What Makes the Arab World Laugh

A new documentary spotlights a comedy tour in the Middle East, to mixed but fascinating results

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Cross Cultural Productions

As part of his act, the Egyptian-American actor and comedian Ahmed Ahmed likes to tell a joke about how, via Google and no-fly lists, he discovered a terrorist who shares his name. He imagines the terrorist walking around some Middle Eastern country, where mistaken fans approach him and ask for a joke. "No, no, I'm not the comedian. I'm the terrorist," Ahmed says, his voice slipping into a heavy accent. "I'll prove it. I'll blow myself up right here."

It's a great joke. (Ahmed also does a bit about the terrorist googling him. Google tells me that Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali, who goes by Ahmed Ahmed along with many other aliases, is suspected of involvement in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings and was killed in an American drone strike in 2010.) But it's also one that he wouldn't be able to tell in front of some Middle Eastern audiences. That disjunction—between what can be said publicly in the U.S. versus in some Arab countries—is a recurring feature of Just Like Us, Ahmed's new documentary about a group of comedians touring the Middle East.

Besides Ahmed, Just Like Us stars Maz Jobrani, a wonderful Iranian-American comic who, with Ahmed, Aron Kader, and Dean Obeidallah, formed the "Axis of Evil" comedy tour during the second Bush administration. The documentary also features Whitney Cummings, Tommy Davidson, Tom Papa, Sebastian Maniscalco, and Angelo Tsarouchas. As if to prove a point, each of these comedians is introduced by a multi-hyphenated moniker explaining his or her ethnic background (e.g. Welsh-Irish-Dutch American). The film follows these comics in their travels through Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Egypt, performing their acts with varying degrees of self-censorship (anything goes in Beirut, but rules are stricter elsewhere).

Ahmed, who at times conducts himself with an unexpected solemnity, particularly when he's visiting his family in Egypt, is concerned about these restrictions. During a U.S. performance, some jokes about Dubai earned him a one-year ban from the country he'd been joking about; in Just Like Us, when Whitney Cummings performs in Dubai (in what Ahmed believes is a first for a female comic), her unrelenting bawdiness leads her and Ahmed to half-seriously consider whether they're about to be banned again.

It's a disorientating sight to observe comedians wrestling with these issues, even if they can't help but laugh about it. And it's one of the weaknesses of this film that its stars never address the free-speech issue in a concerted way. Ahmed prefers to be light on his feet, offering well-intentioned bromides about how we are all more similar than different and about how Middle Easterners need to be able to laugh at themselves so that we can laugh with them too. His comments sometimes border on treacle, but he wins us over because he so ardently believes these sentiments, and because he's a charming, often hilarious guide through the world of comedy—American, Arab, and wherever the two happen to meet. One sometimes has to shuck off the protective mantle of cynicism, even in the presence of comedians.

Whether or not other comics follow Ahmed's tour into the Middle East, the Internet still remains by far the most common way for Arabs to encounter Western comedians. (Even in countries with some form of Internet censorship, young people have long been ahead of the authorities in gaining access to forbidden content.) In an interview with the Los Angeles Independent , Ahmed said that some Arabs approached him and said how much they loved Jeff Dunham—a ventriloquist, Dunham is one of the world's most popular comedians—and his joke about a dead terrorist named, coincidentally, Achmed. The socio-technological implications of this anecdote are more significant than the cultural ones: A YouTube clip of this routine has an astonishing 135 million views. The Dunham story shows how the promulgation of web video has caused potentially subversive elements of American pop culture to begin infiltrating parts of the world that a decade earlier only had to contend with our movies, fast food, and the threat of invasion.

The Arab Spring makes for strange timing for the release of Just Like Us. While a praiseworthy endeavor like Ahmed's tour should have happened years ago, this documentary has a lot in common with the Arab democracy movement, and with the social networking and access to outside news sources that made these protests possible. But given the vicissitudes of production cycles, there's nothing in Just Like Us about the Arab Spring. And because of Ahmed's apparent reluctance to tackle political issues directly, as he and his friends often do when performing comedy stateside, Just Like Us is a resolutely apolitical movie appearing in a time, and about a place, of great political upheaval.

In other words, Just Like Us may have had more perceptive things to say about the zeitgeist were it released six months ago. It would also be a more compelling film if its stars were able, as they are in Beirut, to say whatever they want. The party line shared by Ahmed and many other comedians is that comedy is most useful when it's confronting taboos and speaking truth to power. But if you want to perform in Dubai, you have to limit your speech—exactly the sort of thing that comedians are supposed to stand against. Pretend like you're doing The Tonight Show, Ahmed tells his team. But on The Tonight Show, a PG-rated comedian can still throw jabs at the government, which is why the 2007 film documenting the U.S. "Axis of Evil" tour, with its jokes about the security state and the difficulties of being Arab-American after 9/11, is far more revealing about the environment that inspired it.

Ahmed's goal, however, is not to be a political agitator, but rather to carve out a small space where some kind of cultural exchange can take place, circumscribed though it might be. One also shouldn't discount the effects that these performances have on aspiring Middle Eastern comics, some of whom appear in Just Like Us and speak ecstatically about the medium's possibilities. (Ahmed's Axis of Evil co-star Aron Kader has contributed to this effort by conducting comedy workshops in Dubai.)

Finally, there is something pretty fascinating, if not remarkable, going on here. Ahmed's regime-friendly stand-up comedy doesn't require the courage of signing a pro-democracy petition, but it is nevertheless commendable to introduce stand-up to countries where people are testing, sometimes at great risk, the limits of expression. Such undertakings deserve particular praise when they occur, as in Just Like Us, at a secret venue a few dozen miles outside of Riyadh, where young men and women socialize in a way that's haram (forbidden). These things have literally never been done before; it's worth pausing a moment to reflect on that.