Rabbi, Arab are united in humor
Denver Post International Affairs Writer
Arab actor Ahmed Ahmed and Jewish Rabbi Bob Alper broke bread Thursday in a Denver café.
On his way here, an airline check-in agent quizzed Ahmed for 25 minutes. His name had flashed on a watch list, Ahmed lamented. "It gets out of hand."
Arab-Jewish relations are so tense, Alper said, that any political comment can trigger an outburst.
These two are professional comedians. And after they ate, they set about their unique mission: easing that tension through laughter. On a day when Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian activist, and the Palestinian prime minister threatened to abandon a two-state settlement plan, Alper and Ahmed delighted a crowd of about 1,500 - Christians, Jews and Muslims - at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.
Egypt-born Ahmed, 33, a devout Muslim, once earned a living in Hollywood playing terrorist roles - spraying bullets and shouting "Allah!" - before quitting in disgust. Rhode Island-born Alper, 58, who studied in Jerusalem and faced "hostile audiences" for 31 years, lives in rural Vermont.
They each delivered separate 35-minute sets. The topics of Alper's jokes ranged from unruly teenagers to cat-litter scoopers touted as "dishwasher-safe."
Ahmed milked his real-life air travel encounters.
"I can't fly anywhere," he began.
Last April after he boarded a flight, an airline agent called "Mr. Ahmed" off for "questions we want to ask you." Other passengers looked on aghast. In his routine, Ahmed conjured the passengers blurting about al-Qaeda: "And we thought he was Puerto Rican!"
Ahmed said he now arrives at airports a month before flights. He presented this fantasy encounter with a suspicious check-in agent.
Ahmed: How can we move this process along?
Agent: Why are you hurrying to get on this plane?
Ahmed: I have a show.
Agent: What kind of show?
Ahmed: I'm a comedian.
Agent: Oh? Then say something funny.
Ahmed: Uh, I just graduated from flight school?
The two recently traveled to several shows around New England in Alper's silver Volvo. As they cruised at 75 mph, Alper said, he was thinking up sermons for high holy days while Ahmed was spitting out goo used to whiten his teeth. In their made-up account of the trip, a state trooper stops them. Alper positions his clergyman's sign on the dash. The trooper looks at it, then at Ahmed and Alper. "What are you guys, a couple of comedians?"
Their "One Arab, One Jew, One Stage" act emerged two years ago after a publicist proposed that Alper team up with an Arab. Alper initially rejected the idea as politically impossible. Ahmed bristled, too, when Alper said many shows would be done at synagogues. "That was terrifying to me, because of what's going on in the world," Ahmed recalled.
But after their first show - on a pulpit outside Philadelphia - elderly Jewish women surrounded Ahmed, saying things like: "You remind me of my son." Today the two are about to tour Britain, and contemplate performing in Israel.
"It feels like we are in some ways an antidote," Alper said. "We're trying to demonstrate that, despite all that goes on, people at a human level can be friends."