“The only thing I remembered – for the longest time I would say that I didn’t remember a thing – was when I saw a man’s lungs on fire”, Sami Shah confessed last month. “This man’s chest were blown open, and his lungs were visible, and they were baking hot… like coals”.
In October, Shah, a Pakistani stand-up comedian and journalist, was invited by the Wheelers Centre to discuss his newly released book I, Migrant. He introduced the segment by talking about Benazir Bhutto, the eleventh Prime Minister of Pakistan for two non-consecutive terms.
At the time, Shah was working as a news producer when Benazir Bhutto returned after an eight-year, self-imposed exile to campaign for the 2008 elections. Millions of people lined the streets of Rawalpindi, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman who once cited “You can kill a man, but not an idea”. Shah and his crew recorded Bhutto’s arrival at the airport; they were moving to another location when the news director called – there had been an explosion.
Two suicide bombers had attacked Bhutto’s convoy. The first occurred directly after she had retreated into her bulletproof truck, and then later the second suicide bomber attacked, killing approximately 170 civilians. When Shah entered the area, death and destruction coated the street; blackened bodies, separated limbs and dirty rags – chaos ensued.
He told the Wheeler Centre that this event was a pivotal moment in hislife, because five days after the attempted assassination of Bhutto, Shah was scheduled to perform a comedy skit. “There is a suicide bomber every day and people being held up,” Shah said, “People might think that I was being callous, but I didn’t care. I was not giving up on my comedic act … They [the audience], and I, needed a release”.
For many Australians, life in Pakistan, especially Karachi, is unfathomable.
“Everyone in Karachi gets held up, it’s almost a right to manhood,” explained Shah, “you have to get held up at gun point, otherwise, it is because you are the one holding the gun”.
The talk was hosted by ABC journalist Rafael Epstein and as it progressed Shah weaved a chronicle of his life, similar to what was written in his two hundred and eighty-two page book.
Through the evening he traversed through his life as Pakistan’s first Stand-Up Comedian, the escalating isolation he felt after being labelled a Liberal Fascist, and the melting pot of emotions he felt when he and his family moved to Western Australia.
“Being called Liberal Fascist is a Pakistani thing,” Sami explained, “I started to write a column in a local newspaper. I am considerably leftist, and this makes you a Liberal Fascist… It is someone who wants the world to be very liberal in its outlook and you want everyone to be liberal, so you must be a Fascist. Unfortunately when you begin to be called that, you also start to receive death threats”.
When his daughter Anya was born, he and his wife moved to Australia. They currently live in regional Western Australia, where Shah works as a freelance journalist.
In his book, I, Migrant, Shah uses satire and black humour to describe strikingly violent and tumultuous events. However, it is through this same humour that the reader captures a glimpse of a completely contradictory feeling, that of hope.
At the end of the talk, Shah reflected on the solitude of his new home and the lingering stigmas attached to skin colour. “There are some aspects of Australia that infuriate me and others that just make me uncomfortable, ” wrote Sami, “but at least my wife and daughter are safe here, and that’s all that matters”.