Dr. Shahid Masood Returns to ARY With 'Views on News'




By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on July 16, 2010

Well-known Pakistani broadcast journalist and current affairs talk show host Dr. Shahid Masood has returned to the Dubai-based ARY Television channel to again host his once-popular "Views on News" program.

His success as a fearless and honest commentator in the post-9/11 Urdu-speaking world spawned a new generation of broadcast journalists. His documentary "Hidden Truth" was the most talked about program when it was first aired on ARY. He became an instant hit — so much so that the pirated versions of the documentary sold like hot cakes on the streets of Jeddah, Dubai, Doha and Dammam. Urdu-loving expatriates from Pakistan and India became his diehard fans.

Masood, who spent his early childhood in Taif and Riyadh, then left ARY at the peak of his popularity and joined Pakistan's premier 24-hour new channel Geo TV in January 2007. Through his "Mere Mutabiq" program, he did trendsetting interviews with Pakistani politicians, opposition leaders, generals, bureaucrats, lawyers, litterateurs and judges and rode the crest of a new popularity wave.

His popularity and cutting remarks against military dictator Pervez Musharraf on his programs during the pro-democracy movement led by Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party did not go down well with the establishment, and he became a target of frequent attacks by government ministers. He did top-notch reporting during the siege of Lal Masjid in Islamabad and had access to the two Ghazi brothers in those crucial moments in July 2007. "Mere Mutabiq" was taken off the air, and he faced immense difficulties producing his show in Dubai, which has always been his base. Musharraf's anger at Masood's interview with Lt. Gen. Jamshed Gulzar Kiani only added to the popularity of Masood.

However, Masood's popularity took a nosedive in May 2008 when he accepted Asif Ali Zardari's offer of becoming the chairman and managing director of the government-run Pakistan Television Corp. (PTV). Many saw his move as opportunistic and castigated him for not living up to the high standards of journalism and compromising his status by joining the government of the unpopular Zardari. Masood defended himself saying his aim was to infuse a degree of professionalism in the state-run media arm. In fact, he did try to clean the Augean stables at PTV, but in the process he ruffled the feathers of many powerful ministers and close aides of Zardari, forcing his resignation.

Masood discussed his ride to stardom and the rough patches in his career on the program's first show Monday night. His guests on the talk show, including Hamid Gul, Mujeeb ur Rahman Shami, Mushahid Hussain Syed and Javed Chaudhry advised him to steer clear of political posts and to concentrate on what he does best — broadcast journalism. "Shahid Masood has ruled the hearts of the people with his analysis and we wish him all the best once again," said Shami. "He gave a voice to the Ummah in the most difficult of times during the wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan."

On Tuesday, Masood was back as an ace commentator discussing the role of foreign slush money in subverting the various arms of the state, including the media. The captivating 45-minute discussion had former Pakistani bureaucrat Roedad Khan, former minister Sheikh Rasheed and prominent journalists Mazhar Abbas and Saleem Bokhari.

Despite a plethora of new channels — such as Aaj TV, Waqt TV, Dunya TV, Express News, Dawn TV, Samaa TV — ARY and Geo TV still remain the two most popular news channels reporting on Pakistani political and social scene.

Geo TV is owned by the Jang Group, the largest Urdu media house in Pakistan, while ARY is owned by Dubai-based successful Pakistani businessman Abdul Razzak Yaqoob (ARY). Both the channels have a huge following among the Pakistani diaspora in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Indian expatriates in the Gulf too are avid watchers of the Pakistani channels.


Reflections on Indian Independence

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on August 15, 2009

On this anniversary of India’s independence, as an Indian I am both happy and sad. I am happy because we attained freedom after a long and painful struggle and because India has made great strides in many fields over the last 60 years. Most importantly, we have managed to maintain the sanctity of the ballot. Democracy has been our guiding principle, and that is a remarkable achievement.

I am sad because my community has not been given due representation in some spheres. My community is still eyed with suspicion. The contribution of our ulema to the fight for independence seems to have been totally forgotten. Hundreds of Muslim scholars died in the run-up to independence. Now, mere lip service is paid only to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Although we attained independence in the physical sense, mentally we Indians still remain trapped in the British-engineered divide-and-rule ideology of the past. That is very sad and something that should change.

