My TEDx Margallah talk is finally online. Audio quality is terrible, which I can’t really help. Posting the entire transcript underneath if you are particularly dedicated.
On October 18th 2007, I saw a man’s lungs burning. I was a News Producer at the time,
working for a local channel and had been sent out to cover the late Benazir Bhutto’s
arrival in Karachi. I wasn’t there when the bomb exploded but I did get there shortly
enough after that to traumatize me for life.
Now I had been doing comedy for a while up until then. I actually started performing
stand-up comedy in 2004. But it wasn’t until that moment, standing there and seeing
flames coming out of a chest that had burst open and trying to un-see something while I
was still seeing it, that I really understood why I did comedy.
See up until then I thought I did comedy because I was a Paranoid narcissist. See
narcissism is the belief that the whole world is thinking about you. The problem is, when
you couple it with deep-rooted insecurity like mine, you end up with paranoia. The whole
world is talking about me and no one is saying anything nice. And you would think that
I would then not go on stage in front of thousands of people…okay hundreds…on a
good night. Like a great night. Okay fine, I wouldn’t go on stage in front of a few 10’s
of people and open myself up to more scrutiny. but that’s narcissism. It’s sitting there
thinking the whole world hates me, but at least they are thinking about me. It’s like being
addicted to someone coming over every day and kicking you in the groin. Yeah it hurts
but at least for a while you have some company.
But on that night, my instinctive reaction, standing there surrounded by enough body
parts that when I got home there was so much blood on my clothes that my wife thought
I had been injured, my instinctive reaction, was “I need to do comedy.”
Now I understand it is a highly inappropriate reaction to have, but then I am clearly
hardwired to think in inappropriate ways. See, for me comedy became important that
day because I didn’t want to live in this other world. I would much rather live in a world
in which people laugh and don’t take things seriously. Instead of everything being so
serious that it costs lives.
That’s the problem with a lot of people now. We insulate ourselves from the world
because of the daily horrors. Have you noticed the way people walk? No one ever
traipses or struts or even skips. When was the last time you saw someone skipping? If
we see someone smiling we don’t trust them. Our reaction to that is “What are doing!?
Stop that! It’s freaking me out! Why are you so happy? What do you know that we don’t!
Hey he’s up to something!” We don’t even drive in a relaxed way anymore. Travel used
to be fun. Now it’s just hunched over, knuckles whitening with rage, “You wanna cut in
front me, did you cut in front of me how dare you cut in front of me I’m going to cut in
front of that guy for cutting in front of me”.
No one ever hugs anymore. Have you seen how people hug on Eid? It’s this weird
defensive posture. When in fact, maybe all we need is a hug. Maybe that’s what Al-
Qaeda and the Taliban are so angry about. Think about it. It’s a bunch of guys, most of
whom were taken from their mommy’s at a young age and have grown up surrounded
by men who are obsessed with violence. The Taliban never have vacation days. It’s
a full time lifestyle. There are no casual fridays for the Taliban. What would that be
anyway? Suicide vest with shorts? No. And most importantly, no women. That’s what
the suicide jacket is, it’s just a mommies arms holding them so tight they explode. That’s
what all suicide bombers are saying. They are saying “somebody hold me.” Now I’m
not saying we should start hugging the Taliban, but you have to admit, it would make a
really interesting charter for an NGO.
We are so isolated from each other that we don’t even want to touch one another
anymore. No physical contact. We would much rather view the world through tiny phone
cameras and screens. Have you ever been to a concert? Or seen something amazing?
Everyone is looking at it through the phone screen. We have all become Tourists of the
Now. It’s gotten so bad that if the Apocalypse starts tomorrow. You know, the end times
when mountains will be as carded wool and the oceans will turn to blood and Gog and
Magog will rise and the sky will rip apart and the dead will rise…we will all be standing
there like this [mime phone in hand]. “Wow. Look at that. I’m uploading it to youtube,
you gotta go and “like” it. Is “The Day of Judgement is at Hand” 140 characters?
