News / Middle East

From Refugee to Stand-Up Queen: A Story of Unconventional Success

Swedish-Iranian stand-up comedian Zinat Pirzadeh
Swedish-Iranian stand-up comedian Zinat Pirzadeh

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Tala Hadavi

Zinat Pirzadeh, 41, left Iran for Sweden almost 19 years ago, fleeing from oppression and an arranged marriage. Today, she's a celebrity in her adopted country, with a dream of using her somewhat unconventional success to make changes in society.

It was not until Zinat Pirzadeh took a public speaking course to improve her Swedish that she discovered how she could use her words to make an impact.

The class teacher, who happened to be a well-known stand-up comedian, opened the initial door.

"He said to me 'everything you say is funny, without even trying to make us laugh.' "

And not long thereafter, Anna-Lena Brundin, who happens to be a famous female comedian, got in touch with me and asked me to perform before her show," said Pirzadeh.  "I didn't know anything about comedy at that time.  It wasn't really my intention to get into the field."

That performance went well.  So well, in fact, that Zinat had to quit her day job as a career counselor to have time to tour.  

Today, she is one of the most popular comedians in Sweden.  She was voted "Female Comedian of the Year" in 2010.

"It makes me very proud to have succeeded in a country where they often-times see us foreigners as something negative, rather than positive.  I'm really happy that a door has opened for me to talk about the things that are on my mind."

But Zinat's road to fame has been a long one.  When she moved to Sweden she was initially forced to live in a basement with her three-year-old son and almost no money.  But she never gave up.

"The more down you are, the bigger key comedy and laughter becomes to opening your heart," Zinat added.  "My grandfather used to always say, in each person's heart there's a thumbprint from God that can never become black.  I always think about that.  I think no matter how sad you are you can always look back and see that life is not a dead end, there's another road, and so I see laughter as that new road."

With time, Zinat's stand-up routine has become more and more frank and somewhat controversial.  Despite getting death threats - both from skinheads and from conservative Muslims - or being forced to take police escorts to and from her shows - she is not afraid of talking about racism, women's rights and religious fundamentalism.

"After some time on stage, I began to feel embarrassed about the fact that I didn't talk about anything that could have bearing on society when I in actuality had the stage for it," noted Zinat.  "I thought to myself, it's my responsibility to do something better because otherwise I'm wasting my time."  

Zinat is not wasting time.  While touring with three comedy clubs, being involved in various acting projects and raising five children, she is working on her new monologue, Hungover Under the Burqa.

"It's actually about Swedish women," Zinat explained.  "They talk a lot about equality between men and women here in Sweden.  But when it comes to in-depth life issues, there's not really that much difference between the lives of women in the West or women in Iran.  I use my comedy to talk about these issues."

And as much as she loves performing in Sweden, Zinat often thinks about the possibility of a different audience.

"I really hope to one day perform stand-up in Iran," said Zinat.

It's clear that laughter has not only had an impact on Zinat's wide audience, but also on her own life.  Her comedy has helped her find new roads to take and avoid the dead ends.

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