All of our problems could be solved provided we accepted the existence of those problems rather than ignoring them. Correct diagnosis is key to fighting any disease. Our foreign policy has always been Pakistan-centric. We are obsessed with Pakistan. We have always blamed our neighbor for all our problems. This is not to absolve Pakistan from its occasional misdeeds, but we are a big country, and we should act like an elder brother. We should be magnanimous in our approach toward our neighbors.

Pakistan aside, Sri Lanka has reservations about India; Nepal has gripes against us, and Bangladeshis aren’t too happy with us. We are a great nation because we have a great history. We shouldn’t squander that by being parochial and jingoistic. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took a great step forward in Sharm El-Sheikh recently. We should build on that first step and isolate extremists on both sides. Let us not forget the courageous decision of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in taking that bus ride to Lahore and seeking a meaningful resolution to the many issues dividing India and Pakistan.

If we, the Indian people, don’t get the deserved social and political status in the new world, even in Arab society, it is because our leaders have not been able to see the big picture. They bog themselves down in domestic affairs and limit our foreign policy simply and almost exclusively to Pakistan. We seem unable to get out of that vicious tit-for-tat cycle. We never took proactive steps to capitalize on the strength of our economy and civilization. To be very honest, we have had no real statesman since Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the 1980s, African nations and Arab nations looked at India with awe and respect. Our stand on Palestine was unflinching. But then we lost that status because we diluted our stand on a number of issues. There was a conscious effort to get closer to Israel, so much so that we even helped put an Israeli spy satellite in space. We started being seen on the wrong sides and gradually people looked at us with suspicion. Arabs have a begrudging admiration for India because of its educational renaissance, especially in the field of information and technology. We should capitalize on this and win the hearts and minds of both the Arabs and Africans. This is possible, provided we stop looking at the small details and concentrate on the big picture.

As an Indian who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for some time, I think the Gulf countries offer Indian expatriates a great opportunity to better understand the problems of our neighbors. Just as we are fighting poverty so are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Their problems are very similar to our problems. We had Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Pakistan had Baitullah Mehsud and Sri Lanka had Velupillai Prabhakaran. They were all extremists. We all grapple with the same problems.

Once we Indians are out of the country, we look at things with fresher perspectives. In India as well as in Pakistan, it is the mass media that has made things worse. That is not the case here. When India and Pakistan came very close to war in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, I remember talking to two taxi drivers: One non-Muslim from Kerala and one Pathan from Swat Valley. They both were worried and both were praying for the war clouds to clear. They had their families and loved ones in their respective countries. All of us surely encounter such people on a daily basis here in Saudi Arabia and in the other Gulf countries. We should carry the message of good will to our respective countries and work for the greater good of the entire Subcontinent. And we can.

Many people like to speak of an undivided India, but such ideals are far from the present reality. It upsets our Pakistani friends. They think, and perhaps rightly so, that we have still not accepted them as a sovereign nation. What happened in the past happened, and we cannot undo it. There is no need to. We may be separate countries, but nothing stops us from joining hands as the European nations do. France and England have centuries of war and trouble behind them, yet the two are part of the European Union. Why can’t we follow that example? Our films are hugely popular in Pakistan, and Pakistani television serials are adored by Indians. Pakistani cricketers, such as Wasim Akram and Imran Khan, have huge followings in India, and Indian cricket legends such as Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar have many admirers in Pakistan.

We need to build on our trust, on what is common to both of us. We have to inspire confidence in the nations around us. That would give no room to outside powers to play politics in our backyard.

Saudi Support for Spain Is Rooted in History



By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on July 11, 2010

An overwhelming majority of Saudi football fans will be rooting for Spain on Sunday night when it tangles with the Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup 2010 final at the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg.

There are a variety of reasons — some predictable and some bizarre — as to why the men and women of this nation of 28 million people are supporting the men in red.

For Jasim M. Al-Yaqout, the Eastern Province general manager of the Ministry of Culture and Information, it is the happy memories of Spain and Spaniards that makes him back the Spanish team.

"They are a very friendly people. I know this firsthand having visited Spain four times. Once I spent nearly six months in Seville in connection with the Saudi Expo there. I was also there during the opening of the Islamic center in Madrid years ago. They are a lovely people. Tonight my prayers are with them," said Al-Yaqout.

