Arts

Writer and comic Joe Nawaz on growing up in a mixed-race family in Belfast

Racism, sectarianism and identity come under the spotlight in Joe Nawaz's stand-up show Fake ID. The Belfast writer tells Jenny Lee about the difficulties of growing up in a mixed-race, mixed-faith household at the height of the troubles

Joe Nawaz – "I was the first atheist in my class. It's a fast track to atheism when you are taught two faiths – you end up falling between the cracks" Picture: Mal McCann

HAVE you heard the one about the Catholic Muslim? The son of a Pakistani Muslim father, who came to Belfast to study geology at Queen's University, and an Irish Catholic mother, Joe Nawaz endured many painful jokes and remarks growing up in a mixed-race, mixed-faith household at the height of the Troubles.

During his childhood years in 80s and 90s Belfast, the Belfast writer tried everything he could to become just the same as his school friends. He even went as far as obtaining a fake ID card, where he changed his name to Donnelly.

"It was my last-ditch attempt to be Irish and Catholic. My parents found it in my room and there was this terrible confrontation about why I changed my surname and they knew it was because I wanted to be someone else," recalls Nawaz, who was born on the first day of the Ulster Workers Council strike.

"All any young person wants to do is fit in. Growing up here and not belonging to any particular tribe was tough."

Nawaz's parents agreed not in indoctrinate their children in their respective faiths. The plan wasn't airtight, however, as Nawaz recalls his mother sneaking him off in secret to his first confession, while his dad secretly showed him the direction of Mecca and taught him some Islamic prayers "on a Saturday morning when my mum was out at the shops".

"I was the first atheist in my class. It's a fast track to atheism when you are taught two faiths – you end up falling between the cracks," says Nawaz, who is now 43 and has grown to accept and be proud of who he is.

"I don't necessarily care about being Irish anymore, or Catholic or Muslim. I'm a Nawaz and a 'Belfastard' first and foremost."

At last year's Belfast Comedy Festival he debuted his stand-up show Fake ID in which, through a combination of slides, video, music and his own narration he guides audiences through the trappings of growing up in Belfast as a person of colour during the 80s and 90s.

Next week Nawaz will once again perform what he describes as his "pretentious hodgepodge" at Belfast's Strand Arts Centre, before taking the show on an Irish tour and to Belfast's MAC theatre later this year. He has also be commissioned by Radio Ulster to write a radio play of Fake ID and Blackstaff Press will publish his book, again based on Fake ID, later this year.

"It's a glorified slide show, which gives me a chance to show some of my embarrassing family shots and prove I used to have hair back in the day. Every slide is a fashion disaster – tank tops, sandals with socks and flared cords."

While cringing at his fashion faux pas, Nawaz also stresses the serious message of Fake ID: "The show is not about nostalgia, it's about identity. It's about examining a period in time from the advantage of hindsight and looking at the political and social context."

As well as racist taunts about his mum cooking curry every night and the constant stares, Nawaz recalls a scary moment sitting in a car at traffic lights in Shaftesbury Square with his father.

"A number of football fans came from Sandy Row and started shouting abuse and banging the bonnet. I never felt so scared."

While admiring his dad's resilience to racist attacks, the show also documents his difficult and violent relationship with his father, who was murdered 14 years ago, during a visit to Pakistan.

Joe Nawaz. Picture by Mal McCann

"Fake ID is not Angela's Ashes. It is funny, but there is moments where I get pathos and coming to terms with who I am. But at the end of it I think it's a celebration of identity and diversity here," adds Nawaz, who believes it's content of the show will resonates with many.

"We still live in a very unforgiving climate. Whether you are of mixed race, homosexual, short or ginger, there are still these experiences and stories of people suffering pressure to fit in."

His advice to young people today who are struggling with their identity?

"No matter how hard it is, be proud of who you are. Don't look for an identity because your identity is you. Beyond that it doesn't matter. The more you are confident and proud about yourself, the easier everything else will be eventually."

:: Joe Nawaz performs Fake ID as part of the Stranded series, hosted by Seedhead Arts and Strand Arts Centre, on February 2 at Belfast's Strand Arts Centre. Stranded is an intimate weekly BYO event featuring music, comedy, cabaret and theatre. Tickets at strandartscentre.com

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