The email contains a reprint of the blog, A Comic Walks into a Mosque. Ticket links for Belleville and Stratford. And the next writing workshop details/
A Comic Walks into a Mosque: ( written in the year 2016)
People said it must have been hard to perform with so much going on, but doing comedy was the one place I felt good. Even if it was in a mosque. When they booked me I worried that I wasn’t the right comic to perform at the Islamic Center. I had performed many gigs for groups I didn’t know were religious until it was too late. Once I was up north in a town (a hamlet where the marquee read “Sausage and Mash, strawberry shortcake, and Komedy. Yes, with a ‘k’). It was inside Oddfellows Hall, and I was asked to join them for dinner before I performed. I never used to do this, telling myself I had to get in the zone. But in later years I found it helpful to come early and get a feeling for what the audience might be like. I sat down at the table with some of the members of the audience, and put my napkin on my lap, and someone asked if I was the comic. Just the way they spat out the word when they said the word comic, I knew enough to lie.
Female comics were and still are a threat to many people. If you men make a joke people don’t like, they brush it off, but women tell a bad joke and people treat you like you committed a war crime.
“No. Not a comic.” I said, “I’m more of a motivational humorist.”
“Good, because last year that girl comic was too dirty, and we threw buns at her.”
“Yes, because we’re good Christians.”
I wasn’t sure what part of the Bible throwing buns at people was from, but I did know that usually when someone starts the conversation with the words, “I’m a good Christian,” chances are they aren’t. After that statement, I mentally began cutting every joke that I thought might offend them and when I got on stage whenever someone reached for a butter knife, my body involuntarily began to twitch.
Not so much about performing my material in a religious setting but more about how ignorant I felt. Growing up in small-town Canada in the ‘60s, there were no Muslims. No people of colour. In my town, people of Italian and Portuguese descent were as pigmented as we got. There was one Chinese Canadian restaurant in town that we went to after church. Egg rolls with a bright, red sweet and sour sauce with chocolate milk and fries. Even when we strayed over to the Chinese food side of the menu, sweet-and-sour chicken balls with pineapple was exotic as they got. Of course, when I moved to Toronto in the early ‘80s, I was exposed to many more cultures and religions. I went to my first synagogue with a friend several Saturdays to explore Judaism. I bowed to the Goddess Divi at the Hindu Temple. I went to Caribana once and to honour Bob Marley, I got a Rasta braid hat, which even then was a questionable fashion statement and now would be labelled cultural appropriation.
I thought of myself as a liberal thinker, but in 2001, I was like a lot of people, I didn’t know a thing about Muslim culture. The fact that there were over a billion Muslims in the world had escaped me. I didn’t know that Islam meant “submission to God,” that Muslims are followers of Islam, and the God they worship is Allah. I did not know there was every variation of Muslim from liberal to extreme, just like there was every variation of Christian from a liberal Episcopalian to a more conservative Born-Again.
When I expressed my concern to the woman from the Muslim Women’s Steering committee, who was hiring me, she said she saw it differently. “You’re female, and they are female. Plus, funny is funny.”
I prepped as best I could and got there early to case the joint. I do this before a performance because it calms my nerves. When I went to the washroom, I came upon the first difference. There were watering cans in each stall. I had no idea what they were for. When I returned to the main room, a diverse-looking group started filing in, hailing from across the world, from Paris, France, to Senegal to India. Many worked at Queen’s University, or at CFB Kingston, or the Royal Military College. The crowd consisted of married and single women, conservative and liberal Muslims; many practicing and some just culturally Muslim. As I stood up to emcee, I looked out over a sea of women. Most were wearing a hijab. Just like there is no one kind of Muslim, nor is there one kind of hijab. There were black hijabs that framed the face. Hijabs with brightly coloured designs – fashion pieces. At the break instead of saying my standard line, “Where did you get your shirt?” I was asking, “Where did you get your hijab?” Some wore their hijab with what we would consider basic street clothes. Others wore it with the full burqa. One lady wore a burqa with a niqab, covering her entire face with only a small screen in front of her eyes. I immediately wanted to give her my confession. I wasn’t sure what these coverings symbolized. Repression? Modesty? Or for a person like me who had psoriasis, the best beach cover ever invented?
