By Sonya Rehman
Perched up on a stool, with a bottle of water and a glass within his reach, and a sole spotlight shining down on him, Irish man Abie Philbin Bowman looked every bit his part: as a detainee (apparent by his loud, orange-coloured prisoner suit) who looked an awful lot like Jesus.
This was evident by his frizzy/curly dirty blond hair (left loose, which set itself an inch below his chin) and a crown of (what looked like) thorns, or barbed, plastic wire.
Titled ‘Jesus: The Guantanamo Years’, Abie’s comedic stand-up performance had to be one of the most unusual shows put up at the Rafi Peer’s World Performing Arts Festival on the 24th of November, this year.
Funnily enough, that evening I hadn’t really planned on attending Abie’s show, but instead had arrived at Qadaffi Stadium for the sole purpose of covering dance maestro, Sheema Kirmani’s performance.
Unfortunately when I arrived at the particular hall (where Sheema was to perform), I was informed that her show had been postponed to the following day (even though much later my colleague told me it had been shifted to another camp)!
Aggravated since this had been the second schedule mishap in a row, I quickly skimmed through my rather rumpled program list when ‘Jesus: The Guantanamo Years’ caught my eye.
And so, stuffing the schedule back in my pocket, I spontaneously made my way (read: ran like a maniac) to Abie Philbin Bowman’s camp, lest I was late.
“You know Guantanamo Bay is the total KFC experience”, Abie said as I shuffled my way in and grabbed the nearest empty seat, “because being held in Guantanamo is like a chicken being held in KFC”. This line was punctuated by laughs from the crowd as Abie went on.
The core of Abie’s stand-up routine was evident: his performance revolved around jokes about the so-called war on terror, the conditions of the convicts held captive at Guantanamo Bay, their rejection of rights for fair trial, and most importantly, the Bush administration’s heavy-duty role in it.
It was fascinating because Abie’s routine comprised mainly of hard facts – cocooned in light sarcasm and witty commentary. And what made it additionally absorbing was the comedian’s get-up as a messiah, and his continuous reference to himself as Jesus – which made it all the more quirky, and hilarious.
As soon as Abie’s routine finished, intrigued, I made my way over to speak with the young, Irish man who managed to pull of intelligent humour and politics so well – while keeping the balance.
“I’ve been doing stand-up since early 2005”, he tells me, “the first performance was a student thing towards the end of 2005 and then I did a professional debut in the same year in July in Dublin.”
So was his plan to be a professional stand-up comedian planned or spontaneous? “No I was doing music first and I wanted to get some ideas because I realized that people don’t listen to lyrics very closely, but if it’s comedy they have to. So comedy suits me much better and I’m happier this way. People say this whole thing of Jesus and Guantanamo is very controversial, but the thing is, it’s only controversial because there’s a really good fact to it. The core point is, Guantanamo is not Christian – and there’s total hypocrisy there. If I did preachy shows about it – who would want to come and see it? I’ve always been a politics junkie – infact my Dad presents a political program in Ireland – so I wanted to do something different and not make jokes about my girlfriend or drinking problems like other comedians do.”
That’s when I asked Abie about the hard facts that were interspersed in his routine. “Actually I’m a history student, so I looked at all the sources I could. And as history students we’ve been told to not only look at all sources, but to figure out each article or publication’s agenda. So yeah, a lot of the facts in my routine were a result of research.”
From Dublin, Ireland to now Lahore, Pakistan – how did the Rafi Peer collaboration come about?
“Fauzia”, Abie stated. And that’s when I followed his eyes to a short-haired, graceful woman standing very near to us, with a friend. “She’s a performance artist and came to Ireland for a show. I went to see it, loved it and we got talking, and she said ‘Hey there’s this festival in Pakistan….’ It took a while to work out, but it did”.
Considering the content of Abie’s routine, what had the reactions been so far? “The truth is, they’ve been pretty good”, he says incredulously, “In Boston where I performed, okay, it’s a very liberal place and if you’re Irish it helps – since there are a lot of Irish in Boston. But people have been very positive. The truth is; religion gets hijacked by very boring people with a limited view of the world. I think every prophet had the same message (of being good to one another etc)…and I think they all had a sense of humour. I think if God created the universe he’s not going to be offended by something I say on stage! I mean come on.”
What about his experience in Pakistan so far? “It’s been absolutely amazing”, Abie says enthusiastically. But the Western media portrays Pakistan as a highly dangerous country – was he initially nervous about his trip to Lahore?
“Some of my friends did think I was crazy to make this trip, but in all fairness, the media also says ‘don’t go to Ireland – they’re all terrorists’! It happens everywhere, and it angers me – the world is much more complicated than that, it’s not just the good guys versus the bad guys”, he says, “but I’ve been so well looked after here and it’s been brilliant. I have an accent and then I speak fast too, so I really didn’t think people would understand, but I was surprised everyone got my jokes and understood me. I mean the Monty Python stuff – I was like, ‘will people get this?’ But they did! And ironically when I did it in London – they didn’t get it!”
But above all, the best part about comedy in the 21st century is the trend of enveloping hard facts in humour – and making it work.
Somehow, people tend to prefer intelligent comedy now, more so than in the past – where over the top jokes and animated facial expressions used to do the trick. Not anymore though.
“The truth is – my gut instinct about Guantanamo (having studied it)”, Abie tells me, “is that about twenty percent of the prisoners are guilty. But the problem is the remaining eighty percent, which cannot be released. Think of all the flack that the Bush administration has gotten about Guantanamo – and just imagine if tomorrow they turn around and say ‘whoops!’ So they can’t do it – it’d be so humiliating…and that’s why they’re letting people out in dribs and drabs…in threes and fours…it’s terrible.”
Abie’s anger and frustration over the injustice and lack of human rights at Guantanamo Bay was apparent throughout his one and a half hour routine.
While in conversation with the comedian, Abie was evidently right about one thing: that comedy (backed by a real, grim issue) clearly is the best way to get one’s message across. And get his message across, he did.
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