ACMI Gallery 1 was packed when I caught Nazeem Hussain’s “Hussain in the Membrane” on Easter Saturday. The crowd was a preppy, youthful, diverse bunch – a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, cosmopolitan gathering of soy latte connoisseurs, myself numbered amongst them.
Nazeem played himself in, to the tune of Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain”. His grey shirt had a monochromatic sketch of a boxer, brightened only by the red gloves. As it turned out, he had recently taken up boxing, a fact that played an essential role in his hour this year. Thinking about it now, the strains of a childhood favourite play at the back of my head:
“In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down
And cut him… But the fighter still remains.”
The jarring, scarring experiences of racism and Islamophobia featured strongly in Nazeem’s stories this year, from seemingly mundane musings on why dogs and brown people don’t get along, to his first sparring session with a seasoned boxer sporting a “Love it or Leave it” tattoo. Lighter bits included the frustrations of being unable to afford quality investment properties despite bearing all the trappings of Asian-Australian success; poking cheeky holes in his mum’s guilt-tripping pity party about the suffering, self-made first-generation immigrant; the multicultural savvy of Yakuza extortion plots; and the need for a Santa Claus equivalent for a more effective spread of Islam.
Darker were the bits on white Western paranoia against immigrants and Islam. He spoke about the Bendigo mosque controversy, a Bangladeshi’s family’s encounters of the frankly ridiculous kind with American immigration authorities, and an American 9-11 gun sale that used the word “Muslim” as a discount code.
An Adelaide fringe reviewer accused Nazeem of not being “laugh-out-loud funny”, of failing to elicit “belly laughs,” which I suppose some people would consider the sole, singular measure of five-star-worthiness. Consider, however, that Matt Okine’s “The Other Guy” won the 2015 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Director’s Choice Award; it was a beautifully crafted tear-jerking account of reaching new heights in his career, only to find that his long-time girlfriend had been having a long-time affair with his best friend.
Max Beerbohm, in a piece aptly titled “Laughter,” wrote: “Nine-tenths of the world’s best laughter is at, not with. And it is the people set in authority over us that touch most surely our sense of the ridiculous. The more we revere, the more we are struck by anything in him that is incongruous with his greatness. Reverence, like subjection, is a rich source of laughter.” The elephant in the room where Hussein in the Membrane plays is whiteness at its stiffest, most anal, and fundamentally most hypocritical. If whiteness is so porcelain-precious, then the most heartfelt laughs, be they giggles or guffaws, must surely be had at its expense.
At his shows, Nazeem often hails his audience: “Brown people, make some noise!” The first time this happened, I joined an enthusiastic chorus going “Whooooo!” Nazeem then smiled and said, “Asians, if you’re not white, you’re brown!” The second “Whooo!” was a louder, more spirited refrain. Permission to laugh, granted.
You can book tickets to Nazeem Hussain’s “Hussain in the Membrane” at the 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which has 22 shows between 24 March and 17 April.
Nazeem at last year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala: