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Patrick Crewdson - some young guy, Auckland

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

I just flew in from exile in Europe and boy are my arms tired

An Englishman, an Irishman and an Algerian walk into a bar. The Englishman and the Irishman each order a drink, and the Algerian asks for a review of his security risk certificate. The bartender looks them up and down and says,
“Sorry, I don’t do political humour.”
Given how farcical the Ahmed Zaoui case has been, it’s thrown up precious few laughs. Personally, I blame Zaoui.

According to a new book on the case – I almost forgot about the moon, by Selwyn Manning, Yasmine Ryan and Katie Small – Zaoui is a cheerful man. He “laughs contagiously”. He has a wide smile and a great sense of humour. That’s as may be, but what evidence have we seen of it? Everybody loves a comedian, so – undeserved image as a dour Islamic terrorist notwithstanding – I’m willing to accept that Ahmed Zaoui is a funny guy. But the fact is, if he’d been a little quicker off the mark with one of his trademark zingers or droll witticisms, this whole sorry affair could have been avoided.

When Zaoui arrived in New Zealand a customs official asked if he was a member of the terrorist agency the GIA. “FIS,” he replied, meaning that he wasn’t, but that he did belong to the Islamic Salvation Front, a democratically-elected political party. Only, in his heavy accent, “FIS” came out sounding like “Yes” (that’s not the punchline, by the way, that actually happened).

If only they’d been screening Monty Python on the plane trip over here, Zaoui’s many months of imprisonment could have been avoided.

“GIA?”
“Er, no, freedom actually.”
“What?”
“Yeah, they said I hadn't
done anything and I could go and live on an island somewhere.”
“Oh I say,
that's very nice. Well, off you go then.”
But no, instead we got two years of interminable court cases and appeals, with nary a quip or bon mot to leaven the drudgery.

Still, Zaoui’s had plenty of chances to make the system work for him. Your average comedian would kill for the sort of media coverage he’s had. Hell, the fatally un-amusing Mike King managed to wheedle himself a second shot at a talk show, so I struggle to believe that the nation’s favourite asylum seeker couldn’t find a promoter willing to stage his stand-up routine. No doubt it’d generate more public interest in his cause if the Free Ahmed Zaoui campaigners changed all their stickers and flyers to read ‘Free Ahmed Zaoui gig’ and started advertising his courtroom appearances as comedy events. (And while we’re on the topic of promotion, Zaoui’s agent really must get some new publicity stills circulating. We’ve been looking at the same out-of-focus shot of him grinning for far too long. That’s no way to manage a career.)

To be fair on Zaoui, his strength might lie more in slapstick or physical comedy. It’s hard to pull off comic pratfalls when you’re in solitary confinement. Either way, if and when he’s finally released, Zaoui’s gonna be grateful for all the time he had in Paremoremo and Auckland Central Remand to hone his act. He’s got two possibilities: either he’ll be deported to Algeria, where he’ll probably be killed (which, as fans of Weekend at Bernie’s will know, doesn’t mean the laughs have to stop. Weekend at Ahmed’s anyone?), or the Government will decide it’s never too late to say you’re sorry and he’ll be granted asylum, freeing him up to hit the circuit with his one-man show Wowie Zaoui!

As Reader's Digest always maintained, laughter is the best medicine. Can it heal our broken Security Intelligence Service or patch up our ailing legal framework? I’m confident that if anyone can make us forget our troubles, it’s Ahmed Zaoui. That guy’s a crack-up.