Riyadh-based columnist Suraya Al-Shehry is so excited about Spain that she thinks it will beat the Netherlands 3-1.

"I can even tell you who is going to score those three goals for Spain: David Villa, Sergio Ramos and Fernando Torres," she said.

She described the Spanish footballers as musicians. "There is so much symphony and rhythm in the way they play. They are not just musicians — they are magicians. Their wizardry with the ball in their semifinal against the Germans was magnificent. The moment they have the ball ... whirrrrrrr, they go."

Such is her and her daughters' passion for Spain that Al-Shehry has painted her TV lounge red to go with the Spanish team color. "Even the food that we will serve tonight will have a Spanish theme, and there will be strawberry juice to celebrate the color of our team."

And if all that is not enough, Al-Shehry also has a vuvuzela. "We will blow this plastic horn every time Spanish players take control of the ball," she said while laughing gregariously over the phone during the interview.

Abdul Aziz Arrubkan, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for humanitarian affairs, told Arab News from New York that he also is rooting for Spain. "Football aficionados dutifully follow the Spanish leagues in Saudi Arabia. Barcelona, Real Madrid, to name just two Spanish clubs, are household names in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. Therefore, there is a sense of familiarity toward Spain," he explained.

Arrubkan also liked the shape 2010 World Cup has taken in the last four games. "Spain has never been in the finals. The Netherlands has been, but they've never won the cup. All this is good for the game. Nobody likes to see the same countries winning four years after four years. This is welcome relief."

Jeddah-based businessman Muhammad Al-Adel is not much of a football fanatic, yet he will be in front of his large flat-screen home television tonight watching the game closely in the company of his friends and rooting for Spain. The reason? "One particular incident has changed my perception of the Dutch people forever. Once when I was traveling to Amsterdam, the Dutch woman at the airport had some kind of conniption when she looked at my Saudi passport. This was long before Sept. 11, 2001. She made faces and was very condescending. Ever since I have been with all those who are against that country," said Al-Adel. "Tonight I will hopefully have my revenge."

Former Saudi Aramco executive Bidah Mejdal Al-Gahtani will be in Barcelona tonight to watch the all-important game. Who is he supporting? "Spain," comes the instant reply. "Because they have taken what we call the sporting spirit to a whole new level. This is the team that has got the least number of cards. You can check that out. They play a fair game. They enjoy their game, and they ensure that those who are watching them are enjoying, as well. It is so much fun watching them in action."

Al-Gahtani said one big advantage for Spain is the lack of over-hyped and over-rated players. "This tournament has demonstrated that individuals do not matter. Look at how the top players have fallen by the wayside. It is all teamwork. Spain is the best example of that. Tonight will be their night."

"Spain, Spain, Spain," said Lina Almaeena, the Jeddah United executive director and captain of the Women's Basketball Division. "There are many reasons why I am supporting Spain, but the most important of them is the cultural affinity that we share with Spain. This is the country that was under Muslim rule for 800 years. And because of that there are so many things that are common between us and the Spaniards. They have similar family values as we do. They are very protective of their families just as we are. We have known Spain as Al-Andalus. That word creates some kind of an aura in our minds ... I know it is a bit philosophical, but that is the primary reason I am cheering for Spain."

Most Saudis referred to what Lina Almaeena described as the aura of Al-Andalus.

"It is natural for Saudis to support Spain," explained Riyadh-based historian Hatoon Al-Fassi, who herself is no fan of the game. "There is this nostalgia about Spain, and why should there not be? We have had 800 years of relationship with that country. We are historically and geographically closer to Spain than other European countries," Al-Fassi said. "No wonder, we have streets, districts and towns named after Al-Andalus."

According to her, when it comes to favoring one or the other country in such high-profile tournaments, the sense of history and current affairs do play a part in the choices people make. "Arabs and Muslims are politically conscious people. They will always try to find out who is on their side and who is not in the political arena. Then there is the Palestinian issue. People here are aware that most of the European countries are pro-Israel and that they indulge in promoting Islamophobia. For Spain, there is some kind of sympathy because its current government is seen as rational, balanced and Arab-friendly."

Among the tiny minority that is supporting the Netherlands is Jubail-based chemical engineer Dhafir Al-Shehri. "Yes, I am supporting the Netherlands because they are very dedicated and have given their all in their quest for the Cup. They have come this far despite the fact that they do not have very many stars in their side."

