It is rare that anything related to the Middle East makes me laugh at loud. But the new film, Just Like Us starring and directed by the Egyptian-American comedian and actor Ahmed Ahmed, had me laughing until it hurt.
The film, a comic documentary, is about a bunch of stand-up comics who took their act to Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Egypt and Lebanon essentially to determine if Arabs have a sense of humor.
Obviously, they do. All people do. But the kind of comedy we know as stand-up is unknown there. In Saudi Arabia, in particular, the state actually has "religious police"on the street. In Ahmed's words, "public entertainment of any kind is strictly forbidden and the consequences of being caught can be severe"
At the same time, 25% of the 24 million Saudis are under 25, and, as Cyndi Lauper would put it, "Saudis just wanna have fun."
In fact, my favorite part of this delightful film took place in Riyadh. The fact is that I have seen very little film footage of Saudi Arabia so, I have to admit, seeing a Saudi city with actual young Saudis actually driving around in motorcycles and flirting discreetly with potential hookups was like seeing Beijing in 1972 when President Nixon visited China, kind of like the moon..
Actually, it didn't seem so much like the moon as like any place where young people try to have a good time, although in this rigidly religious and conservative place, having a good time takes ingenuity. So did putting on a comedy show there.
One of the recurring themes of the film is how hard it is for American comedians to do stand-up without using the "f-bomb" or referring to sex. But that is how it has to be done in the more conservative Muslim countries. As a Jew, I could not help but compare it to putting on a comedy show for Hassidim. I mean, there are no limits in Manhattan or Tel Aviv, but Borough Park in Brooklyn would be a challenge!
Of course, it's harder to do good comedy without obscenity which can often produce laughs even when there really is no humor. But the ten comedians - including the sweet-natured and hilarious, Ahmed Ahmed himself - are really good. So they can skirt around the edges of the more "delicate" subjects and make them even more funny than if they addressed them head-on.
As I said, Saudi Arabia was a particular challenge (it is not clear how the kids - many, in traditional garb) even found the event).
But find it they did.
The comics rose to the occasion and more. There was even a quite hilarious Saudi performer - a young woman - who intends to pursue a career doing stand-up in her homeland. Her parents' reaction is that she is nuts. 'What does it mean? This stand-up''' "Funny is good. But you can't make a living on funny."
But the woman is a Saudi soul possessed. Innately funny, she is also one of those creatures who become truly alive on a stage.
Muich of the comedy is reminiscent of Jewish comedy. The comedians mock their faith but from within, not with the incomprehensibility of the bemused outsider. They shout out to acclaim the achievements of their fellow Arabs (in this case, Egyptian). "We build the pyraminds. Yeah!." A rumble in the crowd, "Okay, the Jews may have built them but we designed them -- and then they built them."
There are even jokes about the perception of Arab males under age 30 as terrorists, and the mayhem that sometimes ensues over various cases of mistaken identity. (Ahmed Ahmed is kind of a bad name if you want to escape being pulled to the side at the airport gate. I mean, the last famous double-named Arab was Sirhan Sirhan).
But I'd have to say that my favorite part was watching religious Saudi women, in full traditional garb, laughing hysterically about men, sex (a little), Islamic traditions, and even over such absurdies as the paradoxical joy of being driven everywhere because they aren't permitted to drive.
It's crazy and it's funny. But what culture isn't?
I am reminded of my son, Nick, during Passover at "Dean & Deluca," food store being offered a sample ham and cracker sandwich, but throwing away the bread (we don't eat bread during Passover) but gobbling down the ham (which we Jews are never supposed to eat).
A semblance of that spirit pervades this film. Yes, Muslims observe their traditions. Yes, many deviate in ways that make sense to them but seem crazy to us, and they laugh about it.
And that includes those Saudi women in black who seem about as amused by life as the people who conducted the Salem witch trials until you see them laughing at a (slightly) filthy joke.
Last point. This film has no politics. Palestinians and Israelis have a strong comedic sense (both peoples are dominated by seculars) but their conflict is tragic. So they aren't in the film -- which invites partisans of either side, both sides, or no side -- to simply sit back and crack-up. Loud.
After all, the film has only one message, taken from that old Art Linkletter Show "People... Are... Funny." And that includes Arabs. Who knew?
Just Like Us opens at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24th.