Ahmed Ahmed - Bridging the gap
Written by Kate McAuley
In 2007, comedian Ahmed Ahmed made history. Along with fellow stand-ups Maz Jobrani and Aron Kader, the trio brought their hugely popular ‘Axis of Evil’ comedy tour to the Middle East. It was a completely speculative move that garnered more than its fair share of reservations.
Although already successful in the USA, the trio’s brand of comedy – poking fun at their Middle Eastern roots and the way the rest of the world perceives Arab and Muslim culture in the wake of terrorist attacks and recent years of war – understandably made promoters more than a little nervous about how it would be received across the region.
They needn’t have bothered grinding down their worry beads. The tour was a runaway success. Not only did it make audiences roll in the aisles and cry with laughter, the show was credited with breaking down social barriers, smashing cultural stereotypes, and bringing people together. The three men became stars, inspired a number of other comics to give it a go, and kick-started a new movement towards levity across the region.
Three years on, Ahmed Ahmed is sitting in his LA home looking a little dishevelled. “I call it jetlag chic,” he says apologetically, stroking his stubbly chin and rubbing his tired eyes. Not that anyone’s chastising him. It’s been an incredibly busy period for the comic, who’s back home after his most recent tour through the Middle East, where in 35 days he visited Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and, for the first time, Syria.
This time, however, he was not in the company of Jobrani and Kader. Despite their initial success, the three no longer work together following a number of personal differences and infighting. “For that moment in time though,” says Ahmed, “we were able to catch lightning in a bottle. After that I decided to stay away from everything becoming so Arab-centric. It was overplaying the card and I thought it was redundant. All these theme shows started coming out like ‘Arabs Gone Wild’. Arab-American this and that.”
This fact was no more evident for Ahmed than while on his recent tour. “It was very up and down. What I’m realising is that comedy in the Middle East has become its own little microcosm. Everyone’s got initiatives going trying to compete all of a sudden, and it’s taken the dynamic to a whole different level. And, because comedy is still a new thing, people are treating it like it’s the Wild East. Like it’s the gold rush. I just think that it’s interesting from when we started it, it had such an innocence behind it. And now it’s become a semi-jaded machine in some of the countries.”
Not that this means that Ahmed has walked away from his background and strayed into comedy of a more generic nature. While his work is now more nuanced and varied, including observations on turning 40, the rocky world of dating, and the hazards of Facebook and social networking, he still includes anecdotes and stories that relate to his heritage.
“I’m one hundred per cent Egyptian,” he says with pride. “My whole family and background is from there. We’re from a little town called Helwan. It’s about 20 minutes outside of Cairo. It’s a poor little primitive village. My dad emigrated to the US in 1970. He actually got his immigration papers the day I was born. He wanted the American dream. We grew up very poor. Our family comes from a place where women cook corn on the side of the road. Donkeys wheeling watermelons. Very primitive. Very third world. My father wanted a better life for his family. We settled for California and he brought my sister, my mum, and me over and started from scratch. Pumping gas for US$1.75 an hour. He didn’t speak much English. It’s your traditional immigrant’s story.”
At 19, Ahmed upped and left his family home to pursue fame and fortune in Hollywood as an actor. Although he’s had roles in a number of notable films including Swingers and Ironman, he’s the type of performer no-one recognises on the street. “People always ask me who I was in Swingers and I have to explain it to them,” he says. “It’s funny because that’s the kind of actor that I am. People don’t go, ‘Hey, you played Johnny in so-and- so film’. They’re always like ‘which one were you?’ and I’m like ‘remember the scene…that was me’.”
This has all changed now that Ahmed has switched over to comedy. He’s a regular on the circuit, often appearing on high-voltage talk shows, and invited to events of significance, such as the annual Iftar dinner at the White House and the State Department, which is all fodder for his routine.
“I got an email from the Barack’s office – I call him ‘Barack’ – inviting me to this dinner,” he recounts, settling into an anecdote. “At first I think it’s a joke and reply, ‘LOL, hey Mike, you got me.’ But, it turned out to be true so I turned up and there are like 150 Muslims standing outside The White House and I think this looks shady.” A few weeks later Ahmed also attended a State Department Iftar function hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who demanded he make her laugh over dinner.
Ahmed was invited to both functions off the back of his latest venture – a documentary film entitled Just Like Us, which shows footage from his latest tours through the Middle East, this time partnered with comedians from all over the world, such as the Egyptian-Saudi Sherif Azab, the German-American (and the first female to do stand up in the Middle East) Whitney Cummings, and the Iranian-British comic Omid Djalili. It’s his directorial debut, and it has been receiving rave reviews from the many cultural events it’s been shown at, including the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, which sparks another tiny tale.
“When we were there [at Tribeca], Robert De Niro watched the film and turned up to our after party,” Ahmed recalls, before slackening his cheeks and hooding his eyes to pull off a flawless impression of the movie star meeting his father, in spite of his hirsute chin and obvious fatigue. Ahmed is a born performer, and allegedly a gifted director.
Just Like Us is scheduled for a US release in April this year and will be coming to a select number of cinemas across the Middle East over the coming months. “If it doesn’t do well, I’ll tell my grandkids that it was the most expensive home movie ever made,” he quips. Self-deprecating this may be, but nobody is buying it. Hillary Clinton sent Ahmed a handwritten note after watching the film, congratulating him on his work. “I’m on a first name basis with the Secretary of State, but I can’t get my agent to call me back,” Ahmed says with a laugh. No doubt with the success that 2011 is likely to bring for Ahmed, all that is likely to change.
It was early last year when comedienne Whitney Cummings – who lists among her influences the at times raunchy approaches of Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers – was asked about it being a good time to be a female stand-up comic.
“I’ve noticed in the last year I’ve gotten less comments like ‘I usually hate female comedians’, so I guess in some universe that’s a good sign.
“I did a tour in Dubai and Lebanon and I’m going to go back this fall to Egypt, Jordan, and a couple of other places,” Cummings said. “It was really cool. Comedy is what unites us. The one thing every culture does is laugh.”
Attending the Doha Tribeca Film Festival’s Just Like Us Comedy Night in New York are: (l to r): Jane Rosenthal (producer & co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival), Robert De Niro (co-founder of the festival), Ahmed Ahmed, Grace Hightower, Omid Djalili, and (behind) Vince Vaughn and his wife Kyla Weber.
You know him. He’s been in 24 feature films and some 30 television series both in Europe and the USA.
He’s often joked about appearing in a “James Bond film” as the “Second Azerbaijani oil pipe attendant.” But that’s humility on his part.
He carried his own HBO comedy special, and was a regular in Whoopi Goldberg’s eponymous NBC sitcom. He performed for Comic Relief, led two self-titled comedy series on BBC, and even got a celebrity driver turn on Top Gear. You’ll also recognise him from appearances in movies such as Mr. Nice, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and as Pablo Picasso in Modigliani.
“In 1988, way before I had started my career, I was travelling around America and stopped off in San Francisco,” Djalili recounted. “These guys were making a film and they asked me to be in it. Part of it has me having my tarot cards read. This woman said I was going to be world-famous. She said my career would be built slowly in blocks and that I had to be patient but that I was going to do something very significant and the whole world would see it.” So stay tuned.