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