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Verbal Heroes Stand Up in Berlin

This weekend, the 2nd International Festival of Verbal Art kicked off in Berlin with some of the world's most promising comedians, including the first female Muslim comic and South African word acrobat John Vlismus.


A South African whirlwind in Berlin - stand-up comedian John Vlismus

Sitting in a dark, solitary studio at the back of the hall, John Vlismus can barely be heard. Such is the noise of the sound check next door, that his words simply disappear into space. Later, when the noise dies down, and finally peters out, Vlismus says "comedy is a universal language. You don't necessarily need words to be funny".

John Vlismus is a professional comedian and is known for his "physical" shows. He has appeared several times on stage using only mime, not a word on his lips, making up for the missing language with jumps and somersaults. At times, a dangerous endeavour, and one which has cost the South African several broken ribs.

For Berlin, Vlismus has dropped the "physical" and has concentrated on the verbal: Vlismus is one of up to a hundred actors, comedians and singers taking part in the second International Festival of Verbal Art at the Tempodrom venue hall in Berlin. Here, 20 comedians from all over the world will be showing their ability to tongue-twist, crack jokes and play with words over two successive weekends starting January 17. For Vlismus a challenge - it is the South African's first trip to Germany.

Time to laugh

"My first thought in Berlin was how gloomy it is," Vlismus says quickly, in his smooth, South African accent, two hours before the show. "I always thought the city had a vibrant culture. Where is the vibe?" he aks, shuffling around nervously on his chair. In his black, shiny, frilled shirt, black coat and spiky hair, Vlismus is rather like an excited child, waiting for the birthday party to begin. Germany's trailing economy, the grey winter months, Schröder's tax rises – Vlismus has informed himself on what is ailing the German population. And he is well aware of the cliché, that Germans have no sense of humour. "My message", he says with a grin, "is that it is ok to laugh".

Later, Vlismus explains how humour came from the most suppressed people in the world, from the Jews and the Irish. "It is a kind of coping mechanism".

For Shazia Mirza, humour is indeed a way of coping - and fighting - oppression.

Stunningly funny

Mirza is an attraction the moment she steps into the Tempodrom's wide foyer. Organizers making final preparations for the festival, and visitors gathering outside the ticket office, turn their heads as the young, slim women wearing trainers and a traditional hajib, the scarf worn by observant Muslim women, hurries past.

Maulhelden - 2. Internationalen Festival der Wortkunst in Berlin

Mirza (photo) is the world's first female Muslim comedienne. She hit the London comedy scene two years ago with her dry, laconic one-liners on life as a Muslim. With jokes such as "my name is Shazia Mirza….at least that's what it says in my pilot licence" she has managed to stun audiences momentarily - but this has not stopped her bringing the house down by the end of her set.

A welcome break from the usual comedy club circuit where most comedians are white men cracking jokes about casual sex and hard drinking, the 26-year-old from Birmingham has taken the challenge of breaking the barrier between the Muslim and the Western world – with humour. The September 11 attacks only fuelled her determination to share humour about her life and her culture. "There is no such thing as a Muslim terrorist – terrorism is terrorism," she declares.

The decision to become a comedian – against her parents' wishes – has not left her unaffected. It was always her dream, but it took her two years of life as a physics teacher, numerous secret drama lessons and a fair amount of courage to make the break and go her own way. "As a Muslim, being a comedian is not culturally accepted": last year, three men assaulted her at a London event shouting that she was "a disgrace to Islam". "But being a comedian is not forbidden" she adds with a glint in her eye.

What is forbidden, however, is to go out with a man before marriage – something which she has never done. "I have to carry the baggage of my culture - but it is worth it": With her shows, Mirza hopes to release the tension between the two cultures – and to attract more Muslim women to comedy.

Soft porn and Eisbein

Later, on the venue's main stage, Mirza's German audience doesn't quite know what to make of the young woman in her hajib, talking about arranged marriages ("I'm really looking forward to my wedding day. I can't wait to meet my husband") and her home life ("I used to play in front of a garage with the letters 'Paki go home'. It was my mum telling me it was my time for dinner").

At the same time, on the small stage, John Vlismus has the crowd roaring with laughter, even though a good part of his act is about Germany. Words such as Eisbein, Gestapo and Autobahn feature alongside puns on South Africa and the US President in his whirlwind like, energetic show.

Maulhelden - 2. Internationalen Festival der Wortkunst

Meanwhile, Mirza has finally broken the ice. "Yesterday I arrived late at my hotel and wanted to watch the news before going to bed. On all ten channels there was porn! I couldn't believe it….I didn't get to bed until four….!"

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