Stand-Up Bridges Decades-Long Boundaries — By Crossing The Line

Pakistani stand-up comedy pioneer Saad Haroon tests cultural sensitivities between his native country and India in his material. "When it comes to satire, I think as a culture, we kind of struggle with it," he says.

Pakistani stand-up comedy pioneer Saad Haroon tests cultural sensitivities between his native country and India in his material. “When it comes to satire, I think as a culture, we kind of struggle with it,” he says. Facebook hide caption

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In Pakistan, there aren’t a whole lot of stand-up comics.

“When it comes to satire, I think as a culture, we kind of struggle with it,” says Pakistani stand-up pioneer Saad Haroon.

His humor shines a light into some delicate areas.

“I wrote this song called ‘Burqa Woman,’ which is a parody of ‘Pretty Woman,’ ” Harron says.

He gives the audience a taste of his act:

Burqa woman, in your black sheet

Burqa woman, with your sexy feet

Burqa woman, my love for you, it grows

Every time I see your nose

Haroon’s presenting a talk about comedy at the city of Karachi’s literature festival along with Sanjay Rajoura, a writer and comedian from neighboring India. Hundreds of people are crammed into a hall to learn about something they rarely see.

“By definition, you know, comedy has to offend someone,” Rajoura says.

India and Pakistan have a seven-decade history of animosity. It isn’t long before a man in the audience starts heckling Rajoura over Kashmir, a core part of the dispute between the two nations.

Rajoura responds with a joke, then Haroon steps in.

“What is your problem, sir? He’s a guest in our country! Let’s show him a little welcome,” Haroon says.

This audience, a mostly young crowd, responds with thunderous applause. They want to know how the comics prepare their acts and how far they can push their comedy.

“I want to ask you: Where do you draw a line between what is a joke and what isn’t a joke — and if there is a line?” says a young woman.

Some subjects do require careful handling, especially in a country like Pakistan where the military wields great power.

“I was just saying that whenever you start cracking jokes about the army, the plot thickens,” says Haroon.

Haroon, who spends a lot of time in the U.S., is asked if it’s different performing stand-up there.

He says he did a gig not long after the Paris terrorist attacks, and afterwards, a man came up to him.

“He’s like: “Saad. You’re a Muslim and the terrorists are Muslims, do you condemn this attack? I said: “Excuse Me! You’re an ****** and the terrorists are ********. You are more closely linked to them than I will ever be! So you have to have your own narrative of what’s going on.”

I ask Rajoura why he, an Indian, came to Pakistan.

To see friends, he says casually. He adds, “I like to come to Pakistan and talk about peace and a lot of other stuff. Somehow or the other I am doing my bit. I dunno whether it is going to help or not.”

Working for peace through comedy’s an ambitious undertaking in South Asia.

Extreme religious and social conservatism is widespread.

Risqué or politically edgy humor can land you in trouble in India as well as Pakistan. Rajoura shrugs this off.

“If they want to shoot me, they shoot me. But I won’t stop talking, because this is where the next nuclear war will happen. We have to fight it, and if we just sit in your living rooms saying — I don’t want to say this — I’m gonna get shot. You’ll die anywhere you know, so I am not scared.”

Saad Haroon doesn’t seem at all scared either. He says there’s no shortage of comedy material to work with in South Asia.

After all, Indians and Pakistanis often laugh at the same jokes.

“Like, I can’t even start to get into it, the similarities. I mean, I think our people literally try to keep each other apart. We need boundaries, we need fences, we need visas, we need planes,” Haroon says.

If the warm reception given here to these two comedians is anything to go by, maybe comedy might just bring down a few of those boundaries and fences.

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Fresh Air Weekend: Trevor Noah; The I Don't Cares' Debut; 'Narconomics'

Trevor Noah — who took over hosting from Jon Stewart in 2015 — remembers watching The Daily Show on CNN in South Africa. “It looked like a news show and it had the same colors as CNN and the ticker,” he says. “I just worked under the assumption that it was part of the news programming. … I thought that Jon Stewart was a news anchor who didn’t take his job seriously.” Getty Images hide caption

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Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:

Under Apartheid, Trevor Noah’s Mom Taught Him To Face Injustice With Humor: The Daily Show host grew up biracial in South Africa; his mother was jailed for having a relationship with his father. But she always turned to humor before anger, Noah says — a trait he’s inherited.

