Friday, March 23

An Evening with Ali Click for more info

Like I wrote in my previous post, I didn't really know much about Ali and Ummah Films before I arrived to The Great Hall this evening. In fact it was worse than this: I actually thought I was going to see someone else (clearly all these Muslim comics look the same to me), and when I finally realised who it really was, I was a bit disappointed. You see, I've never been able to make it through a whole Ummah Film short. It's not that I don't find them funny, because I do to an extent. It's more that I didn't find them saying anything new or original.

But I had come to see Imperial anyway, so I felt that it wouldn't be a total waste of a visit if I stayed for Ali too. There is a following so I always accepted that it was my grumpy and cynical side stopping me from enjoying this stuff, although the fact that young women made up the majority of the audience was kinda interesting.

The format of the show was to show us two published videos, two yet to be seen anywhere videos, and then to finish off with a question and answer session. Taking the videos in order, we were shown:

  • Muslim While Flying: This was quite funny, if not entirely easy to relate to. I don't think I've ever been stopped multiple times when flying, and when I have it genuinely has been random (in that people all around me were being stopped too). I liked the "things not to do" bit; I often wonder why people wear the red rags that are Islamic "humour" t-shirts.
  • Muslim Characters at Work: Again, this had a few moments that made me laugh out loud. But also again, I found it difficult to relate to. The things Ali describes in this video just doesn't happen here. Or at least not to me; perhaps I've been fortunate enough to only meet people in the work place who aren't afraid to wear their respective religions on their sleeves.
  • Marriage and Parents: I found myself laughing less and frowning more. We were back on the "parents force their kids to marry their cousins ha ha" trip, material not seen in the UK since the good ol' (read with a thick sense of sarcasm please) Goodness Gracious Me days. Cliched and derivative, I hoped that it was a once off; I'm even sure I noticed a contradiction in the message as he told us to not marry within culture (and so to ask parents for a choice) while saying some cultures weren't compatible (those of our parents in particular). Hmm.
  • The Pursuit of Cleanliness: At first, this made up for the previous video. However, I seemed to have become averse to Ali's style by this point - I was soon seeing past the comedy and through to what he was actually trying to say. I'm the first person to show concern at the lack of hygiene in public places, and although criticising fellow colleagues at work for not washing their hands might be funny, it's also quite isolationist at best and judgemental at worst. Either way it has little to do with the Islamic message that was being purported - that we should stay clean (erm, since we're pointing and laughing at the dirty white man, don't we do this already?). There was also the same lack of originality seen in the other videos (there's only so many times I can laugh at a makeshift lota water bottle with its label ripped off, and this is at least the third time). Still, I think this was my favourite video since it was the funniest, and judging by the crowds I wasn't alone. Toilet humour rocks then.
So no, the selection of videos didn't really change my opinion any. They each followed the same pattern of offering the situation, then the funnies, then the lecture and then ending with the moral of the story. If we look past the amusing window dressing it seems that all we're left with was basic preaching: with someone telling us what to do while, quite harshly, judging those that don't. Ironically it became pretty apparent just how conservative and culturally traditional Ali actually is, and the phrase "holier than thou" sprung to my mind more than once.

There was also a defensive, victim mentality to the videos, as if they were direct responses to accusations being made by non-Muslims everywhere. There were more than a few "if you think you have it bad, try being a Muslim" moments too.

I also felt that they just didn't relate to the situation Islam finds itself in the UK (or at the very least in London). For example, when was the last time someone here was asked what fiqh they followed? It just doesn't happen anymore - we resolved these basic things quite a while ago. And again, what with most major organisations having corporate Islamic Societies, how much of the work stuff applies to us here? It's more evidence of how how far we are over here, and as such some of the points made in the Ummah Films were pretty shallow. I imagine UK versions of these films to look quite different.

Still, Q&As are usually much more interesting, so perhaps there was still a chance for me to get some positives from today. And so it was this time too; we saw a more genuine Ali as he answered questions on the fly as well as the many other non-comedic layers that he had to offer too. It became clear that he had bags of good intent despite the lack of original thought (with respect to his message as well as material).

There was also no doubt that Ali is a funny and extremely charming guy. The girls certainly thought so, lapping up all he had to offer. It was especially worrying to hear the ladies applaud Ali suggesting to the men that we find wives that will best raise children while they're at work. If anyone else had said that, I'm pretty sure they'd be toast by now. Make a girl laugh and you can feed her anything it seems (is it getting hot in here?).

On the other hand I suspect that most guys (me excluded, of course) were hating on him. We've gotten away with not having to be funny for a while now, saying that it just isn't possible for Muslim guys to be so. Ali's totally blown that gentleman's agreement out of the water. Brilliant.

But even though the above seems pretty bad on the whole I must admit that, ultimately, I was impressed by Ummah Films and Ali. You see, I can't criticise him for his Islamic opinion since it's a perfectly valid one. I can't accuse him of not being that funny, since humour is subjective. Most of the negative comments above seem to stem from the fact that West Coast USA is a very different place to London, which is also fair enough.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that Ali has achieved a great deal with Ummah Films. The fact that he did it on his own and then without any prior experience is pretty amazing; to actually get off his lazy bum and do something, however easy that sounds, is an impressive feat - it's more than what I can hope to achieve anyway.

As a person, Ali shone. I honestly believe that if he read this he would do so without taking offence; that's the kind of humility, humbleness and honesty he demonstrated on the stage this evening. He's a profoundly inspiring chap too, talking about how a relatively small effort with the right intent can make a big difference almost automatically (or, more accurately, with the will of God).

So I think that my biggest criticism would in fact have to be aimed not at Ali but at us - the audience he was talking to. I could totally be underestimating the crowd tonight, but judging by some of the reactions displayed I have to wonder exactly how many were actually listening to what Ali had to say above all the laughter he was generating (see the example above where his opinion of the "right" type of woman to marry totally being disregarded. He also has some pretty interesting views on the hijab and the manner in and reasons for which a woman should wear it that have been "well received by the sisters" apparently). I sincerely hope that he doesn't become yet another halal pin-up whom we all champion blindly (confer Outlandish). That would almost certainly hinder his objective rather than help with it.

Even though I didn't really enjoy the stuff it has produced, there's definitely a place for Ummah Films in this journey Muslims are travelling on at the moment, and it shouldn't change anything in what it's doing. However, I don't think that it's most effective on its own; to be so it needs to share the stage with vividly differing opinion and methodology. And who knows? Perhaps then I'll also see it in a different light.