Only Omid Djalili could turn a brush with death into a side-splitting anecdote. The comedian had his audience in fits of giggles at the Cheltenham Literature Festival yesterday evening, regaling the story of his childhood encounter with a pile of poo…
“I actually nearly died when I was six by falling into a pit of excrement,” he said, admitting that the incident was “really shocking” at the time.
Djalili’s parents emigrated to London before he was born but the episode took place during a family visit to the Iranian capital Tehran. “A lot of gardens used to have a cesspit and when the toilets wouldn’t work you would take your waste and put it out in the back. Our garden was the size of a full length football pitch and there was a cesspit in the middle and [it] would get very high, full of human waste.”
Djalil and his brother were playing in the garden when the comedian slipped into the pit. To illustrate the encounter, he read a passage from his new autobiography, Hopeful:
“Then I fell. I didn’t know where or how. It didn’t hurt but I was definitely not walking anymore. I was in a state of semi-flotation. I don’t remember any smell, just a slow sinking feeling.
“I called out to my brother who turned around as if in slow motion. At first he didn’t move. I called out again and he inched closer but I didn’t understand why he was peering down at me with an expression of incredulity and disgust. ‘Help me. I’m sinking.’
“The cold excrement had now reached my neck. Sensing I was going under I instinctively doggy paddled – I’d had one swimming lesson at school – but I was sinking fast. I managed to get to the other side of the pit and put my arm out to my brother who was still staring at me with a frozen expression of outrage and his face that said, ‘Who are you, I don’t know you’.”
Eventually it was Djalili’s brother who saved him, grabbing him by the arm and yanking him out. “If he’d acted seconds later I have no doubt I would have sunk to the bottom and drowned,” he recalled, adding that they flopped on the grass afterwards with a “cloying, rancid odour emanating from the pair of us”.