According to Al-Shehri's reasoning, many Saudis are supporting Spain because Spain demolished Germany in the semi-final. "Ever since Germany defeated Saudi Arabia 8-0 in the 2002 World Cup, many Saudis have been baying for Germany's defeat. Saudis were also very upset with Germany for eliminating their initial favorite Argentina from this tournament. When Spain defeated Germany in the semi-final there was a collective sigh of relief."

While some have political reasons, some cultural, some historical, and some sporting abilities for supporting Spain, Jeddah-based medical doctor Zeid Alsharif has only this to say: "I am supporting Spain because Paul the octopus has picked it up as a favorite to win the final tonight. I am with the four-year-old tentacled tipster!"

McChrystal Interview: Media Missed the Larger Point


By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Thursday, July 1, 2010

While the US media and world news agencies are focusing on the now-sacked Gen. Stanley McChrystal's contempt for his civilian bosses, what comes out starkly in the Rolling Stone article is the frank assessment about the war in Afghanistan.

What is significant in the 8,000-word piece on McChrystal by Michael Hastings are the references to the quagmire that Afghanistan has become for the US. In paragraph after paragraph, Hastings reminds readers of the chaos in Afghanistan and the war that has swayed decisively in favor of the Taleban.

"After nine years of war, the Taleban simply remain too strongly entrenched for the US military to openly attack," he writes, referring to the recent postponement of a long-planned push into Taleban stronghold Kandahar.

For quite some time now, people have been asking the all-important question: What is happening in Afghanistan? In the absence of any independent journalists in that war-torn country, there has been no clear idea. What has appeared in the American and Western press was misleading simply because those reports were based entirely on US Army handouts or guided tours. There are no embedded journalists on the other side and unless reporters and columnists gain access to sources in the Taleban, no clear picture will or can emerge.

Those who are following reports in Pakistan's Urdu media have a substantial idea of what is happening beyond the North West Frontier Province. However, the Urdu media sometimes resorts to hyperbole and exaggerates Taleban gains. But certainly they are closer to the truth than their American and Western counterparts.

From a layman's point of view, things are crystal clear (or "Chrystal" clear, as one American journal put it). How could an irregular army of 30,000-40,000 men sustain the war against the world's only superpower for nine long years, especially when they are faced with a coalition of the best armies in the world? The Taleban have no drones, no aircraft, no fighter jets, no Stinger missiles — nothing, yet they have been able to turn the tables on the mighty US Army.

So in the absence of any credible and objective reporting from the war front, the Rolling Stone interview at least provides a ringside view of what is actually happening in Afghanistan.

"Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war became the exclusive property of the US ... with the opposition to the war already toppling the Dutch government, forcing the resignation of Germany's president and sparking both Canada and The Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops ... and now the French are going all wobbly," writes Hastings.

It was in March 2009 that US President Barack Obama ordered another 21,000 troops to Kabul. "We have a clear and focused goal: To disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan," he said at the time. He appointed McChrystal as the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, replacing Gen. David McKiernan.

According to Hastings, McChrystal was from the start determined to place his personal stamp on Afghanistan — to use it as a laboratory for a controversial military strategy known as counterinsurgency.

"COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military's preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation's government."

It was US Vice President Joe Biden who argued against a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, saying it would plunge America into a military quagmire without weakening international terrorist networks.

Hastings quotes Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency, as saying that the entire COIN strategy was a fraud inflicted on the American people. "The idea that the United States is going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense," Macgregor is quoted as saying in the article.

Hastings points out that the prospect for any kind of success in Afghanistan looks bleak and then reels off a startling statistic.

"In June, the death toll for US troops passed 1,000, and the number of improvised explosive devices has doubled. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on earth has failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude toward US troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile."

Also this month, Afghanistan officially outpaced Vietnam as the longest war in American history. "And Obama has now quietly begun to back away from the deadline he set for withdrawing US troops in July of next year. The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire," observes Hastings.

It is now official that the number of innocent people killed by US-led coalition forces is in the hundreds.

"In the first four months of this year, US and NATO troops killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 — a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that counterinsurgency theory is intent on winning over. In February, a US Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April protests erupted in Kandahar after US forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans," writes Hastings and then quotes McChrystal as saying: "We've shot an amazing number of people."

