Diary: Comic timing
Shappi Khorsandi reflects on the glamorous life of an atheist stand-up
A few days ago I carried an elderly neighbour's shopping up three flights of stairs. Even when the lift in our block of flats works, it is so rickety that I mentally distribute my worldly goods. Actually, my (heavily mortgaged) flat is my only worldly good so I'd better see the lift gets sorted so my loved ones don't stand at the Pearly Gates before their time. Oh, look at me, I'm writing for New Humanist and already I've made a religious reference. Jesus! Damn! I mean oops.
My neighbour was very grateful and as I bade her goodbye, she thanked me again then spoiled our beautiful moment by saying, “That was very Christian of you.”
Was it? Is it just Christians who help with shopping? Do Muslims have a clause that forbids the carrying of Tesco bags? Is it written in the Torah, “Carry it yourself, what am I? Your butler?” What about Buddhists… too busy meditating to heave three bags of cat food up the stairwell?
I wanted to explain to her that I worked out all by myself that walking past a struggling neighbour wasn’t very nice. I've been known to put myself out occasionally. My parents never even had to warn me of eternal damnation for me to do a good deed.
I wanted to reassure my neighbour that, despite not being a Christian or any other religion, I have managed to steer clear of murder and adultery. I have never coveted my other neighbour's wife.
Of course, I said none of these things and instead smiled Christianly and said it was no problem.
I don't have a religion. That's not to say I'd call myself an atheist. Most atheists I know seem to have been raised with a religion, then, after considerable thought and discussion, gone, “Nahhhh, you're all bonkers” and rejected it. Some are so militant that they all but knock on people's doors on Saturday mornings and try to convert them to non-believing.
I wasn't raised with a religion or notion of God so have never had to explain to my parents that I wasn't going to Mass, Mosque or Synagogue any more. When I asked if my hamster was going to heaven, my grandma told me, “No, he'll become dust and be made into pots.” Poor Fifi.
If you are beige, though, people often can't accept that you were not raised in religion. The amount of times I have been asked by journalists my views on something “as a Muslim”. I bet Jo Brand is never asked to comment “as a Christian”.
Yet it was Christianity I was the most exposed to as a child through school. I sang hymns every morning in assembly and promised “to do my duty to God” in Brownies. In the nativity plays I was not allowed to be an angel: little blonde girls were angels, little brown girls were shepherds. The slightly slower kids were Wise Men to boost their self-confidence.
I loved Christmas carols and hymn practice and the “tea and biscuits” which seemed to be at the core of every Christian event. I never got past the refreshment stage, though. No amount of custard creams seems to make me see the light. I managed to learn very little about the nuts and bolts of the religion despite the best efforts of, well, pretty much the whole of my schooling. When I was sixteen, a devout Christian friend of mine told me she was going to Eucharist one Saturday. I nearly went with her. I thought it was a trendy club night.
An Asian cab driver once asked me where I am from. I never say “London” in that hoity-toity way that second-generation immigrants sometimes do. The question can be a useful start to a friendly conversation. I find it more interesting than “what do you do for a living?” Nine times out of ten these days the answer to that is “I work in IT” and that's pretty much the end of the conversation. Seeing as I was born in Iran, I told him, “I'm from Iran.” “Ah!” he said, “you are my Muslim sister.” It was early in the morning. I didn't want to get into this. I told him I was Jewish. He didn't seem as keen for me to be his sister after that. The rest of the journey was in silence.
I could have been Jewish; there are lots of Jewish Iranians (or 'Jeranians' as I call them). I was once asked to perform at a Jewish Iranian singles night in LA. The second I was off stage, I was paid, bundled into a cab and whisked home. I wasn't allowed to stay and flirt. I guess they didn't want me as their sister-in-law.
The other day, when the lift was mended, my nice old neighbour held the door open for me as I heaved my shopping bags in. I was tempted to say, “That was very Humanist of you,” but I held my tongue. She might have thought I'd eat her up then run outside to howl at the moon. ■