‘Just Like Us’ challenges Arab stereotypes with humor

What do you do if your name is Ahmed Ahmed and it matches that of a terrorist – so every time you're at an airport, the authorities double check on you?

This is a joke that Egyptian American standup comedian Ahmed Ahmed likes to tell every time he’s on stage. You can hear it along with many others in his directorial debut, the documentary Just Like Us (2010).

In October 2010 at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, Ahmed premiered the 72-minute documentary of his tour across the Middle East. It scored great success among audience and critics alike.

After touring a number of festivals, Just Like Us finally premiered last week in New York, before its commercial release. Negotiations are underway with Egyptian distributors to screen the film soon in local cinemas.

Stand-up comedy is a performing art that's not strange to Egyptians. In the old days, Ismail Yasin and now Hamada Sultan perform social commentary songs and jokes. In Egypt, we call them monologists. In the US, stand-up comedy is a widely popular performing art, due to the presence of comedy clubs as well as channels like Comedy Central and TV shows like Saturday Night Live. All of these were the fuel for discovering new comic talents, launching the careers of Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey.

The story of Just Like Us started a few years ago when Ahmed decided to make a comedy tour with his gang of stand-up performers in Cairo, Beirut, Dubai and Riyadh.

At the last minute, Ahmed took along a digital camera and shot everything from performances to backstage encounters, interviews with fans and even family gatherings. In his family's house, Ahmed’s father tells us why he immigrated to the US in the '70s without speaking a word of English.

Just Like Us, which targets a Western audience, is meant to negate misconceptions about Arabs having little sense of humor. In fact, they're "just like us," the film shows – "us" meaning Westerners.

The film also targets various taboos in Arab countries.

In Egypt, Ahmed was forbidden to comment about the former Mubarak regime. In Lebanon, he was asked not to tell jokes about religion or the military. He was censored and prevented from entering Dubai for a year for telling a joke about how Dubai has contradictory lifestyles, with nightclub music beats and adhan (meaning the call for prayer) heard back-to-back.

Ahmed and his gang should be credited for even daring to perform in Saudi Arabia, a country that still doesn’t have cinemas or theatrical performances. In fact, the comedians identified themselves during the visit as “consultants,” revealing the challenge of being funny without the crutches of sex, politics or religion. During his visit to Riyadh, he even discovered some Saudi talents, young men and women who wanted to venture into the comic genre.

Obviously, Ahmed inherited his sense of humor from his father, who throws jokes at everyone and everything. At the end of the movie, we see Ahmed Senior holding a Canada Dry bottle and saying, "A few moments ago, it was wet!" We also see Ahmed’s personal journey and how he and many others have been using comedy to break down stereotypes about Arabs and Middle Easterners.

Ahmed studied at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Pasadena, California. Before focusing on live performances, he got some roles in films, although he was typically cast as a terrorist. Since 2000, he’s been performing regularly at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles.

Ahmed was one of the members of the 2005 Axis of Evil comedy tour that tried to use comedy to deal with the difficulties of being an Arab in post-9/11 America. In addition to Ahmed, the gang featured Palestinian-Americans Aron Kader and Dean Obeidallah as well as Iranian-American Maz Jobrani. In 2007, they were given their own Comedy Central Special.

But instead of being weighed down with sentimentality, Just Like Us is a perfect blend of laughter and tenderness. Through his new production and distribution company, Cross Cultural Entertainment, Ahmed has been promoting the new film and producing a sequel to Just Like Us.

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