Afghan American comedian Neelab Sarabi knows firsthand what life is like under Taliban rule.
“When the Taliban took over Afghanistan the first time in the ‘90s, I was a 10-year-old refugee in Pakistan at the time, but we had actually traveled to Afghanistan a few times and I had seen the atrocities that they had committed and a lot of my own family members were victims,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview.
Sarabi said her older sister was traveling in northern parts of Afghanistan working for the United Nations when she was attacked by the Taliban. They ripped her clothes and left a mark on her back.
“I was scared but I also had this hope that there were grownups that knew what they were doing, and that they would be able to fix this somehow,” she said.
Now with the Taliban taking over Afghanistan in mid-August, Sarabi is the adult with a new generation of children looking up to her and others to save them from this situation.
“I’ve grown up with this Taliban. I’ve seen what they do and how they do it but it was more so that, ‘Holy crap, this time around, I have to do something. I have to take part in fixing this situation,’” Sarabi said. “I have lost a lot of sleep over it.”
So, she and Pakistani American comedian Mona Shaikh are trying to use their influence to do something about it and bring attention back to the dire situation in Afghanistan.
They, along with four other comedians, will be performing at a comedy benefit in Irvine to raise money for the people stuck in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.
The benefit is being organized by Shaikh who, when she heard about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, decided to use her platform to give a voice back to the Afghan people.
“The first thing that the Taliban did was they walk in and they took women’s rights away – that’s the first thing they did and it really crushed me,” she said. “My primary focus was: how do we give Afghan women a voice?
“I was very fortunate to find Neelab and for Neelab to agree to do a show.”
Shaikh will also be performing at the show and is writing a lot of Taliban jokes – something she said she feels obligated to do.
“I want to make fun of the Taliban as much as we can. In some strange way, (our) power as artists (is) that we have is to make fun of them, mock them. We can’t go over there and handle them or punish them, so I feel like the power of art is to help bring some kind of light and some kind of humor to such a horrible and dark situation,” she said, later telling a reporter the show is intended as “a middle finger to the Taliban.”
For Shaikh, it’s also about how many people they can help.
Parts of the night’s proceedings will go to groups like Hope B~Lit – a Los Angeles volunteer-based nonprofit that helps people internationally.
The nonprofit will use the money to get resources to people on the ground in Afghanistan, said Priyanka Banerjee, the organization’s communications director in a recent interview.
“There are people starving, children not being able to go to school, banks are closed. So we found people who could actually do it – ensure that things reach the right people like food, medical supplies, education, supplies and more,” she said.
Banerjee said their team is disappointed they can’t go to Afghanistan directly but feel lucky to partner with people over there willing and wanting to help.
Minority Reportz Helps Amplify Diverse Voices
The nonprofit and Shaikh have worked together in the past.
Shaikh has been a stand-up comedian for 11 years and has become a regular at The Comedy Store, which is where she made an eye-opening observation that would lead to the creation of her show Minority Reportz.
“A lot of comedians end up picking their club of choice. Mine happened to be The Comedy Store, which I love to this day and the one thing that I observed is that there were no people who looked like me onstage,” she said.
Shaikh pitched the idea of producing a show to Comedy Store talent booker Emilie Laford with a diverse lineup.
Since then Minority Reportz has showcased hundreds of diverse comedians and acts, attracting comedy stars like Tiffany Haddish and Margaret Cho, according to the show’s website.
Thursday’s showcase, “Minority Reportz Presents Comedy Benefit for Afghanistan,” will take place at the Caspian Restaurant where Shaikh has organized many Minority Reportz shows in the past.
Tickets for general admission can be bought online for $70 or $100 at the door and will include entry, a buffet-style dinner as well as a Bollywood dance after-party with DJ Kush playing Persian, Indian and Afghani music.
The show will start at 7:30 p.m and the after-party will kick off at 9 p.m.
It will also feature comedians Dauood Naimyar, Sarah Fatemi, Anu Kalra and Omid Singh.
Shaikh said part of the reason Minority Reportz has found success is because the comedians get to perform for niche audiences who have been “starving” for content that reflects their experiences and identity.
“Comedians that you see on my lineup, you’re not really going to see them at a lot of major comedy clubs because, regardless of Me Too and Time’s Up and everything that’s happened, clubs are still booking pretty much straight white dudes,” she said.
“We’ve been catering to a crowd and to a need that has been unfulfilled for a very long time,” she continued.
Fighting Back With Comedy
Shaikh isn’t going into the show without concerns of the Taliban – who also operate in and out of Pakistan – targeting her.
“I don’t know who’s watching and who’s listening, but that’s not going to stop me, the comics or Neelab to say the truth” and speak truth to power, she said.
Sarabi worries the upcoming show might cause the Taliban to target her family in Afghanistan who almost died trying to escape the country this year.
She said her family was trapped at the airport trying to get on a plane out of the country, but was forced out of there and was a few kilometers away before explosions rocked the Kabul airport, which ruptured the eardrum of one of Sarabi’s relatives.
The night prior Sarabi’s family reached out to her, tired of spending five nights at the airport and wanting to go home, but Sarabi encouraged them to stay so they could flee the country.
“It took me a couple of hours to finally be able to get confirmation that they’re not dead,” she said. “For those two hours, all I was thinking about was, ‘Oh my God, if they’re dead, it’s my fault, because I told him not to go. I told him to stay there.’”
Minority Reportz Presents Comedy Benefit for Afghanistan
The show will feature six comedians, buffet style dinner and an afterparty with Bollywood Dj Kush. Part of the proceeds will go to nonprofit groups helping people in Afghanistan.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28, 202
Where: Caspian Restaurant, 14100 Culver Drive, Irvine
Tickets: General admission $70 online; $100 at the door
Sarabi’s family are a part of the Hazara community – a ethnic minority group in Afghanistan – who have been persecuted for more then a century and targeted by the Taliban in the past.
To protect them, Sarabi has removed pictures of her family members from her social media accounts, even unfollowing them online.
And despite her concerns, not performing is not an option for Sarabi, who will be the night’s host.
“That is exactly what the Taliban are trying to do – to intimidate people to silence them. And sometimes I actually do feel really scared that I’m wagering my family’s safety. But at the same time, if I don’t perform anymore, then that means that they have won,” she said.
For Sarabi, comedy has been a medium for her social activism and a way to tackle important issues in a way people can easily digest instead of tuning out.
“It’s more than just making people laugh. It’s actually making people think,” she said.
Sarabi hopes to make people laugh on Thursday but she also sees the benefit of delivering a clear message: “What’s going on in Afghanistan is really beyond reprehensible and I need to make sure that my voice can reach as many people as possible.”
Beyond raising money for people back East, she hopes the benefit will bring attention back to what’s going on in Afghanistan.
“My fear is that this will go on for the next 10 years,” she said. “It’s my obligation to talk about it as much as I possibly can and make sure people hear my voice.”
It’s also about fighting back against the Taliban.
“Taliban are anti-women, anti-art. So, what is a better tool to fight them than artists who are women.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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