Caro Meets Comedy Interview

Sajeela Kershi: Immigrant Diaries and Shallow Halal

By | Published on Thursday 26 November 2015


You know, I have been meaning to try and chat to Sajeela Kershi for a while now, and here’s the perfect excuse: upcoming performances of her guest-driven storytelling show ‘Immigrant Diaries’, as well as imminent dates to see her solo show ‘Shallow Halal’.
So, without further ado, I put some questions to the critically acclaimed stand up comedian, to find out more about both shows, and what to expect from her in the future.

CM: It’s been happening off and on for a while now, I realise, but can you tell us a bit about ‘Immigrant Diaries’? What happens in it?
SK: Yes, I’ve been doing versions of ‘Immigrant Diaries’ at the Brighton, Edinburgh, Manchester and Leicester Fringes, as well as at Southbank, Womad and the House of Lords. It’s a storytelling show where guests from the world of comedy, entertainment and beyond tell true stories from their lives or their family experiences.

As host, I weave my own narrative throughout, as I come from a family of nomadic immigrants: my grandparents were refugees from pre-partition India, my parents emigrated to Germany from Pakistan, then we travelled with them through Europe, and my parents finally settled in the UK, arriving with three children and 3000 cigarettes in the back of a ‘Scooby Doo’ van.

CM: What inspired you to begin the show? Do you have any specific aims, anything you want to achieve with it?
SK: It was born out of anger and frustration; it was the year of the Olympics, and there was a wonderful atmosphere! London was full of visitors from all over the world. I was in Edinburgh – another city full of performers and visitors from all over the world – and then I returned from the Fringe to a barrage of anti-immigration press – wtf!? And I realised that I too was seen as part of the problem.

I was ranting and raving to a friend about how statistics don’t tell the story of immigrants, people do! And there it was, a germ of an idea for a show. I’m so lucky I have a platform, and of course I want to make a difference with my work, otherwise what is the point? ‘Immigrant Diaries’ is an opportunity to try and change opinions, to show the human side of these media buzzwords – ‘immigrants’, ‘refugees’, ‘asylum seekers’.

The audience connect to the true stories, and they resonate, as we have can all relate to the themes that run through the shows, like generational gaps between family members, not fitting in, relationships, the usual rites of passage. We might have different stories, but the emotions we feel around these things are the same. Its blown me away how well the audience connect to these true stories.

CM: Immigration is clearly a very hot topic at the moment – do you think a show like this can have any tangible effect on the way people think about it?
SK: Unfortunately, I think our obsession with immigration/refugees et al is not likely to go any time soon…. we never really properly debate and resolve anything, but we do LOVE to just go on about it.

This show has definitely made a difference in its own small way. Audience feedback has been positive, and the stories humanise people in the context of the immigrant experience. On the surface, it may appear we have very little in common but it’s our shared experiences that show us how similar we actually are. ‘Immigrant Diaries’ attracts a very diverse audience, from every race, class, age, background – it’s incredible, as I’ve never done a show like this. The common thread is that they either like the sound of the show or they have an opinion either side of the immigration debate and curiosity brings them to watch. Audience members have told me how they feel the show takes away the fear of ‘otherness’, and that they find it educational, informative, entertaining and funny. The guests are always approached after the shows with audience members wanting to share their own stories, or with questions like ‘what happened next?’.

CM: Can you tell us what to expect from the upcoming editions?
SK: Awesome guests – we have actress and producer Shobu Kapoor, writer comedian of ‘Horrible Histories’ fame Dave Cohen, and comedian/actor Inder Manocha for 3 Dec. On 22 Jan I’ll be joined by comedian Shappi Khorsandi and film maker Amir Amirani, who’s the director of the most important film of our times about the anti Iraq war march ‘We are Many’. Very current, given the air strikes in Syria – it’s as though we haven’t learned a thing!

All my guests will have unique and fascinating stories to share, and we may even try and include some contemporary true refugee stories, as these stories have yet to be heard, and if the refugees themselves can’t tell them, I’d like us to tell the world. It’s important that we see the real people behind the media headlines.

CM: You’ve hosted many fabulous guests so far – have there been any special highlights?
SK: I’m amazed by the support and talent that ‘Immigrant Diaries’ has attracted. I’m so eternally grateful to all my guests, and my original co-host Sameena Zehra, who’ve all been so kind and supportive, and really get what the show is attempting to achieve.

