Ahmed Ahmed is an internationally known Egyptian-American comedian who has directed the new documentary Just Like Us. The film features thirteen international comedians performing during a recent tour of the Middle East. Iranian standup comedians, Maz Jobrabi and Omid Djalili are among the artists featured in this film. Other performers have backgrounds such as Greek-Canadian, African-American, Italian-American, German-American, and Egyptian-Saudi. This very lively documentary is both funny and educational because the footages include interviews with the audience of the shows as the tour visits various Middle Eastern countries. Mr. Ahmed was kind enough to give a telephone interview for IC readers:
Ari: At the very beginning of Just Like Us, you show an old documentary clip of a Western traveler cordially shaking hands with an Arab desert dweller --camels and everything. President Obama’s voice is heard in the background giving his speech about centuries of cooperation between Islam and the West. While the Arab and the Western traveler are busy shaking hands, the Arab guy’s sidekick keeps whacking the traveler on the head with a camel stick. The traveler doesn’t seem to mind. What’s going on there?
Ahmed: My editor found this old archival footage. I don’t know where he found it. The clip was humorous and very poignant, as it conveniently set up certain situations in the film regarding the differences between the various peoples of the world...Arabs, Western people, Muslim or otherwise.
Ari: Any idea of their nationality? Who taps the guest on the head with a camel stick?
Ahmed: I would assume they were Bedouins. Saudis.
Ari: Your film spends a few minutes showing us that many Americans don’t know the difference between an Arab and a Muslim. Why is this an important distinction to make?
Ahmed: Most of America has no clue as to the difference between an Arab and a Muslim. We interviewed dozens of people on the East Coast, the Midwest, the South and on the West Coast, and not one person knew.
Ahmed: Exactly. By itself it may not be so important to know the difference, but we’re trying to educate people and break down stereotypes. As my friend [comedian] Erik Griffin jokes, “If you’re trying to be a racist, be a smart racist.”
Ari: To me not knowing the difference between a Muslim and an Arab shows that Americans don’t know Arabs are of different nationalities. American knowledge about Arabs is so low that some people think King Tut still rules Egypt.
Ahmed: [Laughs] Yes, I’ve heard that before. It’s too bad; in fact the whole point of our film is to make people aware of the facts. We’re not trying to change the world or anything, but the news is biased, portraying the Middle East in a certain light that is not always accurate. We’re trying to set the truth straight as much as we can.
Ari: Just Like Us tracks an international team of standup comedians touring the Middle East. One interesting country in which to do stand up comedy seems to be Saudi Arabia. In the film you mention worrying about a police raid breaking up the show. Did you actually advertise the show in secret?
Ahmed: Yes, the way the promote shows in Saudi is on Facebook. They have an events page—one for the guys, one for the girls.
Ari: [cracks up]
Ahmed: No, literally! This isn’t a joke. On the day of the show, there’s a phone number you call, and the guy answers, “OK, drive down the dirt road and you’ll see a donkey.” It’s like a comedy rave basically.
Ari: The film shows a large gang of Harley Davidson motorcyclists escorting the comedy team to the secret Saudi venue. What motorcycle gang was that?
Ahmed: That was the Riyadh chapter. They are big fans of ours. We asked them, isn’t this a taboo? Isn’t somebody going to see us? They said, no we do this anyway and how are they going to know there are comedians inside the Humvees and cars. So it should be fine. We took their advice and went for it.
Ari: Your show in Lebanon felt so much like a successful comedy show anywhere else in the world. Did you have to censor yourselves on the war issue?
Ahmed: Interestingly enough, in Lebanon there are no rules. You can literally say whatever you want and it’s accepted, whereas in Saudi, Dubai, Egypt and some other countries they are very adamant about not touching on certain topics like religion or what have you. But Lebanon is an amazing place in that their freedom of speech goes a long way.
Ari: All we hear in the news about Lebanon, particularly Beirut, is war. Was there a part of your satire--addressing the war issue--during the live performance that is not reflected in the film?
Ahmed: We didn’t get too political because we didn’t have to. The promoters said to feel free to say whatever we wanted, but just being there was political and edgy enough in its own right. We didn’t push the envelope that much because it wasn’t necessary. People in Lebanon actually asked us to do jokes about Arab politicians and religion. At one point one of the promoters said to go ahead and joke about Hezbollah. And I was like, “uhhh, I kinda wanna live [laughs].” And the promoter said, trust me and go for it. So we did, and thankfully nothing bad happened. This whole idea of the Middle East being an unhappy place where nobody laughs is a misconception. It’s not true.
Ari: The Iranian comedians Maz Jobrani and Omid Djalili were in your comedy group. I know they do well in Dubai because a lot of Iranians go there. How were they received in other countries?
Ahmed: Two incredible comedians, awesome people, and very good friends of mine. I know Omid has done Dubai, Bahrain, and Jordan. Maz and I have done Dubai, Saudi, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon. Last year I also took some comedians to Palestine, Syria, Qatar, and Oman.
Ari: How was Maz Jobrani received in Saudi?
Ahmed: They love Maz! He is a big star in the Middle East. He’s topical, funny, approachable, and likeable. An incredibly talented guy.
Ari: Do you know of Iranian women standup comedians, say, Tissa Hami or Shappi Khorsandi?
Ahmed: I’m not familiar with Shappi Khorsandi. But I am familiar with Tissa Hami, and I applaud her for getting up there on stage and taking a shot at this very difficult craft. I worked with her in a show in Portland Oregon about three years ago. At the time she had been doing comedy for only about a couple of years. She was great. Very funny!
