Grace in Defeat

I detest being nominated for awards. I,MIGRANT was nominated for two awards this year, and hearing about the nominations brought me no joy. Not because I'm a grumbling, whinging, curmudgeon (which I am), but because I know the book isn't good enough to win. I like it, I'm proud of bits of it, but I know that compared to the other books it was up against in both awards, it would come up short. Nothing wrong with being realistic.

But nominations play with your mind. You can know you have no chance of winning, but a tiny part of your brain is already spending the prize money. Given that the actual winners of both awards donated all their winnings to charity, and I would have probably bought new pants and then spent the rest on sweet wine and premium imported Chorizo, it's probably a good thing I lost anyway. 

The NSW Premier's Literary Award, I wasn't even that interested in (although the prize money was significantly large). The category I was nominated in was "Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW" which basically sounds like something made up specifically to justify nominating their cousin for, and then used the other nominees to make it seem legit. But I was proud to be nominated for the Russell Prize for Humour in Writing, because that's kinda my category. I knew Bernard Cohen would win from the start and he donated all his winnings to children's charities, so a class act all around and I feel the universe unfolded exactly the right way, just this once. 

(Do I protest too much? Fuck off. This is me being cool and gracious, just go with it.)

In the mean time, I was asked to prepare an acceptance speech in case something went horribly wrong and I actually won. I couldn't be at the ceremony, so I wrote it for my editor and literary patron, Richard Walsh, to read. I hate the thought of wasting a bit of funny writing, so here you go. The actual acceptance speech that Richard is probably grateful to not have to read:

'Look, lets be honest, I'm not going to win this thing. The other nominees are far funnier and far better known than I am, plus the rest of them are probably in attendance even.

'But, on the minuscule off chance that all the judges forgot their medicines on the day they rendered their judgement, then misspelled someone else's name so terribly it looked like mine, here's my acceptance speech. Although frankly, I think even asking me to write one is an act of sadism, because I'm obviously not going to win. But just in case I do, I suppose I should say something using Richard's vocal chords. Which is a really weird power to have, by the way. Like, he has to read anything I say, right now, if he is to faithfully discharge the responsibility given to him.

'So, for example, I can make Richard say, "Sami is the brightest light in the literary firmament of 21st Century Australia", and he has to say it. Did you say it Richard? Someone tweet me and tell me if he did. Oh, and someone tweet me and tell me if I won. Don't tweet me if I didn't. Because lets be honest, I won't. But in case I do, tweet me. And tell me if Richard made me sound truly grateful and gracious when I make him say that this book wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for him in the first place. And for all the wonderful and charitable word-addicts over at Allen & Unwin who pushed it and promoted it and sold it and did all the things to get it in people's hands that they really shouldn't have, had they any concern for the well being of the average Australian. Still, it's out there, it's actually won something by mistake, which you totally can't take back now!

'Can you?

'Well, it doesn't matter anyway, because it's not going to win. But in case it does, thank you.'

RUN! THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING!

What is an 'Average Muslim'? Is the guy in a balaclava carrying a Kalashnikov and a bag full of heads an 'Average Muslim?' Or is it the sweet man who lives next door to me, with 3 kids and a friendly wife? How do we identify them? Classify them? Defeat them in battle? Prevent them from forming into a single, mega Kaiju-Muslim?

I can't provide all the answers, but I can help with some of your queries.

Excerpt: I, PERVERT

Been trying to figure out what to post here. Anyone can read the prologue by clicking on the Amazon or Goodreads previews, I think. So instead, I thought I'd paste one of my favorite portions of the book here.

  

I’ve always had a strange relationship with porn. I talk about porn in my standup, but then you’d be hard-pressed to find a comedian who doesn’t. When I first started writing jokes about porn and masturbation, I genuinely thought I was breaking new ground - a perverted Neil Armstrong sticking his penis into the moonscape of Pakistan’s collective unconscious. It was only after moving to Australia and meeting other comedians in open-mics and comedy clubs that I realized how ubiquitous a topic porn is. Male comedians, at least, rarely consider their set complete without a healthy ten-minute chunk on masturbation. But, in my solitary experience as a standup comic in Pakistan, I was convinced that I was challenging the status quo in some way.

