There’s an awful lot been written and said in recent times about the refugee experience – and for obvious reasons, it’s not often been filled with laughter.
But Shappi Khorsandi, who has appeared on the likes of QI, Have I Got New For You and Live at The Apollo, is waging a one-woman crusade to rectify that.
The stand-up comic’s family fled Iran for London when she was just three after her father, the renowned poet and satirist Hadi Khorsandi, wrote a piece deemed critical of the new Islamic regime.
Her new show, Oh My Country! is billed as covering ‘Morris Dancing To Morrissey’ and is essentially Shappi addressing her relationship with her England.
‘It’s sort of a celebration of my 40 years of living in England,’ she tells WOW247. ‘I’ve now been living here longer than the age I pretend to be, and I wanted to mark that.
‘I feel that I’m in a privileged position where I can say I love England without sounding like a thick-necked racist who thinks Lebanese food is what lesbians eat.
‘People have said: “Oh, but you weren’t born here”. Well neither was Joanna Lumley or Eddie Izzard. I state the case for why it’s totally nonsense to say you can only belong to a country or claim a country as your country if you have ancestry here.
‘The whole genetics thing is nonsense as well – there’s no English gene, there’s no gene where when you put a microscope on it, it says (she affects an indignant tone): “Do you mind, I’m in the middle of my supper”.
‘I’ve had my own DNA tested and I’m a mixture of everything, as are we all. It’s a celebration of understanding the place you live in and love, no matter what Katie Hopkins says.’
It wasn’t just the personal chronological significance that prompted Shappi to write the show though.
‘In the run-up to the referendum I spent a lot of time on Twitter and saw the rather aggressive hashtag #proudtobeEnglish, for the sort of people who think patriotism means being superior to others and being exclusive.
‘That’s not patriotism and that’s not loving your country – it means looking after your space and the people in it and understanding that loving your country is about space not race.
‘When I saw that hashtag I thought ‘‘listen mate I’m proud to be English, I love this country and I probably know it better than any keyboard warrior who spends their time telling everyone who isn’t white to go home.’’
‘I’m a comedian for God’s sake, I go to all these market towns and have spent time in places here that these people have never even heard of.
I feel that I’m in a privileged position where I can say I love England without sounding like a thick-necked racist who thinks Lebanese food is what lesbians eatShappi Khorsandi
‘I wanted to write a love letter to England.’
Unsurprisingly, given that she left Iran so young, Shappi remembers little of her time there. But the lasting legacy for her has been that it has left her fluent in two languages.
‘That is important to me because language connects you to other people.
‘If I speak two languages then I’m connected to two places. If I read a verse by Rumi in Farsi it moves me to tears. And if I hear: “You can’t fit quicker than a Kwik Fit fitter, they’re the boys to trust”, it touches my soul in a very profound way.
‘Who is any numbskull on Twitter to tell me that this in not my country?’
Shappi’s family lost members during the revolution and it is this experience that, in part at least, seems to colour her perspective on British politics.
‘I’m endlessly optimistic. The political seas have never been calm, but I think it’s fascinating and wonderful that in our country we have massive ongoing debates about why the leader of the opposition was sitting on the floor of a train.
‘What a wonderful thing to debate – it’s not did he or did he not massacre this entire village, we’re talking about whether he sat on the floor deliberately or not and whether or not there were seats available, I think we should take great comfort that these are the problems we have with our politicians.
‘I always say politicians have skeletons in their cupboards, but I was born in a country where they have actual skeletons in their cupboards.
‘That’s not to make light of the Tories and their hideous record with tax exiles and offshore banking and all of that, obviously. However it’s something I appreciate – and the religious freedom means I can be an atheist in this country.’
Last October Shappi was elected as president of the British Humanist Association – a role she took over from Portsmouth-based physicist and broadcaster Professor Jim Al-Khalili.
‘It’s really exciting, I’m very honoured and I get to go to lots of lectures and see lots of incredible speakers and see what incredible work the BHA does.
‘It’s not something I take for granted’.
She then gives a very recent example of how she still gets defined by her skin colour.
‘While I was at the Edinburgh Festival, a respected broadsheet lumped me in an article with Muslim comedians. It’s a frustration that my skin colour somehow links me to a certain religion. It’s lazy, lazy journalism – mate, just Google me! What more do I have to do? I’m the president of the British Humanist Association, but people take one look at me and go: “Right, well she’s a Muslim”.
Aside from the stand-up, Shappi had her first novel, Nina Is Not Ok, published in July to rave reviews.
‘It’s very different to my stand-up, it’s quite serious. Nina’s 17 and she’s an alcoholic – it deals with issues of alcoholism and drunk consent.
‘It’s such a difficult, jarring thing to talk about in the same interview because my comedy is very “comedy”, and my book is very serious. ‘Although, saying that, it’s funny because my characters are witty – Nina’s funny and her friends are funny, but she’s got a lot on her plate old Nina. It’s quite a car crash read.
‘I feel really terrible, I don’t want people to buy it thinking: “Oh she was really funny”, and then crying when they buy it.’
But Shappi didn’t set out to deliberately contrast her writing with her stand-up.
‘Would you believe it, I set out to write a comedy book, but this is what I wanted to write. This was the story I wanted to tell.
‘Like any writer – I don’t think (Trainspotting author) Irvine Welsh was a stranger to an environment where drugs were available, and Bukowski, I’m sure he did sleep with a lot of women – if I may be so bold to even remotely put myself in the same Venn diagram as those guys, I would be lying if I said I didn’t draw on my personal experience. But I think all writers do that, I don’t think that’s a big surprise or shock.’
Let’s just hope this visit to Southsea ends on a better note than a previous visit – after a gig at The Wedgewood Rooms, Shappi accidentally locked herself in the toilet of nearby pub, Duke of Devonshire.
‘Oh no,’ she groans, ‘I saw the story in The News, they wrote: “I didn’t know who she was until I Googled her afterwards”. It was very funny.
‘That’s on a par with the guy who stopped me in the street and asked to take a photo of me, then said: “I don’t know who you are, but I’m sure my brother might”. He just recognised me from telly, but he didn’t know if I was a comic or a TV vet or a news reader.
‘These little things they just make my head swell up so big I get stuck in the toilet.’
n Shappi Khorsandi is at The Wedgewood Rooms in Southsea on Sunday, September 25. Doors open 7.30pm. Tickets £15. Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk or call (023) 9286 3911.