Tribeca's Controversial Muslim Comedy

The screenwriter of The Infidel, in which a British Muslim discovers he's actually Jewish, talks to Venetia Thompson about the "unifying response" of laughter.

David Baddiel is anxious. Not because he’s written a highly controversial comedy about a Muslim who discovers he was born a Jew, and could be facing a fatwa at any moment, but because of a certain ash cloud that is currently separating him from the U.S. premiere of The Infidel this coming Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival (the first of five screenings that sold out in three hours).

“It’s really a body swap movie,” says screenwriter David Baddiel. “People always think of Muslims and Jews as opposites, but this is a false polarization…we are actually very similar…culturally, domestically and even theologically.”

His only hope is Omid Djalili, the British-Iranian star of the film that’s currently outselling many big budget U.S. films here and has been constantly hitting the headlines since its U.K. release. “He’s en route to Israel, to pray at the Ba’hai center in order to lift the cloud,” Baddiel reveals.

With friends in high places, if anyone can shift an ash cloud, Djalili can. “He’s much loved,” Baddiel says. Which is fortunate, because Djalili is also planning on trying to appease the Dubai board of censors, who have banned the film despite 62 other countries (including Iran) jumping at it.

The Hottest Films at Tribeca Djalili plays Mahmud Nasir, whom Baddiel describes as being the “klutzy, likeable, Everyman” British Muslim who drinks the odd beer, swears, and doesn’t pray as often as he should—a “Homer Simpson Muslim, or rather a Homer Simpson who just happens to be a Muslim.” When Mahmud’s mother dies, he discovers that he was adopted, and actually born Jewish: his real name is Solly Shimshillewitz. (The name prompts Lenny Goldberg—Mahmud’s cynical, self-hating, borderline alcoholic Jewish neighbor, played by Richard Schiff of The West Wing—to ask, “Why didn’t they just call you Jewy Jew Jew Jew and be done with it?”)

Mahmud discovers his (possible) birth father is dying at a nearby Jewish home for the elderly, but is prevented from seeing him by a Rabbi who tells him to go away and find out what it means to be Jewish. So he enlists the help of Lenny, who teaches him how to shrug (“No! Palms up, then the sad doggy eyes”), gives him Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish, force-feeds him chicken soup like a baby, and even takes him to a bar mitzvah and gives him a kippah (which he later forgets he’s wearing, and has to set fire to in front of his son’s fundamentalist future step father-in-law).

When it eventually emerges that Mahmud isn’t having an affair, nor is he gay–the only possible explanations for his behavior according to his wife–but is in fact Jewish, he is disowned by his family. But all is not lost. Mahmud still has his faithful (if drunken) sidekick Lenny: Can Muslim and Jew unite to save the day?

With Muslim jokes, Jewish jokes, liberal gay-friendly Imams, and fundamentalist Muslim characters with sunglasses and hooks, it’s hardly surprising that The Infidel, directed by Josh Appignanesi, has caused a sensation in the British press. As Simon Round, a journalist at the Jewish Chronicle commented, “there have been very few British comedies about Jewishness–and even fewer that actually made anyone laugh”–perhaps because British Jews aren’t quite as comfortable with their identity as American Jews. But generally, wherever they are in the world, as actor Schiff pointed out in a discussion about which religion is the funniest with Baddiel, “Jews get irony.” Unlike Christian fundamentalists, for example, who “actually believe in Armageddon. That’s not funny.”

There have, of course, been even fewer comedies about Muslims. As the Danish cartoonists and South Park creators have found out the hard way, while there is maybe a lot that’s funny about Islam, there’s a very fine line between funny and fatwa, and the joke probably isn’t worth making.

Baddiel has so far gotten away fatwa-free, despite taking fundamentalist Muslim imagery and rhetoric and gently parodying it: The Infidel has a 10-year-old girl running around with a plastic sword shouting “kill the unbelievers” and a fundamentalist Muslim cleric in sunglasses dunking a biscuit into his tea using his hook, whom Mahmud goes on to later describe as “beardy weirdy fuckers who make shit up.” But Baddiel is quick to state that although the film deals with a “controversial subject, it’s not done in a controversial way.”

It is Baddiel’s affection for both communities, and reverence for both religions that has led to sold out theaters in both Bradford, one of the U.K.’s most densely Muslim populated cities, and Finchley, a Jewish area of North London. (In Bradford, Baddiel tells me, Mahmud’s “ya Allah” during the bar mitzvah scene gets the biggest laugh.)

“It’s really a body swap movie. People always think of Muslims and Jews as opposites, but this is a false polarization…we are actually very similar…culturally, domestically and even theologically.”

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Beneath Mahmud’s burnt yarmulke, there is, of course, a message about tolerance underpinning The Infidel, and, for a second, Baddiel gets serious.

“Both these communities exist: Here they are, they’re not any different from you and me…at the London premiere [at Hammersmith Apollo] it was amazing to see lots of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians all laughing together…Only laughter can do that…it’s a unifying response.”

A few hours after our conversation, British airspace reopened: It looks as if Omid Djalili’s prayers had been answered and David Baddiel will be winging his way to New York after all.

Venetia Thompson is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Spectator. Her memoir Gross Misconduct was published in April by Simon and Schuster UK. She lives in London.