Not quite like in Homeland…

Areeba Shah brings us US comedian Jeremy McLellan's perspective on his visit to Pakistan

Not quite like in Homeland…
From the outside looking in, Pakistan seems like a rather typical Third World country. With its reputation in the news about honour killings, unequal treatment of women and intolerance for narratives that lie outside a narrow interpretation of Islam, popular perception abroad often considers it a rather backward country.

For comedian Jeremy McLellan, however, who had never traveled outside of the West before his trip to Pakistan, it was nothing like how it is portrayed in the TV show Homeland or the news, he says.

McLellan first started doing comedy in his hometown Charleston, South Carolina but in recent years he has become more recognised and appreciated within the Muslim and Desi community.

“My comedy has always been about hot button issues, politics, culture and religion,” McLellan says.

McLellan experienced culture shock on his return to the US - particularly the lack of 'Pindi Boys' on the streets

His most recent trip to Pakistan was focused on helping his good friend Sultan Chaudhry lead a team of dental students to Pakistan through the Islamic Medical Association of North America. Before coming, McLellan had trained with a dental assistant to learn how to clean supplies and help as a dental hygienist.

There, as part of a humanitarian project, the team worked in villages providing dental care to about 1,800 people over the course of just five days and dedicated the remaining two days to providing dental care to children in the Sweet Homes Orphanage in Islamabad.

Although the villagers did not recognise McLellan, they were extremely grateful and appreciative of all the work the team had done for them.

“These are people who cannot go for regular checkups,” McLellan said. “The fact that American dentists were coming to do free work for them was really meaningful to them.”

While working with the two dental teams from Howard University and RIPHAH University in Islamabad, McLellan noticed a prevalent gender difference in both teams. According to him, a majority of their team consisted of males with only three females while the students from the RIPHAH University were, for the most part, female.

“The thing I’m always joking about is that in the United States, we talk a lot about how to get women interested in science,” McLellan said. “How do we get women interested in becoming doctors, and engineers like in the STEM field?”

“When you go to those departments in the U.S, they are predominantly male, so it seems like a real push to have women enter STEM fields especially among Pakistanis”, he says.

Western mainstream media depictions of Pakistan, such as those in the show 'Homeland' have been criticised for a lack of accuracy - and many other problems

McLellan could not help but notice that gender roles in Pakistan are very distinct at home. He saw women were in charge of cooking, cleaning and ironing clothing while the men were not. Even women who were lawyers and played key roles outside of their homes were still responsible for taking care of the household. On the other hand, in the U.S, he believes, if men and women had such traditional roles inside their homes, it would immediately translate to the role they played outside.

“It’s weird to have like the combination of gender roles where it’s like a woman is serving me dinner and I’m like so what do you do and she’s a judge,” McLellan said.”It’s weird not to have that connection, it sort of makes you reevaluate how you feel about that stuff.”

In addition to working with IMANA for the first time, McLellan also set up three shows in Lahore and Islamabad. For him, doing stand-up comedy in Pakistan was no different than doing the same in the US.

“When I was there, I was writing material based on my experiences there,” McLellan says. “By the time I finished my last show in Lahore, the material was like 75% stuff that I had written since I had landed.”

Even while developing his pieces further, the comedian says he stayed true to the voice he always uses to make people laugh.

Based on his Facebook analytics, McLellan knew he had thousands of fans in the city after he had announced his plans to visit Pakistan – and yet he was still surprised when his shows were sold out. He feels sad that some of his fans could not make it, but he was still very pleased the tickets were sold out as it has encouraged him to come back and do bigger shows. He especially enjoyed how his audience was sober, different from the American audiences he’s used to performing in front of.
"I love sober audiences and because they're good Muslims - they drink at home," McLellan jokes.

“I love sober audiences and because they’re good Muslims – they drink at home,” McLellan jokes.

Jokes aside, though, he says it makes a big difference to him when his audience is sober. He appreciates how people are alert and pay attention more.

What made McLellan’s trip even more meaningful to him was having unsheltered experiences where he was free to roam the streets and interact with locals. He says he felt safe and was smart about the decisions he made. In Lahore, he stayed with Sultan Chaudhry’s family and took a trip down to Baddomalhi, a city located 35 miles northeast of Lahore, right on the Pakistani and Indian border.

“That was the furthest away from home base that I could possibly get,” McLellan says. “It was the furthest I was from my comfort zone.”

Even miles away from home, McLellan did not experience a tremendous culture shock after arriving to Pakistan. Having Pakistani-American friends certainly helped. However, he was surprised to learn that the daily activities did not completely stop five times a day for prayer. “It was very different than all the people in the U.S thought it would be,” McLellan says again.

He refers to mainstream Western depictions of Pakistan, in movies like Iron Man, where Pakistan is portrayed as a backward country, eager for liberation. Women are depicted wearing burqas by default. McLellan, like many other visitors, found Pakistani lived reality to be far more complex than that.

There is the usual observation about Pakistani hospitality. People invited him to stay in their homes and offered him free food. Most of the individuals he interacted with knew who he was. Others would often ask him about his views on American foreign policy.

Although McLellan enjoyed most of his experiences including riding around on bikes and visiting the Wagah border, he did have a few bad experiences.

While performing at The Millennium University College, his show was repeatedly interrupted by a group of students who refused to pay for the 500-rupee tickets. They videotaped him even when being told not to and disrupted the show by talking and leaving in the middle of his performance.

“I didn’t want it to be like a status thing, like someone who doesn’t even know me is just like there’s an American comedian coming and I can get in because I’m important,” McLellan says.

Since posting about the incident on Facebook and bringing attention to how prevalent the colonial mentality is within the Pakistani culture, TMUS held a meeting the following day, he says.

Similarly, he made a post about the Margala Hotel filling his team’s Nestle water bottles with tap water.

“With social media you could bypass all of that and just blast them out and have everyone calling them,” McLellan says. “The same thing happened with that university.”

While the hotel still has not taken yet full responsibility for the incident, they have offered to reimburse McLellan’s team. The team has responded by asking them to donate that money to orphanages. Margala hotel’s actions have caused its ratings to drop from 5 to 0.7 stars.

McLellan chose to remain positive. His favorite memory in Pakistan was riding around in Lahore during Pakistan’s Independence Day, the 14th of August.

Since the Internet has made the world a very small place, he encourages people skeptical about Pakistanis to go on his Facebook page and to interact with them there.

“When I landed back in the U.S, I was like I can’t believe we just pulled that all off,” McLellan says. “Everything from the very beginning, like getting my visa, was very hard.”

He had a culture shock after landing in the US!

“I’m driving right now and there’s hardly anyone on the road,” McLellan says. “Where are all the Pindi boys, where are all the bikes?”

Jeremy McLellan, who did not become a fulltime comedian till about a year ago, had no idea where his career would take him. Somehow he ended up in Pakistan where he found his way into many Pakistanis’ hearts.