Just Like Us: The Truth About Light

Writer Lisa Pegram considers her friend Ahmed Ahmed's new documentary, "Just Like Us," relative to her own journeys.


Ahmed Ahmed takes comedy to the Middle East and back in "Just Like Us."
Ahmed Ahmed takes comedy to the Middle East and back in "Just Like Us."

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Late one night in early June, I was devouring a novel by candlelight after forgetting, for the third time in a week, to buy bulbs. The room was dim and though it was hell on my eyes, the poet in me was charmed by the whole feel of it. I took a short break to make the book last and contemplate a shadow in a far corner, when the room brightened with the flash of a text message on my cell phone. My friend Ahmed Ahmed was inviting me to the premiere of his documentary Just Like Us. He had finished the film?! I was shocked by how quickly years had slipped by since he first told me about this project. I had shed quite a few layers of skin since, and given the magnitude of completing his first major project and directorial debut, he had likely transformed to some degree as well. The sudden burst of light in the room reminded of my first impression of Ahmed.

We met almost exactly two years earlier at the Denver airport en route to the destination wedding of mutual friends. The considerate couple had done a great job of pairing up guests to share rides to Vail. I didn’t know Ahmed from Adam, so sent a text message that read something like, “Nice to meet you & thx for the ride. I’ll be the 6 ft girl w/ dreadlocks in a fuschia sundress @ baggage claim.” One chatty road trip into the mountains later, in the SUV he rented, the four of us had concocted our own set of inside jokes, shared an Oprah moment or two, and made plans to reconvene after check-in for a late lunch in town. The conversation was fantastic but it was not Ahmed’s clear charisma or intellect that intrigued me. It was the draw of a curious light within him.

He had just returned to the States from the Middle Eastern comedy tour now featured in Just Like Us. Barack Obama was basking in the afterglow of his inauguration and Ahmed was electric with tales of his travels, like a cross between Richard Pryor and Ibn Battuta. At the time, I had never embarked on such a huge project of my own and I was awed by his complete surrender to the process.

Two years later, I begin my first such mission--completing a book-length memoir--as he completes his. I imagine I must now seem, in some ways, like he did to me that first weekend in Vail---totally inspired and utterly consumed. Knowing how hard Ahmed worked on Just Like Us, I was looking forward to seeing if that undeniable spark had ignited in his colleagues and audiences as much as it had in me. (Later, I discovered that over 20,000 people had caught the fire during the tour and the numbers would continue to rise with the premiere. Impressive.) My initial memory of him, matched with whom I found when we met again at the DC premiere of the film last month, is a priceless role model in my development as a person and an artist.

"We were sitting in the front and there were all of these people behind us. I couldn’t see any of them but having people laugh together in the same moment was awesome. I have no idea who those people were, if they were Middle Eastern or Midwestern or what their history is, but we were all united in that moment.”
-Katie Hamida Weis (viewer, Boston opening)

The film struck me the way colors did on my first trip to India. I was fascinated by the prism of hues, gorgeous cousins of the more primary ones at home. They seemed different but, in the end, green is made of yellow and blue no matter where you roam. I added a new favorite word to my collection on that trip: sutra, an unchangeable truth. It reminded me of a group of men I watched playing a common local board game on a milk crate by the side of the road in Bangalore. Their quick brown hands and affectionate trash talk were kaleidoscope turns of countless similar scenes I have witnessed on store-fronts in the Caribbean or back porches of our nation’s capitol. In this way, Just Like Us attests to humanity’s unchangeable truths through a vibrant weave of faces, landscapes, and joy: Graffiti art in Beirut looks like graffiti art in New York; the Mother’s Day cookout at Ahmed’s family’s home in LA looks like every cookout I ever went to at my family’s home in Boston or someone else’s when I was in college in small town Indiana. The closest I have come to visiting the Middle East was an eight-hour layover in Doha on my way to and from Bali. After seeing this film, I can’t wait to make the trip.