People don’t even communicate properly anymore. I used to be an RJ at a local radio
station and I could actually tell how old someone was just by the way they texted in. If
it’s someone my age the punctuation was all proper and the spellings were attended
to. If it’s someone young it sounded like R2D2 having a heart attack. RRRRPPPT
DRRRRTTT. How do you say “I Love you” with real emotional resonance if that’s
how you communcate. “I heart U colon with a capital P”. Twitter is so successful
because 140 characters isn’t a limitation on them, it’s more than they can manage. 140
characters is a full length essay.
Maybe thats what happens to all languages after a few generations. It just devolves into
guttural sounds. “G.T.” Have you heard of this? Short for “Get Together”. Are we now so
busy that we have to abbreviate “Get Together” so that we can free up that extra half-
second of time for…what…scratching ourselves. This linguistic laziness is bound to get
out of hand. Soon we will be abbreviating everything. You meet someone at work and it
wont be “Hey, how you doing” and “Fine thanks, yourself?” It’ll be “HHYD”. “FTY!”
And then the de-evolution will continue until we are communicating like cave-people. Go
up to a girl and *snort and thump chest*.
In the end it will just be physical actions. That’s what Egyptian hieroglyphics are;
invitations to the latest GT at Tutenkhamen’s place.
A sign of how disconnected we’ve become is in how shallow we all are. I’m shallow, I’ll
admit it openly. I am so shallow I make myself sick. It’s quite pathetic. Do you know I
only help people based on how miserable they look. I’m superficial about charity. If you
look dirty, then I’ll give you money. But if you look nice and clean then I won’t give you
money. So if you are a beggar with self-respect and self-worth who thinks “I’m going to
beg but I won’t look like I’ve been sleeping in dirt” then I won’t give you money. There is
even a specific amount of dirt that you are allowed to have on you for you to illicit charity
from me. For example, if you have flies on your face, then I’ll give you money. But if you
have too many flies on your face then “eugh! no thank you!” And if you have too few
flies on your face then “Why what’s wrong with you? Where are you working part time
that you don’t need too many flies.”
What’s weird is that the worse things get the more disconnected we get from the reality
of it all. We don’t want to look at the true problems in Pakistan. So instead we try to bury
it all under a blanket of patriotism. What ends up happening though is that Pakistan is
becoming like an obnoxious kid. You know those children, who shove your kid down
and then pee in the pool. And then their parents are always like “We love you!”. You
ever look in those parents eyes and see the fear? There is panic there, because if they
don’t say “I love you” enough times they will have to deal with the fact that the kid is a
brat and who has the time to fix him. It’s not the kids fault, no one told him he is doing
anything wrong. It’s the idiot lazy parents who are to blame. Pakistan is becoming that
kid and we are the parents.
Everything is a conspiracy theory. We are all becoming Uncle Munawwar. I have this
old uncle in my family, his name is Uncle Munawar. I seriously believe though that he
isn’t just my uncle but everyone’s uncle. Because everyone has an Uncle Munawar
in their family. You’ll be able to recognize him quite easily. This kind of uncle is the
one who believes in every possible conspiracy theory. He’s like an international level
“The C.I.A. had made a projected World map for the year 2010. Pakistan isn’t on it.”
“America is already in the second phase of its plan to launch an all out attack on Iran.
Then we are next.”
“The Jews are planning on bombing Mecca and America is helping them with all kinds
of ground-attack plans.”
And so on…
And it doesn’t help that all his conspiracy theories are coming true. Drone attacks. CIA
agents running around Lahore shooting people. He predicted both of those! The thing I
started wondering is where is he getting this information from. If any of it is true then the
CIA. really needs to work on its secrecy. If my Uncle Munawar is getting top secret info
from his daily diet of Nawa-E-Waqt and Geo News then they really must re-think there
policies. Are there meetings in the basement of the White House, with the President
Obama and his Joint Chiefs of Staff, all strategizing:
Hillary Clinton is there, turning to President Obama and saying, “That is our attack plan
Sir, if this goes through the Islamic world can be wiped out by dawn.”
