Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Shazia Mirza Interview (by Basil!)

In 2005, someone I knew worked at Campus and the subject of Shazia Mirza came up. Shazia was due to play a couple of gigs in Manhattan and I thought 'why not interview her?' and give my friend the scoop? I emailed Shazia and, sure enough, she responded; we agreed to meet on the West side of Manhattan, close to where she was staying; I took her to a Starbucks and I asked her a bunch of questions.

After that, I sent a transcript to my friend and she ran the whole thing a a double page spread in Campus. Shazia said she was pleased with the interview, as was my friend. I thought I did pretty well...perhaps a future as talkshow host on NPR?


M: First of all, thank you for doing this interview and let me start by saying that you absolutely do NOT look like Dobby from Harry Potter.

S: (Laughs)

Thank you. People love that…they think it’s funny.

M: You’re much taller than Dobby…kidding!

S: (Laughs again)

M: Actually, one magazine compared you to Audrey Hepburn, which I agree with…but then they said you were “tougher than George Bush”!

S: I heard that and it’s ridiculous! He’s not tough at all…I can’t believe he won the last election…how did that happen?

M: We're as confused as you are. So are in New York on business or just a vacation?

S:I never take vacations! I’m always working, touring or up to something. I have too strong a work ethic…I think it’s an Asian/ Immigrant thing. I’m here to meet with my new agent and to discuss a few projects. I also recorded a show with Michael Moore and 60 minutes did a piece about me.

M: I saw that! That’s a high profile show, here in the U.S.

S: I know…I kept trying to tell my parents that it was huge in America and they were fixated on the name (imitates an Indian accent) ‘What is this show called 60 minutes?

M: Do you still live in England?

S: I do. In London, though I travel so often that I don’t think I have a home anymore.

M: Do you still live with your family?

S: Well, we’re from Birmingham which is a very multi-cultural city in England and that’s where my parents still live, but I actually share a flat with my brothers, in London.

M: Have you always lived with family?

No. I went to university and lived alone and then when I did my masters in Manchester, I lived in a flat by myself. Thing is, I prefer living with family: the food, the company…it makes a huge difference to me.

And gives you plenty of material, no doubt.

Oh, I’ll never run out of that, with them around.

Has your success made your family more accepting of what you do?

Absolutely…I think it’s another Asian trait to respect success over conformity, even though conforming is big with us. I think if I were a successful prostitute, my parents would be “Well, at least she is excellent at what she does!” (laughs) It also helps that I have my degrees, which my parents still view as the most important thing I’ve done.

It’s like that in Egypt as well. You could cure cancer but if you don’t have a college degree, you don’t get any respect. Do you ever write anything and then say ‘Oh, I can’t use that! My parents would DIE’.

(Laughs) No, never. I always tell the truth so I don’t see the point of concealing anything I’ve experienced. And they’re fine with it all, as far as I can tell. It goes back to the whole thing of having done well, they’ll say ‘Oh, she has her degree and she’s on the telly…just like white people!”.

Ever said anything you got in trouble?

I get in trouble all the time! There was one time when I was talking about my ‘Umra to a studio audience and I told them that while I was there, someone pinched my bum. It actually happened and everyone was up in arms over that! ‘How can you say that?’…I can say it because it happened! There were signs all over the place in Mecca that said ‘Beware of pickpockets’ so it’s not like unsavory things don’t go on.

Hmmm. Probably because theft is a crime but we can talk about it, while sex just isn’t discussed. Did you regret saying it?

Not for a second. If people can’t deal with the truth, that’s on them. It happened and as long things happen, I’ll continue to talk about them.

Are you famous in places you don’t expect? For instance, Jerry Lewis is a megastar in France..

Kosovo. I don’t know how, but I’m pretty big there. Also, the Scandinavian countries, Sweden, Norway. Poland as well. I think it’s because they see me on satellite TV, but when I got there, they knew who I was, what I was about. It’s baffling.

Would you say you’re a comedian first and an activist/ feminist second or vice versa?

Definitely a comedian. I don’t see myself as an activist at all. People put that responsibility on me and to a certain extent, I’m aware that anything that I say will reflect on me, my family and my community. But really, all I do is make people laugh by telling them the truth.

In an interview, you said there were few strong female role models for Muslim girls. You mentioned Benhazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan as one. How does it feel being one of the first.

I don’t really put any pressure on myself, to be honest. It’s not like I stay up late worrying about it or anything. Really, what it comes down to is being honest about the things that I see and hear and hopefully, that can tell it’s own story.

But you see that people will put you on that pedestal, whether you want to be there or not?

Oh, absolutely and I have no problem with that. I’m happy that some people see me as a positive role model. It’s just that you can’t worry about it too much or you’ll drive yourself mad.

