Laughing All the Way to the (West) Bank

The Axis of Evil arrived in Lebanon last week. No, not in the form of some Iran-backed coup d’ état, but as a stand-up comedy team made up of three Americans of Middle Eastern descent. (They couldn’t find a funny North Korean.) On the last leg of a regional tour playing to sold-out venues in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, they arrived at the Casino Du Liban outside of Beirut with a certain sense of relief. Lebanon was the only country that allowed them to perform their routine with expletives undeleted — no small challenge for a modern American comedy act. “#@#%#$!” said frontman Ahmed Ahmed, as soon as he got on stage, as if to prove the point.

In the U.S., Axis of Evil gets most of its mileage out of sending up the paranoid American stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. Ahmed Ahmed, who is an Egyptian-American, likes to complain about how hard it is to pass through airport security because a well-known terrorist shares the same name. If dubious airline officials ask him to prove he’s a comedian by telling a joke, Ahmed responds: “Um, I just graduated from flight school?” When that joke bombs (sorry!), he consoles himself with the thought of how frustrated the other Ahmed must get when people mistake him for a comedian. “I’m a terrorist, goddamit!”

The group’s Middle Eastern tour is also getting a lot of laughs out of foibles better known to locals. Some of the funnier bits included: “When Arabs hook up they never say ‘Your place or mine?’ They say, ‘Where are your parents, and how big is your car?’” Or, on how an Arab version of the TV game show The Price Is Right! should be called, “This Price Is Not Right!” When the group arrived in Jordan, the first time a stand-up troupe had ever preformed in the kingdom, the comedians were surprised to discover that much of their audience already knew their jokes and had already seen the Axis of Evil DVD, even though Axis of Evil doesn’t have a distributor in Jordan. “It’s the Middle Eastern distribution system,” said Ahmed Ahmed. “One person buys it, and everyone else copies it.”

Popular though they may be, comedy is no laughing matter in much of the Middle East, where the censors of autocratic regimes keep watch for criticism disguised as satire. (A woman I once met in Syria was jailed for forwarding an e-mail joke about that country’s President.) But by comparison, in Lebanon, which hardly has a government, almost anything goes. Indeed, the Axis of Evil arrived just in time to coincide with a season of political farce being performed in Lebanon’s parliament, which — deadlocked between factions backed by Iran and by the U.S. — has been unable to replace the President, who stepped down last month. “Who needs a President?” said Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American on the Axis of Evil roster, as he mocked the jaded Lebanese audience. “You’ve got the sea. You’ve got the mountains. You’ve got Miss Lebanon! A President would just mess things up. Tonight we party!”

But there is also a semi-serious element to the Axis of Evil tour. At each stop, the group has invited local talent to share the stage with them, as a way of promoting emerging Middle Eastern stand-up comedy. In Lebanon, guests included students from the American University of Beirut, and an insurance agent who’s clearly dying to quit his day job. And, perhaps, by heaping scorn equally on the claims of all sects and creeds, they’ll do their part for peace in the region. “Is there any religious group that doesn’t believe it’s superior to everyone else?” said Aron Kader, the Palestinian-American. ” ‘No, we’re not the Chosen People, but we do come highly recommended.’ “

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