‘When was the last time you
It was the first time I had ever
been faced with a real life good cop / bad cop routine. I had seen them before
of course, it’s impossible to get to forty-five without having seen at least
four or five well known routines from all those television shows that have
burned themselves deep into the ‘skyplus viewed’ section of the modern psyche.
However, this was different, surreally so. It was real and it was happening,
and I was cast in the part of the pock-marked criminal who until now had
managed to evade justice despite committing appalling and heinous crimes.
I found myself sitting across a
table from the terrifying pair. These two were no Starsky and Hutch, there was
no light chit-chat about sports and burgers before getting down to business, no
disingenuous but nevertheless charming offers of nice warm coffee before
confronting me with their overwhelming evidence and lines like ‘enjoy it ‘cos
it’s the last one you’re gonna have as a free man.’ Where I had always imagined
Starsky would sit was a huge man who had the look of a Chechneyan rebel fighter
posing as a US immigration officer, his uniform trying desperately to cling on
to his enormous body like a crying infant to his hugely fat reluctant mother.
His buddy, a much smaller man, the Hutch of the outfit, had an ethnically
indeterminable look in his identical uniform, a uniform that was much more
comfortable with its relationship to the physique it was commissioned to guard.
My first thought was that they
looked like a very bad light entertainment team, a Sergeant Bilko tribute act
appearing in an early heat of ‘Siberia’s Got Talent’ – presumably it has. But
then they spoke. At least, the smaller one spoke, his broad New York accent
giving no clues to his ethnic origin. This, I thought, is one of the reasons I
love America, the way in which it mixes its races under the umbrella of one
shared dream. As a white man with a Pakistani surname and an Indian mother the
fact that race played no apparent part in the way one is treated was one of the
first things that made me fall in love with New York. I am of course fully
aware that the race issue in the States is nothing if not complex but I have
always admired that at least they now try. It strikes me that however violent
and complicated the pursuit for equality has been, at least they have been
violent and complicated in their pursuit. Unlike in my country of birth,
England where the races only really mix in four cities while the rest of the
nation pretends as hard as they can that they don’t want to get rid of them on
the next flights out of here. There is no fight, no battles for equality just a
gradual pretence that English fair play will see to everything.
So being in America, or New York at
least, always felt easier to me than being anywhere else and allowed me to
overlook my unquestionably precarious situation.
- ‘When was the last time you
It was the first time I had ever
been asked that question, possibly because I had never visited Afghanistan and
possibly because I had never been an Archaeologist, a heroine importer or a
Russian conscript. I answered as simply and politely as I could.
-‘Fellas, there has clearly been
some kind of mistake.’
‘Fellas.’ I thought that was a
great word to use, friendly but respectful. My father used to address anyone
working on the house as fellas, it left them feeling liked and respected at the
same time, when in truth he suspected they were all thieves and rapists.
-‘You see guys, I am a comedy
writer on a tv show, a show which includes sketches about an old woman who
swears and a teenage girl who isn’t bothered about anything. As yet I have had
no call to visit Afghanistan.’
I was pretty happy with that. My
flip from fellas to guys, from informal to downright friendly, buddying up, and
an explanation of my job that would remove any doubt whatsoever that this could
be anything other than a ridiculous mistake.
‘-I’ll repeat the question. When
was the last time you were in Afghanistan?’
This time it was the huge Eastern
European looking officer who was speaking, the man who could have eaten Hulk
Hogan. He too had a broad New York accent with no trace of any ethnic origin
but there was no way that body could have been forged in the same place as
Sinatra, it had definitely been quarried from freezing cold mountain ranges in
Transylvania. Either way, my explanation clearly hadn’t cut it. So I moved
-‘Well like I said, I write a
comedy show and while we haven’t finalised all our tour dates as yet we have
never played Kabul.’ I chuckled. They didn’t. I thought that was a fairly
decent line. I’d have been happy with that had I been paid to come up with it.
