THE actor and comedian Omid Djalili filmed a HBO Comedy Special in 2005. It was a rare distinction for a British comic. His shtick is a blend of intelligent political comedy, much of it focused on his Middle Eastern background, mimicry and endearing tomfoolery, like his famed belly dancing.
There was nothing humorous, though, about the time he was shot at while a student in Northern Ireland. Having idled his way through school in London, he ended up at the University of Coleraine. It was the only place that would take him, he says, given his grades. He was unsure about going, as the North was convulsed in violence at the time, this being the mid-1980s, but an Irish friend reassured him it would be fine, and so it was until his final year.
“I was shot at in Portstewart,” he says, allowing himself a laugh. “It was March 1988. It was that week when two squaddies, by chance, went into a funeral and got dragged out, beaten and killed by a mob. Things were quite tense.
“I was throwing stones into the sea at about one o’clock in the morning. It was a Friday night and I was trying to study and went for a little walk. Somebody shouted something at me and I went to see what was going on. I thought it was silly students. I took stones with me, thinking, I’m the one with the power. Then somebody asked me if I wanted my kneecaps blown off. I said, ‘Come and try it because I’ve got stones.’
“One guy said, ‘You better run. He’s serious.’ He took shots at me with a hand rifle as I ran away. He was aiming at me. I could hear the bullets ricocheting off the pavement. My professor at the university told me the next day not to report it; just consider yourself lucky that nothing happened.”
He came in for some unusual baiting for his exotic background while playing on the university soccer team. “It was quite funny for me that every time we went away — it was a mostly Protestant team — they always made me share a room with the goalkeeper, who was called Séamus. They just thought, ‘Let’s put the ethnic and the Catholic together.’
“Whenever we played games, I was always called something with the word Fenian before it — ‘You Fenian Turk’, ‘You Fenian Arab’. I understood what it meant finally, but in the beginning it was good to get abuse that you didn’t even know what it was.”
Djalili was born in 1965 to Bahá’í Iranian parents who immigrated to Britain in the late 1950s. As a Bahá’í Iranian Briton, it makes him, as he often says, “a minority within a minority”. His parents were aghast at the Iranian Revolution in 1979, sensing it suited the oil-thirsty Anglo-American powers that the Shah of Iran was hunted into exile. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascent to power had strange reverberations for his own life.
“It made me more unattractive to girls,” he says. “I was already overweight with a moustache. Certainly the images of Iran on the television didn’t help me in my quest to heal any childhood wounds in the arms of a 13- or 14-year-old girl. I was pretty girl-less. I do blame the Iranian Revolution on the total lack of a sex life from 13 to 21. It lasted a remarkably long time.”
In the spring of 1990 he took off to Czechoslovakia and stayed for five years working in theatre. He inveigled the playwright Annabel Knight, who is now his wife, to come out with him.
During his early days as a stand-up back in Britain in the mid-1990s, she once heckled him on stage. “Every comedian goes through stages,” he explains. “You’re not very good. Then you start getting good, but there’s a cusp between thinking you’re good and being good. During that cusp, people might try and heckle you off stage, but you think, I’m too good to get heckled off; I’m going to stay on stage for another half an hour.
“On this night, all the audience is shouting, ‘Off! Off! Off!’. When I finally focused over the lights, I saw that my wife was also shouting, ‘Off! Off! Off!’. Afterwards, I found out that she’d actually started it. It was only because she was trying to save me: ‘You weren’t good. You thought you were good, but you weren’t. I thought you should just come off to save the evening for the rest of the comedians.’ It was an act of love.”
* Omid Djalili performs at the Cork Opera House, 8pm, Friday, December.9. Further information: www.omidnoagenda.com