Comedian Kae Kurd on Growing Up Kurdish and the Responsibility of Representation

Kae Kurd isn’t intimidated by the prospect of debuting his first hour-long stand-up show, Kurd Your Enthusiasm, in a full run at the Edinburgh Fringe. Partially, that’s because it’s not his first time to the rodeo: he’s been doing stand up for five years, and performed in Edinburgh last year as part of The Pleasance Comedy Reserve showcase. But there’s another reason as well: he can’t allow himself to be intimidated. ‘At my age,’ he reminds himself, ‘my father was running at tanks’.

Whether you like it or not, they're going to make you representative.

Kae Kurd is, well, Kurdish. Kurds are an ethnic and religious group, most of whom live in Greater Kurdistan, an international region comprising parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. His parents come from the Iraqi area, and in the 80s, they were part of the resistance to Saddam Hussein, whose Al-Anfal campaign sought to eliminate the Kurdish people in Iraq. Kae has a strong South London accent and a no-nonsense approach to the narration of his tragic backstory: ‘The 80s was great for action movies and music,’ he says, ‘but terrible for Kurds’.

Kae’s parents, like many, fled the country and ended up in the Kurdish part of Iran. But they had no political status. “It wasn’t a great time to be there,” says Kae, who was born there in 1990.

His father had been injured two years earlier in a poison gas attack, an injury which had gone largely untreated. ‘It wasn’t like they could actually do anything for him properly, like they did here,’ says Kae. He laughs for a second. ‘It’s just normal to me, but it does shock people when I tell them’.

Kae cites that injury as the reason he and his family were among the few Kurds accepted to the UK as political refugees. They ended up in Brixton, right in between the 1985 Brixton riots and the 1995 Brixton riots. ‘It wasn’t exactly the place you picture yourself going to if you want to go and have a cozy life, if you see where I’m coming from.’

Growing up in the UK, his parents stressed his Kurdish identity, because there weren’t others around. They had Kurdish friends in different parts of the city, but they could only see them on the weekends. ‘In my class, you’d have a lot of people from a Jamaican background, or a Nigerian background, or a Ghanaian background. You’d have a couple of Asian kids and two or three white guys. And that was it.” No Kurds. Not even other middle-eastern people.

So their household became very political. Kae says, ‘I grew up in a house where my brothers nearly had a fight over which economic policy is best’. He doesn’t mean “argument”.

Kae is uniquely political as a stand-up as well, commenting less on party politics than peace in the Middle East and the problem of gentrification. Kae says his show is opinionated in that respect, in his usual way: ‘If you’re expecting to go and have someone bang on about their cat for an hour, this isn’t the show for you.’

But middle-eastern comics are few and far between, and Kurdish comics are non-existent. Which means Kae, fighting for the audiences that every performer needs, is facing uphill. ‘It’s not just middle-eastern comics,’ he says, ‘I think TV, in general, is not really representative of what people are like in this country. You don’t see a massive amount of women on TV, and when you see a black actor, they try not to get more than one on a show, or more than one Asian girl on a show. We’re not given the opportunity to fail like a lot of other people are.’

Kae knows that when people see him perform, they’re seeing every Kurd in the world. ‘Whether you like it or not, they’re going to make you representative.’ He complains about being asked to comment on, for instance, the political landscape of Libya, a place he’s never been and knows no more than anyone else about.

‘It’s like how a lot of celebrities don’t ask to become role models but they become role models, it’s just something they have to deal with. That’s why I think it’s important to be knowledgeable about where you come from and who you represent. Because people will put that responsibility on your shoulders. It’s because they’ve not come across anyone from that group of people.’

‘A lot of people don’t know who Kurds are, so I’ll have to be a positive representation of my people for the public to see. I’m not necessarily sad about that or downtrodden; I’m actually positive that I can have an effect on people’s viewpoints.’

Kae Kurd: Kurd Your Enthusiasm runs from the 2nd to the 27th August, 17:30 at Pleasance Courtyard.

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