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Riaad Moosa is a comedian, movie star and a qualified doctor
He uses his religious identity to poke fun at Islamic stereotypes
Moosa believes Islam is a religion that is open to comedy
His latest movie tells the story of a Muslim comedian challenging his community's expectations
If laughter is the best medicine then few are more qualified to offer a prescription than Riaad Moosa.
The South African comic-turned-movie-actor is a fully trained doctor, but it’s his Indian heritage and Muslim faith that provide the basis for his stand-up material.
“I’m a comedian who happens to be Muslim [and] my comedy stems on all forms of my identity,” he says.
Moosa came to prominence on the comedy-club circuit of his native Cape Town around the turn of the century and became known for poking fun at Islamic stereotypes.
He believes this serves to highlight the prejudices many people have developed about Muslims due to fears of terrorism or violent extremism.
“When I started out it was around the whole 9/11, Islamophobia was just sort of hitting a second wind,” he says.
“Obviously that informed a lot of my humor and it influenced a lot of what I was talking about on stage because it was extremely relevant at the time.
“I would just speak about how people perceived Muslims and how scared they are of Muslims.”
Moosa however says that Islam is a religion which is tolerant and open to comedy, especially in South Africa.
“I’m sure in certain parts of the world it still sounds a bit strange [being a Muslim comedian],” he says.
“In the Cape, in fact, it’s completely the opposite. The Muslims in the Cape are associated with having a very good sense of humor.”
Moosa has been known to crack jokes on the death of Osama bin Laden and European perceptions of Islam.
In one routine he jokes: “Europeans ridicule Muslim culture because they don’t understand the wisdom behind it. Take swine flu for instance: all the sudden you’ve got Europeans scared of pigs – we’ve been saying that for years!”
Moosa describes such gags as “hard jokes” but says he should able to extract humor from every aspect of his life. He draws a line however at insulting or demeaning his religious beliefs.
“I would never want to disrespect my beliefs,” he says. “There are certain, obviously different, areas you wouldn’t go. It’s not congruent to who I am as a person and it would be insincere and it wouldn’t be based on truth.”
Despite being a natural comedian, Moosa says he always wanted to be a doctor. “Both my parents are doctors, so from the time I was a child I wanted to do medicine,” he says.
“It just so happened that I also had this other talent for making voices – that’s how my mom put it – I used to always impersonate people.”
Having qualified as a doctor, Moosa admits that his new career is something of a departure.
“It’s a very different type of work – I mean, I never got applause with the medicine. I never got: ‘That’s an amazing prostate exam doctor, do you have any DVDs of your prostate exams?’”
Moosa’s latest film project, Material, has already been released in South Africa. In the movie he plays an aspiring young Muslim comedian challenging his family’s expectations of what it means to be successful in modern South Africa.
In many ways, Material has more than a whiff of Moosa’s own life-story about it.
He has been heavily involved throughout the project, helping write the script, being cast in the starring roll and even having a financial stake in the film.
“The challenges that I have of being a South African comedian as a Muslim … does get dramatized in the story,” he says.
“It’s not specifically my story because my family is very supportive. There was no moment where I had to challenge my parents specifically to try and achieve my dream, which is what happens in the movie.”
Moosa hopes the underlying themes portrayed in the film of an underdog fighting against the odds and tradition will make it a hit outside South Africa.
Like his comedic routines, Moosa has tried to create a piece of art that will resonate with his audience on multiple levels.
He says there are plans to take the film to India and the Middle East and has already visited London to promote the movie at the 2012 BFI London Film Festival.
He adds: “It is a universal tale and I think many communities or people around the world will connect with that story.
“That’s the trick, to not make it a South African story but a story about an ordinary person trying to follow their dreams.”