Drawing humour from humanitarian crisis

By Sonia Nair

I, Migrant | Allen & Unwin

I, Migrant by Sami ShahRousing, captivating and occasionally heartbreaking – with flashes of zany humour that has earned Sami Shah the privilege of being a stand-up comedian by trade – I, Migrant catapults from Karachi, Pakistan to Western Australia as it details Shah’s comedic pilgrimage and life amongst the war-torn ravages of a country dealing with the aftermath of 9/11, a global battle against terrorism, increasing social discontent and political turmoil.

That Shah’s personal story is rooted in, but not solely about, the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan is a refreshing change from many well-trodden narratives based around the country. He gives readers a taste of the average Pakistani’s life without the sensationalism and narrow prism adopted by many international mainstream media outlets who see Pakistan as nothing more than a fundamental Islamic state; thus ignoring the nuances of what life there entails.

The endearing portrait Shah paints of his home country is indicative of the strong-willed and perseverant Pakistanis who retain their cool, their dark sense of humour and their will to live despite being confronted with recurrent terrorist attacks, rampant corruption and ineffectual politicians. When a terrorist attack happens close enough for Shah and his colleagues to witness the shambles from their window, he observes how “no client deadlines were altered, nor did anyone ask to go home”.

“Trauma is a luxury Pakistanis have neither the time for, nor the patience to process.”

Shah’s own recollection of events is symptomatic of this underlying attitude. Serious, otherwise traumatic events are cloaked in light-heartedness and hilarity – suggestive of a coping mechanism to the frequently occurring atrocities that characterise Karachi’s landscape.

“Shah effectively mines his personal experiences – some of them highly disturbing to read – through a humorous lens and the resulting effect is political satire at its finest.”

“Most suicide bombings occur during those hours; it’s when politicians swerve into areas of controversy; even earthquakes and tsunamis wait until early evening to wreck your carefully organised bulletin,” Shah recounts from his days as a journalist.

Shah’s memoir jumps from his time in Australia where he almost died at the hands of a kangaroo to the period of his life when he was a student; from America to his time as an advertising executive and then journalist in Karachi. The unmoored storytelling style keeps readers constantly on the edge of their seats and effectively distils particular emotions and tragedies. The frenzied devotion that greeted Benazir Bhutto upon her arrival in Karachi and her subsequent assassination in Rawalpindi is politically charged and suspenseful – despite being written for readers who likely know of the fate that awaited Bhutto.

The visceral descriptions of violence and death are commonplace throughout the book. One passage in particular is horrific as Shah intricately describes the sight of seeing a man burn alive. Yet these descriptions are never superfluous and combine to paint a stark portrait of the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan.

Perhaps due to its comedic heritage, Shah’s book is rich in irony. That a man who had escaped suicide bombers, terrorist attacks and armed robbery almost meets his end at the hands of a kangaroo within the safe confines of a country such as Australia is so ridiculous it makes for perfect comedic fodder. Shah effectively mines his personal experiences – some of them highly disturbing to read – through a humorous lens and the resulting effect is political satire at its finest.

“The thing to understand is that the Pakistani passport isn’t so much a passport as it is a voucher for free rectal exams, redeemable in airports around the world.”

While Shah’s story is an immensely fascinating first-hand account of living through Pakistan’s worst human rights infringements, replete with astute political observations, the essence of his book lies in its ode towards comedy. Providing an unlikely escape route for Shah to move his family out of the increasingly dangerous Karachi, Shah’s love for comedy stems from both the challenges inherent in the medium and its ability to bridge the gap between disparate groups of people with a laugh.