In the spring of 2009, a dozen American and international comedians and I set out for the Middle East on a four-country comedy tour. What we embarked on was groundbreaking, to say the least.
Two years prior to that, I had toured the Middle East with a group of strictly Middle Eastern comics, and we called our show The Axis Of Evil Comedy Tour. After we made history introducing Arab-American stand up comedy to the region, I thought it would be a great idea to mix it up a bit and allow American comics to actually perform "American" stand-up comedy, and it worked much better than I thought.
We filmed the tour, called Just Like Us, and cut 200 hours of footage into a 72-minute, (eventually) award-winning documentary. Just Like Us exemplifies our goal of reintroducing socially relevant issues to the world in an effort to build cultural bridges in this age of greater tolerance, understanding and acceptance. The film showcases the cultures of Dubai, Lebanon, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Egypt with sold-out crowds totaling over 20,000 people.
Before the Egyptian revolution, our promoters there asked us to not touch Mubarak in any of our comedy routines. And literally days after he stepped down, I was getting calls from our promoters asking, “Do you have any Mubarak jokes?” It's amazing to see how the switched flipped overnight when it came to joking about Arab politicians.
Originally Kuwait was featured in the film, but after spending weeks trying to edit something together, we eventually had to cut out that segment. We couldn't find a story line, since there's not a lot of public entertainment in Kuwait. On top of filming restrictions, the comedians were also told they couldn't talk about sex, drugs, religion or politics. Backstage, we were literally negotiating swear words with the promoters.
I remember specifically after a show in Saudi Arabia, Maz Jobrani and I were mobbed by adoring Saudi youth, and a woman in hijab was willing to take a photo for the film, which is normally forbidden, because as she said, ”I am down for the cause.” She even threw up the rock and roll sign!
After being turned down by over 20 international film festivals, we got extremely lucky and were selected into the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, where we had our world premiere. And then the doors were suddenly wide open to other festivals around the world (including the Doha Tribeca Film Festival). The subject matter of our film has landed me invites to the White House and the State Department -- for dinners in the company of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Contemporary stand-up comedy has the powerful ability to provide relief, encourage a younger generation, break down barriers and serve as a platform for cross-cultural dialogue. This art form is very new to the Middle East, and older generations did not have the opportunity to appreciate this creative platform. However, through the current Internet age, stand-up comedy has flourished in the Arab region over the past few years, and continues to show us that laughter is the common language of the world.
Modern technology and globalization have made the world a much smaller place and caused us to be more interconnected as people, yet cultural misconceptions persist. Through a celebration of culture and comedy, Just Like Us uproots the widely held misconception that Arabs have no sense of humor -- when in fact they laugh, and are, just like us.
Watch the trailer:
Just Like Us opens at Landmark Sunshine in NYC on Friday, June 10, and also in DC and LA, with more cities to come. Check the official site for details.
Read Tribeca's interview with Ahmed Ahmed, which ran in support of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
Like Just Like Us on Facebook.
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