     I received an email from an Australian once that showed me how strangely the rest of the world perceives Pakistani attitudes towards sex. This was around that time when I had been invited to attend the comedy festival on Sydney Harbour. Until the Australian embassy decided the national security of their nation could not be risked by allowing a skinny Pakistani comedian entry, a poster with my name and email address had been plastered all over the festival website. Most of the emails I received were fairly sweet and innocuous - sincerely surprised Australians writing to tell me they didn’t realize there was standup comedy in Pakistan, which is a reasonable reaction.

Then I got one from a woman that convinced me people outside Pakistan have no idea about the country. The writer had followed a link to a YouTube clip of me performing some of my searingly innovative porn-based comedy in a Lahore college auditorium. She wrote: “I didn’t realize Pakistanis had sex.”

     First, let me dispel any further confusion: Pakistanis do, indeed, have sex. We do not rely on some black market cloning technology for reproduction purposes, nor do we spawn from magical pools of amniotic goo, like the Orcs in Lord of the Rings. Indeed, some Pakistanis have quite a bit of sex. Others not as much as they would like to. The men have sex with women; the women have sex with men (although I doubt their experience is anywhere near as satisfying). Sometimes the men even have sex with other men, although discussing or acknowledging that probability is actively discouraged.

In rare cases (but not rare enough), they have happily stuck it in animals as well. Some years ago, the national newspapers reported on a man being discovered in the act of lovemaking with a donkey. Unfortunately, the donkey belonged to his neighbour. Because this took place in a village, a tribal council was quickly convened and both the man and the donkey were judged guilty of dishonouring themselves. The donkey was, in keeping with rural customs, killed; the man escaped. I wish I was making some of this up - I remember being quite depressed about the poor donkey’s tragic death, although not as depressed as the man must have been.

Social and governmental prohibitions have tried desperately to limit and control all discussion of sex. Pakistan has an extremely Victorian sensibility about the carnal acts: while we are aware that people regularly get naked and push their genitals against each other, we don’t think it’s something that we need to be reminded of. Much like nose picking, sex should be done in private - preferably at home, with no one watching. And never in the car.

All attempts at censorship are a futile enterprise though. Lust, particularly male lust, runs to depths that can never be plumbed. Women may think they have an idea of how deep it goes, but they don't. Even we men don't. Our hunger for sex goes so deep, it frightens even us - past where even the light can reach, below basic lechery and urges, below even the fetishes and standard deviations, it is at such a depth that the pressures crush all comprehension and coherent thought. That is where monsters dwell. Horny creatures that can never be catalogued, nor understood. Frightful denizens of our lusty ocean floor. And so, even in the most constricting of societies, sex finds a way.

  

All the way up to the late 80s, sex was cut out of every Hollywood movie before the Pakistani public could be trusted to view it. Not even a kiss made it through the censors. The hero and heroine would lean towards each other, lips parting and eyes closing… Then suddenly they were enjoying a post-coital cigarette. What happened in between was a mystery. However, extreme violence was left uncensored. We were believed to be more capable of dealing with a heart being pulled out of a man's chest than lips brushing. That is why we Pakistanis are quick to violence and slow to love.

While I was growing up, there were barely two TV channels to watch. One was the state-run channel, PTV, which was fanatically regulated. During the dictatorship of Zia Ul Haq, a woman couldn't appear on screen without her head covered with a modesty-exuding shawl. Even in dramas that included scenes of women waking up from sleep, the characters apparently went to bed with scarves firmly fastened around their heads.

Then, during Benazir Bhutto's prime ministership, the shawls loosened; as they moved further back on the head, puffs of hair emerging from underneath. When the more conservative government of Nawaz Sharif followed shortly afterwards, the shawls crawled back up to their original places. It got so that you could tell who was in power by the way the PTV female newscasters wore their hijabs.

The other channel at this time only broadcast in the evenings but, when it debuted in 1990, it was seen as a revolution in TV programming. The entertainment-deprived children of Pakistan got to watch a half-hour of cartoons, uninterrupted. Every day brought us the adventures of anthropomorphic warrior cats or space-faring cowboys, followed by ancient British comedies and topped off with an hour of the most notorious failures in US drama history.

