Tag Archives: Gaza

The journey of one scary Israeli lawyer from corset-wearer to stand-up comic

(This piece appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian site We Speak News)

Daphna Baram – comedian moved from corset to controversy

Yesterday seemed a good day to go see Miss D’s Silver Hammer, the weekly New Act comedy night in London’s Hammersmith, run by Israeli comedian Daphna Baram.

The death toll in Gaza had reached over 100.

Daphna started her career as a human right lawyer and a news editor on a paper in Jerusalem.

“Basically,” she explained to me last night, “I was representing Palestinians accused of security offences at military courts in the West Bank and Gaza. I was – still am – very political. But the only thing I liked about lawyering was performing. There was lots of performing. I had a robe, I was young and I felt like I was an actress.”

“So you were a frustrated comedian?” I asked.

“No,” said Daphna,” it never occurred to me for a minute. I never saw live comedy.”

She moved to the UK ten years ago but even then she was not particularly interested in comedy until something dangerous happened.

“When I was 39,” she told me, “I had a heart attack while I was at the gym, I was struggling with diabetes which was diagnosed when I was 37, I’d lost a lot of weight and was really sporty. I was running five times a week, I was looking like Lara Croft. I got to the hospital in a good shape, except for nearly dying.”

“So that was your Road to Damascus?” I said, choosing an unfortunate phrase.

“It was,” she agreed. “While the thing was happening, I was quite jolly and everybody in the ambulance was laughing and the doctors were laughing and I was cracking jokes all the time.

“Once I was in the ambulance and they said I was not going to die, I believed them. So I thought How can I get drugs here? This is an ambulance. They asked me Are you in pain? and I wasn’t but I said Yes I am and they gave me the morphine and the pre-med and everything. By the time I got to hospital, I was really happy and there was a really good-looking doctor waiting at the door.

“So I was in quite a good mood and they put a stent in my heart, but the next morning I woke up and started thinking Fuck me, I’m 39. I just had a heart attack. My life is over… I’m never going to have sex again, because people don’t want to have sex with women who have had heart attacks. What do you think when the woman starts twitching and breathing heavily and stiffening and her eyes widen? Do you keep doing what you’re doing or do you call an ambulance?

“At that time, both my best friends were getting married. One of them a week before the heart attack and one of them a month after. I did their wedding speeches, which went down really well; people were laughing. At the second wedding, there was one guest called Chris Morris who I’d never heard of because I knew nothing about comedy.

“He said to my friend Kit, the groom: Does she have an agent? And Kit said: Yes, I’m her personal manager. Chris Morris asked Is she doing it for a living? and Kit said No, but I think she might and then he was on my case.

“I’d just had a heart attack, I was turning 40, I felt I needed to do something creative, something new, perhaps write a book. But I’d already written a book in 2004 about the Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last hundred-and-something years.”

Daphna’s book on Israel: Disenchantment

The book is still available and Daphna writes occasionally for the Guardian on Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

“What’s happened in Israel this last week,” I suggested, “must be a joy for a comedian.”

“Normally,” she explained to me, “I open on Israel stuff about how aggressive we are and how I can kill and it kinda works with my persona which is quite authoritative. But the war broke the night I was in Glasgow and I did about ten minutes of just taking the piss, all the sex stuff, the fun stuff, the growing old stuff and being a reluctant cougar. Then I started talking about Israel and told a few jokes about that and people were not feeling uncomfortable about it.

“So I said Hold on, I want to stop for a minute because I have a lot of these self-deprecating jokes about Israel, but I’m feeling terrible telling them today, because my country has attacked Gaza, which is basically a massive prison surrounded by a wall. They are bombing them with F-16s jets and this will only stop if there is international intervention. The place is the size of Glasgow but without the drugs. I thought Obama was chosen to be the American President but, reading a statement that came out of the White House today, I realised it was really Mitt Romney. People were clapping – some of them were standing up and clapping. Then I went on to talk about pervy Englishmen and it went down really well.

“When that happens, you come out and you feel exhilarated. People laughed on the one hand, but also listened to what I had to say. Comedians want to be seen and heard. Maybe all of us were children who were not heard enough. Being in comedy is a little like being in prison or an asylum. Nobody is here for no good reason. Nobody stumbles into it by mistake. There’s something driving people to do it.

“I know one main thing which took me from lawyering to journalism to comedy was I need to be heard. I have opinions. I have thoughts. I need people to hear them. And I felt very ‘heard’ last week in Glasgow.”

“But you’re unlikely,” I said, “to do so well with Jewish audiences at the moment.”