A few lines later, McChrystal goes on to confess that you can't kill your way out of Afghanistan. "The Russians killed one million Afghans, and that didn't work," he is quoted as telling Hastings.

Despite all this bad news, the Rolling Stone article indicates that facts on the ground offer little deterrent to a military determined to stay the course. "Even those closest to McChrystal knew that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn't begin to reflect how deeply (messed) up things are in Afghanistan. If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," a senior adviser to McChrystal tells the interviewer.

"Winning, it would seem, is not really possible in Afghanistan," concludes Hastings.


Death of Kindergartners Shocks Indians


By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Monday, June 14, 2010

The death of two kindergartners, one in Saudi Arabia and one in Qatar, has upset the huge Indian diaspora in the Gulf. In both cases, the little ones were left locked inside their minibuses in the blazing sun. The Gulf states are currently experiencing extremely harsh weather with temperatures shooting up to 50 degrees Celsius every other day.

The two separate but similar tragedies, occurring in a space of three weeks, have resulted in an outpouring of grief from the entire community. Such is the fear and trepidation among Indian expatriates that some parents have stopped their little ones from going to school altogether.

In the first case on May 17, four-and-a-half-year-old Sarah Mohammad Gazdhar, a KG-1 student of DPS-MIS (Delhi Public School - Modern Indian School) in the Qatari capital Doha, died because of heat and asphyxiation after she failed to disembark from the minibus when it reached her school. She was left in the vehicle for more than four hours under the baking sun. Sarah, whose family is from Jodhpur, had enrolled in the school only in April.

According to reports in the Qatari newspapers, Sarah had boarded the bus belonging to a transport company from her house in the Wakrah district of Doha. Unfortunately, a teacher, who frequently traveled on the same bus and who used to help her get off the bus, was absent on that fateful Monday.

After dropping the children, the driver took the minibus back to his accommodation, without realizing that the girl had not disembarked at the school. Usually, the child returned home in another bus which takes nursery and kindergarten children back from the school around 12 noon. The bus which she takes to reach the school in the morning returns to the school around 2 p.m. to take children of Classes I to XII back home.

When the child did not return home at noon, Sarah’s panic-stricken mother rang up the school, only to be told that she had not come to the school. When the mother insisted that her child had boarded the bus to school, transportation section personnel from the school, accompanied by the Qatari police, went in search of the driver, who had parked the 15-seater bus out in the sun before going to sleep. Sarah was rushed to the hospital where she was declared “brought dead.” The bus driver was put behind bars.

Three weeks later, on June 13, Saudi Arabia was rocked by a similar and equally horrific tragedy when a five-year-old girl, Fida Haris, was left unattended for five hours in a school bus in the full glare of the sun outside the International Indian School in Dammam’s Al-Raka district.

Like Sarah, Fida too had started attending the school only two months ago. School officials said the driver forgot to ensure she came off the 15-seater minibus when he dropped off other children at the school in the morning. Ostensibly the child dozed off and remained inside the minibus, which had tinted windows.

On a day when the mercury reached 50 degrees Celsius, Fida apparently suffocated inside the minibus. “Her body had turned pale because of a lack of oxygen and the intensity of the heat,” said her class teacher Gita Radhakrishnan. “It was a horrible sight.”

As was the routine, the driver of the school bus picked up the child and a dozen other children from their homes in downtown Dammam between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. He then dropped some of the children off at the school’s girls section and brought the boys and kindergarten children to the school’s main building. It was here that he forgot to take Fida off. All the other children got off and went to their classes. The driver assumed Fida also went to her KG-2 section.

As is the practice in Dammam, the 2,000-odd Indian school bus drivers park their vehicles near the school itself and then travel back together in their friends' smaller vehicles returning later when it is time to transport the children home. Fida was left in a parked minibus near the school's deserted side gates. The Indian school, which has 16,000 students, is located in a sparsely populated area of Al-Raka district. The building has multiple entrances, but once the children arrive, only the main gate remains open. If a child cried for help in a bus near the side gates, there would be little chance of anybody noticing.

“A five-year-old is capable of knocking on the van doors. She must have done that but there was nobody to hear her cries nor was there anybody to notice the struggle for life inside the minibus,” explained Fida’s class teacher.

