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20 April 2024

On a mission to change mindsets

By Bindu Rai


Kiefer Sutherland launched a manhunt for them on 24. Arnold Schwarzenegger hijacked a fighter jet to gun them down in True Lies. And Bruce Willis declared martial law to capture them in The Siege.

These are Hollywood’s reel bad Arabs, most often bracketed into the stereotypical role of gun-toting terrorists on screen. In fact, comedian Maz Jobrani happened to play one such evildoer on 24, who steals a nuclear warhead to embark on a spree of death and mayhem in downtown Los Angeles.

“But I was a terrorist with a conscience,” Iranian-born Jobrani tells Emirates Business. “When my character spots schoolchildren in the playground, he has a change of heart. And then two seconds later he gets shot, thanks to his good deed of the day.”

Jobrani, along with Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader, make up the trio of Axis of Evil – a name appropriated from United States President George Bush’s famous speech on the axis of evil nations – Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

With this group, the three comedians aim to bridge the cultural gap between Arab and Western cultures through humour. The trio have just finished their first stand-up comedy tour of the Middle East in partnership with Showtime Arabia, with performances in Dubai, Cairo, Amman and Beirut. Highlights of their regional tour are now being showcased on Showcomedy every Friday, offering plenty of behind-the-scenes action.

Combining humour and politics, the trio have attempted to address misconceptions about the Middle East and its international image and help cultures understand each other better. For Ahmed, Kader and Jobrani, comedy is the best way to break down existing barriers and achieve their objectives, with a few laughs along the way.

Egyptian-born Ahmed says: “Living in the United States as an Arab, you are prone to living with some form of prejudice, but post September 11, things just got worse.”

Ahmed talks of being detained at domestic airports across the US over the years. He says: “I was even arrested once, at Las Vegas airport, the day before President Bush was re-elected. I discovered later that more than 10,000 Muslims were thrown in jail around the time on suspicion.”

But he still manages to find some humour in the situation, saying: “At the time, I was arrested by a black cop and a white cop, and while they were taking me away in handcuffs, the black cop whispered in my ear, ‘Now you know what it feels like to be a black man in the 1960s’.”

He eventually ended up in a downtown holding cell for nearly 17 hours with “thugs and gang bangers” he says.

“After 12 hours in the holding cell, a Mexican gang member with tattoos and a shaved head walked up to me and said, ‘Hey amigo… so you locked up here coz you Arab?’ I said ‘yeah’. ‘They thought u a terrorist amigo?’, I said ‘yeah’. ‘Then blow this place up and get us outta here’. That’s when I finally started laughing,” he says.

Palestinian-born Kader’s experiences may not be as colourful, but he does say as a comedian, making Muslims laugh at themselves works well in their favour.

“When we perform in comedy clubs across the US, it’s great to see our Muslim audiences appreciate our brand of humour. And the added bonus is the American audience present in the crowd realise that all Arabs are really not like Osama bin Laden; we too have a sense of humour,” he says.

Funny bone

Emirates Business caught up with Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader, the threesome from Axis of Evil, to talk humour and politics.


BEST STAGE LINE: There isn’t one that stands out. When performing, you come up with a gag that’s so funny you start laughing yourself.

PRESIDENT BUSH AND HIS WAR ON TERROR: It is very frustrating to see a man who is ignorant about the world as the president of our country. When his administration was trying to sell the war in Iraq to the American people, I recall Bush saying they were going to welcome us with flowers, and I thought: does he believe this? Furthermore, isn’t there anybody who says, ‘now here’s a counterpoint: what if they don’t accept us with flowers?’

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY AS A COMEDIAN: A big part of what we’re trying to do with our American audiences is for them to leave thinking: “Hey, that guy was Iranian, and he was funny; they’re all not bad.”

IF YOU CAME FACE TO FACE WITH OSAMA BIN LADEN YOU'D SAY: ‘There you are! I’ve been looking for you’.


BEST STAGE LINE: People love my Arab jokes. One of my more popular ones is: Do you know how I catch an air marshal on the plane? He’s the guy reading the People magazine upside down and looking at me.

PRESIDENT BUSH AND HIS WAR ON TERROR: He reminds me of the guy in high school who walks around beating his chest, but inside is a wimp.

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY AS A COMEDIAN: I started doing comedy years before 9/11. I tell people, if you can laugh at yourself, then come to my shows. Otherwise don’t waste your money. I’m not a political activist or a statesman nor am I running for office. My agenda is to make people laugh.

WORST CRITICISM RECEIVED: When I first started doing comedy, my father said, ‘Ahmed, what is this Hollywood bull? Are you in a cult?’ After he saw me on TV, baba turned around and said, ‘Ah, my son Ahmed. He gets his humour from me’.



BEST STAGE LINE: It’s more of a pick-up line: Excuse me, I’ve noticed you but it’s not working out between us. Maybe we can be friends. I’ll fax you my number if you give me yours.

PRESIDENT BUSH AND HIS WAR ON TERROR: After the Hurricane Katrina disaster my Republican friend heard me bad-mouthing Bush and responded: ‘Bush just made a couple of mistakes’. I snapped back and said, ‘A couple of mistakes… President Clinton with a blue dress was a mistake’. There’s a mistake like I’m choking on a pretzel, and then there’s a mistake like ‘oops, I’m torturing prisoners in Guantanamo Bay’. But Bush has given so much to the comedy world.   

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY AS A COMEDIAN: My first responsibility is to make people laugh.

IF YOU CAME FACE TO FACE WITH OSAMA BIN LADEN YOU'D SAY: Well, it all depends on how tall he really is... [laughs]. We have this joke that he’s probably hiding somewhere in the US, sitting at a Yankees game. But if I do ever meet him, I want to ask him if he really does have kidney problems. How does a guy like that survive in such wilderness where he pitches a tent and hooks up to a dialysis machine? What outdoors survival guide did he read?