“Well,” said Daphna, “there’s a website called the SHIT List. SHIT is an acronym for Self-Hating Israel-Threatening Jews. I think it came out around 2003. I’m on that list; my dad’s on that list; my uncle’s on that list.

“But Jews are not a homegenic crowd. Of course a vociferous majority both here and in America are very pro-Israel… Israel is like the phallic symbol of the Jewish nation. We’re the cool ones! We’re aggressive! We’re in your face! We don’t take shit from anybody! At the same time, we’re also embarrassing and rude. We’re a bit brutish. I think there is a dichotomy about the way British Jews feel about Israelis. Right wing Israelis who come here and speak can seem crass and sometimes people feel that they sound racist. There’s a feeling they don’t word it right.

Occasional Guardian articles…

“Leftie Jews come here and are quite critical of the Israeli government and some liberal Jews think You invoke anti-Semitism and you’re not even aware of it because you’re not even aware of anti-Semitism. And it’s true. We grow up in Israel where we kick ass and we’re the majority.

“There’s a lot of self-righteousness in Israel – a sense that we are right. But we have taken another people’s country and we don’t understand how come they don’t like it. That is probably my best joke ever, because it encapsulates the way I see the Israeli-Palestinian problem. First the taking over and then the self-righteousness, the not understanding how come the world cannot see we are the victims.

“But they’re not going to let us be the victims forever. Not when you see on television pictures of victims being dragged from the wreckage in Gaza and taken to shabby hospitals in a place that is basically a prison.”

“So,” I persisted, “maybe Jews won’t like your act at the moment?”

“When British Jews complain to me about something I’ve said in my act,” Daphna told me, “they don’t say it’s not true. They say Why do you say that? Why do you bring the dirty washing outside? When an Israeli comes out and talks like I do – because Israelis are the über-Jews and we are the ones who are there and have been though the wars – they find it quite difficult to argue with us.”

“Until last year,” I said, “you wrote serious articles under your own name of Daphna Baram, but performed comedy as Miss D.”

“I was worried that people who read me in the Guardian would… Well, no heckler that I’ve ever encountered has been as vicious as people who write Talkbacks to the Guardian after your article has been published.

“Hecklers sit in an audience. Other audience members can see them. When you write a Talkback to the Guardian, no-one can see you. So people are vicious.

“This is why I started gigging under the name Miss D – because I was scared. I thought These people are so vicious they will come follow me to gigs and, because my on-stage persona was so new and vulnerable… Look, it’s scary coming on-stage and telling jokes when you think you have a lot of enemies you don’t even know. Even now, after I ‘came out’ under my own name in January last year at preview gigs for my Edinburgh Fringe show Frenemies

“Look, when I started doing comedy, I was worried about these things…

“In my first year, I was not talking about Israel at all. I was doing some sort of reluctant dominatrix routine partly because the material was not coming. I was taking all the aggressive traits of my persona. I was dressed like a sexual predator. I wore corsets and the premise of my set was I’m scary and I don’t know why people think I’m scary. It’s still a theme in my comedy, but I think I’ve learned to put it in a less crass way. My premise now is that I’m not hiding behind my scariness.

“There’s something interesting about wearing corsets. You would think when you want to hide you cover yourself. But sometimes just exposing yourself is also a kind of cover. Being sexy on stage is a kind of cover. You’re a character. You’re somebody else. I don’t think I’m there yet but, more and more, I envy the comedians who stand on stage and they are who they are and just chat.

“When people talk to new stand-up comedians, they say: Oh, just go on and be yourself. As if that’s easy. It’s not. The whole journey of becoming a good comedian is managing to be yourself on stage as you are when you are funny in real life. I think it can take years.”

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Comedy godfather Malcolm Hardee’s daughter attacks Jerusalem Marathon

Poppy Hardee flies the flag at Beit Jalla on the West Bank

(This was also published by Indian news website WSN – We Speak News)

The Daily Telegraph said my chum the late Malcolm Hardee was “godfather to a generation of comic talent”; the Independent said he was “the greatest influence on British comedy over the last 25 years”; and the London Evening Standard, with considerable justification, said he was “one of the most anarchic figures of his era”.

Although I would say he was apolitical, he twice stood for Parliament – once in a 1987 Greenwich by-election, when he ran as the ‘Rainbow Dream Ticket, Beer, Fags & Skittles Party’ candidate, polling 174 votes. And again in the 1992 General Election in order to publicise his comedy club because he discovered the election rules allowed him a free mail shot to all registered voters in the constituency.

Malcolm was very proud of his two children. Well. Sort of.

