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An Alexandria audience enjoys the touring comedy featured in Ahmed Ahmed's documentary Just Like Us.
An Alexandria audience enjoys the touring comedy featured in Ahmed Ahmed's documentary Just Like Us.

We all laugh the same language: a Middle Eastern comedy tour

Ahmed Ahmed talks about his documentary film Just Like Us and the Middle East comedy tour behind it.

Take seven American comedians with Middle Eastern origins, add one New York taxi driver, shake well and serve to a New York crowd that includes Tribeca's co-founder Robert de Niro, and you have a taste of the comedy tour that the Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed filmed in Just Like Us, his debut as a director. The documentary, which made its world premiere at the Tribeca film festival on Saturday, follows a show that travelled from Dubai to Cairo via Riyadh and Beirut in 2009.

"It proved that those parts of the world shared something in common - humour and laughter," Ahmed says. "It explained to people that they do things just like us over there - not word for word or play by play, but there's similarity when it comes to people enjoying the same kind of entertainment." Ahmed, 39, who hadn't expected to direct anything "until I was in my fifties", says the film began as an impulse. "About four days before the tour, I wangled a couple of camera guys together, and they followed me around the Middle East. It was one of those last-minute documentaries, actually."

Not all the comedians on the tour were forewarned, says the Iranian-British comic Omid Djalili: "I was being filmed and I didn't know I was being filmed. They had to ask me later if they could use the footage." The gamble worked. Arab audiences welcomed the comedians - jokes varied somewhat according to the host country, with Lebanon permitting anything. "My British agent was in the audience," Djalili said after the New York premiere. "It really opened her eyes, not so much about the comedians, but about the audience."

The New York post-premiere show also addressed touchy local themes, such as US airport security. "My advice to my Arab friends?" said the Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani. "Next time you're on an airplane, speak your mother tongue. That way, no one knows what you're saying, and life goes on - but try to throw in some nice English words like strawberry or rainbow." Jokes also lampooned racial profiling, as in Jobrani's: "To my Mexican friends, you look enough like us, so when things go bad, we pretend to be you."

Humour about the Middle East has come a long way in the past 20 years, says Ahmed, who came to the US when he was a month old and grew up in Riverside, California watching the stand-up comedy of Steve Martin and Richard Pryor. "We didn't have many Arab or Middle Eastern families there. I felt like we were the Arab version of the Munsters or the Addams Family. We were the weird family on the block, that people sort of misunderstood. Weird smells were coming out of the house from my mother's cooking."

Ahmed also remembers the Iran-Nicaraguan Contra affair in the 1980s: "People would call our house and say, 'Go back to your country.' We would say, 'We're Egyptian. Go look at a map.'" Even three years ago, during the 2007 Axis of Evil Tour of comedians in Arab countries, Jobrani recalls, "Someone wrote to Sean Hannity's (FoxNews) website and asked, 'Do these people laugh?'" There are more laughs where Just Like Us came from. Ahmed promises an expanded sequel, with stand-up, out-takes and backstage scenes from more than 70 hours of 2009 footage, called Smile on Arabia.

Eventually, that is, says Ahmed, who can't resist another airport joke. "Right now I'm living in a bag. I'm a cross between Tom Hanks in Terminal and George Clooney in Up in the Air."

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