Comedian Ali Hassan has trouble explaining to his children why their Muslim family doesn’t go to the mosque — and why he eats pork. The nuances between religion and culture are not always easy for many people to understand, let alone for a five year-old.
In his new one-man show, Muslim, Interrupted, coming to the Chutzpah! Festival February 24, Hassan grapples with these questions as his kids have forced him to examine his own identity as what he calls a “cultural Muslim.”
“This show was born out of the fact that my kids were asking me about Islam,” said Hassan. “Questions like, ‘Why do you have chorizo in the freezer?’” After using some of these stories in his stand up shows, he realized he had enough material for his second one-man show.
Being invited to participate in a Jewish performing arts festival on a double bill with Jewish comedy legend, Judy Gold, makes a lot of sense to Hassan. “Whenever Jews and Muslims work together, it’s a celebration of shared experience,” he said. Both groups struggle to reconcile religion and culture, and Hassan said he drew inspiration from his Jewish friends who refer to themselves as “cultural Jews.”
“I’m tied to the Muslim community,” explained Hassan, but that doesn’t mean he has to go to the mosque or pray all the time. His family celebrates Muslim holidays, but in much the same way as someone who isn’t Christian celebrates Christmas — it’s a cultural thing. Hassan said, “[his kids’] friends will ask them ‘Do you go to the mosque?’ and I wonder ‘Do I start going to the mosque just so my kids can answer questions at school?’” But as he said, he’s “more of a freelance Muslim.”
Last August, Hassan took Muslim, Interrupted to the Edinburgh Festival, and it received a different reaction that what he’s experienced in North America. “A few Muslims walked out once I started talking about pork,” he said, “and others during the part about Saudi Arabia.” He explained that he does make fun of Saudi Arabia, but only to describe his personal experience there and how he was treated. “I’m critical of the extreme element of Islam,” he explained, but at the same time he doesn’t want to portray Muslims in a negative way.
In this Trump era, his kids have some more difficult questions. When one of his daughters saw a protest against Muslims, she asked, “Are we weird?” Hassan replied, “Yeah, but everybody is weird.” And since Trump’s Muslim ban, there are even more things to explain. “I didn’t think I’d ever have to explain to my kids what a registry is,” he said.
Aside from touring the show across Canada this winter, Hassan has a couple of shows lined up south of the border in Austin, Texas and Kansas City, Kansas. In light of the recent Muslim ban, he’s not sure how he’ll be received. “I don’t know if I should tell them to get a back-up comedian,” he said. “I’m a little bit concerned about them asking ‘Why are you working in the US?’” He’s also worried about the unsettling experience his friend had during a layover from Haiti to Canada. She was taken into secondary screening, which is not unusual, but this time she was asked what religion she identified as. As Hassan said, “What’s the end goal of a question like that?”
Hassan is no stranger to being treated with suspicion, and he remembers one experience in particular when he was living in the United States. “I was there during 9/11 and everything just sort of changed immediately,” he said. “I was walking with two other brown friends on the night of 9/11, and someone said, ‘There go some of them right now.’ That affiliated me with something I found just as evil as they did.”
This is something Hassan explores in his show — the idea of being seen as a threat while having the same values, convictions, and interests as many of the people who make those assumptions about him. “That’s the plight of Muslims right now: you get racism from non-Muslims and you can equally be a victim of terror.”
Hassan’s hope through this show is that he can both entertain and inform while demonstrating the similarities between Muslims and their fellow citizens, “I want to challenge people’s notions of what they think Islam is,” he said.