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Igniting the Middle East with laughter

29/06/2008 03:00:00 PM GMT

“Being named Ahmed, being Middle Eastern, being Muslim is a triple threat. My way to deal with that is through laughter,"

Muslim-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed demystifies the Middle East

Hugely popular Muslim-American comedian and actor Ahmed Ahmed likes to tell a story about his Egyptian father who had just endured 10 hours’ open-heart surgery following a cardiac arrest.

Entering the Intensive Care Unit with two nurses hovering over him, he opens his eyes and says “Where I am?” One of the nurses answers: “I.C.U.” He replied “I see you too. But where I am?”

This gallows humour refracted through a lost-in-translation Middle East lens is typical Ahmed Ahmed. An Egyptian who moved to California as a baby, the comedian has managed to bridge the gulf of perception that separates America and the Middle East with the only effective weapon at his disposal: laughter.

As the irrepressible frontman for ‘The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour’ which swept through Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon in December 2007 with 27 sold-out shows, he is justifiably proud.

“We had to stop our Middle Eastern tour because we were so tired! But it was a blessing,” recalls the fresh-faced, shaven-headed 37-year-old. “Hundreds of people were queuing for tickets. Tickets were going on sale on the black market for up to $700. The fan mail just keeps pouring in and we are viewed as local heroes and celebrities. I think our comedy has helped to kick start a new form of contemporary Middle Eastern entertainment.”

And yet, upon returning to the United States after the tour, the first question some Americans asked was: “Do they speak English over there?” “Were you doing your show in tents?” Ahmed laments: “That’s pretty stereotypical of the ignorant questions that were being asked. I think it’s a combination of lack of exposure to the Middle East, ignorance and prejudice. I told friends in Hollywood that we sold 20,000 tickets in less than 30 days and they were shocked! That is a phenomenon for the region.”

The well-built, habitual cook, seasoned traveller and keen angler has the envious distinction of being palatable to both Middle Eastern and American audiences.

He says: “Arabs in the Middle East connect with me because I’m from their culture. Americans in the region, for the most part, look at me as an American - but they know I come from Arab heritage and Arab blood. So there’s not really one definition. I’m sort of a man without a country.”

But in the land of comedy - arguably Ahmed Ahmed’s adopted country - humour is used to devastating effect to break down stereotypes. “We use humour to have a natural organic dialogue. Nobody wants to hear a heavy speaker or someone who’s too preachy, shoving their ideals down your throat. I know I don’t. So when I can hear somebody who has a light-hearted approach it’s just a lot easier to contain and digest.”

But that dialogue was not quite so easy when Ahmed Ahmed was first cutting his teeth at the World Famous Comedy Store, the Hollywood venue that spawned the likes of Richard Pryor, George Carland, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey and Robin Williams just to name a few.

“The owner of the club, the legendary Mitzi Shore, is responsible for discovering me back in 1999. I’ll never forget how back then she prophesied the important role that Middle Eastern comedians would eventually play in our world to break the negative the stereo types brought upon us.”

Ahmed explains that before the tragedies of September 11th it was tough enough navigating around Hollywood as a Muslim-American artist. “When September 11 happened, all that it did was heighten the stereotype. The way we dealt with these stereotypes was through comedy. Our mission was to put a positive face on Middle Eastern and Muslim people so that people around the world wouldn’t look at us as if we were strange or mystical characters out of The Lord of the Rings.”

Playing to gruelling back-to-back shows over 20-hours’ flying time from home takes its toll on the body. That’s why Ahmed Ahmed tries hard to maintain an exercise routine and healthy diet. Little wonder, then, that his personal and professional inspiration comes in the shape of boxing legend and Muslim convert Mohammed Ali.

”He was the first sportsperson to incorporate entertainment in his sport. He was an international phenomenon,” says the teetotal bachelor “What he had going for him was the ability to be humble and charismatic at the same time. That is whom I’d like to emulate.

In his own rarefied field, Ahmed Ahmed counts Vince Vaughn as a tremendous inspiration. The fellow comedian and producer built his ‘Wild West Comedy Show’ around his friendship with Ahmed Ahmed and decided he wanted to take a tour with the show around America.

“It was such a treat. Vince is one of those guys who is an innovator. He has such a bright sense of humour and wisdom and really knows his stuff when it comes to comedy. He’s made several comedy films that have made over $100million. Vince is a pioneer and a renaissance man.”

Alongside him there’s Peter Billingsley, a producer on the ‘Wild West Comedy Show’ who Ahmed Ahmed has known for years. “Vince and Peter used to come to the Comedy Store and watch me perform when there were six people in the audience at 1am in the morning on a Sunday night. It was horrible. They’ve always been very supportive whether I was successful or not.”

Jon Favreau has also been supportive of Ahmed Ahmed’s talent and has cast him in several TV and film projects including his recent mega hit "Iron Man" which Ahmed's old pal Peter Billingsley executive produced.

Although a celebrated stage presence in the U.S. and abroad, Ahmed Ahmed is disarmingly humble about his impact and his highly-original material. He says: ”We’re just regular type guys. We tell stories that are funny and are normally based on tragedy or pain or uncomfortable moments. We try to find areas in the story that we highlight for comedic effect. We’re jesters. Modern day story tellers.“

Yet it’s no joke performing controversial comedy routines in less-democratic states of the Middle East where censorship is a delicate issue that can lead comedians, actors and writers to be banned from performing.

“I’ve certainly had my trial and error with performing in the Middle East,” he reveals. “Overall I’ve had great success and I try not to repeat my failures. I learn my lesson and do not talk about certain subjects: I stay away from topics like religion and politics.

“I’ve been doing this for 18 years so I have enough material in my arsenal that’s family-orientated, self-deprecating, everyday stuff that happens to me as an Middle Eastern-American not only in the region, but in the United States.”

That said, the comedian is convinced a seismic shift is taking place in the Middle East where comedy is concerned. He believes: “People are ready to have a good laugh. People are looking for the Arab Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor. They are looking for a voice that can speak their mind. The time is right and people in the region are ready for laughter. They are waiting for someone to arrive.”

Born and raised a Muslim with both parents practising the religion, Ahmed-Ahmed’s prized possession is a Koran his mother gave me him when he was five years old. It has his name on it inscribed in gold.

He stresses that there is a big misperception about the Islamic religion. He explains: “It’s something that I don’t hide behind. I don’t necessarily want to be an activist or a preacher or a spiritual leader or a religious figure. But being named Ahmed Ahmed, being Middle Eastern, being Muslim is a triple threat and I had pretty much everything going against me. My way to deal with that is through laughter. It’s hard for people to hate you when they’re laughing at you.”

For him, the greatest inspiration, ultimately, are his fans - especially Middle Easterners. “I’m really grateful to the fans, boys and girls, men and women, old and young, who recognise me and come up to me and want to take a picture with me and shake my hand. I’m completely flattered by it. To walk into a coffee shop and see three young female students from Saudi Arabia getting a little bit giddy is flattering. Or dozens of women in the hijjab [female headscarf] walking up after a show and saying “Ahmed. You rock!”

As for the future, with various feature-length films, television series and live tours planned in the U.S. and Middle East, Ahmed Ahmed’s aim is simple. “I want to continue to win the hearts and minds of people and break down stereotypes through entertainment. As proud as I am of being Middle Eastern, I’m extremely proud of being an American. I would not have had the success I’ve had in the Middle East had I not made it in the U.S.”

-- AJP

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