Westerberg And Hatfield Aim For The Heart With ‘Wild Stab’: The debut album by the I Don’t Cares features two familiar voices — Paul Westerberg and the singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the songs on Wild Stab “will grab you.”

‘Narconomics’: How The Drug Cartels Operate Like Wal-Mart And McDonald’s: The cartels’ business models are similar to those of big-box stores and franchises, says Tom Wainwright, former Mexico City bureau chief for The Economist. His new book is Narconomics.

You can listen to the original interviews here:

Under Apartheid, Trevor Noah’s Mom Taught Him To Face Injustice With Humor

Westerberg And Hatfield Aim For The Heart With ‘Wild Stab’

‘Narconomics’: How The Drug Cartels Operate Like Wal-Mart And McDonald’s

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U.K. Will Vote On Whether To Remain In The EU On June 23, Cameron Says

British Prime Minister David Cameron makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London on Saturday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London on Saturday. Tim Ireland/AP hide caption

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Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for a historic nationwide referendum on June 23 to decide whether the U.K. will remain in the European Union.

This comes a day after Cameron and EU leaders announced in Brussels that they have negotiated a new deal that changes the terms of Britain’s membership.

After negotiating these new concessions, Cameron strongly advocated that the U.K. stick with Europe. He spoke in front of 10 Downing Street after presenting the EU reform deal to his Cabinet.

“The choice is in your hands, but my recommendation is clear: I believe that Britain will be safer, stronger and better off in a reformed European Union,” he says. “Leaving Europe would threaten our economic and our national security.”

He adds: “Our special status also means we’re out of those parts of Europe that do not work for us, so we will never join the euro, we will never be part of eurozone bailouts, we will never be part of the passport-free no borders area, or a European army, or an EU super-state.”

NPR’s Kevin Beasley explains why this referendum is happening now:

“The prime minister promised to hold that referendum in the runup to last year’s election in the U.K., as he tried to fight off a threat from a far-right anti-EU party that threatened to take votes from Cameron’s Conservative Party.

“Having made that promise, Cameron now has to negotiate enough concessions from the other 27 countries in the EU to assuage the ‘euro-skeptic’ wing of his own party and win over the British public.”

Cameron fired back at these euro-skeptics in his remarks Saturday: “Those who want to leave Europe cannot tell you if British businesses would be able to access Europe’s free trade single market, or if working people’s jobs are safe, or how much prices would rise. All they’re offering is a risk at a time of uncertainty.”

As we reported, concessions in the newly-negotiated deal include exemptions from further political integration in future treaty amendments. It also excludes newly-arrived workers from benefits for their first four years in the U.K. and makes benefits claims for kids living in other EU countries proportional to the other state’s cost of living.

And as NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported, it also frees Britain from some EU financial regulations and restrictions. She says EU President Donald Tusk is hailing the deal as keeping “the EU intact without compromising what the bloc stands for.”

The BBC sums up how the U.K. new deal compares with what Cameron wanted:

“Critics argue that the final deal falls well short of what Mr Cameron originally promised when he announced his plan for a referendum, particularly when it comes to returning powers from Brussels.

“But most of the points in the draft agreement, with the exception of those mentioned above, have survived unchanged into the final deal.”

Recent polls suggest that U.K. voters are almost evenly divided on whether to remain in the EU.

But new betting odds tell a different story. Reuters reports that British bookmaker Ladbrokes “indicated there was now a 69 percent chance of Britain remaining in the EU with a 31 percent chance of Britain leaving.”

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The Week In Sports

A review of the week in sports, including an update on the Golden State Warriors, baseball’s reawakening, and a football player’s retirement announcement… on horseback.

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The State That Pulled The Plug On Computer Testing

The state of Tennessee is no longer offering computer-based standardized testing.

Danae Munoz/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Tens of thousands of Tennessee students steadied their clammy, test-day hands over a keyboard several days ago. And, for many, nothing happened.

It was the state’s first time giving standardized exams on computers, but the rollout couldn’t have gone much worse.

In lots of places, the testing platform slowed to a crawl or appeared to shut down entirely. Within hours, Tennessee scrapped online testing for the year.

The move comes after schools spent millions of dollars to buy additional PCs and to improve their wi-fi networks.

