Don't Mention the Holy War; It's Not a Good Time to Make Jokes about Islamic Fundamentalism, Comedian Omid Djalili Tells Bruce Dessau COMEDY

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Byline: BRUCE DESSAU

OMID Djalili was rehearsing for Lenny Henry's forthcoming series when he heard about the attacks on America. "The producer came in and said: 'Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Thousands are dead.' I was waiting for the punch line and she just said, 'Turn the television on.'" The comedian/actor's mind raced.

After checking with American friends and taking in the enormity of the tragedy, he had another concern: should he cancel his London shows?

For the Kensington-born, British-Iranian it was a deeply personal dilemma.

"This was a very big thing for my show. On my publicity, which I had nothing to do with, was a quote calling me 'Middle Eastern madman' and I thought, 'That's it, I'm going to get killed if I do the show.'" He even considered giving up comedy completely.

"I questioned my role as a comedian."

The quick-witted 35-year-old has done much to dismantle ethnic barriers. "A lot of what I talk about is a celebration of multiculturalism. I thought my work had all come crashing down, I'm from the part of the world that allowed this to happen so I took it personally. But pulling out would be giving in."

Continuing has meant rewriting the show. He used to joke about how if you laugh at ethnic people you can warm to their culture; if people found him funny they might understand Islamic fundamentalism. Hard to laugh now.

Besides, Djalili is not even a Muslim, but a Baha'i, part of a more inclusive faith. People assume he is Muslim because he looks Arabic.

But what new material should go in?

"You can't really talk about the event.

It's like when Princess Diana died, it's too sensitive. But I'll talk about the Middle Eastern mindset, where you are so passionate about something you would die for it. The English don't understand this."

Djalili is no stranger to criticism, but when he first started out, it came from his own community. "Iranians told my dad that I was making jokes about Iran by saying that I was caught between the Ayatollah and Dickie Davies. …