They are both well-brought-up, honest, genuine and… well… good people.

As Malcolm said to me once: “They don’t tell lies. They wouldn’t steal a car. Where did I go wrong?”

He would be even prouder of them now, if he had not managed to drown in 2005.

Malcolm used to say he went to Oxford University… and then add it was “last Thursday afternoon”.

But his son Frank actually did go to Oxford University as a student and then successfully taught at two English public schools. He is now teaching in South Korea and widening his world knowledge, I suspect, for a career in politics. A Hardee in Number 10, Downing Street?… Now THAT would be something!

Malcolm’s daughter Poppy is in the Middle East.

After competing in the London Marathon in 2010, she caught the running bug and decided that it would be exciting to train for and run another marathon further afield.

She is currently working for the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, an NGO based in the Palestinian West Bank and thought she would like to run in the Jerusalem Marathon.

She signed up for it at the beginning of November last year and having paid the $60 entry fee was excited, shortly afterwards, to learn that she had been awarded a place. (You have to apply.) However, yesterday she told me…

In my ignorance, I had not really understood the full political implications of applying for a place. After being accepted, I started to research the Marathon route, its sponsors and its entry criteria. I realised that, rather than being a positive event, bringing together different people through sporting achievement, it actually served to further discriminate against Palestinian citizens and normalise Israel’s ‘apartheid’, thus making it appear acceptable to the outside world.

It became clear to me that paying to enter and support such an event only benefited Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians. For one thing, the Marathon is organized by the same municipality that routinely organizes housing evictions, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and demolitions in East Jerusalem. Its route takes runners through illegal settlements, past views of the segregation wall.

Secondly, in terms of entry criteria for international runners, there is an option for persons with West Bank residence and nationality to apply. But, given the restrictions on West Bank citizens’ movements in and out of Jerusalem – even if awarded a place – there is a high likelihood that they would not be granted access to travel to the city to run.

As for Palestinians with a Gaza ID, there is no option for them to run.

This is another measure that ensures the event will be exclusive to Jewish Israeli competitors and their international supporters.

It seems quite clear that this marathon is an attempt to normalise Israel’s actions again Palestinians, by holding an internationally-attended and witnessed sporting event in the state’s ‘capital’… One can easily forget the discrimination and hurt that is being caused by Jerusalem municipality against Palestinians on a daily basis.

Scenes from last year’s marathon show thousands of Jewish Israeli and international participants running through this disputed capital, arms aloft proudly carrying Israeli flags, asserting an exclusively Israeli identity on Jerusalem lands. Given that much of the international community does not recognize any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (particularly because, under UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), Jerusalem was established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime), these scenes are extremely politically and culturally controversial.

Added to this, there must be an awareness of how offensive the marathon must be to the many Palestinians evicted from these lands and placed under occupation from Israeli authorities. Now virtually excluded from running in such an event, they also seeing Jerusalem’s authorities gaining recognition and financial gain from hosting a marathon in their city.

After drawing these conclusions and feeling ashamed of my participation in the Jerusalem Marathon, I decided to withdraw from the race.

However, when I contacted the Marathon organisers, I was told that the entry fee was non-refundable. I therefore decided that the best way to approach this dilemma was to keep my place but turn it into some sort of political protest/awareness-raising campaign. 

Therefore, I have made the decision to run the Marathon in support of Palestine – by wearing full Palestinian colours and carrying the Palestinian flag for the whole route. I hope that this will give a Palestinian presence to the race, highlighting both their exclusion from running in this race and Israel’s deliberate erasing of the Palestinian identity from daily life in Jerusalem.

I have been training in both the West Bank and in Jerusalem – something which has further highlighted for me the discrepancy in opportunities for citizens of each area. A lack of gym facilities and even running routes in Bethlehem (where I live and work) meant that I often had to train in the better equipped Jerusalem, something which is not available for Palestinians who have their movements restricted through the frequent denial of access to Jerusalem lands and regions.

The most disappointing thing for me about this Marathon experience is that running is a sport that usually brings people and communities together – you train with someone, you befriend the person next to you running in a race, you get support from the communities of the areas you run through. I do not expect the Israelis to support me as I run in recognition of Palestinian causes, nor do I feel this is an event which truly brings people together. 

While it may bring together Israeli and internationals, in doing so it further strengthens the Jewish identity being imposed on Jerusalem, serving to marginalise Palestinians both in the race and in the city as a whole. 

Through my actions, I aim to bring a Palestinian presence to the race.

(The Jerusalem Marathon takes place this Friday, March 16th. You can follow Poppy’s progress on Twitter via @poppy_hardee )

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