Beyond Belief

DAVID ALLEN/Zahra Noorbakhsh/Courtesy

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A Cal alum and a Bay Area stand-up comedian, Zahra Noorbakhsh is debuting her one-woman show "All Atheists are Muslim" at the Stage Werx Theatre in San Francisco this Sunday. The Daily Californian sat down with Zahra to talk about her new show, stand-up and Islam.

Daily Californian: Your comedy career started when you where a student at UC Berkeley. How did you go from being a Cal student to a stand-up comic?

Zahra Noorbakhsh: The first year that I was at Cal, I was a transfer student living at Clark Kerr. There was an open-mic night, and I had always wanted to do stand-up comedy ... and, well, William Hung was there, because he was in our same dorm. There was a ton of press for (him) ... And after he's done ... I went up and I just told stories about my family, and that was my first ever stand-up comedy experience.

DC: Your new show "All Atheists are Muslim" is about a young woman trying to convince her Islamic parents to allow her to move in with her white, atheist boyfriend. How much is fact?

ZN: 99 percent.

DC: How is a stand-up routine different from solo performance?

ZN: It's different in a lot of ways. One of the reasons I moved into solo is because it allows you to have a lot more room to say things that are meaningful, but that aren't necessarily funny. One of the hardest things in stand-up was that it was really difficult for me to just let myself talk about things that I was pissed off about that I hadn't found the humor in yet ... That's where my director, W. Kamau Bell, was really fantastic. (His San Francisco Solo Performance Workshop) was about saying what you where afraid to say, and building from that something that was personal and meaningful. People are always harping on "why aren't there more female comics?" There are plenty of phenomenal female comics, but we are just finding our way there also. It's still very hard to say what we feel-and growing up Muslim, (speaking out) was not something that was popular. And it's gotten so much worse now, surprisingly.

DC: Obviously there is a political or social agenda behind your comedy. Do you believe that what you are doing can really change people's minds?

ZN: This is the hope...I want to give Islam a face that is not these psychotic Taliban sociopaths.... I didn't choose that representation. And although they are not in any way the majority of the population- they become the majority. The majority is like me. And why aren't we represented more?

DC: Has anyone, any Muslim people, been offended by your comedy?

ZN: Yes, actually. It's tricky ... One thing that people don't realize is how hard it is to practice your religion when you're Muslim ... the whole fanfare of this country is around freedom of speech ... but it is just so difficult to practice (Islam) without it being scrutinized and political ... you don't want to be called out (as a Muslim) any more than you are already, so why would you go to a show that could possibly make fun of you? It's a delicate subject. I want them to come and celebrate in it with me ... It's supposed to be Muslim-friendly.

DC: What's next for you?

ZN: I would like to just keep performing. For long-term goals: I'd like to lift the embargo off Iran, get Fox News blown off the map (can I say that?) ... and just be another version of someone who is Muslim and who is Iranian and who feeds her cats and goes to the grocery store and has troubles with her boyfriend and argues with her parents, and is just trying to make it work.


Arielle is the lead theater critic. Contact her at alittle

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