DEARBORN — Life has been a rollercoaster ride for many people of Arab descent since the Middle East uprisings began, and one group of stand-up comics knows all too well.
For Ahmed Ahmed, the star of the new documentary/comedy film "Just like Us," current events in the region have had a funny way of affecting his own plans even while he continues to live in Hollywood.
"I had one guy call me up before he was forced out and said, 'Whatever you do, don't tell any jokes about (former President Hosni) Mubarak!'" Ahmed said about the time he was set to perform in Egypt.
"But then literally two days after he was gone, I got a call back from the same guy saying, 'Hey, you got any Mubarak jokes?'"
Ahmed, the movie's director and producer, hosted a Q&A session for the audience after the Friday, July 8 Dearborn premiere of the new film at the Star AMC Fairlane Theatre during which he touched on the joys, trials and tribulations of his recent comedy tour to the Middle East. Ahmed is perhaps best known from his "Axis of Evil" Comedy Central special during which he and his colleagues poke fun at Arab and Muslim stereotypes.
For the movie, a group of 13 comics including five of Arab descent jetted from Dubai to Beirut to Saudi Arabia and Egypt with video cameras in tow for the movie, which has received positive press from outlets such as The Los Angeles Times and Variety magazine among others. The movie has premiered in markets such as New York, L.A., Washington and Chicago as well.
A diverse group of comics joined Ahmed including Iranian British, Italian American, and Greek Canadian participants as they performed in front of crowds as large as more than 20,000.
One comic, Whitney Cummings, a German American, said she learned a lot about the region as well, realizing in conversations with hijab-clad women that they made the choice to wear head scarves for the purpose of empowerment rather than because they are repressed.
Most of the film takes on a lighter tone, however, including one standout scene in Egypt where the nearly 400-pound Angelo Tsarouchas seems to nearly break a camel's back on a ride near the pyramids. The strength of the movie lies in its similarly off-the-cuff, improvised scenes as the cast shines, although the stand-up parts also have their moments.
The goal of the film according to Ahmed was to show that people in the Middle East love to laugh just as much as anyone else, especially in times of hardship.
Along the way, he finds himself banned in Dubai for an earlier joke on an American special about a mosque and a nightclub being side-by-side that many would find tame by American standards or even in places like the part of Egypt he performed in. Ahmed manages to find the right balance later on as he finally gets a chance to entertain the Dubai audience.
Another show spent dodging the watchful eye of Saudi Arabian religious police ends with a landmark performance at an underground show in the middle of a desert during which comedienne and Egyptian American Maria Shehata gives what was believed to be the first stand-up comedy performance by a woman in the country according to the crew.
Ahmed also comes full circle in the movie, visiting family in Egypt and receiving a warm welcome from those who once didn't quite know what to think about his choice of career, including some who had no idea what a stand-up comic even was at the time he left Egypt for Hollywood at age 19.
His father is among those showing newfound respect for his son's passion near the end of the movie.
"I believe that anytime someone puts a smile on another person's face it is a blessing from God," he says.
At the Q&A session, Ahmed said he hoped that more people would support the Arab arts, including his new film. The movie's website is www.justlikeusthemovie.com and Ahmed said that it would be available on DVD in September as well as iTunes and On Demand digital services. Showtimes were still undetermined for the coming week at AMC Fairlane as they were expected to be based on ticket sales for the first week.
"In Hollywood there's been a lot of bad guys, they were Russians, blacks, Asians and whoever else, and Arabs were sort of the last bad guys," he said.
"As a culture we need to unite, write our own scripts and tell our stories so that we don't have other people doing it for us."