But we were not ungrateful. To us, shows like Manimal (a man who fought crime by changing into either a panther or a falcon), The Wizard (a midget who built toys that always matched his adventurous needs perfectly) and Street Hawk (like Airwolf, except with a motorcycle) were the greatest things we had ever seen. We spent hours discussing the practical logistics of how Manimal could change into an elephant if need be; to this day if you see any motorcyclist driving too fast in Pakistan, people refer to him as a "Street Hawk".

Years later, when the internet informed me that these shows were actually considered failures in America, I felt betrayed. While American children were watching better shows with better stories and better heroes, we had been tossed the damaged and expired stuff. Much of the breakdown in Pakistan and American diplomacy can be traced to this unhealed wound in our collective psyche.

Then satellite dishes erupted in our socio-cultural landscape. Within a few months, every household I knew had installed a large fibreglass bowl with an antenna sticking out the middle. All of a sudden television had become the centrepiece of a cultural revolution. CNN and BBC broadcast 24-hour news that gave us the outside world's perspective on Pakistan; music channels taught us Pop, Rap, Rock and R&B; and Indian channels showed us the enemy was just like us (in that they also watched terrible soap operas about the endless wars between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws).

And then there was Baywatch.

Given what I have just said about the depths of our collective sexual frustration, the effect of those swimsuit-clad buxom bombshells shouldn't come as a surprise. Overnight, Pamela Anderson and her cohorts jiggled and bounced their way into our lives. Parents suddenly had to vigilantly guard children from the television, and children had to guard against their parents catching them watching said television. Moral authorities were up in arms and, if the shrill panic in every social moderator’s voice was to be believed, we were on the brink of societal collapse, brought about by slow-motion jogging. The impact on us teenagers - struggling to stay focused on impending examinations - was catastrophic. We couldn't have been more distracted if we had been told to solve differential equations in a strip club. In unison, Pakistani boys tossed aside their textbooks and grabbed their penises.

For me, Pamela Anderson’s arrival was almost perfectly timed to coincide with the discovery of masturbation. It was all my friends and I talked about - endless discussions, conducted in hushed tones during lunch breaks at school, as we reverentially shared fabricated wisdom with each other. We were in the throes of puberty and all around us girls were sprouting breasts.

Unfortunately for the boys, we countered those wondrous mutations with itchy underarms and painfully constant erections. For us it was torture; for the girls, as far as we could tell, it was highly amusing. And so every day, during lunch break, we would form a protective huddle and talk about the single greatest shared achievement in our lives.

"I read in my dad's medical books that every time you masturbate you lose a pint of blood," expounded one boy. His father was a doctor, and so he was our resident authority on all medical matters. "That means if you masturbate more than twice a day, you could die."

"Fuck," said another with a look of horror on his face, "I masturbated four times last night."

"You should have orange juice quickly," offered the medical expert.

"You know, if you masturbate more than a hundred times in your life, you get AIDS," announced another prodigy. This was followed by a long moment of silence as each boy did some panicked maths.

Finally, I worked up the nerve to ask, "What's AIDS?"

"Oh, it's a disease that makes you gay. And everyone you touch becomes gay as well."

"Shit," said another. "I think my cousin has AIDS then. He plays with dolls."

"Don't touch him," we advised.

And so on. Each day brought some new bit of information about how masturbation could kill you and each night we all worked hard at separating fact from myth. By the end of seventh grade, had the stories been true, my school would have been struck by an epidemic that attacked only boys, leaving them emaciated husks who played with dolls, had fur on their palms and penises that had been worn down to tiny withered nubs.

Back then we had no easy access to pornography. This was still a pre-internet world, in which porn was hard to acquire and hoarded jealously when gained. For two years after I turned 11, I owned one single porn film - a VHS I had received from a friend whose house was not porn-safe, due to a father who didn't respect the privacy-needs of his pubescent son. I watched that tape over and over, night after night. By the time I was 13, I knew every grunt and squeal by heart.

When I found myself growing bored with the single VHS porno I possessed, I asked friends for more; but no one was ready to surrender theirs. So I drew some.

