'Middle East comedy is exploding… no pun intended' | Stand-up Ahmed Ahmed on taking stand-up to the Arab world

'Middle East comedy is exploding… no pun intended'

Stand-up Ahmed Ahmed on taking stand-up to the Arab world

Comedian Ahmed Ahmed is a man with a mission. As an American-Egyptian, he wanted to bring the Western idea of stand-up to the Middle East. Not the military bases or the corporate, expat gigs comics usually play, but genuine Arab people, often in regimes where such entertainment was strictly prohibited.

Putting together a roster of like-minded acts, including Britain’s Omid Djalili, he toured the region, committing his efforts to film. The ensuing movie, Just Like Us, is currently doing the rounds of international festivals, and during a recent stopover in London he spoke to Chortle about his experience.

‘In 2007, we had a comedy show called the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour with myself, an Iranian, a Palestinian, and a Korean, he says. ‘It started in the States, then it got on to Comedy Central and then we eventually got a deal with Showtime Arabia in Dubai.

‘It got such great response that we decided a follow-up with a five-country tour to Dubai, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait. We were supposed to only do eight shows in total. We ended up doing 27 because the demand was so high.

‘People were queuing around the corner. Tickets were on the black market for $500 and so we decided, “Wow! This is great!” And the next year we followed up and came back several times to the Middle East just because the demand was there.

‘But every time I came back to the US, Americans would say, “Where have you been?” And I would say, “I was in the Middle East for some comedy shows.” And they would say, "Really, which military bases were you performing on?”

‘And I’d say, “They were not military bases, they were theatres for Arabs.” And I’d see the shock in their eyes. And they said, “Do you do it in English?” I said, “Yeah, we do it English.” “And they get it?: I would say, “Yeah they got it, man.”

‘So, I just kind of got sick and tired of answering the questions over and over so here, in this film, is 72 minutes of proof.’

The tour that became the Just Like Us film took place in spring 2009. Producer Taylor Feltner said: ‘I received a call in Los Angeles on a Monday from Ahmed asking, “Would you be interested in documenting a ground-breaking project in the Middle East?” Having never been to that region, I said, “Sure.”

‘By that Friday I was boarding a plane to the Middle East, not knowing what to expect. Before leaving, I kept getting asked by my friends and my family if I was concerned at all for my safety. I guess because I am American, or just a foreigner in a very foreign land.

‘But my experience was eye-opening. The people we encountered were hospitable and warm.’

Ahmed says of the shows: ‘This time it wasn't specifically Middle Eastern content. I had an international cast of comics that were with us. We had German-American, Italian-American, African-American with the first single white female comedian performed with us, Whitney Cummings, and a Brit-Canadian. So it was not so Arab-centric.

‘Saudi and Kuwait are really the only countries that we went to where shows were not publicly advertised. In fact public entertainment of any kind is forbidden, which is unfortunate, but I think that will probably change in the coming years because who wants to shut down a comedy show? “Oh, my God they are laughing! Get rid of them.” It is just ridiculous when you think about it.

‘My old friend, Bob Alper [a rabbi and stand-up] says, “You can’t hate anybody with whom you’ve laughed.” And so I think there is a profound message there. Laughter is the common language of the world, so is music, so is food, so is dance.

‘But in Saudi Arabia for instance we wouldn’t promote the shows because they wouldn’t allow us to. There are religious police that will shut down events like ours. Fortunately we had a really savvy promoter.

‘Basically, he called me up one day and said, “Ahmed, would you like to go to Saudi and do a comedy show?” I said, “Sure, I don’t realize there are comedy shows in Saudi.”

‘He said, “Yeah, there is a huge underground scene going on here.” And he said, “You are really famous here. You can probably fill up the stadium with 40,000 or 50,000 people if it was done properly through the government – but since they don’t sanction that kind of stuff, then we could probably put about 1,500 or 2,000 in an underground scene.”

‘And I said, ‘How do you reckon that would go down?” He said, “It’s either going to be a big hit or you going to spend some time in jail. Are you willing to do that?” and I was like, “Sure, so as long as I get a keep all my limbs then I am good.”

‘So I said, “How do you promote the shows then if they are illegal? He said, “We create a Facebook page for women and a Facebook page for men and you sign up for the event and then on the date of the show we will give you a number to call.” Like an underground rave.

‘It is one of those things like, you know, “Drive down the dirty road, make a left to the bush, where thus donkey and then there is a huge compound with 1,200 plus boys and girls sitting side by side which is again not allowed either…. and no alcohol.

‘What I realised is that just being there was edgy enough. I didn’t have to do any sort of edgy material because the kids don’t get any sort of entertainment, so they are really hungry for laughter. After the shows, they come back stage and queue up to get a picture or an autograph.

‘You know, it was fascinating when these girls in the black abayas, some of them totally covered, and would say, “Ahmed can we take a picture with you? It was bizarre. I had just never had seen a woman in hijab fully covered giving a rock and roll sign. And if there is any trouble with the powers-that-be, the full hijab is a perfect disguise!’

