Jokes defy grenades as Pakistan's humourists fight back

As fundamentalist violence continues to take its toll in Pakistan, two comedians talk about ignoring death threats as they poke satirical fun at the extremists.

Saad Haroon abandoned textiles for satire in response to September 11, 2001.
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Bombs and fundamentalism may be no joke, but stand-up comedians in Pakistan are defying death threats to poke fun at Taliban militants with an irreverent humour popular with an increasingly frustrated middle class.

With national newspapers and television screens daily carrying stories and images of suicide bombings and assassinations, the country's young funny men are attempting to turn the nation's collective sadness into satire.

Saad Haroon and Sami Shah, both 33, have cultivated thousands of fans online, abroad and at home in Karachi, the southern financial hub consumed by violence that has claimed more than 1,000 lives this year.

"You hear all over the news there's terrorism in Pakistan," Haroon says in his stand-up act, Terrorists. "I don't believe it for a second, because I watch American movies and I know where terrorists meet. Terrorists always meet in a place called 'the bathroom' ... Have you ever seen a Pakistani public bathroom? No self-respecting terrorist would ever go inside!"

Educated in Hong Kong and the US, Haroon, the son of a textile industrialist, quit the family business after the September 11 attacks 10 years ago to found an improvisational comedy troupe.

"I thought 'this is the lowest point; we need comedy'," he says.

But the attacks and the subsequent US-led invasion of Afghanistan triggered a wave of violence in nuclear-armed Pakistan, underlining the Islamist threat that still emanates from its tribal back-country. One of the worst attacks was the bombing of Benazir Bhutto's motorcade in Karachi in October 2007, which killed about 140 people two months before the former prime minister was assassinated in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Shah was working as a television news producer at the time, but the experience of seeing the destruction strangely switched him on to comedy.

"I was just very angry after that," he said. "I was livid ... and the very next week I did the stand-up show. Ridiculous after 140 died, but it was the only way I knew how to process my anger."

The US university-educated Shah, whose main job is as the creative director for an advertising agency in Karachi, admits, however, that the never-ending violence is engendering a widespread resignation that is hard to poke fun at. "I do think it's not healthy for a country to give up this way," he says. "I can't find funny in desperation."

Other taboos remain on the stand-up circuit, says Haroon, such as the military and the largest political party in Karachi, the MQM, which has been accused of having violent elements associated with the city's brutal street killings.

Tradition, too, can be joked about only lightly, as Haroon showed with his most popular production - a music video cover of Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman, entitled Burqa Woman.

"For me it was just an interesting way to talk about it," says Haroon, who admits the song caused offence within his own family. "And that's OK, because at least we're talking about it."

In a country where many writers struggle to make ends meet, Haroon took a risk in turning to comedy, but has cultivated enough of a following at home, in Dubai and in the US to do it full-time.

It's even more of a risk, with both comedians receiving death threats, but both brush them off as mostly online rants by the bored.

"If they're taking the time to write, you don't have to do anything," says Shah. "It's the ones who don't write that you have to worry about."

Causing offence lends itself to obvious criticism, but in a country where conspiracy theories run in the blood, some argue that comedians such as Haroon and Shah reinforce the bloody status quo.

"Such comedies, in my opinion, are a disguised campaign to block change, which cannot grow in a climate of confusion and wilful escape from fundamentals of the state," wrote BA Malik of Islamabad in the daily Dawn newspaper last month. "Laughter in a house of fire is insanity. Any arguments to the contrary?"

Haroon has. He defends the comedian's role as a bulwark against the relentless tide of violence weighing on the national psyche: "When it gets really depressing, if there are more people who go home at the end of the day laughing and being happy and sleep better, that is literally the end goal for me."

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