“Sultans of Satire” plans to lighten things up a bit

LA Times

Comedy show will feature performers from Middle Eastern cultures By Mark Sachs, Times Staff Writer January 25, 2007

You know, the funny thing about the Middle East is ...

As comic premises go, following through on that line would seem to be about as tough an assignment as there is these days. Yet nearly a dozen comedians of Arab, Iranian, Turkish and Moroccan-Israeli heritage will take on the challenge Saturday night at USC's Bovard Auditorium, joining forces for "The Sultans of Satire," a showcase benefiting the Levantine Cultural Center, which explores Middle East and Mediterranean issues.

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The lineup includes Maz Jobrani (from ABC's "The Knights of Prosperity"), Ahmed Ahmed, Max Amini, Mike Batayeh, Gulden, Elham Jazab, Aron Kader, Peter Shahriari and Noel Elgrably, with film writer-producer Fariborz serving as emcee. In addition, a "mystery comedian" described as "probably the hottest stand-up around" by Levantine artistic director Jordan Elgrably, will anchor the bill. Here's a hint for comedy-circuit buffs: He's from Canada.

The Lebanese folk-dance troupe Ya M.E.L.A. will open the show.

Elgrably, whose stand-up comic younger brother, Noel, is also on the bill, said the event fits in well with the mission of the center, which opened in the summer of 2000 in an effort to promote dialogue among the cultures of the Middle East through the literary, performing and visual arts.

"The comedians are all very smart, savvy people who comment on Iran and Iraq, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Turks and Armenians and on the Bush administration, but from a satirical viewpoint," he said. "Our aim is to reach Americans who hear a lot about the Middle East, but primarily from the perspective of conflict, terrorism and strife. But these are also cultures that are very rich and diverse, like in the United States, and the situational humor that comes out of this is very universal. They're laughing at themselves.

"One of the people in the show, Ahmed Ahmed, was born in Cairo, raised in Riverside, and his parents are devout Muslims," said Elgrably. "But he's very much a Hollywood kid, coming out here to be a comedian, using observations about what it was like to grow up with his sisters and in his family. He talks about how 'Arabs laugh, but Muslims will just say, "That's very funny."

Gulden also mines her Turkish family for material, but from a female perspective.

"I talk about my parents and how they were doctors back in Turkey," she said. "But I joke that in Turkey it's not hard to be a doctor. I say that if you have a flute and a cobra, you're in. I also kind of make fun of Arabs and others, of course, but I'm very lighthearted. I don't want to hurt or humiliate people. My job as a comic is to make people feel good about themselves."

Gulden said the pan-cultural stance of the Levantine Center is what drew her involvement.

"They don't differentiate among the people there," she said. "They don't categorize them like, 'You're Jewish, you're Christian, you're Muslim.' They know everyone's proud to be American too, and they just say, 'Let's bring the humor, let's break the ice between the Middle East and America, let's get rid of the preconceived ideas by making fun of those ideas.' "

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Fellow performer Jobrani embraces that approach. The Iranian-born comedian ("I moved to the Bay Area when I was 6, but my whole family is from Iran — except my wife, who's Indian. Hey, I'm trying to mix it up, man.") created the "Axis of Evil" comedy tour in 2005 with Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader "to put a human face on all the negative stereotypes you see on TV."

The Levantine community "has been very supportive, and I think that has helped bring our culture into the mainstream," he said.

"Most of the Middle Easterners I know are good people, but most of the portrayals you see are not, and things like this show and the 'Axis of Evil' tour will hopefully help change that. The comedy is in English, and although all the comedians you see are of Middle Eastern descent, they are all Americans too," he said.

Elgrably said the Levantine Cultural Center, which with its network of sponsors has put on more than 250 concerts, lectures, film screenings and author events around the city in the last five years, has held a number of "Sultans of Satire" shows in the past, but none on this scale.

"We're expecting a good crowd," he said. "We lost our building's lease back in March, and we've had a sort of nomadic existence since then, so we're hoping that this show will bring more attention to our work. It will be a warm and welcoming environment regardless of your cultural or ethnic background. Laughter is an incredible tool for breaking down barriers."

mark.sachs@latimes.com