COMEDIAN Shappi Khorsandi didn’t have it easy growing up.
She moved to England with her family from Iran in 1976. Her father was a journalist and satirist. When he returned to Iran in 1979 — the year the Shah of Iran was deposed — crowds gathered outside his newspaper offices and chanted for his execution. He fled the country.
As a child exiled in London, Khorsandi fielded callers issuing death threats on the phone. “I remember, once, when I was about 11, I actually called the police because I was so freaked out by somebody phoning us,” she says.
A death order, signed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, was issued against her father. He was to be shot while walking his daughter, Shappi, and her older brother, Peyvand, now a journalist and comedian, to school. The children were to be spared. The assassination never came to pass. The family lived in fear.
“It shattered our family’s central nervous system,” she says. “My brother and I were complete fruitcakes. It’s taken me years of my adult life to realise just how much it affected us. The thing with terrorism isn’t necessarily that it will kill you. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. It instils terror in you, forever making you feel unsafe. It’s the most extreme form of bullying.
“What happened to us was that our parents went to extraordinary lengths to make out everything was normal and to laugh it off. They thought that by laughing it off we’d take it less seriously, that they’d take the burden off us kids. Then we realised they were doing that, and as children, in order to protect our parents, we would go, ‘Hah, hah, it’s hilarious, isn’t it? They sent terror to our house, ha ha.’ But, really, all of us were masking our fears from one another.
“The way it affected me was I lived in daily fear that something would happen to my brother, because I was really close to him. I was terrified that he would get into a car with my dad and it would be blown up. I had this thing that if my dad gets killed,” she says, “obviously I would be devastated, but it is his job; he’s choosing to do this job, but I was terrified something would happen to my brother.”
The terror had a huge effect on their teenage years. “My brother would go out with his friends; not come home until four in the morning. I’d just have knives in my stomach. Is he going to come home? That utter dread that some calamity was going to happen at any moment.
“A friend of ours had a section in their video shop which sold anti-Iranian government comedy videos, and his son was killed from a bomb blast. Everyone was scared of car bombs — that was the main way they killed,” she says. Their mindset was bizarre. “It wasn’t anything to do with our life at school. I remember we had an IRA bomb scare at my primary school. I was about nine or ten and I remember just thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s the Iranian government.’ I was so embarrassed — I’m trying to fit into this nice English school and the Iranian government has threatened to bomb the school. When they said it was the IRA, I went, ‘Oh, phew. It wasn’t us’.”
Khorsandi speaks fluent Farsi, which gives her a kinship with Iran, she says, but she hasn’t been to the country since she left as a toddler. London is her home, although there was never any escaping Iranian politics at ex-pat dinner tables, given the flight to the city of so many people with varying ideologies.
“There used to be massive fights and rows,” she says. “As children, what really stood out for us was that if you were at an Iranian restaurant there would be a sign up on the door saying: ‘Please do not engage in political discussions.’ I remember one restaurant owner saying to my dad, ‘Yeah, we’re losing a lot of money through broken crockery.’ I remember a bread roll being thrown at a dinner party, at my parents’ house, from one guest at another.”
The experiences have filtered into her comedy. She headlines next week at Kilkenny’s Cat Laugh’s Festival and is familiar to Irish audiences from appearances on British television panel shows such as Have I Got News For You and 8 out of 10 Cats.
She has a son, who is five years of age. “He looked at a boyfriend of mine yesterday,” she says. “We’d gone to the park and my son just looked at him square in the eyes and says, ‘I don’t like you. I think I’m better than you.’ I was like, ‘Wow. Okay. I think this isn’t going to work out, mate.’ He’s no longer my boyfriend.
“It’s interesting, seeing the way boyfriends react to my child because he’s a boy. They don’t know what to do with him. Boyfriends are a lot less softly, softly with him unless they have kids of their own. They try to man it up and be all chums and boisterous. My son’s a bit like, ‘Mate, calm down’.”
Khorsandi is gutsy. She performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, the industry’s most gruelling comedy festival, while eight months pregnant, in 2007. “I would not for a millisecond let my pregnancy get in the way of a job,” she says. “I felt it was good for my baby to be performing every night. I only stood up for an hour every day. I’m very varicose-vein vain.
“I started working again when my child was six weeks old. Luckily, being a stand-up means I’m at home during the day and out in the evenings. I think I was lactating and I staggered to my agent’s office and said, ‘I want to tour.’ I was determined that people wouldn’t write me off because I’d had a baby. Looking back, probably a bit over-zealous, but there we are.”
Cat Laughs highlights
* Jack Dee, below, is back touring after a six-year hiatus. He says he wants to spend less time with his family. He will join Britain’s favourite pub landlord, Al Murray; Milton Jones, who rivals Jimmy Carr when it comes to killer one-liners; and Simon Amstell (“I’m a Jew, by the way. It was my agent’s idea”), at the top of the bill.
* David O’Doherty and Jason Byrne lead the Irish brigade, along with Neil Delamere; Colin Murphy; Barry Murphy, who will be checking in before some eagerly awaited Après Match sketches for Euro 2012; the promising sketch trio Foil Arms and Hog; and Dom Irrera, who is all but a local, having appeared at all the Cat Laughs festivals since its inception 18 years ago, except last year, when he missed out due to major surgery. He has sent word that he is now 6ft 3in and blond, with the features of a Mayan warrior.
* Cat Laughs is on Thursday to Monday; thecatlaughs.com.