Interview: Daphna Baram

Comedian Daphna Baram is currently touring the UK with her show ‘Something To Declare’. She talks to The Waltham Cat about the Israeli Defence Force, heart attacks and humour

“I’m generally always scared when I go to Kent,” says the former soldier, human rights lawyer, news editor and author Daphna Baram.

“Kent is very English. It’s exotic to be Jewish there.”

It’s difficult to think Daphna ‘Miss D’ Baram is scared of anything. She has been touring the UK with her aggressively funny show ‘Something to Declare: How to pass the Englishness Test, Build a New Jerusalem and become Nigel Farage’s biggest nightmare’. 

The show features answers to the British citizenship test, something that Daphna notes omits certain questions, such as the empire, the Troubles, or Thatcher.

Born in Jerusalem, Daphna was conscripted to the Israeli Defence Force at the age of 18. She was taught how to kill people, then taught history, maths, Hebrew and English to salaried soldiers who had missed out on important chunks of education.

“Teaching was super rewarding. Even more so with grown-ups than with kids, because they knew what they were missing.”

Daphna saw some of her young friends get destroyed by army life. “Some people went into the occupied territories and just beat people up and threw stones at them. Some people became monsters, and some of them tried not to take part.”

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Credit: Giada Garofalo

After two years in the army, Daphna studied law, becoming a human rights lawyer at a law firm that represented Palestinians in military courts.

“It was something I really identified with and I thought was a really good thing to do. But I was young, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

She then sidestepped into journalism, progressing to news editor of Kol Ha’ir, a high profile weekly newspaper based in Jerusalem.

“The problem with the place is that it was too bloody interesting. We had a suicide bombing at least every week, we had the municipal party oozing corruption, an education system that was collapsing,” she reflects.

“I never had the guts to move somewhere where nothing happened.”

In 2002 Daphna won a six-month Reuter’s journalism scholarship Oxford University. She excelled, and stayed there for two years to write a fascinating book called Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel, which depicts the British newspaper’s reporting on Zionism and Israel. As a freelance journalist, Daphna has also written for newspapers such as the Independent, the Guardian and New Statesman.

Then, about seven years ago, outside a Fitness First in Haringay, Daphna was waiting to meet a friend for coffee. Daphna was on a strict (ish) health regime after being diagnosed with diabetes. She’d lost ten dress sizes, but still smoked ten cigarettes a day. Following an extensive workout at the gym, she lit a cigarette “for good measure” before having a heart attack. She was 39.

When her friend arrived, she asked staff at Fitness First if they could help, as one may logically reason that people working in a gym would know first aid. But, they said it ‘wasn’t their problem’ as Daphna was no longer in the building. They said her friend could use a phone to call an ambulance.

“I wasn’t in too much pain, but I thought I would score some drugs in this ambulance if it’s the last thing I do. So I knew I was going to live. Then, I spent about one second thinking, ‘this probably means I’m not going to have children’. Then, I thought, ‘fuck having children, I’m never going to have sex again!’ The adrenaline had kicked in, and Daphna didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation until after a night’s sleep.

“When the shit hits you, you’re fine.” Daphna says. After the initial excitement of the heart attack, the noisy ambulance, the drugs and adrenaline wore off, she woke up the next day, sore from the hospital procedure that saved her life and depressed at the reality of the situation.

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The presence of death had entered. “It comes, like a black crow, and sits on your shoulder. It takes a while before it leaves.”

It was exactly a month after the heart attack and Daphna was asked to give a speech at a friend’s wedding. It was so good that Chris Morris (Brass Eye, The Day Today), who was a guest at the reception, assumed she was an established comedian, and asked the groom the name of Daphna’s agent.

The groom and his wife bought Daphna a course at the Comedy School in Camden for her birthday. Exactly one year after the heart attack and one day before the showcase presentation at the Comedy School, Daphna was on a bus in Haringay when she something as if something had clicked back into place.

“I’m not in any way, shape or form a spiritual person,” Daphna assures me. “But I felt that the death crow was flying away. It was an amazing feeling – the feeling that I’m doing the right thing.”

Daphna’s show on Sunday 17 April at Cafe Bonito is sold out, but the tour continues in Deptford on and Crouch End on the 19th and 28th of April respectively.

Daphna is currently fine-tuning her next show, Begging to Differ, which debuts at the Brighton Fringe on 14 May. The topical and political show will be relayed through the prism of Daphna’s own personality and experience. The tour is being funded here.

Full tour dates here.

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