Comedian shows half-baked Twitter trolls why they shouldn’t scoff at Cakes
Young comedian of the year Bilal Zafar tells TP why he’s taking his experience of fighting Islamophobia with humour to the Edinburgh Festival
In August 2014, the hashtag ‘Boycott Muslim businesses’ began trending on Twitter.
Bilal Zafar, a young comedian then recently graduated from the University of Bolton, uses the Twitter handle @zafarcakes (say it quickly and you’ll get it). Spotting an opportunity, his brother decided to goad Twitter users visiting the hashtag to boycott @zafarcakes on the proviso it is a “cake shop in Bristol that refuses to sell to non-Muslims”.
Zafar, amused by his brother’s intervention, was quickly hounded by people condemning his fictional business practices. Some abused him for several weeks, a petition against the ‘cake shop’ was opened and users were encouraging columnist Katie Hopkins to write about the issue in her then-weekly Sun column.
Two years later, Zafar, 24, is an acclaimed stand-up, having won the Hackney Empire young comedian of the year award in January, and is in Edinburgh for the festival armed with his comedy routine, Cakes. His new set is based on his experiences being targeted by the far-right, and an exploration of xenophobia and Islamophobia more generally.
On the trolling itself, Zafar managed to resist fighting fire with fire, but admits to stringing along quite a few of the unsuspecting protagonists by playing up to his fictional character and business. All the while, the words ‘stand up’ stood proud in his Twitter bio, with certain users still none the wiser.
“I was going to start talking to people normally,” he explains from his rented accommodation in Edinburgh, his home for the next month. “And my brother texted me and said ‘no don’t, stay in character, it will be really funny’.
“So throughout the whole thing it was mainly me misunderstanding what they were saying on purpose, which would really wind them up. I never swore at anyone, I didn’t even send anything aggressive. I think the worst thing I called people was silly. And they were coming back with really horrible stuff.”
It was not the only time Zafar has experienced Islamophobic abuse – far from it. The mosque he visited growing up in Wanstead, east London, was burned down around the time of 9/11, while he was targeted for an article he wrote for a national paper last year on fasting.
“I did a little thing for the Independent last year,” he said. “They asked if I could do a funny article about fasting. And it went viral, it was really good because it got shared like 6,000 times. It got really popular, but I got loads of abuse off it.
“Not just the comments section, I got tweets at me, I got quite a lot of emails. I found that quite upsetting at the time. I think now I would be able to not take that seriously, but being personally attacked is a bit weird. So yes, I’ve had it, it’s quite common. That’s why I think this show is quite interesting, because it’s all very current.”
In Cakes, Zafar has taken what some might have seen as a distressing situation and turned it into a positive. Who’s laughing now, I wonder. Like Stewart Lee and others, Zafar builds a wider narrative into his routines, supplementing humour and observations.
“I can tell a personal story and I can really bring people [together], I’m guessing the majority of people that are going to come and see me at the fringe are not going to be Muslim,” he says.
“But I’ll be bringing them into my world and showing them what I see a little bit as well. Alongside it being a really funny, interesting show.”
Though it is not his first time at the Edinburgh festival, it is the first with his own show.
“The good thing about doing a solo show at the fringe is you can go off and do little serious bits,” he says. “It’s not like a club set where I have to be funny constantly. So there are modes where I explore how people could actually believe this thing was real, and why they were so angry about it. With everything I try not to dismiss people completely and just think they’re idiots. I’d rather try and understand why they have that opinion, and I sort of do that in the show.”
Bilal Zafar is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival between 5-28 August. Book tickets here.
Picture credit: Avalon UK