British-Pakistani comedian on mission to reclaim ‘P-word’

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A British-Pakistani comedian says he hopes to reclaim the use of the word “Paki” – and has been undeterred by his recent questioning by police in the UK.

Jeff Mirza, who is based in the UK, says the racially-charged word need not be offensive.

“Paki has become a bad word. Calling a Scottish person a Scot or a British person a Brit is seen as completely normal. We need to reclaim this word,” Mirza said in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

According to the comedian, his daughter’s earliest memory was being called a “Paki” in a park. However, he is not at all bothered by the use of the word, and says that he has many supporters who agree with his cause of stripping it of its racist overtones.

“About five years ago, I realized that I’d been programmed to think of the word Paki as offensive, and I’m still being de-programmed,” he said.

Yet not everyone sees things the same way as Mirza.

Earlier this week the comedian was questioned by police over an allegation that his act at the UK’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, entitled “Meet Abu Hamsta and Paki Bashir”, incited racial hatred.

The complaint came from an individual who claimed to be offended by a poster of Mirza’s act, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Police in Edinburgh, where the complaint was filed, decided to take no action, but warned Mirza that he could be arrested and charged if he continued to use the poster – although he reportedly continues to do so.

The crime of inciting racial hatred in the UK carries a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment, a fine, or both.

Yet Mirza argues that the poster was not offensive. “How could I be racist against my own community?” he said.

Mirza’s Edinburgh act features a “charmingly deranged” character called Abu Hamsta, who had worked as “al-Qaeda’s Ambassador of the Arts in Luton.”

Another character, Paki Bashir (a play on Paki-basher), is a Halal butcher who “loves the family - otherwise known as the workforce.”

Mirza intends his humor to appeal to a broad audience – including visitors from the Middle East.

“This is the first time you’ve seen Arabs at the fringe festival,” he said. “The other day, there were three women from Dubai the other day at my show, and they loved it. They had their Filipino maid with them, and she also loved it. She asked me; where else can you find this kind of humor?”

The comedian, who says he is a Muslim, sees his act as a mix of entertainment and education.

“How am I supposed to a get a white person interested in the subject matter?” he asked.

“I’d say around 90 to 95 percent of my audience is non-Muslim. In a way, my show is education and entertainment. I usually have to spend some time educating my audience a little bit about Islam.”

He based one of his characters, the burkha-wearing Jameela, on conversations he had with Arab women.

“Jameela was based on talking to women on women’s issues, and seeing things from a woman’s perspective.”

Mirza sees humor as something that should resonate with both the secular and the religious.

“I’m not a religious scholar, but I know that in Islam, a smile is the smallest form of charity. But you see a lot of Muslims that scowl … I often say while promoting my show ‘Don’t you want to see a happy Muslim?’,” he said.

Earlier this year, Mirza won the Muslim News Award for Arts. The awards aim to recognize the “very best of Muslim contribution to British society,” according to a press release on the organization’s website.

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