I learned early on in my career you must find something in common with the audience. Find something they are going through and compare it to your own life. For instance, when I was growing up Catholic, women couldn’t go into church without a head covering. If we forgot our hats, we would cut a Kleenex into a snowflake shape and use bobby pins to fasten it on our heads. I could have said that but instead, I kicked off the day by admitting my limitations. This was a trick I learned from Larry King on CNN: Be honest with the audience. Tell them upfront what you don’t know. I walked to the front of the room, and said, “Let me get this off my chest. I just went to the bathroom. I don’t know what the watering cans are for. Was I supposed to do some gardening while I was there?”
Laughter erupted. Even the woman in the niqab was laughing – or I assume she was – her shoulders were moving up and down. They yelled out that watering cans were a rudimentary bidet of sorts. (In less eloquent terms, after relieving yourself you swish some water in the under regions of your lady parts.) They began mocking its usefulness and even poking and laughing at each other. I was going to be okay. But 15 minutes into the talk, the woman who hired me signalled it was time they took another break. The cheese trays had been refilled and the chocolate fountain rolled out. It was 9:45 a.m. I couldn’t start eating chocolate at 9:45 in the morning, or I’d be in a diabetic coma by lunchtime. I went to the bathroom and used the watering can and when I came out, I looked like I had wet my pants. Again, I said so in my set – more laughter. I countered with “Next question. What does the chocolate fountain symbolize?” The woman in the niqab stood up and said, “It symbolizes that we like chocolate.”
“Maybe you’d like to be up here?” I asked, and she walked part way to the stage to join me. She was killing it.
Before lunch, a woman who worked for the city presented some of the community’s services offered to new immigrants to Canada. The imam’s wife (an imam is equivalent to a priest or minister) then spoke, and she had a confusing message. Mohammad said they need to honour their husbands but not take abuse from anyone. Then it was lunchtime, and again more food was rolled out– curries, samosa, and paneer with spinach over saffron rice. The dessert was honey cake and more chocolate.
If we want to end prejudice, we should just serve people lunch. How can you criticize a woman’s burqa if you have tasted her saffron rice? This is how to bring about world peace. Have the leaders of the G8 Summit gather in a food court in a neutral country like Switzerland and have a recipe exchange. “I’ll give you back some of the West Bank if you tell me your falafel recipe.”
After lunch, a local physician spoke of women’s reproductive systems. This doctor was a brilliantly skilled communicator who conveyed the information so that all women in the room could receive it without embarrassment. There were no dirty asides or innuendos. It was just the medical facts. I must admit, I learned a thing or two about my reproductive organs – points that would have prevented me from having two kids nine months apart. The doctor went well over time, and when she had finished, the chocolate fountain was replenished once more to keep them going for the last hour. Muslims pray five times a day. I didn’t realize that they eat that many times as well. In terms of food, Catholicism could take a chapter from their book.
It was then my turn. As I emceed during the morning I had made my usual jokes about a woman balancing a career and home life – my standard schtick. I could do it in my sleep. They laughed in the right places, but I also felt I had a duty to talk about our history as women. On the surface it might look like that a lapsed Catholic-Canadian woman would have very little in common with these women, but I wanted to draw on our common history.
“In order to understand who we are as women,” I said, “we need to look back to the moments before this one. Back to the women in our lives that shaped us and where they came from. Can you imagine your moms and grandmothers having the things you have today?” Heads began nodding. “My grandmothers Kimmett and Brady led very different lives from each other. They were rural women. Always home, always sitting on their couches – as they sat there just waiting for us to visit. We’d drop by and then stand in the doorway for ten minutes telling them all the reasons why we couldn’t stay. They were very different kinds of women. Grandma Brady wore her wig in a darkened living room. The drapes were always closed because the furniture and her face would fade if they’d be exposed to light. She lit up a smoke. She’d give me one.” One woman in the back shook her head disapprovingly. “I was the only eight-year-old I knew with a smoker’s fingers.” The woman in the back now began to nod.
“Grandma Kimmett, on the other hand, sat in the sunroom on her green vinyl couch on her Princess phone ordering cheap stuff from the Sears catalogue. And ordering my grandpa around. “Vernie, get the kids a piece of pie.” We never knew when she baked because she never got off the couch, but there were always three kinds. Grandma Kimmett was a big woman. Big might be all right for a man, but not for a woman.
You can’t be big without explaining to people that you’re going to be small soon. She was big and ate “like a bird.” Grandma Brady was small and ate “like a horse.”