I’ve always enjoyed drawing. Having discovered comic books years before, I had filled many sketchbooks with detailed renderings of muscular heroes eye-blasting alien menaces while scantily clad women pranced around them. As I grew more and more desperate for something new to inspire my masturbation, I realized that the scantily clad women were a great deal more fun to draw than the muscular hero or his enemy. Except, that is, for when I drew the muscular hero and the scantily clad woman having sex.

I filled page after page with carnal battles. I would draw late into the night, studiously mastering the rules of anatomy and musculature for my own deviant purposes. Within a few weeks I had several hundred pages filled with graphite copulations - thick sketchbooks crammed inside my cupboard drawers under a camouflage of socks and underwear. And if I had left them there, everything would have been all right.

I’ll admit to pride. There was definitely some of that involved in my decision to take those drawings to school and show them off to my friends. I thought they were really damned good works of art. The shading and tonal values in some of them were beyond anything I had done up to that point.

But there was also genuine altruism involved. I actually thought I had come up with a solution to our porn deficit. If someone comes up with a viable alternative to fossil fuel, would that person not want to share their discovery with the world? I simply wanted to provide much-needed relief to the pornographic famine we were suffering. So I stuffed the drawings into my school bag and took them with me ... On the same day that the teachers announced a random bag check.

They hadn’t been tipped off. It’s not like someone had warned them about a teenage boy smuggling contraband smut into the classroom. No, it was just bad luck on my part. Terrible luck, really. Someone had stolen someone else’s brand-new pocket calculator; the victim had complained to the principal. The principal had asked the teacher to announce a surprise bag check.

Three teachers walked into our class and asked us all to put our bags up on the desk. Then they went to each bag, took every book out, held the bag upside down and shook it. Pages and pages of drawings depicting sexual acts in explicit detail tumbled out of my bag, fluttering to the ground like autumnal leaves.

My mother was called in. We sat together in the principal’s office, she glaring at me as he laid the illustrations out on the table.

“What is this?” he asked.

“Michelangelo drew naked people,” I protested.

“Yes, but not doing it,” he replied.

My mother confiscated all my drawing pencils, took all my comic books and told me I wouldn’t be allowed to close the door to my room until I was 70 years old. I was suspended from school for a week. At the end of that week, I was expelled.

There are details from this dark episode that still stab at me occasionally. Jagged shards of memory that poke through the haze of time and fill me with shame and regret. The staring, wide eyes of the girl seated two rows behind me as I was escorted out of the class by an astonished teacher clutching a bundle of pages. I was going to confess my feelings for this classmate that very day – I’d been working up the nerve to do so for months. The plan was to slip her a small note with I LIKE YOU. DO YOU LIKE ME? written on it during recess. That note was lost in the cascade of incriminating pages.

I remember calling up one of my closest friends the day after and his mother answering the phone: “He’s not allowed to talk to you anymore. I don’t think anyone should let their children talk to a pervert like you,” she said.

My mother crying as she told my father over the phone what had happened. I remember thinking about suicide. When you’re 13 and you find yourself without friends or even a school, the future seems quite bleak.

I didn’t kill myself. Probably didn’t even think about it more than once with any degree of seriousness. I don’t even think I stopped masturbating for too long. Two months later, I was admitted into another school. I made new friends and collected new comics. It wasn’t long before I even trained myself to forget the whole thing had happened.

The only real evidence of trauma showed itself when, a year after starting at the new school, the teachers announced a surprise bag-check. Someone’s brand-new pocket calculator had been stolen - I suppose there was a massive underground black market for stolen pocket calculators in Karachi in the early 1990s. The contents of my bag that day were nothing more than a few textbooks and probably a Hardy Boys Casefiles, but the moment it was my turn to hand the bag over to the teacher, I started shivering and sweating like a Vietnam War veteran suffering flashbacks while watching Platoon.

“Are you okay?” the teacher asked as she handed my bag back to me.

“Yes, miss,” I replied, then excused myself to go vomit in the toilet.