So do you have any non-Muslim female role models?

I admire Madonna. It’s not like I grew up thinking ‘Oh, I want to sing and dance and look like her’, but I admire that she made it in a man’s world, on her own terms. Same with Margaret Thatcher. Don’t agree with her politics but have to admire her success and her ability to stay on the top for so long.

Anyone else?

Oh…Joan River. Her life story is very inspiring. She started off in a Hollywood that was against her for being Jewish and again for being a woman comic, and yet she was determined to make it. Also, Margaret Cho…basically, I admire anyone who has the courage and honesty to look at themselves and their community.

I’ve heard that good comedy is fuelled by anger…and yet you don’t come across as angry or bitter.

Well, not anger per se, though there is always some of that. I think passion is a better word. I’m passionate about certain things which I then bring up in my show. If I didn’t find them interesting, how could I hope to convince anyone else they’re interesting? Last night, I heard this comedian describe his relationship with his girlfriend and it was so impersonal and boring..anyone could have said it. If it’s not personal, what’s the point?

That’s the difference between making people laugh and connecting with them.

Exactly. One of my favorite comedians is Richard Pryor and to hear him tell his story, about how his mother was a prostitute and how is dad was a pimp..you can tell it’s all very personal. That’s what makes for effective comedy.

So is it easy baring your soul to that extent?

God no, but that’s what makes it so rewarding. Also, I’m not 100% there yet. It’s a process. I hope to become more open and more willing to share myself with the audience. There’s a fine line between entertaining and connecting with your audience and that’s what makes a good show. God, I’m only just scratching the surface!

With your growing success, is it hard to maintain your passion?

See, I don’t see myself as successful. Also, if I started acting successful, my family and friends would tell me off. I’ve still got so much to do.

Well, what would you say makes you feel like you’ve still got a long way to go?

Well, it make look rosy on the outside but trust me, I still go through my fair share of struggles. I mean, even with the tour, even with 60 minutes and the TV shows, I still get a lot of flak. I applied to the Montreal comedy festival to perform my show and they turned me down flat. And this was after ’60 Minutes’ and all.

What was the reason?

Well, the organizers were Jewish and they felt that giving a Muslim the stage would be a betrayal of their own people, in the Middle East. Things like that remind you of the amount of prejudice there is in the world, behind the glam/ glitz of going to festivals where everyone says ‘Oh, you’re so brilliant’ and you’re so that…it’s bullshit. You can’t believe the hype about yourself or you’ll never get anywhere.

Alright, new subject. Are you seeing anyone?

What do you mean?

Are you in a relationship. You know…dating.

No way. I’m a Muslim, man! We don’t do that!

Well, how do you plan on meeting someone?

Well, I haven’t…had time for that.

How about when you were growing up?

(Laughs) All Girl’s school.

That’ll do it. But wouldn’t you like to be with someone?

I would. But it’s hard with my schedule. Maybe later, though, but it’s tough right now. My parents did go through a phase of trying to arrange for me to meet with different guys for dinner.

How did that turn out?

There was never any interest on my part. They were never right for me and I didn’t really feel a connection with any of them. All of them wanted me to give up comedy so I could stay at home and raise the kids. I couldn’t do that.

Now you’re famous for not drinking, fasting and being a virgin-happy Eid, by the way-is it anyone’s business whether you are or you aren’t?

Happy Eid to you, too. I don’t think it is, but it’s also true, so it’s part of sharing the truth about myself, with whomever wants to know. I don’t drink, I keep my fast and I’ve never had sex because it’s part of my religion, which I take seriously.


And you’ve never been tempted?

Temptation is always there. I mean, if nothing else, I’ve always been curious. I was talking about this in one my recent shows called “The Last Temptation of Mirza” and curiously enough, when I’m in a hotel in Europe, they have free porn on TV for about 10 seconds and then it blacks out and you have to pay to see the rest of it…and I’ve always wrestled with whether I should watch or not. It sounded like they were enjoying themselves and I wanted to see what they were up to. But the whole point of religion is to resist temptation and I stay away because of that.

Well, what part of you is responsible for feeling the temptation in the first place?

Well, it’s always loneliness. I walk down a hotel hallway and I see all these signs that say ‘Do not disturb’ and I can’t believe that these people are all busy! I need a sign that says ‘Please come in, I’m really fucking lonely’. It’s loneliness.

Why do you think people are fascinated with the whole issue of virginity?

I’ve never been able to work that out. I mean, here you have Britney bloody Spears, a total slapper, telling everyone she’s a virgin and people are amazed by it. I do it and they treat me like I have a disease. It totally baffles me.

