Ahandsome white man – dressed in a kurta, posting pictures of himself at various famous Pakistani tourist spots coupled with some highly uplifting captions about the country – has been the new internet crush of many Pakistanis and what’s more exciting is that he reciprocates the same feelings. Jeremy McLellan; an American stand-up comedian who was named as one of the New Faces of Comedy 2017 at Just for Laughs, the world’s largest comedy festival, recently visited Pakistan and fell in love with the country, its people and their food. The funny man opens up about his love for Pakistanis, biryani and a
lot more in a tête-à-tête with MAG.
“Pakistan’s treating me very well. I haven’t had any complaints during my stay,” he says about his time in the country. But does he fear for his life during his stay here? “No, I don’t and I hope it stays that way [chuckles]. Everyone back at home is really scared for me though. They are scared that I will get killed or something but I haven’t been scared since I have landed here,” says the fearless traveller.
Because McLellan has a lot of Pakistani Muslim fans and friends back at home, the culture shock that many foreigners experience when they first visit a country was not as big for him. “I am around so many Muslims and Pakistanis in the US. I understand their thoughts and culture. I think my experience with these people has helped me prepare for my stay here,” he mentions. While he seems to be at ease with the unspoken ethos of our society, he was indeed taken aback by the traffic situation in the country. “When I was in Lahore, the traffic was insane. The streets were very, very busy and the way people drive here is very scary for me,” he chuckles.
An unapologetic foodie, McLellan has been head over heels in love with biryani before even coming to Pakistan. “I love biryani. I eat it a lot in the US. I like how spicy and flavourful it is,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes. “There is so much more food here. I am eating Pakistani cuisine for every meal.” In one of his online posts, he went on to compare local Pakistani cuisine with that of America. “After a week of good, local, authentic, traditional Pakistani food, American fast food tasted like garbage and I felt exhausted after eating it,” he wrote.
Talking about the people of the country, the globetrotter was all praises for Pakistanis. “Everyone is very kind and hospitable and generous and I love this about Pakistanis.” However, the whole experience does get a little unbearable for him sometimes. “They will offer you food and when you tell them you don’t want it, they keep insisting! A lot of time there is very little personal space, that’s overwhelming,” he spills the beans.
McLellan is making the most of his trip by exploring all the tourist spots in his vicinity. How do people treat him? I ask. “Oh, they stare! When I went out to Anarkali market in Lahore, I was wearing western clothing and EVERYONE was staring at me!” he giggles. “Now, I try to wear a kurta whenever I go out in order to blend in but I am white so everyone stares at me anyway. I am not saying they are being mean, they are kind but they just stare,” he comments on the attention he gets because of the colour of his skin.
His social media posts also talk about persistence of colonial mentality and how people treat him better as compared to his Pakistani American companion. “The colonial mentality is still really strong here. I'm travelling with my good friend Sultan, who is Pakistani American, and whenever we interact with Pakistanis who don't know either one of us, they treat me 100 times better than they treat him,” he wrote.
McLellan accompanied his friend and a team of dental professionals, assembled by the Islamic Medical Association of North America, on a humanitarian mission to provide immediate dental care to the villagers surrounding Islamabad. “My friend Sultan suggested I come to Pakistan and help him with his mission and I was glad to take the invitation. Because I was coming, I set up shows in Lahore and Islamabad through Kuch Khaas, The Centre for Arts, Culture & Dialogue. I wouldn’t have been here without their support,” he enlightens us on the purpose and arrangements of his visit.
While the stand-up comedy scene in Pakistan is still in its infant years, all of McLellan’s shows were not only sold-out, people were actually gate-crashing his shows. “The response has been amazing. The shows are all sold out and above all, people are recognising me in the malls and on the streets,” he smiles. Did he tailor jokes for his shows here? I enquire. “Not really but I am creating new material based on my experiences here in Pakistan every day, so I am performing that here,” says the comedian who has been named the best local comic in the Charleston City Paper.
His humorous commentary on hot-button topics like American politics, immigration, religion, Islamophobia, gender, disability and race has garnered him not only desi American fans but has also made him popular among Pakistani followers. “My jokes are based on my interaction with Muslim and desi people, so they like me and through my work on social media, I have gained a lot of fans in Pakistan,” he opines.
Because of his understanding and fearless support of Islam, Muslims and desi people, he has become a staple at Muslim festivals around North America, which is also why he has received a tremendous amount of negative backlash from right-wing conservatives in the US. “There are people who don’t like me for doing things for Muslims and speaking up for them. People send me horrible messages and death threats all the time,” he says as a matter of fact.
“I don’t care what people say about me. I just ignore it or I use it in my jokes or take screenshots of it and report it,” he goes on about how he deals with the negativity. “You don’t need everyone to like you. You only need a small number of people to like you. And as an artiste, you are not trying to please everyone; you are just trying to please your fans,” says the man with more than 200,000 followers on Facebook.
He believes that the image of Pakistan has been misled and misinterpreted by the international media. “In the US, you only hear about Pakistan when something bad happens. When there is a bomb, or an attack or an international conflict – that’s the only time you hear about Pakistan. Or they see it in TV shows like Homeland where the country is shown as a war-torn area like Afghanistan. Or they just show tribal areas. You never see big cities and bustling areas,” says the man who himself is a witness of the greatness of this country and its people.
“Right kind of exposure can change all of this. Hopefully, people back at home are following my page and reading about my experience in Pakistan. When I go back, I will talk about my experiences here, so I hope there will be a change of mind,” suggests the artiste for whom comedy is an interaction between cultures and religions. “I would tell all my fans in the US to come to Pakistan. Take a guide and take all the necessary safety precautions but do come. It’s a great place,” he says, while on a mission to break racial, religious and demographical stereotypes around the world.
McLellan is appreciative of the love and support that Pakistanis showered him with during his visit and plans to come back to Pakistan next year and “visit Karachi because Karachi has the best biryani and tour Northern Areas as well.” Pakistanis would love to host this exceptionally talented and infectiously kind-hearted man again, until then, try making America great again, Jeremy! •
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