“When the priest asked Grandma Brady, ‘How’s it going, Mary?’ she’d say, ‘I have 10 kids. It’s going all the time, Father.’ Grandma Kimmett didn’t talk sass like that. She just sat there delivering a long stream of consciousness about long-dead people from generations we never lived in. Grandpa sat at the end of the couch. She was heavier than him, so he was just a little bit higher. And one time, while Grandma Kimmett was talking, Grandpa fell off the couch, which left Grandma sitting on a bit of a slant. She looked like she was sitting on a half-cocked ironing board. Was he drunk? Had he had a stroke? No one ever said. Especially not Grandma. There he was lying on the floor, and she kept on talking and we sat there doing nothing. It was like she had us in a trance. When he finally got up, Grandma, without missing a beat, said, ‘You had a nap did you, Vernie?’ If Grandma Brady’s husband had fallen on the floor, she’d have taken her lit cigarette from her mouth and flicked her ashes on him and said, ‘Have you been into the rye, old man?’
I looked to the back of the room and even the women back there were hanging off every word, so I took a breath in and continued, “We can laugh at our grandmothers, but if your grandmothers are like mine, they had little schooling, no agency over their bodies, and no opportunity to pursue their dreams. And it was they who laid the foundation on which we were to build our lives.”
Then I spoke about my mom. “As a young girl, my mom was happy; there are pictures to prove it. There is a black-and-white picture of her as a fat baby in a big bowl sitting in the sun. Pictures of her as a teenager in her bathing suit, kicking up her legs.
There are stories about her dancing on the table when her mother and dad went to town. But by the time I was born, it seemed that all the humour had been sucked from her bones. All her memories were painted over with blood and gristle. It was the harshness of the time, the one that many of children of the Great Depression faced. From a young age, we were taught if you were doing something that didn’t involve sweat and working like a dog, you weren’t really working. The Depression trained Mom to be frugal – so much so that she would put her gum in a spot inside the kitchen cupboard so she could chew it later. She’d take one stick of Wrigley’s and divide it between the six kids. She re-heated her meatballs and her chicken until we could’ve used them as hockey pucks. As she aged, she became obsessed with how little she could eat. She’d point at a small piece of chicken and say, ‘See that chicken breast? I’ve managed to have that last for three meals.’ As she got older, she was no longer poor – nor was she uncharitable with her gifts – but a humble beginning never leaves you. She was recycling before it became fashionable. My mother was obsessively fair. She gave to each of us kids equally. But if you complimented her, she’d slap them away the way you’d slap away a man with a stray hand. Turn even a compliment into an insult. It was an art form, that I had inherited.
To her, you had to earn everything, even grace. When she taught us our Catechism, she taught us that grace was an unmerited gift but in the same breath, she’d say novena and buy intercessions (you’d pay the Church to intercede to God on your behalf) to help nudge it along. She assumed a gift of kindness would be immediately followed by another shoe-dropping.
My speech continued, “My mother, as a woman, always made sacrifices. When she got married, she gave up her career. It’s just the way it was. She didn’t use birth control because that was what the Church commanded. She had six kids. She always said that’s how many she wanted. But what else could she say? That’s how many she had. She lived in a day when that was what society and the Church had laid out for her. When we’d tell her what hard work six kids must’ve been, she’d say, “But think of Mother! She had ten.” As much as she loved us, she also wanted something else her mom had not had: a career. She had her fifth child in May. Her sixth was the following April, eleven months to the day apart. When this last one Paul was born, she went back to school, and it took nine years of night courses for her to earn her B.A. She graduated from university the same month I graduated from a community college.”
Applause erupted. Which seemed to be less about my words but respect for her journey. Publicly Mom would have slapped away the applause, but secretly loved it. Normally I would stop at this point, but for some reason, I continued.
“Mom didn’t follow the same trajectory as her mother. I too went down a different path than my mother. A part of me thought I was better than her for how I had chosen to live my life. All I wanted was for her to approve of what I was doing. But here’s the thing, my mother wanted the same thing, from her mother. Likely from me, too. We are all searching for a mother who can give us perfect unwavering approval.”
“Because I wanted so many many times I gave her authority over my happiness. I made her my Higher Power. I made her my God.” Tears were forming on the edge of my eyes. My mother was not God. I had heard that from the priest in Regina years ago. Now years later in front of a bunch of women, I didn’t know. I truly understood that’s what I had been doing. Somehow if I could please her I would be saved.
I sucked in a breath to stop the crying. I couldn’t start blatting in front of two hundred women. But when I exhaled, I heard my mouth make a strange creaking noise. The same creaking noise my mother made when she was trying to stuff her feelings down. Not only did I look like her now I had the same strange noises emerging from my body similar to a plane that was coming apart mid-air.