So what do you attribute your ability to stay clear of temptation?

Family. I mean, my parents are both very religious and they’ve always encouraged us to be the same. Quran lessons, going to the mosque…always had that from when I was little.

One of my best friends is Pakistani and Muslim and I’m always amazed at how his interpretation of Islam can be different from mine. Of course it makes sense because religion has a cultural component and we come from different cultures. Who do you find to be more of the culprit when it comes to the way women are suppressed: culture or religion?

Definitely culture. I’ve always viewed our religion as a perfect thing. People, however, are not and it has always been that way. It’s an ideal we all should be striving to live up to. Unfortunately, sometimes a lot of us don’t even try. In that sense, we’re responsible not just for the treatment of women, but for everything on this earth. It’s got to start with us.

Do you blame men for the way Muslim women are sometimes treated?

Not, at all. I can’t blame men because at the end of the day, it’s individuals. There are good Muslim men just like there are bad ones. I feel sorry for Muslim men, a lot of times, because they get saddled with so much.

What are the three things you’d like in your man?

Hmmm…definitely a sense of humor. Also, the confidence to know who he is and be faithful to it, all the time. Also, a LOT of money…just kidding.

How long do you think you’ll keep doing this?

As long as I have things to say.

So who are your favorite comedians?

Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Margaret Cho…and Joan Rivers.

Even your math is funny...Speaking of Margaret Cho, I read somewhere that you were turning into quite the gay icon. How do you feel about that?

You know, I was contacted by Al Fatihah (Muslim gay organization) to do a show for them, and I was in two minds about it. I didn’t know if I should do it. Finally, I decided to do it because I didn’t want to be prejudiced against anyone.

And how was it?

It was good fun. I was approached by a lot of gay Muslim men and women and as hard as it was for me to understand how they could be gay, if they were Muslim, I also realized, it probably wasn’t my place to judge anyone. So, in that respect, it was a good thing. To answer, your original question, I don’t know what to make of it. I mean, here I am, a Pakistani Muslim girl, couldn’t be further away from young western gay men…and they show up in GROUPS to my shows, to cheer me on. Who knows what they connected with? Maybe they gravitated to struggling as a minority..who knows?

Did you get a lot of flak for doing that show?

There’s a consistent level of hate mail that I get, and this was no different.

Give me an example of some of the stuff you get. What does it say?

Well, it’s mostly from men who tell that I’m a prostitute and that I’m taking money from the audience in return for titillating their senses and that I shouldn’t even think of giving any of my money to charity because it’s ill-gotten.

Ever been tempted to respond?

Well, most of them never send their real email addresses. I mean, some of them will make up an email address called ‘Shaziaisshit@hotmail.com’ just to send this stuff. I mean, don’t they want to debate this?

No, apparently they don’t.

One email read: 'Dear Shazia, Aside from not being funny, you are shit. You shouldn't be out there because you are a woman...and shit. Your jokes are shit and you yourself are a shit. I hope you know what a shit you are.' (laughs). I have gotten some constructive criticism from some people, which is always nice. Also, Margaret Cho gets a lot of negative mail herself, and what she’s done is she’s posted it all on her website. And her fans have started responding to the hate mailers themselves! I wish I could do that, but I get worried.

Alright, quick answers to these questions:
Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek.
Football or cricket?
Ohh…football. Manchester United. David Beckham (her eyes light up)
If you weren’t doing comedy, what would you do?
Probably be a teacher. I was one, until this comedy thing came along.
Do you believe in astrology?
Yes, I do.
What sign are you?
Libra.
Good sex or good conversation?
I can only go with the conversation!

So what’s next for you?

Well, touring all the time and more so in the US, now that I have an agent here. I’m also in discussion about a sitcom, here in the US, about a Pakistani family that moves to the US and all the stuff that it faces. I’m pretty excited about that.

Shazia, thank you so much for being a good sport. Have you ever been to Egypt?

Yes, once before, actually, but only on holiday.

Well, we’d love it if you went back out there. Take care.

Bye!

6 Comments:

Blogger Amnesiac said...

Nice job. Parkinson look out.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Basil Fawlty said...

Cheers, Amnesiac. Are you available for an interview? I figure I'll do it now while you're in your pre-fame stage..:)

10:53 AM  
Anonymous just a bint said...

brilliant! nice work.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Basil Fawlty said...

Thanks, JAB. I'm not just a pretty face.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Forsoothsayer said...

never heard of this woman.

incidentally tho, friend of mine in canada is a really devout muslims and is a hip hop artist and producer.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Basil Fawlty said...

She's big in New York, Britain and Sarajevo (!)...she's quite funny, but more ballsy than funny.

9:39 PM  

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