It ticked all the comic boxes, it took the real situation, acknowledged the
danger then undercut it by turning it into something trivial and domestic. I
could tell that the two retarded Stooges didn’t feel the same way. They had an
entirely different view on the rules of comedy, some people do, you can just
tell. What they did do is simultaneously sway apart with the unexpected grace
of a celebrity ballroom dancing couple, or a pair of weird Siamese twins
grabbing a brief moment of independence. It transpired the reason they were
doing this was to reveal something on the wall behind them. It was a huge
poster, just not huge enough to be seen over the massive frame of the
immigration officer sitting in front and to both sides of it. Its message was
simple ‘DO NOT ATTEMPT HUMOUR.’
My initial reaction was to smile.
When you see the word humour you smile, it’s like kitten or sandwich. I’m not
sure why sandwich makes me smile but it has increasingly done so since I gave
up smoking. Fairly quickly I realised that smiling probably wasn’t the facial
reaction they were after. They were looking for horror or shame. I went
straight to humble.
-‘I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to
trivialise the situation by making a joke.’ I was. ‘It’s just that making jokes
is mostly what I do. It’s instinct.’ It isn’t, it’s just an annoying habit.
Their faces suggested they didn’t
share this ‘instinct’ for laughs. I looked around the room to see if anyone
else in there may have been on my side. The place was full of muslim men with
beards and women with burkas. I realised that I was the only white man in this
room apart from my two interrogators. I was a white terrorist, a white terrorist
with a sense of humour. I felt sorry for these poor souls who were being put
through this humiliation purely because of their religion. For them this must
be an everyday occurrence. For me it was rare, a result of sharing my first
initial and surname with a man who tried to blow up an American phone shop in
Riyadh and a branch of Freeman Hardy and Willis in the Yemen. The rest of these people were going to be
victims their whole lives, all because some people who claimed to have the same
religion as them smashed some planes into the Twin Towers. However, despite my
sympathy, I assumed that not many of them would be sharing my need for jokes.
It suddenly occurred to me that putting a ‘Do Not Attempt Humour’ sign up in
this place was a waste of time, like putting a sign up in Estate Agency that
says ‘remember to be a total arsehole all day long.’
The gaps in the dialogue were
becoming lengthier, they were clearly trained to say as little as possible so
that the person opposite them would break. Sadly for them I wasn’t going to
break, not because I’m not a massive coward I most surely am, but because I am
strangely comfortable with silence. I tend to wander off in my thoughts, and
where I had gone was to a place of sadness. Not for my situation but for my
long held belief that Americans were the funniest people on earth, and more
specifically New Yorkers. Now admittedly these two mooks in front of me weren’t
the hilariously uptight, hyperchondriacal Jews that were so responsible for my
love affair with comedy, but they were still New Yorkers. So surely they
understood the role of humour in tense situations on some level. How could even
the most humourless of native New Yorker fail to see the funny side of a comedy
writer being mistaken for a homicidal maniac with a desire for eighty virgins?
Jesus I only ever slept with one and I had no desire to repeat the experience.
So I ploughed on.
-‘Have either of you seen the movie
Manhattan?’ By Woody Allen.
-‘Well that is why I’m a writer. I
think the perfect mix of jokes, romance and dramatic arc is a sublime example
of why great comedy can reach so much further than any straight drama.’ Now I
was pretty sure that none of the fellas on those planes that flew into the
World Trade Center had ever made a speech like that. This had to prove that I
was not the man they were looking for.
-‘You like Woody Allen?’ Hey
presto, a human response from the smaller of the two.
-‘Like him? He’s a god among men,
don’t you think?’
-‘I don’t think he’s been funny for
years.’ The other one piped up.
-‘You don’t?” I was starting to
enjoy this. A breakthrough.
-‘No,’ he went on, ‘not since his
early cabaret records. They were funny but since he married his daughter I
think he’s been kind of creepy.’
The other one agreed. As far as
they were concerned the incest took the edge of his comedy.
-‘I can’t agree at all,’ I
retorted, ‘I think while his early cabaret records are a sublime example of a
man reinventing the form his films for me have grown in comic stature as his career
has gone on. If anything his films since he married Sun-yi, who by the way
isn’t his daughter but his adopted daughter, have been as funny as anything he
has made. Except the British stuff, that’s obviously shit.’
‘Shit?’ The massive cop wasn’t
having that. ‘The only film I like of his since he became a paedo was Match
Point.’ His pal agreed. ‘It really got to the bottom of why people fall in
I couldn’t agree. ‘I’m afraid it
was a representation of an England that exists only in the minds of Americans
and Richard Curtis.’