Just Like Us is at once a travelogue, family album, and societal mirror. The film follows Ahmed’s live comedy tour on four stops--to Dubai, Lebanon, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and finally to Ahmed’s homeland of Egypt before returning to New York City for a series of performances that feature promising young Arab-American comedians. The tour showcases a diverse group of celebrated Arab and non-Arab comedians who tell jokes the crowd can either see themselves in or use to learn something new about Western culture. You might think there would be a language barrier, but the reality is that perfect English is spoken in all of these countries. Just Like Us wants humor to heal by confronting Western misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims and, to some extent, vice versa. It also portrays Arab and Muslim culture in a more positive and familiar light than American media and gives voice to a generation that is increasingly curious about a centrist way of life, inclusive of their shared experience with peers across the world.

When Barack Obama, elected by America’s young, visited Saudi Arabia for the first time in 2009, Ahmed and his crew were in Riyadh working with young Saudis to stage a comedy show in an undisclosed location. Public performances are not allowed in Saudi Arabia and laughing in public is not common. At any moment, authorities could have descended upon the crowd. Thanks to technology, secret passwords, and poetic directions from a hush-toned guide, “make a right at the mule…” over 1,500 people came to a show in the desert that was pulled off much like a rave. Imagine the power of all that combined laughter ringing out for the first time.

As the tour unfolds onscreen, Western viewers can learn the difference between an Arab and a Muslim, how Beirut and Las Vegas are kindred spirits, how joking about religion can get you banned for a year in Dubai, and that Cairo, by the way, has a killer funny bone (and the cutest kids ever). The tour’s guerilla diplomacy also made history by hosting the first comedy show ever in Alexandria, Egypt, inviting Whitney Cummings to be the first woman comedian to take the stage in the Middle East, and providing mentorship to several young Arab and Arab-American comedians, including “Noufie” the first woman comedian to perform in her homeland of Saudi Arabia.

Footage of a Mother's Day visit with Ahmed and his parents in LA provides threads that bind the film together, at once revealing the importance of family to his and all cultures. Add to that a tender visit with an aunt, uncle, and extended family in their small Egyptian hometown Helwan, over 40 years after his parents immigrated to America? I have now seen Just Like Us in theaters four times, and there has yet to be a dry eye in the house when the car drives Ahmed away and they are waving in the rear view. This film's notion of family as the sacred root is a sutra that validates my own core values, though my background is neither Arab nor Muslim. As an adopted only child, my family means the absolute world to me. Like Ahmed’s father in the documentary, mine has always said, “Never forget where you come from.” My first major project is a memoir based on my grandmother’s childhood that I hope will share a unique angle on the greater history of race in the American experience.

All of this made me think--the creative process at its best makes a conduit between artist and audience. We all experience the same basic needs, desires, and emotions. Only our circumstances vary. My despair may lurk in a song you sing about your own; subtle details of my childhood landscape may streak across your canvas; my family’s pulse may beat in the punch-line of a joke about yours. Recognition trumps preconception as darkness is forever changed by the slightest luminescence.

When I finally saw Ahmed again after seeing the film, the beautiful light I sensed in him two years before was not the same. It appeared brighter, richer, and more golden. I could see in him the whole world and myself. It dawned on me that perhaps it was not his light that had changed, but my ability to see its true form. All of the things I once admired about him still exist, but this movie allowed me to see his light as far more than passion or service to an art form. Its source was not surrender, but truth. I can only hope that just as I came to see Ahmed with clearer vision, perceptions of the Middle East will evolve thanks to this film. His commitment to his art--both as comedian and filmmaker--has strengthened the courage in mine.

A muezzin is chosen to lead the call to prayer at a mosque. Just Like Us echoes that resounding melody, a beacon calling the masses to speak truth--and make it funny. What a gift to Westerners, Arabs, Muslims and all people. Ahmed has planted his torch on a higher platform, that the flame might illuminate a wider congregation.

Just Like Us should be available on Netflix, Amazon, ITunes, and Video on Demand in early October 2011. Ahmed and producer Taylor Feltner bring us a sequel, Just Like Us Too, with visits Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine in Spring 2012. For more info visit www.justlikeusthemovie.com.