In an exclusive interview with one of Wales’ finest comedy exports, Omar Hamdi candidly reveals his desire to put honesty at the fore front of his work, ignore the critics, his Lily Allen spat and how he plans to continually break down the barriers of the media industry.
When meeting Omar at Cardiff Central train station, I was unsure what to expect. Would I be greeted by that unmistakable larger than life personality I had heard so much about or would his off stage persona pale in comparison. We read and hear a lot about comedians and how behind those gigantic inviting smiles and laughter, lies the pain they are so desperately trying to hide. I knew there was more to Omar than just the smiles and infectious laugh, after all this is a man who has successfully carved out a career ranging from comic, writer, TV host to documentary filmmaker.
You see, I had wanted to interview Omar for some time. We both are the same age, both from Cardiff and both with Middle Eastern heritage. We also have this thing in Cardiff, where we want to see our own do well; well that’s certainly what I hope. Also our paths had never crossed which surprised me in a well-connected city like Cardiff, so I was intrigued to find out exactly who was the man behind the hit Amazon Prime stand up special Omar Hamdi: British Dream.
As we sit down at the local cafe we stop at, I realise that the interview had begun the moment we met. Omar and I quite quickly moved through the formalities of meeting someone for the first time to natural laughter and conversation like catching up with an old friend. Was this part of his skill set, talent, was he trying to suss me out as I was him? As prepared as I was for this interview, I had not expected to be questioned before I even set my recorder on. Like I had previously mentioned, Omar and I had the cultural, middle eastern connection and so he proceeded to take me right back to my great grandparents ethnic backgrounds and run down to how I came to be. I was impressed by his confidence and was hopeful that the questions I had for him would now be answered with the boldness he had asked me.
We quickly get into the interview with ease and Omar cheekily informs me that ‘we are going to have fun in this interview’ and that now he has more scope on me and how the Welsh Exotic came to be, I may find myself in his new material this evening. What has in fact brought Omar back to Cardiff on the day we spoke, was a show at Sherman Theatre. A show that was incorrectly billed as an Edinburgh Fridge preview, is where Omar is proving that he still has the skill set to continue his comedy ambitions. He tells me of his first Edinburgh gig and how he was billed as the Welsh-Egyptian to grab the headlines. ‘My former agent told me that a pyramid and a Welsh flag on the flyer was the way to go’, he openly admits that he went ahead naively with that decision.
Omar strikes me as a person who has now shed that naivety cloak, learnt from his mistakes and is firmly in control of his own ship moving forward. Impressed by his ambition and confidence I say it is inspiring to which he quickly tells me that it shouldn’t be. He warns me that in Britain ambition is a negative word and to be careful, but then his infectious laughter bursts out and I know he isn’t trying to be provocative, he is just being honest and I value that. I ponder on his words as he very kindly goes to get me a straw for my Virign Mojito, and think back to whenever I have spoken openly about my ambition in my work in the UK; it has more often than not been met with negative comments and of the obstacles I could face. Maybe Omar’s transatlantic work relationship with the UK and America has influenced his thinking and the ‘American Dream’ vision has propelled his own British dream.
In recent years Omar’s work has expanded, he is not just a comic, but a well articulated writer for the Guardian, New Internationalist to name but a few, as well his TV host duties and in recent times the producer of his own film company FTI Films, which has seen the recent release of his Amazon Prime stand up special Omar Hamdi: British Dream. Omar informs me that he has spent the last few years working on single factual TV in a collaborative way with producers so has developed the skill set for how it works. ‘It’s not mysterious anymore’ he tells me and it has become to him the most natural thing in the world to try it for himself. He talks of how in all of us at the beginning of our careers we want to try to carve our way in our work but unfortunately we become used to ‘people in suits and boardrooms telling us we don’t know or are unsure and we believe that negativity’. Omar accurately describes taking control of his own career as ‘grabbing myself in time before my will was broken’, I can’t help but sit there and admire this self belief and realise that timing is so very important in progression for our careers but also for our personal development.
It’s in the same vein of thought of steering your own ship so to speak, that Omar tells of the reality of the media industry, ‘it’s all coming crashing down…no one has any power anymore, no one is in control anymore and there is no excuse for someone like me or you to make our own work’. I admired Omar’s bold approach and direct attitude in saying that people of an ethnic background like him and I can move past the structural walls built for those of the elitist groups in society. I comment again and say that what he is saying is inspiring to which he replies ‘it shouldn’t be…it should be normal….it’s harder especially if you are not white, everyone knows that and just because no one cares enough to do anything about it, doesn’t mean they don’t know it’. I am inclined to shout a hell yeah as our voices have filled with exuberant energy but realise that we are in Britain and unfortunately that isn’t the done thing. As I take a sip of my drink and gather my thoughts, I realise how expansive, in-depth and honest this interview is and how the man beneath the smile is so much more than just his on stage comedy persona.