We’ve had Hollywood legend Stephen Tobolowsky share an amazing story in Edinburgh while Paul Sinha really moved the audience to tears when it was his turn. Nikki Bedi gave us a beautiful insight into straddling two cultures and Holby City Actress Jing Lusi told a beautiful, moving story about feeling like the outsider and the long term impact that leaves. MTV presenter Kristiana Backer talked about her conversion to Islam – gosh, so, so many wonderful guests and fascinating stories: to mention them all I’d run out of column inches.

The December show has three of my regular storytellers. Many of my guests will come back and do the the show again, and they are part of the team, the movement of immigrant diaries if you like, who also share the goal to try and create a more positive dialogue about immigrants/refugees.

CM: You also have some performances of your solo show ‘Shallow Halal’ coming up – can you tell us a bit about that? What topics and themes do you explore?
SK: I’d like to think ‘Shallow Halal’ is almost a sister show to ‘Immigrant Diaries’ – where ID deals with the hot topic of immigration, SH deals with faith, another contentious media subject. The show is quite interactive, because early on in previews I noticed that audiences were constantly putting hands up to ask questions, or staying after the show to talk to me: I’d never experienced anything like it – I just couldn’t get through my material – and I realised that people really want to talk about these things, yet they don’t have the opportunity to do so.

So by the time of the Edinburgh Fringe run I had incorporated that audience curiosity into the show. ‘Shallow Halal’ almost picks up where I leave my story in ‘Immigrant Diaries’. I look at my relationship with my faith growing up – I was always questioning the existence of god, trying to find religious loopholes at eight years of age, thinking I was getting one over the big guy. I mention how I covet other faiths who look like they have more fun.

At the heart of the show is my relationship with my own family, and how that informs my views on faith and the world. But yes, of course I refer to extremists. I’ve been held hostage at gunpoint by terrorists, and you never ever forget that! But in this show, I tell a true Taliban hostage story about a family member, which is very funny… this is the thing, you see – why are we referring to terrorists as ‘masterminds’ or ‘ring leaders’ or giving them titles that elevate them into heroes for other wannabe Jihadis? We should be mocking them, ridiculing their ideas, and taking their power away from them. I wanna hear kiss and tell stories from exes, who tell us how shit these men were in bed, or how small their willies are, and how they cried like babies after prematurely ejaculating. Surely that’s more likely to deter other young men from joining these groups?

CM: Our reviewer in Edinburgh loved the show, and your performance. Has it changed or developed in any way since the summer?
I’m so glad your reviewer like ‘Shallow Halal’ – I loved the review, so thank you. I was very lucky in Edinburgh as I had lovely reviews throughout, and great audience feedback, so I hope I can do the same in London.

I do have to refer to the Paris attacks, of course, so I’m hoping I can still maintain the positive message the show had in Edinburgh. I wrote the bulk of the show post Charlie Hebdo, so it feels right to now include my feelings about these horrific events.

CM: Do you expect ‘Immigrant Diaries’ to keep going?
SK: Unfortunately, while all the anti immigration/refugee hysteria remains, I think ‘Immigrant Diaries’ needs to carry on helping to maintain the balance, and offer a more positive antidote.

CM: What’s next for you?
SK: Ever since uni days I’ve been obsessed with the East/West conflict, orientalism, faith, identity and women’s rights, so my next show is going to be about the kick-arse women in my family.

The catalyst was when my beautiful, wonderful, grand-aunt passed away the night I returned from Edinburgh. She was an incredible woman; not what western feminists would call empowered, yet in her own way she was. The other inspiration if you is the film ‘Suffragette’ and the conspicuous absence of any women of colour in it.

At the moment the working title is ‘Sharia’s L.A.W’ (Little Asian Women), but I might need to change that, as I want the focus to be on women, and celebrate all the unsung heroines in all our families: every family boasts a little strong woman. I want to big them up. Lets see what happens, though, I have barely started writing it yet!

‘Immigrant Diaries’ is on at Leicester Square Theatre on 3 Dec and 22 Jan, and Sajeela performs ‘Shallow Halal’ at the same venue on 4 Dec and 23 Jan. See this page here for info on the former, and this page here for info on the latter.