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Ali Hassan normalizes Islam to the unfamiliar through laughter in ‘Muslim, Interrupted’

By Jonathan Crane

Ali Hassan reflects on his experience as a cultural Muslim on Western Canada run.
Photo: Riaz K Photography

CALGARY — A title like Muslim, Interrupted is bound to attract raised eyebrows in the current social climate, particularly when it’s attached to a stand-up comedy show.

When CBC personality Ali Hassan, the show’s creator, brought it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this past summer, the title had to be changed to Man, Interrupted for fear that the original name might dissuade too many people from attending.

Hassan is fully aware of the politically charged nature of both the title and the content, but for him comedy is a tool that can address the unease, or questions that people have towards Islam while still being entertaining.

“Sometimes in comedy it’s easy to just come in with the superficial laughs, which is great, but the best comedians in my mind are the ones who really challenge the way you think,” says Hassan.

Originally from Fredericton, N.B., Hassan didn’t actually identify as Muslim for a large part of his life.

“I didn’t pay any attention to it really, it wasn’t a guiding factor, it wasn’t a factor in my life, never mind guiding, it just wasn’t part of my life,” says Hassan.

“I had friends who were Muslims, who were Sikhs, who were Hindu, who were Christians, and religion didn’t really come out.”

“I knew what their religion was, and I knew what religion I was born into but it didn’t play any role in driving me in the decisions I made.”

It was the events of 9/11 that changed this.

“I mean, ‘Ali Hassan’ is going to be regarded as a Muslim, so I figured I might as well embrace it and find in Islam what I like, what I can take from it, what makes me a better person.”

He tells of one event in particular, the night of 9/11, that brought this into focus. He was out walking with two brown friends on Division Street in Chicago, and casually nodded to two strangers they passed.

“They didn’t nod back, they just sort of looked at me, and then as we kept walking, I hear one guy say to the other, ‘There goes a couple of them right now.’

“I didn’t even know what that meant at first, then I walk about 20 feet and I go, ‘Wait a minute, did you just hear what they just said?’ Like, I’d never experienced that. I’d heard, ‘Go back home, paki,’ and this kind of stuff in Canada, I’ve faced that, but that’s different.

“That’s not the same, that’s not being public enemy number one. This was like there go a couple of them, there go the reason that this happened to our country, they’re guilty by association those guys.”

Hassan currently sees himself as being a “cultural Muslim.” Although he identifies as a Muslim he doesn’t strictly practice the tenets of the faith.

Still, the change of identity has brought new questions and challenges into his life.

“I have children who go to school with other Muslim kids, so the kids are like, ‘Are you Muslim?’

“And my kids will go, ‘Yeah,’ and they’ll be like, ‘How come you don’t go to mosque, and my kids come home and go, ‘How come we don’t go to mosque?’

“I’m like ‘ah, shit I don’t have the answers for you.’ I just figured out my own shit 10 years ago, I don’t know how to help them.”

This is essentially the backdrop of Muslim, Interrupted – a reflection of trying to guide both his own spirituality and that of his children.

Although some of the jokes come from routines he’s performed throughout his career, the content in each show is dynamic. According to Hassan it has to be, because the challenges Muslims face are constantly changing.

“I didn’t think Trump stood a chance at all,” he says.

“And so now with [President] Trump, I think how weird would it be that a Muslim guy does a show and doesn’t mention Trump, so I have to add new material.”

Using the show to address the rhetoric of Trump is important because, as Hassan points out, the same sentiments are often seen here in Canada.

“There’s a mosque coming up in a town, and somebody starts going, ‘If the mosque comes up in this city then they’re going to install Sharia law,’ and this kind of thing,” says Hassan.

“And it’s like, ‘But dude, look around Canada,’ has that ever happened before? Is there any town in Canada that is guided by Sharia law?”

Hassan acknowledges that these people probably won’t be coming to his show. However, he has noticed that the majority of his audience is comprised of people who are most likely not Muslim, and being able to bring a Muslim voice to this group with every performance is ultimately where the significance of Muslim, Interrupted lies.

“The best thing I’ve been hearing from people is the show was funny and it was important,” says Hassan.

Ali Hassan brings Muslim, Interrupted to Festival Place in Edmonton on January 19th, Arts Commons in Calgary on January 20th (two shows), Winterruption Festival in Saskatoon on January 21st, Artesian Theatre in Regina on January 22nd and Chutzpah Festival in Vancouver on February 24th.

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