The failure wasn’t entirely surprising. Tennessee had already managed several bumpy trial runs. There was the time the state asked students to try to break the system, and boy did they. State officials later said the resulting server overload led to a complete re-engineering.

Even in recent weeks, system testing uncovered new problems. But still, the state pushed ahead, leading to its test day debacle.

“All Tennessee students deserve a positive testing experience every time they log in, not one that is slow to load or fails periodically due to too many users or poor judgment on the part of the vendor,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said at a hearing before state legislators on Wednesday.

McQueen has been sending out apology letters to teachers and parents that say her department takes “full responsibility” for the failure. But that’s after she laid much of the blame at the door of testing vendor, Measurement Inc.

Asked if she plans to cancel Tennessee’s $108 million, five-year contract with the company, McQueen said the department is considering its options. More immediately, she is focused on printing paper tests, shipping them to schools and getting Measurement Inc. to foot the bill.

The company has worked with larger states, including Michigan and New Jersey, but president Henry Scherich says his firm had never designed such a large online testing platform. It includes 232 test versions as well as many questions that involve interactive elements like audio and video.

Nearly two-dozen states have moved to online exams, many with the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortiums. And Scherich says many have run into trouble. Florida’s rollout was particularly rough. But Tennessee is unusual for abandoning computer-based testing for the year.

Scherich characterizes the system’s problems as a “slowdown,” not a “breakdown,” and insists there’s a relatively easy fix.

“We wanted it to be perfect. We thought we were going to be perfect,” Scherich says. “All those tests were being pulled in, and they were slower getting there than we thought they were going to be.”

Scherich says he wants to make things right and deliver a system that is fully functioning for next year. But the damage is done.

Responding to school boards around the state that have called for teachers and districts to be held harmless, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam says this year’s scores will only count toward a teacher’s evaluation if they would help.

“Given recent, unexpected changes in the administration of the new assessment, we want to provide teachers with additional flexibility,” Haslam said this week.

There are some upsides. Now Tennessee schools have many more computers and, in some cases, faster internet connections. But, for this year, they’ll have to dig through the storeroom and sharpen up their pencils.

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They Brought Cookies: For A New Widow, Empathy Eases Death's Pain

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

My husband died. He wasn’t young any more and was sick and weak but we weren’t expecting his death to come as quickly as it did, within a few days, almost overnight. He just went away. Maybe there are worse things than a quick, quiet death.

Here’s what happened next.

My brother and sister-in-law (who live a couple of hours away) called: We’ll be there tonight, and we’re staying until you make us leave.

A friend: I have some lentil soup, may I bring it over? And may I bring the rest of my family and we’ll all eat it together?

A neighbor: When you need to start sorting through things, may I help?

A friend: The kids and I are coming to Baltimore for the weekend. May I bring them and some pies, and come sit by the fire?

Empathy. These people aren’t indulging in pity, they’re not practicing social niceties. They almost can’t help but do this, this completely familiar and utterly strange ability to feel the pain of someone else in pain, to offer the comfort they themselves would need, to merge the comforter with the comforted.

A neighbor: I experimented with chicken tikka masala and have some left over. Would you like it?

Another neighbor: I really miss your husband. Shall we have some tea?

Another neighbor: I made lemon cookies, here, have these.

Another neighbor: I made too much butternut squash soup. Want some?

Psychology is interested in empathy, partly to understand its famous failures, partly to understand its social role. It turns out that empathy doesn’t reserve its virtues for humans: rats, pigs, and primates react empathically to another rat’s or pig’s or primate’s pain. A monkey pulls a chain, it gets food but a nearby monkey get shocked; the first monkey, even if it’s hungry, refuses to pull the chain again. When I lived in the country, my dog got run over (it lived) and gave a doggy scream of pain; faraway dogs on neighboring farms, dogs I couldn’t even see, howled and howled.

Another neighbor: Drinks tonight? Come over, I’ve got cheese.

Another neighbor: Let’s go out, there’s a nice new restaurant, I’ll drive.

Another neighbor: I made you this little pumpkin cake. It’s good for breakfast.