For those who follow me on social media may know, I have a pet hate for labels and labelling people and so I decided to put that to Omar who I presumed had been faced with a label at some stage in his career. I argued that all labels whatever their nature are extremely harmful but Omar was quick to point out that labels based on race and politics should be clearly treated differently. ‘You choose your politics, you don’t choose your race’, I agreed and Omar asked me to probe him further on the question so I put it to Omar that it could be argued that the snowflake label for example and a label on race can still affect someone’s confidence and their mental health. ‘It’s just lazy…but looking at it from the other side, growing up in a white middle class area and suddenly your expected to have a way of relating to all these different types of people, someone might reach for their phrase book to try and get on the same wavelength’. I feel glad to have explored the different aspects of this topic with Omar and agree that sometimes the environment you grow up in enables labels to be okay or at least get on the same page. Omar even reminds me that it is something I even did when we met a mere hour ago with speaking of our cultural connection and background. As this discussion on labels wraps to a close Omar says why labels are still so prevalent in the UK. ‘We label because we live in a country that will never realise it is built on a colonial mentality…a lot of that mentality has seeped into the air we breathe so it is soaked up and labelling is a sub set of that’. As controversial as that may seem I am in agreement of Omar’s thoughts and that the colonial mentality has created space for labels to exist.
I wanted to delve into Omar’s thoughts on what the existence is like for a first generation migrant in a country. Omar was born in Wales after his Egyptian parents moved in the 1970s. I broached the conversation by a TV series The Affair, that I watch regularly. There is a character called Vik who is a son of immigrant parents. In a recent episode Vik revealed how all his life he has tried to play the ‘good immigrant son’, so much so that his own ambitions have become secondary just to ensure his parents dreams for him were realised. I wanted to know what life was like for Omar growing up and if he faced any of those pressures. ‘Everyone’s parents are like that though surely?…My Mum did want me to be a doctor but I do think that I have more gratitude because I am aware that other people’s journey didn’t end up like mine’. Omar refreshingly hasn’t had the same experience as a character like Vik, or like he explains friends of his who did fulfil parents ambitions of being a doctor or taking over the family business but the gratitude he talks about is so clearly visible to see.
Reflecting back on how far he has come and where he is heading, talk moves to Omar’s second works from his production company, in the form of a documentary; Syriopolis. This journey saw Omar travel to Greece initially to host a fundraising dinner but whilst there stumbled across one of the world’s biggest ongoing issues. ‘So the lady who hired me for the gig started telling me about her work with the Syrian refugees in Greece and started telling me about stuff that you can’t even believe. I thought that even if 10% of what she is saying is true, this is a massive story that needs to be told’. The Syrian refugee crisis as I am sure you are all aware is something that has dominated the world news on/off for the last couple of years and I was keen to know how Omar was able to keep his head above water and sensitively tell these human stories without risk of exploitation. ‘The hardest part of making this documentary was trying to always at every moment be completely honest with yourself and honest with the people you are talking to – people took big risks talking to us’.
Now that we had spoken about Omar’s documentary and the nature of it, the true interviewer in me, couldn’t resist to get to the bottom of Omar’s so called headline grabbing ‘spat’ with former pop princess Lily Allen. They had both been appearing on Sunday Morning Live and Lily was on as a guest to discuss her controversial remark to an Afghan migrant apologising on England’s behalf ‘I’m sorry for what we have put you through’. Omar corrects me and informs that it was in fact Lily that had the spat with him. ‘All I said was I think it’s really dangerous for politics if we let politicians off the hook and then let political debate become celebrity space’. Omar went further to say that ‘the people who were agreeing with Lily and saying Lily for PM were in fact the same people who were disgusted when Kanye West came out and said he really liked some of the things President Trump is doing’. Omar succinctly summed up his point and insisted that we have to be consistent with whatever opinion we have and I tend to agree.
As the interview wrapped to a close I asked Omar whether he saw himself as a role model to which he replied ‘absolutely not…please track me down if I ever say yes in an interview…the idea of role models are unhealthy, to put someone on a pedal stool’. Omar’s answer to this question is what I believe our society needs to hear more of, we the makers of own destiny and Omar is solid prove of that. I realised as this interview was coming to a close just how far we had travelled in terms of issues, career and so all that was left to discuss was the future. I wanted to know what Omar hoped was in store for the years to come. ‘I would like to run the best small factual production company in the world’. With an answer as ambitious as this my final question had to be would this make him happy. ‘No, I don’t think happiness as anything to do with that, trying to be good makes me happy but I think the key to being happy is gratitude’.
As we said our goodbyes through belly laughter, I realised that Omar never once tried to be impressive, though his work obviously speaks for itself, he had been honest and no amount of success can ever buy that.