I had to gain control of myself before I crashed into the side of the mountain. I made some smart-ass comments about needing to get an oil change and then ended with a “we-are-women-hear-us-roar” platitude and sat down to crickets – complete silence. So much for my big finish. Maybe they were wrong, maybe honesty isn’t always the best policy.
After what seemed like a small eternity, the woman in the niqab stood up and hooted and hollered, and 50 women followed suit. Our situations might have been different but the emotions were universal.
Afterwards, some women came up to me, and while giving me hold-on-for-dear-life bear hugs, and one after another they whispered fragments of their stories in my ears.
At the end of the line was a woman who just stood and smiled at me like she had known me for years and was happy to see me doing so well. I had never met her before. Finally, she moved forward. Dressed in a beautiful bright batik dhaka around her head with a knot tied to the side. She looked majestic and had a smooth bourbon voice. Her eyes were filled with tears. Her moment before was a circuitous route from Senegal to Paris to Kingston – letting go of the locations that she had known as home. When she left Africa for Paris, she stood up to her father by insisting on education for herself. That decision, which I would have made easily living in Canada, came with a high price for her. It meant that her father would never speak to her again. Outside Paris, while living in settlements for immigrants, she was introduced to the man her mother arranged for her to marry – a man she didn’t like at all. “I looked at him and said ‘Yuck!’ and he looked at me and said ‘Yuck!’” She told him she would marry who she wanted. Her mother hadn’t spoken to her since. Part of me envied her. She then moved to the small community of Kingston, speaking broken English, wearing a burqa, and retraining as an engineer. To make matters worse, the man she’d rejected (and he, her) had his pride hurt, so he commissioned his brothers in Canada to kill her. Their attempt was aborted somehow because she was here standing before me telling her story.
“I am sorry you had to go through that,” I said but she shook her head and waved my sympathy away. “No. no, I am fine. I am safe.” No one that has overcome this kind of trial wants pity. “I lost a family, but now I gained a degree. Now the only thing I need to defend is my thesis for my Ph.D.”
Larry King’s advice needs to be amended. We need to find something in common, but our experiences are not equal. Identifying is terrific, but to put my experience in the same pot as hers is reductive. She was pushing past very different obstacles. And not just her familial beliefs but the beliefs of her entire culture.
There we were standing before each other, holding each other’s stories: Me with the wisdom scarf and tribal coat I bought from a small twee shop in Northern Ontario. She, with her bare neck adorned with silver and her batik scarf tied like a regal coronet.
“I know that Allah wants all the good for us, yes?” I nodded and she said it again. “Yes. Yes. Allah loves you, Deborah. I love you, too, so what’s wrong with that?” she said.
“Nothing. I love you, too.” I said unabashedly. Ned Flanders from the Simpsons would have been proud.
When I’d walked into the room that day, I thought I had risked a lot in my life to be where I was. I had no clue what it was like to take the kind of risk these women had taken to try to live an authentic life. I had moved from Toronto to Napanee and Regina and back. These women had moved across the world to find a home where they could blossom. Many had earned multiple degrees and learned several languages while pushing up against racism and bigotry from the outside world and strict codes within their families. Sometimes the moves they made were something they reached for but many times it was something they did for survival.
I soaked up their love, the hugging and talking restored my faith in myself. It didn’t just feel good, these connections energized me. If those women could survive what they had I could get through this journey with Kevin. Forget Koans. Human contact was the way to go.
As we let go of our hug, the woman in the niqab passed by and hip-checked me, “Maybe I should be a comedian, eh?”
“Maybe you should! You really should.”
SHOW TOUR DATES ( Overnight Sensation with Kim Pollard as the musician)
Belleville April 20/2023 at San Souci. Tickets here.
Tamworth April 22/2023 ( SOLD OUT)
Stratford April 27/2023 Tickets here
Toronto: The annual Mother of all Mother’s Day Show with musician Barb Johnston, from the Wannabees and special guests reading their stories about the good bad and ugly of motherhood. Tickets here: May 13, and 14, at Comedy Bar.
4- week’s online Memoir Writing In Your PJs”
April 15-May 9th, from 10 a.m. to 12 pm
Theme: The Crossroads of Your Life. ( When things changed ( or you did) How to capture those stories you always wanted to tell.)
All classes are safe, and fun and will connect you to a wonderful community from across the glove.
EARLY BIRD special $209 plus applicable tax( different provinces -different fees) E-transfer to firstname.lastname@example.org.
July 7th One Day Writing Memoir in Gananoque. 157.00 plus HST>
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