‘I like Richard Curtis,’ came the
impassioned response from the smaller one, who I now felt was probably Cuban.
‘Four Weddings was the funniest film I have ever seen. When that fat faggot has
the heart attack I nearly pissed my pants.’
-‘And Notting Hill was even
better,’ added his huge pal. ‘ “So what does an actress earn for a film these
days then? Sixteen million dollars.” Brilliant.’
As I was about to respond with a
full analysis of Curtis’ comedy from Blackadder on I was interrupted, but not
-‘But what about Love Actually?’ We
all looked round. A man with a long beard and a white dress was looking at us.
‘If ever there was a cynical exercise in audience manipulation, and frankly
lazy story-telling, it’s that movie. It’s one thing taking a classic film
structure and deconstructing it but its another packaging some half-baked
sketch ideas and claiming that together they make a film.’ We all took that in.
I wasn’t alone after all, I was right about this country being great, about
everyone here having an innate understanding of comic ideas.
I was happy again. I turned to the
-‘Great well now this
misunderstanding has been cleared up, am I free to enter this great city of
Their lightness had gone and been
replaced once more by their ‘we have the right to put you on a plane, remove
your balls with scissors or kill you whenever we choose’ faces.
-‘Like I said, we need you to be
honest with us, when were you last in Afghanistan?’ I couldn’t believe it. What
the hell happened to our impassioned chat about Woody and Richard? Should I
have been less forthright about Match Point? I did quite like Scarlett
Johansson in it I suppose. Would that have really turned them against me? What
the hell just happened? Unless of course I had made the whole thing up, unless
I had wondered off in one of those lengthy silences and created the entire
comic debate in my ridiculous suspected terrorist head. I had, hadn’t I? Shit.
I was still going to Rikers Island to have my testicles whipped day and night,
and not in a good way.
-‘We know who you are and we know
who your brother is Mr. Ditta, so why don’t you just tell us the truth and we
can work out what to do.’
‘Work out what to do’ what the
fucking hell did that mean? I asked them.
‘We have several options open to
us, Mr. Ditta.’ I really wished they’d stop saying my name, even I was
beginning to think that my name sounded suspect. I was starting to believe that
someone called Ditta could do awful things to innocent people.
-‘I would say the best option for
you would be for us to send you back on the next plane back to England.’
That was the best option? What was
the worst? Six years in Guantanamo bay being water-boarded by G.I’s from
Wisconsin who believe Jesus was a Marine and turned water into blood.
‘-If we feel that you are
withholding information then we can hold you in custody for up to two weeks
I made a decision. I would no
longer attempt humour, in fact I would attempt nothing other than to keep the
contents of my stomach from cascading through my arsehole, which was now in a
state of wide open surrender.
‘-Please. It isn’t me. I’m a writer
and I have a Pakistani step-Grandfather whose name my white Scottish father
took as his own cos he didn’t know his real father. I am not a Pakistani I am a
white Anglo-Saxon Englishman. Yes I have an Indian mother but as far as I’m
aware you have no specific beef with them. My point is...’ and to my eternal
shame and turned to the poor souls sitting behind me… ‘I am not one of them.’
I hated myself. My cowardice knew
no bounds, I was distancing myself from an entire nation, an entire race, from
people I liked, people for whom I had huge sympathy, for whom I had even
marched on at least one occasion.
‘-I am a liberal, I love all races,
but especially Jews, and not just because they’re funny. Isn’t Israel where
Jesus is due to come back?’ I couldn’t stop myself now. ‘Why would a Jew lover
like me want to blow up a branch of Freeman Hardy and Willis? It makes no
sense. If I was to blow anything up, which I wouldn’t, it would be something
like a…I wouldn’t blow anything up at all. Please let me go.’
To this day I am not sure whether
it was the begging, the crying, the pro Israeli stance or the fact that they
were bored of listening to me whine, but the upshot was that they stamped my
passport and waved me through.
As I waited for my bag to come
round on the carousel, my head was full. The only bags waiting to be claimed
were mine, and those that belonged to the poor bastards still being questioned
by the two most powerful men in their lives.
But hey, I was in New York, and I
love New York.