Tez Ilyas takes on prejudice with his trademark blend of optimism and sarcasm
“The greatest thing about the British isn’t our sense of humour. It’s that if you can make us laugh we’ll think, ‘ah, they must be alright’,” Tez Ilyas believes. The fact this young stand-up has sold out on the Fringe for the past two years with shows about the complexities of being a British Muslim – at a time when if you’re not being strip searched at Heathrow, you’re being told to apologise for other people’s crimes – pretty much proves his point.
Tez is part of a wave of irreverent young British Muslim stand-ups who are tearing up preconceptions from every side. His solo debut TEZ Talks was part stand-up, part emotional immersive theatre based on the idea that he was delivering the final lecture in the audience’s conversion to Islam. His follow up, Pak Life, bounced through his life story, including the moment in Mecca when he looked around at the crowds, worried about his personal space and feeling “more British than ever.”
This year he’s back with TezTify: “basically, me testifying against the assumptions that people might have about me,” he explains. As with all good comedians, Ilyas’s perspective is that of the perpetual outsider. He grew up in Blackburn’s close-knit Muslim community, went to an infant school with one white pupil and a secondary school split 60/40. But as an Asian kid with divorced parents, he was never really at the heart of the community.
“Growing up there was me and Faizer Dah whose parents were divorced,” he gives a quick smile. “It was only when I got to university and started hanging out with white people that I realised every second person had divorced parents and I could relax.”
As a result, his quick wits started on the playground, partly as a survival strategy. “Taking the mick out of each other was a big part of growing up – I mean you could call it bullying,” he laughs. “But there are a lot of sarcastic people in Blackburn and we were always riffing on who was best. Of course, the Muslims had the trump card of Muhammad Ali and he always trumped everyone.”
His resulting complex battle with identity saw him start university a month after 9/11 sporting the full bushy beard of the truly devout. “I was praying five times a day and I never thought about it,” he explains. “But the majority of my friends were white English guys and girls and I really enjoyed hanging out with them. I even started liking Oasis.”
He graduated, bummed around America for a year. “I never had any trouble going in or out of the country,” he shrugs. Then he got fast-tracked into the civil service, eventually helping oversee security at the 2012 Olympics. “I had the very first meeting with the army after the G4S failure where we asked them to help us out,” he gives a quiet smile. “Their answer was, hell no! Then they rang back half an hour later and said ‘let’s discuss the options’.”
There was so much comedy, he felt he had to write about it. “There were no brown faces doing comedy on TV when I was growing up – which is odd because I don’t think people realise how much of a sarcastic sense of humour British Asian Muslims have,” he muses. “I started stand-up to learn how to write and meet new people. I didn’t expect a career.”
Gradually, he found his voice as audiences responded to riffs on how hard it is being Muslim in the country you love. “I was slightly worried that people would take offence, but I’ve had no negative reaction at all,” he explains. “Which is another good reason to be proud to be British.”
His Fringe shows led to getting his own radio series, panel shows and talks about a sitcom, and he finally quit the Home Office last October. Since starting comedy, however, he has noticed a subtle change in attitudes in the UK towards and within the Muslim community – for the better.
“It’s only the political fringes on every side that have got worse,” he smiles and shrugs. “I’m quite an optimistic person. The main thing is to listen. We can’t change people’s minds if we just patronise them. And that’s the great thing about comedy. If you’re making someone laugh, you’re definitely not making them feel patronised.”
WORDS Stephen Armstrong, Comedy Critic for The Sunday Times
PHOTO Steve Ullathorne
WHERE & WHEN
Tez Ilyas: Teztify, Pleasance Courtyard, 2-27 Aug (not 16), 8.30pm, from £10
Tel: 0131 556 6550