Stand up comedy to tackle Islamophobia? Piece of ‘cake’

Bilal Zafar’s “CAKES” stand-up piece was inspired by a Twitter storm in September last year

Nabila Pathan

Published: Updated:

A comedy routine about a Muslim only cake business in the UK has helped create waves for newcomer stand-up comedian Bilal Zafar. In a comedy circuit where Muslim comedians remain a minority, the 24-year old performer is creating a buzz mocking Islamophobic trolls.

Since March this year, Bilal has been performing successfully to enthralled audiences across the UK with his witty take on his brush with online anti-Muslim hatred.

As the bookings for events and comedy nights keep rolling in, he reflects on how "lucky" he's been.

Speaking to Al Arabiya News, he adds how he's had the chance to perform at ‘HaLOL’ - the first ever Muslim only comedy night at the legendary Comedy Store London, ‘Black Comedy Night’ at the Manchester Comedy Store, as well as all sorts of corporate events including providing the entertainment for ‘an audience with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’, and “some lovely charity dinners for some great causes.”

Anti-Muslim backlash

Zafar’s “CAKES” stand-up piece was inspired by a Twitter storm in September last year, when the hashtag #BoycottMuslimBusinesses started to trend. His Twitter handle @zafarcakes – a reference to popular British snack ‘Jaffa Cakes’ – was tagged into a conversation by his brother, who jokingly demanded for the boycott of his ‘cake shop in Bristol that refused to sell to non-Muslims’.

Zafar was hit by a swathe of abuse, regardless of the fact that his Twitter account identified him as a stand-up comedian.

When Bilal transformed his profile into a parody, using a picture of a gingerbread man and the word ‘halal’ for his biography, his Twitter account attracted further abuse, especially from far-right supporters of the UK Independence Party and the English Defence League.

To the amusement of Bilal and those watching the incident unfold, even an online petition was started against his fictional cake shop.

Mistaken identity

For Bilal Zafar, the comedic case of mistaken identity was too good an opportunity to miss out on for a routine.

“Comedians usually analyze every aspect of everything that happens in their life in the hope of finding some material. When it happened, I instantly knew that some of it could be used for stand up. I had no idea that it would get as big or funny as it did and will now hopefully be my debut Edinburgh show at the festival in 2016."

Whilst he performs the material successfully to varying types of audiences at events and comedy nights, he explains that he initially had doubt about whether the material would resonate with all audiences:

"When I started writing it, I was worried that it was something that only Muslims would understand and find funny but I feel quite lucky that my “CAKES” show seems to go down well with everyone.”

But he views his sketch with a sense of meaningful purpose, as he adds:

"I don’t think there’s been a day for the last 10 years when I haven’t seen some sort of scaremongering or hateful tabloid piece about Muslims. My show is essentially a very funny response to Islamophobia in my own style which people want to hear."

Big boost for his stand-up career

As his journey into comedy continues, Bilal recounts having been captivated by stand-up at a young age and inspired by comedy writers such as Chris Morris, creator of “Three Lions”, a film about a group of Muslim would-be suicide bombers living in the north of England. Having studied screenwriting at university, Zafar finally got the courage to try stand up in early 2013 and hasn’t stopped gigging since.

As “CAKES” continues to attract more attention, Zafar has already contributed to BBC Radio and been asked to write articles for the Independent. He now plans to take his show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a solo run and believes it will have a “big impact" on his stand-up career.

Nabila Pathan is the founder/director of the London-based Full Picture Club and an arts and culture writer focusing on diaspora Muslim communities. You can follow her on Twitter @nabilampathan