Years later, Pakistan was blessed with internet pornography. No more were our masturbatory needs limited by scarcity of supply. In the early days of dialup connections, we used to have to sit and stare at a single picture loading slowly on a flickering monitor. Then video clips appeared online and internet speeds grew, so that the gap between clicking and relieving was minimal. People without internet access in their homes would go to cybercafés, gasping and sighing in the privacy of small booths fitted with all the necessities - computer, mouse, chair … and a box of tissues. It was a glorious time. Porn DVDs could be bought in video stores with a nod and a wink.

I once walked into a store near my house intending to buy a new horror movie DVD, and the man behind the counter nodded for me to come closer as he took the money.

“You look,” he said with a salesman’s grin, “like the kind of man who watches porn.”

When I got home I stared at my face in the mirror, trying to see what it was about my features that tipped him off.

But then Pakistan changed again. In 2012, during a fit of religious cleansing, the government declared a ban on all porn sites. It was decided that internet pornography was ruining the “youth of the nation”. Clearly, no one bothered to ask the “youth of the nation” their opinion on all this. Soon, dedicated teams of cyber-censors catalogued and then blocked all the online smut. Pakistan males frantically scoured the web, hoping with each new browser refresh that they would be faced with a wall of questionable thumbnails and a gallery of sad people fornicating sadly, only to be met time and time again by the hateful THIS SITE IS RESTRICTED.

The effectiveness of the ban on online porn was enhanced by the hard work and dedication shown by a fifteen-year-old boy who gave the censors a list of over 780,000 websites that he claimed to have personally checked. For a fifteen year old to have done so without being reduced to a smouldering husk is, no doubt, some kind of epic feat that defies human physiology. Unfortunately, what he accomplished so proudly at 15, he no doubt came to regret deeply when he turned 18. History will remember him as one of the greatest villains mankind has ever known and only in his later years will he truly appreciate the damage that he wrought. Modern man is not equipped to deal with a world in which he has to make do with imagination alone. I tried. It was all in black and white.

Fortunately for me, I moved to Australia a few months after the ban took full effect. Sometimes I wonder if that was one of the motivations to get out of Pakistan. After all, with my personal history, whenever I masturbate to porn, I’m doing it to get revenge on society.

  

  

I, MIGRANT is available in bookstores across Aus & NZ now.

I wrote a book - I,MIGRANT

So yeah, that happened. If you live in Australia & NZ, this is available in bookshops right now:

Here's a summary of the book (as taken from the publisher's website):

Despite nearly being killed by a kangaroo and almost lynched and run out of town after his comedy was taken far too seriously, Sami Shah is very happy to be living in Australia. He has fronted his own satirical show on TV in Karachi, worked as a journalist and been a highly regarded newspaper columnist - all dangerous occupations to be involved in - when the combination of seeing the aftermaths of a devastating bomb attack and being the target of death threats convinced him to leave Pakistan. Under the terms of their Australian migration visa, Sami and his wife and young daughter were obliged to settle in a rural area, and so they moved to Northam in Western Australia.

Now Sami is battling a crippling addiction to meat pies, but at least is no longer constantly mistaken for an escaped asylum seeker from the nearby detention centre. He has also been the star of Australian Story, the subject of an article in The New York Times, and has performed countless comedy shows to ever-growing and appreciative audiences.

I, Migrant tells the hilarious and moving story of what it's like to leave the home you love to start a new life in another country so your child can be safe and grow up with a limitless future. Australia is lucky to have Sami Shah. Read I, Migrant, and laugh till you cry.

A raw, funny and inspiring tale which reminds us that even in the debris of a roadside bomb in Karachi a joke springs eternal. Sometimes a laugh is our best hope.
— Wendy Harmer
Up there with Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist – a searing look at what’s wrong with Pakistan through the eyes of a very funny young man. But holy Jesus, what’s this? He turns that scalpel-edged humour on Australia too – Tony Abbott, take note.’
— Paul McGeough, foreign correspondent and author of Kill Khalid, and Infernal Triangle
Sami Shah holds up a mirror to the dark place our country has come to, and the reflection is touching, confronting, and very, very funny. Walk a mile in this man’s shoes – they’re very
comfortable. Buy this book.
— Senator Scott Ludlam