CHICAGO: Negative portrayals of the Middle East and its many peoples in Hollywood movies and TV programs can be shattered if Arab Americans are willing to make that change happen themselves, Egyptian-American actor and stand-up comedian Ahmed Ahmed told Arab News this week.
Appearing on The Ray Hanania Radio Show Wednesday, Ahmed said that he grew up in the American media environment in which every image of an Arab and Muslim was negative, which pushed him to seek positive change.
Born in Helwan, Egypt, just outside of Cairo, his family immigrated to America, finding a home in a Los Angeles suburb, when he was one-month old. Ahmed and his stay-at-home mother learned to speak English watching TV sitcoms and soap operas while his father worked 14- to 15-hour days pumping gas at a local station.
The only Egyptian family in their neighborhood, they shared dreams of achieving a better life. Eventually, his father bought the gas station and, inspired by what he saw, Ahmed worked to become a successful Hollywood actor and stand-up comedian.
“I started going to movies. One of the first movies I ever saw as a kid was ‘Rocky.’ And I remember coming out of the movie theater feeling so inspired, just so full of life. And I thought wow, movies can really move you. And so, entertainment was kind of the direction I wanted to go in because I just enjoyed it so much. The entertainment aspect of it. Not the glitz and the glamour and the Hollywood toxicity, not even the money, really. It was more about entertaining people, making people laugh,” said Ahmed, who lived in Riverside near Los Angeles as a youth.
“My dad had a great sense of humor. He would always crack jokes. He was always the guy at the wedding, or the birthday party or the dinners or the funerals even, in the corner smoking a cigarette holding court. That’s maybe where I got it from.”
It was not difficult to pursue a career in the industry because Egyptians have always been among the most entertaining people in the Arab world, he said.
“Egypt has been and always will be considered the Hollywood of the Middle East and we are considered the comedians of the Middle East,” Ahmed explained.
“Egyptians are very joyful and gregarious and just love to be expressive and passionate. It’s a bit of a pushy culture at times, if you have ever been to Egypt. But it is a very forward-thinking culture and society.”
At 19, Ahmed moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as a movie actor and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Working during the day as a personal trainer and at night as a waiter, Ahmed pursued acting in his spare time, entering the movie industry at the bottom rung, playing small “bit parts” called “under five lines” in several TV soap operas and shows.
He quickly learned Hollywood only wanted Arab actors to fill roles as terrorists, as he did in several movies including “Executive Decision” and “Iron Man.” But he was always hoping to transition to strong and positive character roles.
“(When) I started — for about seven years — I took every role that was coming at me. The ‘terrorist’ in this (and that) movie. They were cool projects, too. I got to work with Kurt Russell and Halle Berry. I was on these big action movies that took place on a plane or a train. And I was always the bad guy in the back holding the gun and screaming ‘in the name of Allah’ and stuff like that,” Ahmed recalled.
“And I started getting a lot of backlash including from my own community. I would get a lot of haters from the Arab and Muslim world saying why are you doing this? You are perpetuating stereotypes. You shouldn’t be taking roles like this. But if I don’t take this role, they will give it to a Samoan guy or a Mexican guy.”
Ahmed understood the reactions, he said, but not the failure of the community to recognize the solution, working from inside the industry to change it.
“It is funny how people in our culture get mad at you for taking these parts but they were not doing anything about it. So I would write scripts about a mainstream family who lives in America, or a sitcom or whatever, and I would try to pitch it to Arabs and, or Muslim investors and say if you guys want to break this whole stereotypical bubble, we need to write and create our own stuff.
“And they would say that is not up to us. That is Hollywood. We want to invest in gas stations and strip malls and that kind of thing. The Middle Eastern community, the Arab-Muslim community still, till this day, really didn’t understand you could make an independent movie,” Ahmed argued.
“Everybody would always complain about Hollywood. Hollywood is never going to write our story. They are just not. Because, A, they don’t know it. They are not from the inside as you said. We have to write it. We have to produce it. We have to fund it. We have to edit it and promote it and distribute it. And it is all really in-house. I stopped taking these roles for a while.”
Ahmed said he refused to change his name or abandon his culture simply to win more mainstream acting roles.
“I played every terrorist role you could imagine. I was the go-to terrorist for a while. At one point I called my agent and said can I audition for the friend, can I audition for the police officer. Can I audition for the teacher. They would say no. Change your name, is what they would tell me,” Ahmed said.
“I said why? They said casting people, in Hollywood, is in a box. And they just see your name. If I said my name was Joe Smith, they wouldn’t know where I was from. But because my name is Ahmed Ahmed, it is a Muslim name. You go right to that Muslim card, or Middle Eastern card. That was the case. I refused to change my name. I was really stubborn about it. I said call me if you have anything other than these terrorist roles. The phones stopped ringing. I ran out of money. I went back to waiting tables.”
Denied major roles and pegged as Hollywood’s “go-to terrorist,” Ahmed decided to mix his talent for acting and innate Egyptian sense of humor, serving customers both food and laughs. And he began performing at local stand-up comedy clubs.
That is when he was discovered by The Comedy Store’s owner Mitzi Shore, who gave him his first break as a comedian.
Shore also hired comedians Maz Jobrani, who is Iranian, and Aaron Kader, who is Palestinian, and dubbed the show “The Arabian Nights.” But a backlash about not everyone being “Arab” pushed them to change the group’s name in 2005 to “The Axis of Evil,” adapting the phrase made famous by former President George W. Bush just before the Iraq war.
From Shore’s backing, the troupe became quite successful, resulting in a comedy special in the US, which led to a Middle East tour performing before large audiences in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Bahrain, Lebanon and Qatar.
Although America has seen TV shows that included Arabs, such as with Lebanese actor Danny Thomas in the 1960s, and more recently featuring comics Ramy Youssef and Mo Amer in limited eight to 10 episodes a season on Netflix and Hulu, Ahmed noted that the Arab community still has not been able to break into mainstream TV sitcoms. These would usually consist of up to 26 episodes each year like “Sanford and Son,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and “Chico and the Man,” which portrayed, respectively, African-, Italian- and Mexican-American families.
Ahmed said TV sitcoms “humanize our culture and normalize our culture” for Americans, adding that humor remains a powerful way to change stereotypes.
He has written several scripts for TV sitcoms and movies that he hopes to produce in the future.
The Ray Hanania Radio Show is broadcast every Wednesday in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and Washington D.C. on WDMV AM 700 radio on the U.S. Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.