Ahmed Ahmed is an actor, comedian and director determined to show the brighter side of the Middle East, one joke at a time.
By Brittaney Carter

omehow, Ahmed Ahmed has found himself here, in Egypt, small camcorder in hand ready to explore the area in the little free time that he has while filming his latest movie, Just Like Us. And somehow, Ahmed has convinced his friend and fellow comedian, Angelo Tsarouchas, to climb aboard a miniature camel despite his bulky frame being too heavy for the tiny animal. The episode provides amusement for all of the onlookers and a great scene for Ahmed’s film. And somehow, Ahmed Ahmed has just proven once again that laughter is the universal language.

Ahmed was born in Helwan, Egypt, in 1970, but his family moved to Riverside, California when he was one month old. Always encouraged by family and friends who noticed his keen sense of humor and potential stage presence, he decided that he wanted to be an actor, and at the age of nineteen he moved to Hollywood to begin his career. He quickly earned small supporting roles in movies. However, he also readily noticed the lack of diversity in the character roles offered to an Egyptian-American performer like himself, especially a performer with the name Ahmed Ahmed. Always the rude New York City cab driver, the stereotypical Arab Prince or the Muslim terrorist, he grew frustrated with being offered roles that didn’t reflect him.

“Even when you watch television, you never see the Arab good guy. You never see the Arab doctor or the Arab friend. You just don’t see it,” he says.

As Ahmed explains, his lack of movie roles has been influenced by Western media, which often portrays Arabs and Muslims as extremists. In addition, the terrorist attacks that occurred in the United States on September 11th, 2001—which were executed by 19 Muslim extremists from the Middle East—contributed to a negative perception of Arabs and Muslims.

Muslims have become an integral part of the United State’s demographic in the last century. Various influxes of Muslim immigrants over time have resulted in flourishing Islamic communities—first in the major cities of Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and California, and later in every corner of the country. Today, the estimated number of Muslims living in the United States is 2 to 3 million. And, like Ahmed, most say that life has become more difficult after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, due to religious profiling and discrimination.

“We all went to bed September 10th as Americans and woke up September 11th as suspected terrorists,” Ahmed explains in an August 2006 CNN interview with Roe Conn.

Eventually, the southern California-raised actor with the traditional Middle Eastern name decided to quit his acting and began performing as a stand-up comedian. While working at The Comedy Store in Hollywood, California, he met fellow comedians Maz Jobrani, who is Iranian-American, and Palestinian-American Aron Kader. Together, they formed the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour in 2005 and performed throughout the Middle East as well as in the United States. It was then that Ahmed discovered that his performances gave him a platform to battle the stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims reinforced by American movies and television.

No longer was he fighting to find movie roles that offered a more accurate portrayal of Arabs or Muslims. Instead, every night, when he walked on stage to begin his comedy act, he was creating the role for himself. Ahmed is both an Egyptian and an American who describes himself as “Muslim-ish.” He is also a comedian who could joke about feeling like he was somewhere in between the two identities.

After the Axis of Evil Tour came to an end in 2007, Ahmed began to think of new ways to enhance the media’s perception of people with Middle Eastern roots . The result was the “Just Like Us” Comedy Tour and documentary.

Just Like Us, which was filmed in 2009, follows a team of American comedians as they travel throughout the Middle East to perform. They come from diverse backgrounds and lead the audience on a journey of cultural discovery as they tell jokes to the people of Dubai, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They show the world that people from the Middle East enjoy comedy and that they love to laugh, just like us.

Ahmed’s goal for the tour is to bring together people from different backgrounds and use their cultural differences to inspire laughter instead of prejudice. The tour features American and British comedians of Iranian, Egyptian, Italian and African descent . Ahmed explains that while touring the Middle East with the Axis of Evil Tour, his friends always assumed that he was there to perform comedy for American military troops . They also assumed, Ahmed says, that Middle Easterners don’t have a sense of humor. “I decided to make this film to prove everybody wrong .”

One of the highlights of the film is discovering that not only do Middle Easterners love comedy but they will also break the law to enjoy a live show. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Ahmed and his counterparts perform for audiences of men and women sitting side-by-side in a country where entertainment is banned and it is illegal for adult men and women to mingle . At any moment, they could all be arrested.

“Without risk, there’s no payoff ,” Ahmed explains, speaking of this threat . He then adds with a quiet chuckle , “I thought, ‘If I ever went to jail for doing comedy in Saudi Arabia, that would be really newsworthy .’”

In April 2010, Just Like Us premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Since its first screening, the film has been shown at several independent film festivals, including the Sydney Film Festival in Australia and the Doha Tribeca International Film Festival in Qatar. The film has also been released in the Middle East, and Ahmed is currently searching for a company to distribute it in the United States.

Despite being a target of prejudice and discrimination, Ahmed continues to approach the problem with a hopeful attitude. With the success of both the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour and Just Like Us, he now looks forward to creating more projects.

“The Middle East has a really bad reputation right now due to media around the world,” he says. “How do we fix this?” Then, without hesitation, he answers his own question. “We do it by projecting positive images of Arabs and Muslims through arts and culture. And mostly through comedy.”

 

Visit Ahmed’s website: www.ahmed-ahmed.com

Visit the Just Like Us website: www.JustLikeUsTheMovie.com

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