Portrait

An audience with Aamer Rahman By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Comedian Aamer Rahman

His crisply tailored tux is silhouetted against the crimson velvet stage curtain. His hair, jet black, tapers into a closely razored short back and sides. “I never knew if he was actually real, Osama bin Laden,” he says. “Or if he was just sipping tequila on an island somewhere with Elvis and Tupac, paid for by the CIA.” There’s a trickle of laughs from the packed-out crowd. “My friends get upset. They’re like: ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Aamer! Of course Osama bin Laden’s real: you’ve seen the videos!’ Yeah, I’ve seen the videos. I also saw Life of Pi. I thought that tiger was real.” The audience guffaws now; cackles uninhibitedly. There’s a contagious delight in Aamer Rahman’s delivery: a not-quite-pan-faced, dirty-jokes-behind-the-school-shed, shouldn’t-really-be-saying-this, how-far-can-I-take-it glee.

“Everyone’s like: ‘Wow, you found bin Laden! Where is he?’ And the White House is like: ‘Actually … we killed him.’ And everyone’s like: ‘Oh.’ ” Rahman furrows his brow in confusion, does a small double take. “ ‘Okay then. Um… why don’t you… show us some photos?’ And the White House is: ‘Oh well, we, y’know, um…’ ” Rahman screws up his face and shrugs his shoulders. “ ‘We didn’t take any photos… We put the body in a helicopter, we flew it out into the middle of the ocean, and we dumped it in an undisclosed location. Because that…’ ” Rahman pauses for several seconds, as if struggling to digest the stupidity of the explanation… “ ‘is an Islamic burial ritual.

“…Um. No. No, it’s not. We’re Muslim. We don’t dump bodies in the water. That’s the Mafia.” He pauses just long enough for the laughter to subside. “Someone typed the wrong thing into Wikipedia that day.” Screams of laughter ring out. It’s 2013, and the last tag-team stand-up show comedian Aamer Rahman will perform with Nazeem Hussain, the other half of comedy duo Fear of a Brown Planet. The show goes off. The audience is packed with black and brown bodies: people of colour squirming, giggling, gasping, guffawing, wiping away tears of laughter.

Three years later, Rahman and I make plans to meet up. “Is there some place significant?” I message the comedian. “Hmmm. Let me think about it…” He muses for a day or so, then: “What about that Notorious B.I.G.-themed fried chicken restaurant?” I guffaw at his joke. Now an acclaimed solo stand-up comedian, laughs are still very much Rahman’s stock in trade. An eatery that uses legendary gone-before-his-time East Coast hip-hop artist Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G., to promote fried chicken is one of the most surreally hilarious actualisations of the racist Birth-of-a-Nation negro trope I can imagine.

It’s funny, right up until it’s not. Until the place Rahman describes turns out to actually exist: in Melbourne, where we live. Biggie Smalls is staring down at us from the giant wallpapered mural, his black face contorted with attitude. The microphone he’s clutching has been Photoshopped into an enormous crunchy chicken drumstick.

We’re surrounded – the Bangladeshi-Australian comedian and the Caribbean-Australian writer – by black mammy wallpaper. We’re sitting directly beneath a poster-portrait of a young, blond all-American family lovingly cradling their rifles.

“What are we doing here?” Rahman asks, discombobulated, as if even he is somehow shell-shocked the place actually exists. “We’re not … gonna … eat their food? Are we?” “You brought me here. And now you have to sit here and eat their food. While I interview you. That’s the plan.” Rahman looks at me incredulously. Shrugs. Reluctantly, he orders crispy fried chicken and gluggy cheesy mac. “I can’t believe you’re making me do this.” He swallows hard, like he’s trying not to be sick, sinks lower into the vinyl seat, until it looks like he is trying to disappear. The steam from the chicken fogs his rimless glasses. His green baseball hat is pulled low over his head.

“There’s a yoga studio across the road,” Rahman looks out the window, shakes his head. “Man. White hipsters. Seriously. If you told someone about this, they’d think you were making it up.” I can see the cogs turning: Rahman dissecting the situation for future comedy fodder.

“My audience aren’t like your average comedy audience,” he explains. “They react differently to the material. And you know what it’s like when people of colour get together. Everyone knows everyone. It’s exciting. There’s talking and laughing. We’re loud. And organisers can be like, ‘Hi, Aamer,’ ” Rahman puts on a polite usher-like voice, “ ‘can you please make sure your audience keeps over to the left-hand side of the corridor?’ ” We laugh.

Off stage, with The Notorious B.I.G. glaring at me over Rahman’s shoulder, the serious side to his comedy looms large. There’s very little Rahman has to do with his material to make it ridiculous. Such are the race relations of the world we live in.

A couple of years ago, a comedy festival Rahman was working at held a Bollywood-themed closing party. Along Rahman went, to celebrate the end of his show. He held an impromptu best costume photo contest. Photo after photo of a grimacing Rahman, posing with smiling white people wearing Sikh turbans, dressed as Krishna, and adorned in saris and Egyptian markings surfaced on Tumblr and Facebook. At the ‘Bollywood’ themed industry party I went to last night, I decided to hold a ‘Best Costume’ contest. These are some of the finalists. It was funny because it was true. The photos went viral, and were picked up by BuzzFeed. Outrage ensued. Many of the “competition winners” failed to see the humour. “Yeah…” Rahman looks slightly guilty. “I don’t know if you should really bring that one up.”

At the time of our lunch, Rahman and his wife are just days away from welcoming their first child into the world. “So what’s next for you?” I ask. “Will there be a Fear of a Brown Baby comedy show?” Rahman’s eyes light up. “Yeah,” he says slowly, pointing an index finger at me, like a light bulb’s been set off. “That could… that could work!” He digs into the greasy macaroni cheese with a plastic spoon.

After we meet, Rahman posts photographs of the fried chicken eatery on Facebook. The comments pour in. The photographs go viral. Guardian Australia and The Age cover the story. Britain’s Daily Mirror weighs in. “You cannot make this stuff up,” Rahman is quoted as saying. But if we didn’t laugh about it, we’d surely cry.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "Shadow of fear". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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