Ari: Any chance of inviting Iranian women comedians on the next Middle East tour? Would that even fly?
Ahmed: Oh yes. If you know anybody, please send her my way. The more the merrier.
Ari: There are a few, but of course everything depends on how well the team can work together.
Ahmed: Yes. When you invite comedians to travel with the group you ask yourself two questions. Are they funny, and can we get along? Maz, for instance, is one of the best comics to tour with. He is very respectful, very funny, and extremely professional. Also, he likes to do cultural things. Some traveling comics sit in their hotel room all day, whereas Maz goes to see the pyramids, he goes sightseeing in Beirut, he interacts with the community. That’s really important because you absorb what’s happening in the culture and that helps find material for your show.
Ari: Maz Jobrani and I go way back—say, about 2500 years—but you two friends are on the Axis of Evil comedy team. How did you meet Maz, and how did the name Axis of Evil come about?
Ahmed: We both started at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, which is a comedy club owned by Mitzy Shore (who is Pauly Shore’s mother.) Mitzy had an epiphany that Middle Eastern comedians are going to be needed in a post 9-11 world. She put me and Maz and a Palestinian comedian together and called the show, “The Arabian Knights.” When we started getting attention, Maz called and said, “Hey Ahmed, we need to change the name because I’m getting a lot of complaints from Iranians saying we love the show, you’re very funny, but why are you calling yourselves Arabian Knights? We’re Persians.” So I said, “Sure, why not? You folks had your own empire, I get it.” We brainstormed for a whole day and I said, “Why don’t we call ourselves Axis of Evil.” Maz said, “Yea, let’s call ourselves Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.” The name stuck, and here we are ten years later.
Ari: It’s a brilliant name! What other name almost made it?
Ahmed: None of the other names almost made it. One of the members of the group came up with a couple of names we didn’t appreciate or agree with. One of them was, “Take it All With a Grain of Sand.” “Drilling for Punch Lines” was another one.
Ari: Nothing tops “Axis of Evil.”
Ahmed: [laughs] It was appropriate for the time. Maz and I knew that the name was going to have a limited run based on who served as US President. When Obama came into office and a political venture of change and understanding began with a President who went to different countries shaking hands with other world leaders, we thought the name “Just Like Us” for both the tour and the movie has more relevance. Axis of Evil is exclusive, but Just Like Us is more inclusive.
Ari: Maz pokes fun at himself and his family and friends as Iranians. I wonder what Iranian characteristics would an Arab spoof? It seems we overlap a lot…the open shirt, the chest hair, the gold necklace, the car. How do we educate American to tell the difference between an Arab-American and an Iranian-American?
Ahmed: That’s the big looming question. People always try to put us all together and categorize us into one group. It’s very important that Iranians be distinct in their own fashion. Not in the sense that one culture is better or worse, but people like to define their own identity. But if you see a British White person standing next to a White person from the South, until they open their mouth you never know where each one is from.
Ari: Very good point.
Ahmed: But when they say I’m from the UK, or I’m from Arkansas, that’s when you know. Maz and I could stand next to each other and people may think we are cousins or brothers. But there’s that cultural distinction that Iranians have and Arabs have. At the end of the day, though, we are both family oriented cultures, which to me is a beautiful similarity to share.
Ari: Some Iranians think we are white people. Do some Arabs have the same Michael Jackson syndrome as some Iranians do?
Ahmed: [laughs] Maz actually does a joke about that. Iranians are Caucasians because they’re from the Caucus Mountains, right?
Ari: So they say.
Ahmed: Well, most people don’t know that, and the great thing about Maz is that not only is he funny, but he incorporates information and education in his comedy. A smart approach and I praise him for that.
Ari: In your film I learned that Egyptians have a reputation for having a good sense of humor.
Ahmed: We try.
Ari: They have light blood, as the Arabic expression goes. First of all, light as in the opposite of heavy or the opposite of dark?
Ahmed: Light as in the opposite of heavy. Light hearted, easy going.
Ari: This traditional reputation couldn’t have come about because of American standup comedy. How did this extraordinary sense of humor manifest itself in the Arab world before Ahmed Ahmed?
Ahmed: Countries in the Middle East, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, have always had comedy or comedic initiative. The difference is that before American contemporary standuparrived in the Middle East a few years ago, comedy performances were mainly satirical plays or over-the-top one-man shows. Standup comedy is more conversational.
Ari: We Iranians have a successful satire show on Voice of America called Parazit—beamed into Iran to keep up the resistance spirit. Parazit gives its guests one minute to say anything they want, totally uncensored. Borrowing the Parazit tradition, please say anything you want for one minute.
Ahmed: Well, My name is Ahmed Ahmed. I am an Egyptian-American. I am happy to be doing this interview. I don’t want to be too open with my speech, because you never know who’s reading or listening [laughs]. I am very grateful to be able to go to the Middle East and bring smiles and laughter to people. It is a pleasure to work with my fellow Middle Eastern colleagues, Omid Djalili and Maz Jobrani. We hope to continue to go back to the Middle East to open up doors to social change and cross-cultural dialogue. We hope that one day we can bring some of our comedy shows to Iran. I don’t know if that’s possible, but if you have anything to do with it, I’ll be right at your side. Let’s go!
Ari: I may call you on that, some happy day.
Ahmed: Please do, brother.
Ari: Thank you very much for your time, Ahmed. I wish the greatest success for your new film.
Friday June 17.
San Francisco, CA
Landmark Lumiere Theatre - GET TICKETS
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