Obama mulls over the detailed world map lying on the table in front of him. All kinds of
attack strategies highlighted and drawn out for him.
“Sir…what do you think? Should we begin?”
“Just a moment, I need to be sure,” says Obama turning to his left and looking at his
most trusted advisor, “Uncle Munawar, what do you think?
We have to change the way we see ourselves so we can then change the way the world
sees us. Because right now the world sees a scary place. You know what I mean. Our
passport is basically a voucher for free rectal exams, redeemable in every airport of the
world. Every time people think of Pakistan they think of an angry mob burning an effigy.
They probably think effigy production is a major part of our economy. They think we
have ads for effigies:
V/O (FEMALE): Does the fire inside you burn?
V/O (FEMALE): Do you want to express yourself in flame?
V/O (MALE): It’s time to burn things down! Now you can buy two effigy’s for the price of
one at Effigy Hut! That’s right two for the price of one! Double the combustible maza! Or
avail our special group-discount and buy enough effigy’s to let your hatred of Western
nations be seen from space! And for a limited time only, special super-realistic Salman
Rushdie effigy free with every purchase. That’s right! Free!
V/O (FEMALE): Burn things outside they way you burn on the inside. Effigy Hut.
V/O (MALE): Keep all effigies out of reach of children. Department of Health.
Government of Pakistan.
People email me from outside Pakistan all the time and their views on us are just
confusing. One gentleman emailed me to ask me if all Pakistani’s live in a cave. Now let
me repeat that sentence. He emailed me. To ask if I lived in a cave. How did he think I
was connected to the internet in my cave? Was there a wifi router nailed to a stalactite?
Emailed me that. One guy asked me jokingly why burkha women look like ninjas. You
know, black outfits, eyes only visible. Haha. Ninjas. I always tell those people the truth.
I tell them its because muslim women are trained in the ancient and honorable art of
ninjitsu. They all carry a katana blade and shurikens. I thought I was helping muslim
women roam around in the world without being harassed. Instead they banned the hijab
in France. So sorry about that.
One girl even said she didn’t know Pakistanis had sex. How did she think we
reproduce? Are we supposed to be cloning? Or maybe we just spawn from magical
pools of ambiotic goo.
I mean here we are worrying that Westerners think we are all terrorists, and it turns
out what we need to worry about is our image as asexual cave dwellers. Like the orks
in Lord of the Rings. No wonder they hate and fear us! As far as they know Saruman
raised us to kill Frodo!
So we need to change our perspective on ourselves. If we take ourselves and
everything about us so seriously then we can never fix the problems. Which is why
comedy is important. Nothing can tear something down faster than a farce. We need to
be ready to ridicule things. Because if you can laugh at something then you take away
its power. The farce outlives the reality.
This all came to me that day, standing between blood and body parts. Actually, to be
honest most of this came to me later. At that moment all I felt was a need to go home
and hug my wife. Which is something we all need to do. Not hug my wife I mean. Oh,
you know what I mean.
Something happened to me recently to prove the power of comedy. I was driving home
from work and a guy stuck a gun in my face and asked for my phone and wallet. Now in
Karachi, that’s basically such a common thing that it doesn’t even bother us anymore.
In fact, if you haven’t been robbed at gunpoint then you aren’t really a Karachiite. So
he took my phone and my wallet and then he turned to me and said, and I promise this
happened, “Don’t be angry.”
And because I am an idiot, before I could stop myself, I said “You took everything else,
at least leave me my anger.”
And he laughed. So I laughed. Then he thought about it for a second and gave me back
my phone and wallet. I was so confused I thought it was a candid camera situation. And
he said “you look like a decent person, I can’t rob you.” And he walked away.
Just like that. Comedy took him by surprise more than a gun took me by surprise. It
broke through the violence for just long enough to make a difference. So remember that
lesson. Because the alternative is too depressing to consider. The alternative is that he
was such a bad judge of character that he thought I was decent.