made president of the British Humanist Association last year. Was that a surprise?
It was, actually. It kind of knocked me for six. It was a real honour, and a very grown up thing to be. It came about because I did some gigs with them, and wrote some articles for Humanist Magazine. I’m an atheist – though I rarely call myself that, because most atheists I know are people who had a religion that they then rejected. I wasn’t raised with any kind of religion. If ever I asked questions about God my dad would just say: ‘That’s not something we believe…’ and always made me aware that being a good person, and being moral, and putting yourself in other people’s shoes in order to have empathy does not require a higher power. I have two children, and now at school they learn about every religion, which is very educational, but they don’t discuss humanism; if you don’t have a god you’re somehow ‘none of the above’ when it comes to morality, and I think that’s a problem. So, it’s brilliant to be active with the humanists and promote the secular voice.

More often than not, Muslims and darker skinned people are represented negatively in the popular press. Do you feel that, as a public figure, you are representing an alternative to that stereotype?
I don’t really feel I’m representing anything – but it is really creepy, this anti-Muslim sentiment, because they’re getting away with racism on a technicality. Islam is not a race, and yet everything about the argument tends to be ‘They’re not like us…’ I’m somebody who escaped the Islamic Republic of Iran, so no one needs to tell me how dangerous political Islam is. They tried to kill my dad. But I didn’t grow up an Islamophobe as a result of that, or full of hatred, so it’s a nonsense to say it’s just about religion. It’s not. It’s pure ‘them and us’ that unfortunately is a disease of mankind that every generation has to battle. It just fascinates me, though, seeing some of these people. I feel like saying ‘Have you never been to school with a Muslim? Have you never had a Muslim doctor? Do you not understand that this black and white thinking is fake and comes from a place of hatred?’ There are a lot of very unwell people spewing hate all over the internet – and some of them get into positions of great power.

Speaking of which… Were you affected by the US travel ban?
It was impossible for me to travel to the US for about five hours, and then I could again. It’s such a load of nonsense. It’s meant to create exactly the kind of kerfuffle and chaos that it created. I don’t understand it. Yet. I think in about 50 years it’ll be much clearer what the hell was going on!

Your dad worked in Iran as a satirist and your brother is now a standup too, so clearly you come from a tradition of mockery. But the words ‘Iranian’ and ‘satirist’ are not ones we often seen side by side…
That wouldn’t seem strange to an Iranian. In our culture, satire is a very respected medium. I guess you can relate it to the 1800s in England – how powerful cartoonists were, and howpublic figures were absolutely destroyed by satire. In countries like Iran, the first thing politicians attack is the communicators – the artists, the writers, the satirists. It was interesting with Trump and the Hamilton show, and the attack on Meryl Streep, putting down people who are artists and saying their opinions don’t matter. It’s a very calculated move, because throughout history it’s the artists who have a lot to say about the world order, and satire is genuinely dangerous to those in power, because it speaks to the layman, and gives ordinary people the confidence of knowing they have backup, and that these people are like-minded. It pricks pomposity and it pricks dictators. And that’s what my dad did!

You left Iran when you were just three years old. What were the circumstances of that move?
We left Iran in 1976 for my dad to come to England and work in the London offices of an Iranian newspaper, The National Daily. As a young journalist he had grabbed the opportunity to come here for a year or two, learn English, and be their correspondent abroad. So, we moved to London and it was this big adventure, and then the revolution happened in ‘79. My dad went back and his offices were mobbed, and there were crowds in the street chanting ‘Death to Khorsandi’ because he had been writing articles opposing the Ayatollah. That afternoon he had to go straight back to the airport and get out, and after that was on a hit list. In ‘84 Scotland Yard uncovered a plot to assassinate my dad in London, so it was all very dramatic.

The past year has some very rapidly moving political upheavals in which immigration frequently took centre stage. As someone who responds to what’s happening in the world, has it been tough to keep pace with all that?
I think nowadays everyone’s appetite and need for finding like-minded people and solidarity is sated by Twitter. You only have to put in a hashtag and you’ll read the best jokes and most cutting remarks of people who agree with you – or disagree with you. So, as a comic, I don’t necessarily come to reflect altogether on what’s going on. I reference it – of course I do – but all that outrage and shock is already expressed to the Nth degree on social media. So, for standup I just try and make it as funny and ridiculous as possible, because right now I just want people to have a good time. Of course I think about this stuff – and I do things in my way. I went on that protest in London without realising quite how massive it was. I went to that protest straight after filming something for TV, where they’d provided me with a chauffeur-driven car, so I redirected them to Downing Street where Owen Jones had invited me to give a speech. And the driver didn’t drop me off – he went straight through the main throng, so I roll up in this limo with blacked out windows, have the door opened by a uniformed driver and stagger out with a huge, expensive bouquet of flowers that I’d been given at the end of filming. A woman of the people! The ridiculousness of that is what I poke fun at. More than anything, in my shows, it’s me that is the ridiculous one…

SHAPPI KHORSANDI: Oh my country! From Morris Dancing to Morrissey
Key Theatre
29 June, 8pm

For details of this and other performances, visit the Vivacity website

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