On-Stage But Off-Camera

by Dr. Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, special to The Daily Damn

Photo shoot with a New York Times photographer, the email subject line said. In the place of elation, I felt a large pit of dread open in my stomach. That someone munching on her breakfast comes across this photo of comedians in the burgeoning comedy scene in Qatar. She squints, thinking: She had that baby ages ago. Why still lumpy? Or as the former colleague said, to my face, she looks so much skinner in person. The reverse compliment that is not flattering in the least. Choosing not to be photographed is a right that many in the west deny each other, men or women. “Oh come on,” we say. “Get on in there.”

The majority of local Qatari women aren’t photographed. Culturally, the society feels that the “bloom is off the rose” if everyone can see her in newspapers or magazines. Six years of living in Doha haven’t made me Arab, but I do see positives on the other side. In this instance, the benefit of not being forced to have your photo taken.

To further complicate matters, this New York Times photo-op was the second rainy day in our desert city; the sky the color of the bottom of a stainless steel pot. Not exactly picturesque, however, the photographer was only in town for a limited time. I rallied and joined them, heels stuck in wet sand and all.

After all what was a little wet cement, or plaster, compared to being on stage in front of several hundred, as I had earlier in the month to introduce a well-known comedian at a fundraiser. The fact that the loudest laughs I get are when I give voice to the thoughts people have about our unusual family. Is that your baby? I describe the reaction to a brown woman holding our Whitish-looking child in public. As comics, we ask each other how to strengthen our material, how to make it funnier.

“The baby,” I’m told by one astute member of the audience.

I have made time for the comedy scene – juggling teaching, writing, parenting, living for seven months – to encourage other women to stand up and tell their jokes. While Tina Fey may be taking the world by storm, a woman on stage is still a touch-and-go thing in the Middle East. Case in point: some nights audiences think I’m hilarious. Other nights, they stare me down until I get off the stage, arms crossed and brows furrowed. Who knows what people will think when this photo (or the accompanying article) comes out. Who really cares?

And that’s my giving a damn.

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Dr. Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a well-traveled scholar of literature and a freelance writer based in Qatar. She is a co-founder of the Maktaba project, a Children’s Library concept starting up in Doha. Follow her on Twitter @moha_doha.

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