If you look beyond the stereotypes, new Australians have much to offer
There’s plenty of casual racism in Australian society, Sami Shah observed to his largely mainstream audience.
He dropped that line in casually, but it might all have been quite premeditated.
The audience squirmed somewhat, but by the end of his presentation at the Sydney Writers Festival, they were well and truly in love with him.
Towards the end of his speech, when he said he feels troubled by Australia’s attitude towards its Indigenous people and towards asylum seekers, one middle-aged woman called out, “We do too!”
It was almost as if they were willing – and happy – to look at themselves through his migrant eyes, which held no malice really. There was something about him and his gentle, articulate, intelligent stance that made the audience sit up and take notice.
In between, Shah had regaled them with his observations about life in a small town in outback WA called Northam (which he famously described as “a social and cultural blackhole”); life in contemporary Pakistan (“where it is almost legal for everybody to be mugged”); his own attitude to religion as an atheist (“I can’t accept the idea of a white Jesus. Jesus came from Palestine and would have looked like me. Jesus’ milky white skin, now that’s a miracle, forget walking on water!”); western perceptions of Islam, and even Australian wildlife, including how he once survived ‘death by kangaroo’ while out on the road (“The kangaroo is a velociraptor wrapped in suede”).
In the end though, it was clear to see, he is thankful for his new life in Australia: where people are willing to see another point of view, and where he doesn’t have to worry constantly about the safety of his family.
A Pakistani-origin comedian now based in WA, Shah read from his book I, Migrant, shortlisted this year for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It describes his journey from Karachi to outback Australia, outlining his time in between as a student in the US, and then as a newspaper columnist, a TV news producer and a comedian in Pakistan.
Shah rose to fame in this country after ABC TV featured him on Australian Story in 2013, as he struggled to adapt to life in a sleepy little farming town after his fast-paced life in bustling Karachi, where he once reported live from amidst the carnage that took the life of Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto.
The incident, coupled with a handful of other similar episodes, was enough to drive him out of news and into comedy, a nascent passion that he had nurtured as much as the limited opportunities in Pakistan allowed.
Today, his stand-up career is winning him rave reviews, corporate gigs and an increasing presence on the festival circuit. His style fits right in with much of Australian comedy, which has traditionally dealt with finding and defining the Australian identity. Inasmuch as Shah comments on issues that plague modern Australia, he is targeting the very essence of the contemporary Australian ethos. Great chunks of his material, for instance, are based on the asylum seeker issue, about which he is very political. (Northam is home to a detention centre where his psychologist wife works). Some of his funniest lines come from this, such as being met with revulsion at his first supermarket trip, where the other shoppers thought one of “them” had escaped. Today, when they ask what to do if one of them does in fact escape, he replies matter-of-factly, “Call them in: they could fix your teeth or teach your kids to read.”
These very words came to mind at another SWF event at which Shah spoke, titled, interestingly, The Australian Story, where Munjed al Muderis presented alongside him. An Iraqi origin doctor, al Muderis fled his home-town of Baghdad after refusing to comply with Saddam Hussein’s orders to amputate the ears of draft evaders. He paid people smugglers to take him to safety, survived a treacherous sea journey, half way through which the captain of his ship bailed, and was incarcerated in a WA detention centre for months. Today, thanks to his pioneering work in prosthetics, hundreds of amputees are able to walk and live a near-normal life. Many of his patients are soldiers returned from the Gulf War. Currently, the doctor is in the UK at the personal invitation of Prince Harry, to treat British soldiers who lost limbs during active service. His book, released last year, is titled Walking Free.
Speaking at the same forum was political journalist Latika Bourke, whose book on her own adoption, From India With Love, was released recently. A fascinating tale, Bourke’s story will have to be left for another time, but together with Shah and al Muderis, it highlights the wealth of potential that new Australians bring to this country, and the significant contributions they make to Australian society in general.