Three American comics find Islamic audiences laugh, too

The 'Axis of Evil' tours the Middle East poking fun at stereotypes

The three young men have coffee-toned skin. They say they're on "a mission." They have a growing following in the Middle East, and they proudly proclaim themselves to be the "Axis of Evil."

Not the kind of boast you want to make around a TSA inspector at, say, LaGuardia Airport.

But the three comedians – Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed, Palestinian-American Aron Kader, and Iranian-American Maz Jobrani – have been playing packed houses in the US and are now on their first Middle Eastern tour.

In the West, the words "funny" and "Islam" rarely find a home in the same sentence. But these three comedians are working to change that. Their "mission" is to poke fun at Middle Eastern stereotypes. And even here, they are finding fertile ground in the anxieties of the post-9/11 world.

While the comedians had some fears that their acts would fall flat in Arab countries without a stand-up comedy tradition; in fact, they've found a ready audience this past week in Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

"I was kind of surprised – people are laughing at the same jokes and in the exact same places," says Mr. Kader. "I think there's a thirst for this stuff."

All humor may not be universal, but the comedians see little sense of a cultural gap either here in Egypt or in Jordan. "It's surprisingly Western here. People get the references," says Ahmed.

Audience members also say they appreciate the effort to pierce stereotypes with humor, and point out that jokes about treatment at airports are as relevant to Egyptians since Sept. 11 as they are for Egyptian Americans.

And the comedians have discovered they have powerful fans in the region. King Abdullah of Jordan nearly fell out of his chair laughing as he sat in the front row of the show in Amman last week, and later invited the comedians over to his office.

Kader says that after a little while the King's secretary entered the room, and started pestering the Jordanian leader about a pending meeting with the Syrians. The king just waved her away and kept talking to the comedians. Kader didn't think much of it until he picked up the Jordan Times the next morning and saw a photo of Abdullah shaking the hand of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

To be sure, some of the jokes get bigger laughs (even delivered in English) over here where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is top of mind.

For example, take Kader's bit about Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of lawyer Harry Whittington on a hunting outing. When Mr. Whittington got out of hospital, he said he regretted the distress the incident had caused the vice president. "So I'm thinking he's Palestinian. He has to apologize for getting shot," says Kader to uproarious laughter.

And there's Ahmed's line about his disappointment that hate crimes against Arabs only went up 1,000 percent in the United States after Sept. 11, "which still put us in fourth place, behind blacks, gays, and Jews.... What do we have to do? I want to be No. 1 in something."

In one routine, Jobrani expresses frustration that Western news segments about guys named Mohammed are always about terrorism. "Wouldn't it be great to see a piece like this. 'Hi, I'm Mohammed and I'm just baking a cookie."

Of course, he predicts a news flash to follow. "This just in, a cookie just exploded...."

Still, the tour has had its share of frustrations.

The group has been looking for a fourth member of the team to complete the Axis, "but unfortunately, there don't seem to be any funny North Koreans," deadpans Ahmed. As a substitute, they picked up South Korean Won Ho Chung, who grew up in the Gulf and is the only fluent Arabic speaker in the group.

More seriously, Ahmed says the men have toned down some of their jokes on religion and local politics at the request of their producer and sponsor, Showtime Arabia, an Arab satellite television provider based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Kader marvels that he made it through his act in Cairo "without cursing once."

And while there were jokes about George Bush and rednecks, the leaders of the Arab world got a free pass.

That could eventually change. Showtime Arabia is trying to use the performances as a platform to find new local talent.

The day after their two sold-out performances at Cairo's El-Sawy Cultural Center, the comedians held open auditions, and about 60 young Egyptians participated.

Most of the routines were unpolished and halting. But the auditions themselves managed to shatter some Arab stereotypes.

Of the five women who auditioned, three work for Islamonline, an English-language website founded by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the Muslim world's most influential preachers. Chitra Kalyani, one of the three, says she has followed the three comedians for years on "But I never imagined they'd come here. Even if the jokes are the same, the energy in a live performance is completely different."

She notes a BBC article this week about Muslim comedians in Britain headlined: "Does Islam have a sense of humor?" and laughs that the question even needs to be asked. "It's news that people like to laugh?"

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