Arab and Jew: Comedy's odd couple

By Richard Selinger

May 6, 2005 - Ahmed Ahmed thought it was a practical joke.

After all, he was an L.A. comedian and actor, sharing a house with movie star Vince Vaughn. Put-ons and "gotchas" are routine among his wide circle of fellow performers.

"My name is Bob Alper," the caller began, "and I'm a rabbi who does stand-up all around the country. I was wondering if you'd be interested in joining me for a show we could call 'One Arab. One Jew. One Stage.'"

Ahmed decided to play along: "So, rabbi, where are these venues?"

"Synagogues."

The Egyptian-born, California-raised Muslim concluded it was definitely a prank.

But two months later, in April 2002, Ahmed found himself standing nervously on the pulpit of Congregation Ohev Shalom, outside Philadelphia, before 300 Jews wiping tears of laughter from their eyes following Alper's opening set. Now the room fell silent.

"My name is Ahmed Ahmed. And I can't fly anywhere."

The audience erupted into relieved guffaws. Seventy-five appearances later, Alper and Ahmed have developed a 90-minute show comprised of their two solo sets followed by a breezy, delightfully funny back and forth in which they explain the origin of their pairing and share stories from the road.

In the summer of 2002, the duo did five shows in New England, using Alper's home as a base.

"As we drove across the state line," Alper notes, "Vermont's Arab population doubled."

Ahmed adds, "When we arrived, I called my mother, who suggested that I should visit some of Vermont's Arabic cafés. I was drinking a cup of coffee, so I explained to her, ?Mom. I am the Arabic café.'"

Since then, Alper and Ahmed have brought their totally non-political humor to theatres from Scottsdale to Manhattan to London, as well as corporate events, country clubs, dozens of synagogues, churches, and a mosque.

During the past year, college campuses, sometimes hotbeds of Arab-Jewish tension, have hosted these two close friends, usually under the co-sponsorship of Hillel and the Muslim Student Association. Cornell's Hillel director, Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, felt that "the wonderful program helped create real and beautiful relationships between our Jewish and Muslim students."

And following a Cal State Long Beach show, a student commented, "As a Muslim and a Palestinian Arab, I am happy to see that some Arabs and Jews are willing to work together and build alliances, rather than continue to divide."

Wars, terrorism, and the Middle East conflict are never addressed. Only once are those tensions briefly mentioned, leading up to the comedy team's unique solution, which they demonstrate in a rousing finale that regularly brings appreciative audiences to their feet.

"One Arab. One Jew. One Stage." is frequently profiled in print media, and the comedians have appeared on CNN's "American Morning," NPR, and a half-hour feature on the BBC.

The Los Angeles Times said it best: "The touring stand-up duo are on the same side, and now there's a smile-shaped crack in the wall between their long-warring peoples."

Rabbi Bob Alper and Ahmed Ahmed will perform on Saturday, May 14, at 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Kol Haverim, 1079 Hebron Ave., in Glastonbury. Call (860) 633-3966 for more information.