The driver, Naushad from Kerala, returned with the other drivers at 12 noon to pick up the kindergarten children. He realized what had happened only when he unlocked the van’s doors. He panicked and called one of his driver friends, Satish Chandran, and explained what had happened.

Satish found the lifeless child in her red-and-white uniform and called in the senior teacher. She immediately identified her as Fida. “It came as a shock to me. In the class register she was listed as absent that day,” said Radhakrishnan. They took Fida to the school’s first-aid room and later transported her to the nearby hospital. She was pronounced dead on arrival. The driver was arrested and put behind bars.

Fida’s grief-stricken parents, Muhammad Haris and Sajana Haris, also from Kerala, were consoled by school officials, teachers and members of the large Saudi Indian community.

For Indians with children at the school, the tragedies were far too close to home.

“The first thing I did after hearing the news was to hold my four-year-old daughter tightly and cry out loud. In my mind’s eye I was trying to imagine the situation little Fida and Sarah were in. Little angels -- they must have tried so hard to escape that situation. There was nobody to listen to them. What a painful death it must have been,” said Sameena Sajid, whose two daughters are enrolled at the same Indian school in Dammam. “My children refused to say anything or eat anything after they came back from school. They are in shock.”

For Indian business executive Yunus Raheem coming to terms with the tragedy is well nigh impossible. “Wherever you go and whoever you talk to, at home, at work, people are only talking about Sarah and Fida. They keep asking the same questions again and again, ‘What must it have been like for them inside the locked-up school buses? What must they have endured as they tried to get out of the hell they were in? What did they experience in those terrible hours leading up to their deaths?’”


Rehman Akhtar's Pursuit of Funniness in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Dubai


By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Wednesday, February 10, 2010
 

Comedians find what is ironic in life and make it comical. If the true artist is one who can bridge cultures in a way that audiences respond with laughter rather than by taking offense, then Rehman Akhtar is a true artist.

The Pakistani-born, British-educated comedian is 46 years old and performs his comedy wherever and whenever he can — which has recently included Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Dubai. He has been honing his art for a decade and has performed on BBC Television several times with such notables as Russell Peters. In 2008, he was chosen to be one of the opening acts at the “Axis of Evil” comedy show in Bahrain by Arab-American comedians, Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani.

Akhtar uses his acting, mimicry and linguistic skills to bring a wide range of characters to life on stage and has become a firm favorite with audiences all over the Gulf. Arab News caught up with him recently to find out his views on life, love and the pursuit of funniness.

“For creative people there are no boundaries, but then this is Saudi Arabia, and one has to be politically correct,” said Akhtar. “In any case, an artist has to respect his audience. This is challenging, and it makes me that much sharper. It would be stupid of me to stand in front of the audience and start doing vulgar stuff and the kind of comedy that is, perhaps, acceptable in the West. This is Saudi Arabia. I live here. I respect this country. I want to introduce a form of entertainment that does not exist at the moment and it is just kind of lifting off the ground.”

By day, Akhtar is a communications team leader at Saudi Aramco in Dhahran. He met a kindred spirit in another company employee, Fahad Albutairi. Together, the two men resolved to get the Gulf region chuckling. Soon they found they were not alone.

“I feel this whole movement that you see began only a few months ago,” Akhtar said. “One of the kickstarts for interest in comedy was the ‘Axis of Evil’ show in Bahrain. Suddenly people saw Fahad Albutairi and me in action. Using standup comedy to shed light on the main stereotypes the world has about Arabs and Muslims in this day and age, ‘Axis of Evil’ brought together the talents of first-generation Arab-American comedians, Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader, in an authentic humorous take on Middle Eastern culture. This ‘Axis of Evil’ grew out of the whole post-9/11 period when former US President George W. Bush named certain countries as the ‘axis of evil.’”

He said in this case comedy was not simply a laughing matter. “The show really aimed at building bridges. When Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani came to Bahrain, the organizers decided not just to put these two guys up on the pedestal. They decided to have local artists performing with them on stage,” Akhtar said. “The idea was to demonstrate that we too have local talent. That comedy tour in Bahrain was in a sense the mood shifter — it was like a tipping point. It was a huge success. Over two nights, more than 5,000 enjoyed the event at the Al-Ahli Club Sports Center. A lot of them were from Saudi Arabia. That gave us a lot of exposure. People said, ‘Wow, we have people like Fahad Albutairi and Rehman Akhtar among us.’ It opened up a whole new avenue for us.”

