Mona Shaikh is not impressed with the supposed merits of Islamic martyrdom. "Seventy-two virgins? As a reward? Have you ever been with one virgin? [winces] That shit sucks. Can you imagine having to teach 72 of them how to do everything? Guys -- wouldn't you rather have 72 hos?" she asks.
Shaikh is one of a half-dozen or so comedians who performed two Friday nights ago as part of the Levantine Cultural Center's Sultans of Satire comedy show. In its seventh year of semi-regular performances, the show includes a slate of Arab, Persian, South Asian and Turkish comedians. Shaikh, unlike her stagemates that night, was on track to piss some people off -- even a crowd of mostly non-white Muslims in the middle of Ramadan.
Where most Middle Eastern comedians trade in weak cultural taboos like toilets and body hair (apparently it's one giant human hairball from Rabat to Rajasthan), Shaikh is willing to put some sacred cows on the chopping block. "I really wanted to open the set with a beer and say, 'Ramadan Mubarak!' but I thought that lady in the front would have a heart attack. I don't want her blood on my hands," she says, referring to a veiled elderly Muslim woman in front.
OK, so she's going to hold back a bit sometimes. "I'm probably not going to make jokes about the Prophet's sex life ... at least not yet," she told us in a follow-up interview. But everything else is on the table.
"There's this perception that we're all angry and serious. Muslims are funny!" she says in a hammed-up tone. Her act and her nascent media empire answer to this. Her online platform Muslims Do It Better is a first of its kind -- a website dedicated to Islamic-oriented humor, run by women, no less. Using such an outlet, she's turning those sacred cows into some delicious comedic kebabs and keeping some pretty uptight political and religious leaders in serious check.
Shaikh insists that she's not playing politics, however. She's quick to point out, "It's art. Not politics. I'm making artist statements, not political or religious ones. Entirely artistic." That may be, but her art is inescapably taking both to task.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Shaikh came to the United States at 15. Now 32, she recalls, "We first came to Jersey City and I couldn't believe that it was the U.S. It looked exactly like Pakistan. Then I barfed." As the youngest of five kids, and the only girl, she evolved some pretty thick skin. That skin was further thickened through some rough high school years. "Everyone thought I was Puerto Rican, so I got in trouble every time I opened my mouth," she says. After dropping out of community college (a "college for winners" she jokes was "just too overachieving" for her), she began working as a model and theater actress in New York.
Now an Angeleno, she's about three years into a stand-up career, and she really wants to focus more on Muslims Do It Better, realizing that she can have a global audience and more creative scope. She and her unnamed partner post blush-worthy photos and keep tabs on the most extreme fundamentalists in the Islamic world. They focus on exactly the type of overprotective sentiments that seek to keep women's bodies covered and suppress any discussion of normal female sexuality. Fusing that with a tongue-in-cheek take on the awful Western perceptions of Muslims-as-terrorists, she's created a singular niche -- and a hilarious one at that.
Up next: The risks she's taking
With that global reach, there is definitely a risk that she might stoke the ire of the same fundamentalists who seek to kill artists for merely drawing a picture of Mohammed. To that end, she promises, "Oh, if someone issues a fatwa against me, I'm going to issue a fatwa against that fatwa. I can fatwa right back." Even South Park and the phalanx of powerful TV executives who manage it don't have such balls. "In Pakistan, I would probably last ... hmmm ... about a week," she concedes. "I'm a naughty Muslim."
All joking aside, her keen cultural observations do betray political sentiments. "Look, Islam is going through its Dark Ages right now. Christianity already had them and we're going through ours. Human beings are flawed and we created these religions, so they're flawed, too."
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She continues, "Just like outsiders get to poke fun at Islam, I'm saying that we get to poke fun at ourselves while we're going through this now. We get to do and say things that are not so kosher ... or halal, rather [laughs]."
Dark Ages or no, Shaikh definitely has the support of her family. "Well my brothers are 50-50 -- two are amused and two are confused," she says, "but my mom is my biggest supporter. She's posted things on Facebook promoting 'Muslims Do It B-A-T-T-E-R' ... She's trying."
Shaikh almost makes it seem too easy to be so contrarian. She's a Muslim woman in an American culture whose worst parts are still at war with hers, and a gadfly comedian who trades barbs with the most dangerous agents of both sides. We can't wait to see what she's got up her burqa next -- that is, if she's wearing anything at all.