So empathy isn’t only social or psychological; it’s also something in the brain, conserved over the species, it’s neurological. When a rat or pig or monkey or dog or human sees someone doing some particular action, some of their own neurons, called mirror neurons, controlling the same action also fire: a monkey sees another monkey picking something up, the picking-up neurons in the first monkey’s brain also fire.

Another neighbor: Come to dinner. I’m making rack of lamb.

Another neighbor: Need help hanging those pictures? I’m an expert at hanging pictures.

A friend: Can we pick up some doughnuts and come over for breakfast?

And the arborist consulting about a maple tree: I noticed your lilac got broken in the storm. Let me trim it for you.

And what happens after that? what happens with the empathized? The only research I could find on the effect of empathy was negative, that is, the lack of empathy for certain people in certain situations, and how this lack was hard on those people.

So I’ll tell you the positive effect and you know it already: empathy is pain’s best antidote. It is, says Robert Burton in his astonishing Anatomy of Melancholy, “as fire in Winter, shade in Summer, as sleep on the grass to them that are weary, meat and drink to him that is hungry or athirst.”

The pain doesn’t go away; but somehow or other, empathy gives the pain meaning, and pain-with-meaning is bearable. I don’t actually know how to say what the effect of empathy is, I can only say what it’s like. Like magic.

On the morning after my husband’s death, I was sitting with him, waiting for the funeral home people to come get him. They did, a couple of substantial guys in suits and oily manners who were having trouble getting him onto the gurney.

Just then my husband’s nurses, Bridget and Elizabeth, both Africans, came into the room. They moved deliberately, and with great authority they dismissed the funeral home men and took over. They smoothed my husband’s hair and touched his cheek and stroked his shoulder, and they pulled his sheet up around him. Together they used the sheet to lift him to the gurney, then touched his face again and laid the sheet gently over it. I’ve never seen such a thing — such comforting of a man now far from comfort but comforting him anyway. Like a blessing, a sacrament.

Ann Finkbeiner is a science writer whose books include After the Death of a Child and The Jasons. She is co-founder of the blog The Last Word on Nothing, where this essay first appeared. Her husband, James Calvin (Cal) Walker, a retired physicist, died on Jan. 15 at age 80. They were married for 30 years.

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Traditional Tropes Turn Eerie In Punishing, Subtle 'Horses'

A Collapse of Horses

The stories that bookend Brian Evenson’s newest collection, A Collapse of Horses, are connected by two unsettling elements. The first is an image: a man’s gunshot leg leaving a bloody swath across the flank of a horse. In Western-genre-infused “Black Bark,” this image exists in real life — or as real as life gets in Evenson’s stories — as two men flee aggressors on horseback into a surreal, shifting landscape. In “The Blood Drip,” it’s part of a campfire tale as two men — one of them probably dead, one of them maybe alive — confront each other after a conflict drives both of them into the woods. The second element is a story, a horrible story that one man is trying to tell the other.

Evenson is deeply interested in narratives that slide around like the interior workings of a labyrinth, where walls are doors and doors disappear and hallways might be there, or not. Many of the stories are surreal and deeply unreliable; a veritable encyclopedia of all the ways the human animal might be incapable of a firm grasp on its experience. There’s oxygen starvation (“The Dust”), drugs (“The Moans”), dystopia (“A Report”), the distortion of the open road (“Past Reno”), head injuries, too. In both the titular story and “Click,” a nameless protagonist experiences some sort of accident, and is afterwards able to only give an unstable account in which nothing, no matter how straightforward or simple, can be assumed to be true. It’s impossible to get a foothold in these stories, and so the reader’s experience reflects the protagonist’s volatility.

Evenson also takes traditional subjects — a lover you can’t shake, childhood memories, the loss of a pregnancy — and tweaks them into nightmares. In “Cult,” a hapless man cannot escape a girlfriend’s magnetic draw, even after she stabs him and leaves him for dead. A couple loses their child but retains a stuffed bear with the unborn fetus’ heartbeat in “Bear Heart™.” A man reconnects with a childhood friend, with whom he had once played a terrifying game of escalation, in “The Punish.” Though these stories have a bit more to hold onto, plot-wise, they still possess echoes of that element of uncertainty.

Violence is punishing but unbelievably subtle in Evenson’s delicate, minimalist stories. And ultimately, there is something cosmic — something utterly Lovecraftian, but without the baroque language — about this type of horror: Beneath the slippery, often abstruse plots lies a vast gulf of nothingness, in the purest and most unsettling sense of the word.