When you talk to people in show business, they dread a cold audience. Akhtar explained how he used comedy in his formative years to break the ice — and break down barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding. “I grew up in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, which in some ways was a pretty depressing time,” he said. “There was a lot of racism around in those days. Those were the days I was in school and college. We happened to live on a housing estate where we were initially the only brown family. So it kind of exacerbated the whole thing. I used to get picked on the most. I used to be bullied a lot. I hope it does not sound too arrogant but I was a fairly bright child, and this made things even more difficult for me. So not only was I a ‘brown Paki’ but I was also a ‘brown Paki with great grades.’ That made me a huge target in many, many senses.”

Akhtar is not sure if it was infernal optimism or eternal optimism that made the difference for him. “I could have reacted to the situation in many ways,” he said. “I could have become a mass murderer or something; however, I really wanted to find a humorous side and give a positive slant to this victimization. On the housing estate where we lived, there was a youth club that announced a talent contest. I said, ‘I am going to take part in this talent contest.’ Everybody was aghast. ‘What are you going to do on stage?’ What I did was put on this mask ... a mask that I could hide behind. And then I put on my father’s big overcoat, and I became this character called ‘Professor Potty.’ I was 11 at the time. There were around 350 people in the audience. All of them were white, and there I was standing — a little brown kid. I went up on stage with a microphone and started telling jokes. I immediately felt a sense of relief coursing through my veins. Here I was making fun of them and not being the kid being beaten up anymore. The whole exercise was pretty cathartic for me. I felt out of this world that night. To be in control of that entire audience was a great feeling. These people were eating out of my hands. They were laughing their heads off. All six judges gave me 10 out of 10. “Raymond Akhtar Wins First Prize,” screamed the local newspapers the next day. They could never pronounce Rehman, so I became Raymond for them. I won 10 pounds that night — it was a fortune in those days. I was in tears because neither of my parents was there to witness my moment of glory. My father was doing the night shift; my mother was in Pakistan. When I remember that night, I still get very emotional. It was a pinnacle in my life.”

Akhtar paid rich tributes to earlier funnymen who used wit and slapstick to get people through the Great Depression of the 1930s. “I had lot of comedy influences in my early years. Those were not the days of Nintendo and PlayStation. Our only form of entertainment was television,” he said. “I grew up watching diverse comedy, from Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges to Billy Connelly and Monty Python classics. Comedy has always been a part of my life. In retrospect, I think all that helped me in my later life.”

They say that next to most successful men there is a good woman, and Akhtar is no exception. “I got married to Shaafia at 27,” he said. “We would go to comedy shows, and I would tell her, ‘I can be funnier than that guy.’ At one such show, she threw a challenge at me, ‘Why don’t you go up there and do it and prove yourself?’ I took up the challenge and approached one of the organizers of comedy shows in London. He was Hardayal, an Asian. He liked my demo and told me, ‘I am going to give you an open mic slot’ — which means a slot meant for someone who just wants to try comedy for the first time. When the veteran comedians turned up for the show and asked me, ‘How long do you intend to be on stage?’ I said 20 minutes. They laughed with a smirk, ‘If you last more than 5 minutes, consider yourself lucky.’ I did not know what they meant. I was an instant hit and lasted much more than five minutes. My journey as a standup comedian had well and truly begun.”

So how does a standup comedian find material? “I get my ideas from life. I collect the nuggets of life rather like a poet,” Akhtar said. “I read a lot. I have always been a very observant person. Just like poets, I keep Post-It notes. I am never without a pen. If something triggers a thought and makes me laugh I immediately make a note of it.”

Having given great thought to the greatest question all funnymen must answer for themselves, Akhtar graciously shared the secret of comedy. “Making people laugh is always a challenge,” he said. “The secret is you do not focus on one person. I laugh at myself. If you indulge in bashing a particular community, naturally it will get offended. The art is to make fun of your victims without making them feel victimized. To point out a cultural difference is not victimizing someone. The challenge is to make someone laugh without making them feel offended.”

— Rehman Akhtar can be contacted via info@smileksa.com.