Omid Djalili: ‘Immigration crisis’ might be one of the biggest lies we’ve ever fallen for

The British-Iranian comedic sensation Omid Djalili speaks to Teodor Reljic about the West’s cluelessness on migration, the irresistible comedy value of Donald Trump and the need to respond to current events with honesty and humour

Omid Djalili: being honest about what matters and taking that to its logical conclusion is an unquestionable part of his vocation
Omid Djalili: being honest about what matters and taking that to its logical conclusion is an unquestionable part of his vocation

The generous world of YouTube has given us access to myriad video content that would have been either hard or nearly impossible to get in Malta. And stand-up comedy is not exempt from this 21st century embarrassment of riches; and one of its shining stars is certainly the British-Iranian comic and actor Omid Djalili. 

While his face will have been familiar to us from blockbuster films like The Mummy (1999) and – even closer to home – the Malta-shot Gladiator (2000), for which he would later trenchantly confess to playing “Arab scumbag” parts, Djalili will also have been familiar to local stand-up comedy enthusiasts thanks to his side-splitting, and now somewhat iconic, Live at the Apollo show. 

Establishing him as a daring trickster of the highest order, the 2004 Apollo performance allowed Djalili to shamelessly tap into ethnic stereotypes (“What do you call an honest Iranian? Asif”), while also turning them on their head to expose the ignorance and hypocrisy – even if well-meaning – by some of his fellow Britons. 

But Djalili, who is often cast – significantly enough – as the bumblingly rotund comic relief in movies, does more than just caustic (geo) political humour. Happily, the Maltese can now boast of having hosted Djalili not once, but twice. Following his first appearance on the island last year – where he stopped by Eden Cinemas as part of his Iranala-madingdong tour – he will now return to St Julian’s for ‘Schmuck for a Night’ – taking place at the Intercontinental Area Conference Centre on December 10 and 11. 

Aided by his jovial physicality and a natural ability to craft belly-laugh moments – in his act, fart jokes co-exist alongside jabs at Iranian foreign policy – Djalili appeals to a broad audience simply because his grasp of comedy is broad… in the original sense of the word.

Which is probably part of the reason why he flinches a bit when I ask him how he, as the son of immigrants, processes the currently problematic juxtaposition between ‘immigrant’ and ‘terrorist’, and how this impacts on his work as a comedian.

“Goodness… I thought I was coming just to do shows, I didn’t realise there was an entrance examination! The last time I had to answer questions of this complexity I was trying to get into Cambridge,” he quips, before drawing on personal experience to provide some perspective of this contentious issue.

“As a child of immigrants, I never considered immigration a scary concept. What scares me is that people are so scared of it. ‘Immigration crisis’ is all I hear, everywhere. It might be one of the biggest lies we’ve ever fallen for. There is a crisis, yes. At the moment, a big one is in Syria. And you’d have to be nuts not to pack up and leave immediately,” Djalili says, adding that he “likes” the West’s attitude towards migrants because it’s so deceptively “neat”. 

“Very neat: start a war. Create refugees. Then demonise refugees. Make everyone frightened of them. And use that fear to control your own people. Genius.”

A readily understandable metaphor seals it: “It’s weird to me when people say ‘our country is full’ like they’re on a full life boat when the Titanic sank and are worried the people in the water came in the boat would sink and they’d all die.”

“By the way,” he hastens to add, “my show DOES have jokes.”

But some of these jokes may very well grow energized by current events… the fallout of the American election being chief among them, not least because the prospect of Donald Trump having such a powerful podium on the world stage has made people all over the world a tiny bit apprehensive, to put it mildly. As ever, Djalili remains sanguine in the face of this new development. 

“Scary is sometimes fun though. The guy who invented the roller coaster realised that. As fairground rides go Donald Trump is the mother of them all. Time to grab a pussy and strap in I think.”

But there’s something real about stand-up comedians responding to what’s happening around us at this very moment with an equal degree of urgency. For Djalili, being honest about what matters and taking that to its logical conclusion is an unquestionable part of his vocation.

“After 9/11 I did a whole show about it. I was amazed to hear I was the only comic in the world who did. Most comedians acknowledged it with a joke or two, but that was it. 9/11 affected everybody but we all react in different ways. That’s just how it is. Be prepared for comics everywhere to have at least one or two Trump jokes. The world is changing so fast I pray mine are still funny by the time I get to Malta.”

Omid Djalili will be performing at the Intercontinental Area Conference Centre, St Julian’s on December 10 and 11. The show is rated 16+. Bookings: