Just Like Us: a review

Author ········· Sheyma Buali
Published ······ Issue 02, Summer 2011
Section ·······  Culture

Published in Kalimat, Issue 02, Summer 2011 (read this issue)

Pitch: Just Like Us, a new documentary by Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed, was screened during the London International Documentary Festival. The film, although attempting to bridge cultures, prolongs the question of Arabs' cultural isolation at a time when Arab cultural inclusion is at its strongest.

Going to see Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed’s new documentary, Just Like Us, it must be said that from the get go, there was scepticism. The premise of the film asks: do Muslims and Arabs laugh? To which the answer would be, yes they laugh Just Like Us. The film attempts to bridge cultures by following Ahmed and his group of ethnically mixed Western comedians on what was truly a very funny stand-up tour in the Middle East. But despite the comics’ stand up skill, the premise of the documentary remains an awkward one, prolonging the question of Arab cultural isolation.

The film takes its audience to four very different Arab countries: (Dubai) United Arab Emirates, (Beirut) Lebanon, (Cairo/Alexandria) Egypt and (Riyadh) Saudi Arabia. The documentary includes clips from live stand-up by Ahmed himself and the different members of the troop. Taboo jokes about whether or not men should scream during sex were told by lone-female comedienne Whitney Cummings while Omid Jalali’s faux-pas use of the word “cock” in front of a supposedly conservative Dubai audience pushed the envelope of what is permissible in live performance there.  Maz Jobrani’s inspection of local greeting styles added cultural fish-out-of water humour.  Cutaways of confused hello-kisses with men in thobes created a hilarious cross over from stand-up stage to movie screen. In other parts, the documentary follows Ahmed as he reconnects with his native neighbourhood in Alexandria where his semi-estranged family lives, clueing us in that this films stands as self-reflection as much as a cultural exploration. His father, at home in the United States (US), nearly steals the show, telling endearing jokes with that familiar fatherly not-that-funniness giving the documentary its warm edge.

But despite the laugh-with-tears reaction, the premise of the documentary isolates the Arab world’s culture and humour uncomfortably. Contrary to that (and arguably equally as questionable) the last few years’ focus on the Arab world and its culture has been stronger than ever. Last month’s glitzy global Cannes Film Festival decided on a new feature: an annual national focus. For this inaugural year, they chose Egypt. In London, the London International Documentary Festival (where Just Like Us screened twice) had a focus on the Arab world. In the US for the next two months, conscious of the vilification of Arabs’ image, Turner Classic Movies will be focusing on Arabs in cinema with the scholar of that very topic, Dr. Jack Shaheen.

Globally speaking, at this point of Arab cultural inspection, post-post-9/11, post-Osama Bin Laden and so on, the question of de-demonising Arabs by showcasing how “they” live is, to put it simply, passé.  Attempting to explore how (or whether) people in the Arab world laugh, Just Like Us excludes Arabs from a universal human element, extending the crass ‘us versus them’ mentality.

At one point in the documentary, Tommy Davidson, one of the comedians who joined Ahmed’s troop in Beirut remarks that people in “this area are just learning how to laugh because of the intensity of their reality.” In another clip, Omid Djalali explains, “we don’t know the basic construct of a joke.”  It is these remarks that insist on the separation of Arabs (and, once again, Muslims) from “us” (Westerners) by referring to them with such a cold, distant and systematic lens.  As noted by anthropologist Mahadev Apte, humour and language go together as basics of human expression and communication.  Palestinian writer Ibrahim Muhawi explains further the universal “techniques” of humour (such as “mimicry, exaggeration, mockery and nicknaming.”)  This obvious human commonality is what makes the interpolative basis of this film borderline offensive.

Bringing this question to the visual element, this insensitivity is displayed in the unfortunate graphics. In standard Orientalist fashion, the typeface for both the titles throughout the documentary and its PR material mimics a Sanskrit design. This visual mish-mash alluding to the relatively close Indo-Aryan-Arab regions fits the precise definition of what is considered “Orientalist”, in the Said-ian fashion, generalising an unknowing idea of what is “Eastern”.  The irony however, is that among the opening jokes of the film, Ahmed talks about how many people have responded to him being Arab by saying, “I have a friend from India”, the punch line being the insignificance of that reference.  In answering a question about the humour of Arabs and Muslims (quite general in themselves) the visual elements only confuse this regional/cultural obscurity even more; more or less, the graphics work against the desired ultimate message of the documentary.

The film could be divided into three sub-stories. The comical documentary that follows North American comedians in the Arab world; the warm familial background that made the film personal to Ahmed; and that hapless interpolative question that instigated the film. As Just Like Us illustrates, Ahmed Ahmed and his first comedy troop, the Axis of Evil, sparked a stand-up craze in the Middle East about five years ago.  Ahmed is a funny guy, and there is no doubt that he has brought something fresh to the Middle East with his culture-bridging entertainment, in both his stand up and his films.  If only he would let that shine instead of burying it in dead questions.  

Sheyma Buali is a writer specialising in visual culture and cinemas from the Middle East. Her work has been published in Arabic and English in AsharqAlAwsat, Little White Lies and Ibraaz. She is a programmer and organiser with the London Palestine Film Festival. Prior to this, Sheyma worked for 10 years in documentary and TV production in Boston, Los Angeles, and her native Bahrain.