Famous for political incorrectness and racial commentary, comedian Ali Jahangiri purposefully challenges the immigrant stereotype.

COMEDIAN Ali Jahangiri, 29, moved to Finland from Iran as a refugee with his parents in 1991. A business consultant, he started performing stand-up comedy on and off in 2004 and in 2010 decided to take the plunge into full-time comedy. Also a cofounder of the group We Do Comedy, which books comedians for companies and events, he’ll be performing in English at Gloria Cultural Arena in March as part of the Week Against Racism.

Jahangiri sat down with SixDegrees to talk about growing up as an immigrant in Finland and the importance of not being afraid of the True Finns, Christmas, or the black man.

How did you decide to make the jump into full-time comedy?

When you do work as a consultant, you have to devote your life to it. Stand-up comedy and consulting are not necessarily in contradiction with each other, but you have to commit to one or the other. Last year I thought, I should go for it. I’m still under 30 and I should do something.

Do you perform more in Finnish or English?

My material comes from being a refugee and a foreigner in Finland, so most of my stuff is in Finnish. I do a lot of English shows too, though.

Do you ever have opportunities to perform in Farsi?

I have tried. But in Finland it’s hard to do, as we have something like less than 2,000 people who can speak the language. A bigger problem, though, is more cultural. In Farsi-speaking culture, there is respect between the older generation and the younger generation. The older generation can talk about certain subjects among themselves, but they don’t expect someone from my generation to talk about my sexuality, or my fears, or whatever. When I perform in Finnish, I am filled with rage, and I swear a lot. That’s my thing. And I could not do that in Farsi.

Do you bring the same rage to your English act?

When I go onstage, I often say that I have stuff on my mind and in my heart that I want to bring out. My comedy is about the passion. Usually the majority of the crowd at English shows are ex-pats, so I begin by asking if there are any Americans in the room. Almost always the answer is yes. So I shout, “Fuck you, I’m a Muslim!” That gets a big laugh, but then I apologise, and I try to make it up to them. And we get on with the show and have a good time.

You came to Finland with your family at a time when there weren’t many foreigners in the country at all. What was that like?

The Finnish economy in the early ’90s was even worse than it is now, and there was also the first influx of refugees from Somalia and then the Balkans. So there were suddenly a lot more foreigners in Finland, and they didn’t know how to handle us. It was a different time. In school, we used to play a game called Kuka pelkää mustaa miestä or “Who’s afraid of the black man?” I’m not saying it wasn’t racist, but people just didn’t know better. It didn’t have a real context, a racial context. It was kind of innocent. Until one day an actual black kid showed up in school, and suddenly, people were like – wait a minute!

It was also very common in Finland to use the word mutakuono, a way to describe people from the Middle East, which means people with mud faces. The old Finnish TV show Kyllä isä osaa, which was really a very funny show, a great send up of the Finnish family, had an Archie Bunker-type character who would use terms like neekeri (“nigger”) or mutakuono that just aren’t OK to use anymore. I think we’re headed in a better direction nowadays.

The True Finns have been polling more than 15 percent lately. Do you think some Finns still can’t accept the idea of multiculturalism?

The big discussion in this coming election is about immigration, and yet we are less than 3 percent of the population. It’s just simply impossible to be responsible for all the things that some people say we’re responsible for! But I don’t think, at the end of the day, that people will actually bring themselves to vote for the True Finns. I think, once people are in the booth, people know that they don’t really have any plan for the economy, for example. And it doesn’t help the True Finns’ cause when one of their candidates is discovered to have outsourced his campaign operation to Bangladesh. There’s an irony there.

But I think a lot of people in Finland confuse two terms. One is multiculturalism, and the other is cultural relativism. In a real multicultural environment, you don’t have individual cultures that are allowed to just live apart and do whatever they want. You are coming together and forming part of a new culture, which lives within the same boundaries. Whereas in cultural relativism, each culture is like a balloon, you pack them in the same bag, and you expect them to just stay like that, without anything popping. That’s ridiculous.

I think in Finland, because multiculturalism is relatively new, some Finns might think it means that foreigners have a right to practice their culture any way they want to – which is not totally true. When you come to another country, you have to adapt and adjust. Finland isn’t Iran. It doesn’t mean that you have to give up your old culture, but it does mean that some things change or evolve.

For example, a few years ago there was a big discussion about how in school, everyone goes to the Lutheran church at Christmas time.  There were some Finns who decided that this was not correct for the Muslim children. Instead of proposing that Muslim children just don’t go if they don’t want to, which was already the de facto practice, they proposed that the Christmas celebration be taken away from all children, to make everybody equal. I just thought, “Why?” It would be an unnecessary law, and Muslims would just end up getting the blame for it anyway – “why did you take away Christmas?”

Do you ever find yourself in trouble with Western political correctness?

Actually, back in 2007 Helsingin Sanomat did a story on me, and they came to a show where I was talking about religion. I think I said something like, “Hey everybody, it’s good to be here, but I’m still mad at Osama for putting me in this freezing country.” When it came out in the paper, a lot of Finns came up to me and said, “Why do you say these things about Islam?” I was like, “Well, I’m a Muslim, my parents are Muslim, my friends are Muslim, and none of them got offended. Everyone was laughing, everyone was having a good time. Why are you offended?” In my act, especially when I do it in Finnish, there is usually a small group of people in the audience who are like, “uh, can I laugh at this? Is this racist? Is it OK?”

Here’s the thing: if my foreigner friends or my immigrant friends don’t laugh at my jokes, then I know I’m being a clown for the Finns. I don’t want to be that guy who Finnish people point to and go “Hahaha! Look at him!” So if my immigrant friends don’t laugh at a joke, I don’t take it to the Finnish crowd. As long as my immigrant friends laugh harder than my Finnish friends, then I know I’m doing the right thing.

Do you ever worry about having to ‘represent’ all Muslims in your act?

Actually, the other day I got a call from YLE, and they wanted my opinion on the Egyptian revolution. I said, OK, but you do realise that I’m not Egyptian, I’m Iranian and I probably know as much about Egypt as you do. She said, OK, but could you just say something in general about the Middle East? So I answered a couple questions. But then they called me back and asked if they could come and tape my next show for their special on Egypt.

Now, I was happy to answer their questions; I genuinely wanted to help. But when they wanted to come and tape my show, to show me as an Iranian-Finnish Muslim taking a big public stand on Egyptian politics, I thought, “This has to change.” So that night, I got onstage and said, “Welcome to the show, as you can see there are YLE cameras here, and they’re taping tonight’s show for a special on the Egyptian revolution. And thank God they found me, the only brown guy with something to say!” Because I was the MC that night, I asked all the other comedians to come onstage and offer their opinions on Egypt too – they were just as qualified as I am.

Have you ever been asked to comment on the Green movement in Iran?

When the Green protests were really active in 2009, I wasn’t as active as a comedian as I am now, so I didn’t get many calls. I did perform in a green shirt, to show support. I don’t often bring up Iran in my comedy, though. It’s hard to incorporate it into my material, because people don’t know much about it – and, besides, I live here in Finland.

When I was a child I wanted to… be Rambo.
I hate it when…
I have a pizza box with me on the tram, and a drunk guy comes up to me and says, “hey, this is not a pizza delivery tram.”
I would really like to travel to…
South Africa.
In five years time…
I want to be a dad.
Place and date of birth:
Tehran, 1981
Place of residence:
Master’s in Economics, Aalto University, Helsinki School of Economics
Fiancée, dog, parents, uncle, brother

Joseph Knowles