Ahmed Ahmed has made a career out of making fun of the cultural gaps and tensions between the Western and Arab worlds
October 16, 2008 8:59 by kippreport
Laughter beats ignorance, and Ahmed Ahmed is fighting the good fight. The 38-year-old comedian and actor, who was born in Egypt and raised in the United States, is trying build a bridge between these two worlds, one joke at a time.
Roots may be the most important part of one’s identity and culture, and Ahmed, former co-founder of the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” and current frontman of “Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jubrani and Friends,” knows it: he was a month old when his father decided to leave Egypt and move to Riverside, California, to find better opportunities for his family.
But his isn’t a story of exile and isolation. Ahmed’s family made a point to adapt to this drastic change, in spite of the fact that Ahmed’s father didn’t speak English. Although Ahmed, his brother and four sisters grew up watching “Three’s Company” and eating McDonald’s, the awkward feeling of duality lingered.
“We received a very American upbringing, though our household remained very Egyptian,” he recalls. “It was cross-cultural and in the end, we adapted very well. But part of me felt I didn’t belong in the States, that I was an outsider, like a fish out of the water. It was confusing.”
His soul-searching led him back to his roots in Egypt at the age of twenty-two. He hadn’t returned to his home village of Helwan for 17 years. “I came for holidays and I actually realized I remembered it very well,” he says. “This trip helped me get a better understanding of the region.” When he was 27, he returned to the Arab world again to perform Hajj, “a beautiful experience that gave me a different perspective of Islam,” he says (although he adds that he’s now more a spiritual person than he is religious). “The West has a very distorted image of Islam. Human beings are human beings. As far as I’m concerned, I believe in God, I believe in being honest and that’s what Islam is about.” This experience even inspired him to write a screenplay he titled “The Pilgrimage.”
Ahmed hopes that he has overcome this split personality through his work, where he often discusses, using humor and irony, who he is and what straddling two cultures feels like. “I’m an Arab-American, and American-Arab, an Arab living in America… It depends,” he muses. “I don’t feel weird anymore.” Not that peace of mind came easily.
Ahmed was 19 when he moved to Hollywood in 1989 to start a career in acting and stand-up comedy, against his father’s will – a difficult move in any Arab family. “I was looking for his support but he changed his mind several years later, after seeing me in a movie. That’s when he realized I had made it,” says Ahmed, who performs regularly at The Comedy Store in Hollywood. He has also appeared in several American television shows and films, as well as in the 2008 Hollywood blockbuster “Iron Man.”
PBS even featured Ahmed in the television documentary “Stand Up: Muslim American Comics Come of Age,” and more recently he’s been the subject of a new Hollywood documentary. In 2004, he won the first annual Richard Pryor Award for ethnic comedy at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.
Indeed, his career received significant attention after 9/11 when Arab countries became the new Soviet Union in many Americans’ eyes. The war on terror brought with it stereotypes and misconceptions, and it gave Ahmed and his various partners a chance after chance to shatter them through comedy (as other US comedians have done with African- or Jewish-Americans).
Recognition in the Arab world happened later with the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” in 2007. Ahmed started touring the region solo by himself in 2005, beginning with corporate and private events in Dubai. After selling-out in Egypt, the UAE, Jordan and Lebanon last year with the Axis troupe, Ahmed achieved similar success this past July in Lebanon (where he says he would love to return every six months if he could), putting on a show with partner Maz Jubrani and three other performers.
While on stage in Beirut, he repeated that he had to be more careful with his words, more politically correct, in countries where many subjects are considered no laughing matter. Lebanon was a release by comparison – a point he usually emphasized with well-chosen expletives.
He claims he was just observing, not complaining. “There was no cutting,” he explains. “We changed the lines a little bit. There was no cursing, no politics, no sex, and more social and relationships issues. But we had enough material to make a good show,” he says. “Arab people have a good sense of humor and as a comedian, it feels good to bring something contemporary to them.”
Ahmed has been able to use his sense of belonging both with the American and Arab worlds to build a successful career as an entertainer. “The Middle-East is growing fast, it’s becoming more progressive,” he observes. “There are lots of very educated people and the region is changing.”
People of all ranks have been taking notice, too. “I’m honored to have met King Abdallah of Jordan,” he says. “Man! We had a king of a country sitting in the front row! It doesn’t happen every day.”
As for his Western audience, in Ahmed’s opinion, “people are becoming more curious about the East. I suppose [the] Internet is a good source of interest.” In spite of his increasing popularity, however, he still hasn’t stopped being harassed by security officials in US airports, something that “is becoming really frustrating,” he admits.
There’s obviously still a long way to go until both of the cultures Ahmed inhabits understand each other, but he wants to help that happen. One small example was “One Arab, One Jew, One Stage” a one-night stand-up performance Ahmed put on with Rabbi Bob Alper in 2004. Performing in front of a reluctant audience inside a synagogue may not have been his easiest gig, but it paid off. The crowd connected with his jokes, finding unexpected similarities between Arab and Jewish culture.
“People can’t hate you when they’re laughing with you,” he says, which isn’t necessarily to say he would perform in Israel if he were invited. “That’s a really tough question,” he admits, unusually speechless. “I really don’t know….
First published in Trends magazine