Stand-up is new to the region, and it was warmly received. ‘The Middle East has always had a sort of traditional, old school, sort of storytelling, one-man satire’ said Ahmed ‘In Egypt, comedy is really big but it is only done in Arabic and it is very theatrical, over the top.

‘But never before had they had a traditional contemporary American stand-up comedy where you just see a guy or a girl on stage holding a microphone as if they were just having a conversation with the crowd. And since then, it’s exploding, no pun intended. Now there are initiatives all over the region on Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi, Lebanon, Egypt, of course Dubai, Abu Dhabi, now Qatar.’

And the tour has had the knock-on effect of encouraging locals, especially the younger ones, to form their own stand-up scene. ‘It is starting to open up quite a bit because there are approximately 300 million people in the Middle East and the majority are under the age of 25,’ said Ahmed.

‘So, it’s this young modern generation coming of age that wants to be heard and have a voice and that’s what our film is about.’

Feltner agrees. ‘They have a strong voice that demands to be listened to, and the young comedians who are beginning to follow in the footsteps of Ahmed are leading the way in changing that landscape and allowing for that voice to be heard.’

Ahmed himself was ‘born and raised’ Muslim, though he is clearly relaxed about the faith. ‘I don’t want to get too religious in this interview,’ he said, ‘but you know, the Koran was written 1,400 years ago and the message was meant to evolve as we evolve as people. So I say let’s grow, let’s evolve, let’s try to find out a happy medium You don’t have to walk around in miniskirts but you don’t have to cover your face either. There is a middle ground, I think.

‘I’m a Muslim – on my good days. I am Muslim-ish. I don’t believe that our God is that harsh a God and I don’t think that Islam is meant to be practiced in such a rigid format. The over-conservatives with their long beards and hardcore ways instil fear into Muslims as to how you are suppose to practice? I just don’t believe in that.

‘I was raised very strict Muslim. When I was 27, I took my pilgrimage to Mecca. I’m a hajji, I guess you could call me. So I get it, you know, I understand Islam and I respect the religion and appreciate it, but I won’t practice it the way it’s being practiced in the conservative manner because it’s just impossible. Everybody has their own relationship with God and whatever happens between me and God is between me and God.’

But not every country Ahmed took his tour was so oppressive.

‘In Lebanon anything goes,’ he said. ‘And it is pretty open minded in Egypt, Dubai, Jordan, Bahrain. I even got a show in Yemen. Who would have known that Yemen would have a stand-up comedy scene? But what I had realized there are just certain things you don’t touch that would always be forbidden: sex, drugs, religion or politics. The first thought is, ‘What’s left?’

‘But it’s OK. I will note that. I will speak for myself. I am not that much of a risk taker or want to push the envelope just for the sake of pushing it. I want to try to respect the environment of country that I am in, within reason, and still have some artistic freedom as much as I can.

‘In my own stand-up I’ve slowly taken the focus off being Egyptian and going into more general material… more about turning 40, dating and still being single and my travels because you can only talk about the same thing so much, I think.

‘If you are going to an Arab country and you are talking about stuff that everybody knows, it will still work. For instance, there is a Starbucks almost on every corner in the Middle East. So, if you are doing a joke about Starbucks people are going to get it. If you are doing a joke about Avatar, people are going to get it. There is enough universal material out there that I think is relevant to everybody.

‘Years ago, we played the Royal Albert Hall We had 3,200 Muslims and it was split in half, men and women. That is the most bizarre show I ever done, with both imams with long beards and skull caps and then five-year-old kids. And I was backstage going, “How do I…?”, “What’s my opening…?” “What I am going to say?”

‘But sure enough, I just came out and trusted myself. What I realised is, people from the Middle East and Muslims love satire, they love facial expression, they love sound effects, they love that Saturday morning cartoon-ish material.’

The new homegrown Middle Eastern comics are finding their own voice, too, and although their very existence may in defiance of the strict establishment, their material isn’t always.

Ahmed said: ‘There is this one comic in our film named Sharif Azad who says Saudi Arabia has the highest accident rate in the world which is ironic because there is no alcohol. They manage to do about the alcohol. There is another guy in Bahrain that talks about you know, wearing his turban.

‘And there is a guy in Egypt who has a joke about cab drivers. He says he was in the cab and the driver flies through red light. He says, “What are you doing?” The driver says, “Don’t worry I am a professional.” And he flies through another red light and he says, “Dude what are you doing?” Again, the driver said, “Don’t worry I am a professional.” Then he gets on a green light and stopped and he says, “What are you doing?” And he says, “There might be another professional coming this way.”’

  • Just Like Us will next be showing at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival held in Qatar from October 26 to 30. It has also been selected for the London International Documentary Film Festival in May next year. Here is a trailer:

Interview by: Steve Bennett

Published: 20 Oct 2010

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