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Comedian Soran Ismail: 'Someone's gotta laugh'

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Comedian Soran Ismail: 'Someone's gotta laugh'
15:19 CET+01:00
In the first of a new series profiling Swedish newsmakers, The Local gets the lowdown on Kurdish-Swedish comedian Soran Ismail, who has been in the news recently for his starring role in the Sweden Democrat racist video scandal.

A shaky video has rattled the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats in recent days, prompting the party to strip several young political hotshots of their jobs.

At the centre of the drunken tirade, filmed two years ago, is Kurdish-Swedish comedian Soran Ismail, 24, whose calm during the incident belies a dogged determination to put the party to task for its opinions.

"But my passport says I'm Swedish," says Ismail.

"Doesn't matter."

It is a rapid-fire exchange in which Ismail defends himself against the drunken rhetorical onslaught of Sweden Democrat MP Eric Almqvist.

In the sequences of the now-infamous video, Almqvist points his finger over and over again at Ismail, just centimetres from his face.

As the debate spills out into the street from the crowded entrance to McDonald's on central Stockholm's Kungsgatan, Ismail remains calm as Almqvist towers over him.

"I love Sweden more than most people do,” Ismail says.

On that night more than two years ago, Ismail had no idea he was talking to top-level politicians, or that the exchange would propel him into the media spotlight for a performance which was anything but funny.

"I'm used to people feeling some kind of need to subject me to their racist opinions,” Ismail told daily Dagens Nyheter (DN) this week.

“It's happened in the pub, on the net, in school, when I'm on tour all over Sweden.”

Raised in Knivsta, a tiny satellite town on the Uppsala-Stockholm commuter rail line, Ismail has called Sweden home for as long as he remembers.

He was nine months old when his parents, Kurdish refugees from Iraq, found shelter in Sweden.

Yet, after 15 years living in the same house, he says his parents still have no ethnically Swedish friends in the neighbourhood.

When he was only six years old, he was attacked by another boy whose father egged the fight on, and called Ismail a “black head” (svartskalle).

Since becoming a professional comedian, Ismail has often said that humour is like a protective armour, a way to let self-irony give him a bit of distance from criticism.

His family's origin is far from off-topic. Jokes range from a ‘Who's the most Kurdish?' test with fellow Kurdish-origin comedian Özz Nüjen, to mocking those who claim that immigrants have a "criminal gene".

From his regular slot on the satirical political show Parlamentet, Ismail has gone as far afield as to take a crack at US foreign policy. In the show just after the 2008 US presidential election, he encourages the then-newly elected Barack Obama to sort out the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but "not to forget that Iceland needs some serious sorting out too".

Last year, in the weekly podcasts “Someone's gotta laugh at some point” ('Till slut kommer någon att skratta'), Ismail and colleagues dissected any and all topics.

The banter was raw, even offensive at times, but behind the juvenile, laddish veneer there seemed to be a frank attempt to strip some taboos of their mystery… sex, ethnicity, ‘anti-feminist' blogger Per Ström, a blow-up shark.

Nor did the comedians spare each other from the dissection.

“Soran earns a hellavu lot more cash than the rest of us, so he picks up the drink tabs, he pays for lunch, he bought the equipment we needed to record this podcast, dang he even pays for Petter's apartment,” says Ismail's colleague.

“Dude, he pays for my parents' apartment,” counters the aforementioned Petter.

“But he only does it because he hates feeling indebted to anyone,” jokes a third colleague.

It is, perhaps, all rather too-cool-for-school, but the podcasts do stand testament to Ismail's cool in the literal sense.

He doesn't lose his head.

And he kept it on during his encounter with the three drunken Sweden Democrats.

There is one point in the video where Ismail abandons his neutral tone and slips into sarcasm.

Trying to point out that he was allowed to debate his point of view, Ismail has to hear that he “debates like a pussy.”

“Yeah, okay, that's a really mature, reasonable and intelligent response,” Ismail retorts.

Overall, Ismail thinks Swedish media needs to pay more attention to the Sweden Democrats.

“Why doesn't anyone make a fuss when the party says you have to get tougher on people who call blonde girls whores? Why isn't media putting pressure on them to explain this focus on being blonde, this focus on ethnicity,” he told DN.

“Or take them to task when Kent Ekeroth asks whether seeking asylum should really be a human right?” he inquires, referring to the Sweden Democrat MP who filmed the video.

“Well, you know what, Kent Ekeroth, it became a human right when the fucking UN decided to make it a human right.”

Take a look at our past Swedes of the Week.

Ann Törnkvist

Follow Ann on Twitter here

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