It’s enough to provoke an existential crisis of the highest magnitude, which is precisely how my partner found me: curled up on the couch with all the lights on. Not because I was frightened, exactly. Rather, I’d mainlined A Collapse of Horses, I was thinking about the unknown outermost reaches of the universe and human consciousness, and I could not bring myself to move.

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, will be released in 2017. She has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta and elsewhere.

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#MemeOfTheWeek: Jeb!, A Gun And 'America.'

A young girl watches as Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush arrives to speak at a rally in South Carolina.

A young girl watches as Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush arrives to speak at a rally in South Carolina. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption

toggle caption Andrew Harnik/AP

How many ways can The Internet mock Jeb Bush?

So many. So many ways. Here’s the latest.

Since the last Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire, Jeb Bush has been making a push to win in South Carolina, the next state to hold a GOP nominating contest. He’s gained the endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. He’s trotted out his brother, George W., and his mother Barbara, on the trail. And he’s started to play up his support of the military and the Second Amendment, two issues that are very important to a large number of South Carolina Republican voters.

But, per usual, some of Jeb Bush’s outreach backfired. The latest in a series of gaffes includes a gun, a tweet — and the word “America.”


— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) February 16, 2016

During a visit to a gun factory in Columbia, S.C., Bush received an engraved pistol. Seemingly eager to show it off, as well as his pro-gun bona fides, Bush’s team tweeted out an image of the gun, inscription in clear sight, with the caption, “America.”

Seems fine on first glance. Right?

No. It was not fine. Not fine at all. Within minutes, Twitter let Jeb have it, with several tweets mocking the gun, Jeb Bush, and a lot more.


— Dan Telfer (@dantelfer) February 16, 2016


— Raja Ebert (@ElSangito) February 16, 2016


— ErikDavis (@ErikDavis) February 16, 2016


— Michael P. Ventura (@mpventura) February 16, 2016

Some were serious, like a tweet from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which, in response to the “America.” tweet, shared a supercut of newscasters announcing gun deaths throughout the country.


— Brady Campaign (@Bradybuzz) February 16, 2016

Others pointed out that “America.” in its most literal sense, is a land mass that’s bigger than just the USA.

Excuse me, Mr. @JebBush this is America:

— Ewing Jesús (@Ejfalla) February 17, 2016

A few replaced the inscription with the words, “Please Clap,” referencing another recent Bush misstep, in which the candidate asked an audience for applause after he delivered a key line in a speech. And several shared images of actress America Ferrera.

Overall, the response was mostly hilarious, but it also raised a few larger questions. First among them, would this have happened to anyone other than Bush? If Donald Trump or Ted Cruz tweeted a picture of a gun, would they be mocked at all? Would it be seen as less forced, more natural? Does knowing that Bush tweeted the image of the gun make us want to mock the image just as much as the image itself does?

.@JebBush Middle-earth

— Paolo Gregoletto (@TriviumPaolo) February 17, 2016

And secondly, why is it so easy to make fun of Jeb Bush? And why do so many people seem to enjoy doing it?

As far as explanations go, for starters, Bush gave The Internet a perfect, meme-able canvas. A single word caption, open for so much interpretation. The photo of the inscribed gun: a single, easily photoshopped image. It was all ripe for parody — as is Bush, it seems, which may be the second big reason the tweet and its responses went viral.

please stop the meme i served my country i shouldn’t have to mute ‘america’

— andy levy (@andylevy) February 16, 2016

We’ve written about his foibles before, and it seems for months now, The Internet has been mocking the candidate and his struggling campaign. Part of the reason “America.” took off online is because people have really gotten used to making fun of Bush, no matter what he does.

Bush’s campaign hasn’t responded to the tweet — or taken it down. And the initial wave of criticism over it seems to have blown over. But the week still seems to have been a tough one for him. Trump mocked him for switching to contacts from glasses. Popular South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed his rival, Sen. Marco Rubio, this week, after Jeb Bush had previously said Haley’s support was “probably the most meaningful endorsement there is.”

Of course, a strong showing in South Carolina’s Republican primary could give Bush’s campaign at least one positive story line. Though if he does poorly, he must surely know what type of response he’ll get from The Internet.

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