The Arab world is a deep mystery to many Americans. Many of us see only women in burkas and strange-looking men in robes and beards. On June 10, a new movie is being released that goes a small but significant way toward shining a light into the darkness of the American mind. The film is called Just Like Us. It was directed by stand-up comedian Ahmed Ahmed, who shows us a facet of the Middle East that is not often discussed in the mass media. Ahmed takes us on a whirlwind tour of the comedy club circuit from Dubai to Beirut to Riyadh to Cairo. The movie is funny, enlightening, and I'll bet quite surprising to a Western audience.
Everybody loves to laugh, but comedy can do more than make us chuckle; like good fiction, it can take us beyond identity politics. To really get to know other people, we must approach them -- whether they live across the street or across the world -- as individuals instead of representatives of social, political, or ethnic groups. No one makes this point better than Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who often discusses the power of storytelling and its capacity to bring us outside and beyond what she calls our parochial "circles." I suggest that stand-up comedy can have similar power when in the hands of smart and compassionate comedians, for what Shafak says about fiction goes double for comedy because it is so much more accessible to so many more people, and I believe that Just Like Us proves my point.
Shafak is not in the movie, but while watching it, I couldn't stop thinking about her. She reminds us that we all live within cultural circles of one kind or another, and these circles tend to isolate us from those of other cultures, nationalities, religious affiliations, etc., who are likewise huddled within their own circles. When we are confined within our own circle, all the other people we interact with are mirror images of ourselves. Such a limited perspective creates a cocoon of ignorance and the tendency to identify people outside the circle in stereotypical ways. These walls we build up around ourselves create the danger of drying up our souls by preventing us from seeing and feeling our shared humanity with all people. One way to transcend these boundaries and travel beyond them is to read quality fiction: "When we are reading a good novel," Shafak tells us, "we leave our small cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone, and start getting to know people we have never seen before and perhaps have even been biased against."
"Go out into the night." Those words remind me of my time in New York City, when I would often venture into comedy clubs to hear a wide variety of "wild and crazy" guys and gals talk about their lives, their jobs, their families -- usually in self-deprecating and always funny ways. It was encouraging to see the people in Ahmed's movie doing the same thing. It reminded me that in many ways we are all the same, whether we live in New York, Peoria, or Riyadh. As one person says in the film, "We laugh at ourselves, the rest of the world will laugh with us."
Just Like Us has the power to transport American viewers into a circle that many of us have never stepped into before. It takes us to places that are strange and unfamiliar, and reveals a world we cannot see when we look only into our own mirrors. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 10 and makes its way to other selected cities a week later.