Q: You've been described as everything from a political scholar, satirist and the comic who can't switch off. In your opinion, which persona best describes you and why?
Well currently I'm neither switched on or off, I'm on standby mode. Whilst I do not see a difference between the personas, they all employ various avenues for us to all address the challenges that we all face in life, and to look for the meaning behind the myths, constructs and narratives of this world. Dick Clark once remarked "Humour is always based on a modicum of truth. Have you ever heard a joke about a father-in-law? "
Back in Australia, the perceived contradiction in my work with diplomats and comedy earned me the unusual title of the diplomedian. You could say I'm in a state of permanent analysis of this world and humour is the cushion to soften the blows of the raw politics discourse. Countries should consider the idea of a ministry of humour. To me, humour is politics by other means.
Q: You were born in Egypt, grew up in Australia and were able to kick-start your career as an independent scholar and up-coming Arab comic by travelling the world at large. Tell me about how the versatility in your background developed early themes that would be instrumental in your work?
If you want to go way back, I attended a rough high school in Perth, Western Australia, and was one of the very few Arab kids in the school yard with no allies. Serbs, Italians, Macedonians, South Africans etc all had their groups. There were times when I had to fight, but more often than not I relied more on wits to get me out of trouble when I knew the odds were against me. I was also well known for breaking up fights. Hence the passion for diplomacy may have arisen from that point onwards. My salvation relied on reading as much as possible and seeking inspiration from historical figures. I'm indebted to my late father for always pushing me to read. Very few movies have had a profound impact on my life, but my adolescence in some respects became affected by international events, such as the Rushdie affair, Gulf War, terrorism etc. So it was imperative for me to become more conscious of the world, and how my civic, ethnic, and religious identity was being constructed and reinterpreted in a volatile and porous world.
Q: They say that every aspect of stand-up comedy is the representation of a comic's viewpoint. On that premise, as someone whom combines comedy with political narratives, what world are you endeavoring for your audiences to see you through?
The world that is not reported because it's un-newsworthy: A person in Cairo or Casablanca shares the same hopes and fears as someone in Sydney or Montreal. But I also gravitate towards satirising international relations and geostrategic politics, as I see that as the overarching issue that governs perceptions of people on the individual level.
The Arab dislike of certain US foreign policies, which is understandable, somehow ends up encompassing 300 million Americans. So if someone says they hate America , then you have to satirically respond as to which America do you hate? Do you hate black America, Hispanic America, Muslim America, corporate America, liberal Jewish America or even Occupy Wall Street America?
The 2011 Arab revolutions gave me a major reprieve, as it opened up the ability to combine scholarly work with satire in a unique format, and to signal a welcome break from the 9/11 decade that limited humour to self-deprecating worn-out caricatures of Arabs/Muslims and national security themes. The past year has given a sense of empowerment where now the people rising up from Tunis to Cairo to the villages of Syria, can remind the world that the very people you thought of as not prone to democracy are very much dying to achieve pluralism and freedom of speech. Wherever my voice may be on this Earth, my heart is with my friends in Tahrir Square which I'll be heading back to soon.
I have in recent months avoided using the term 'Arab Spring', as I feel its overuse has started to make it sound like an exotic deodorant; you know for those times when your body odour is being oppressive and your body feels it's being subjected to human right abuses and your skin needs to be liberated. Use Arab Spring!
Q: Much of your work is made up of observational comedy where you use humor to poke fun at controversial subjects such as supposed threats from particular looking people in the post 9/11 era. Was it a conscious decision to start your stand-up career on this note or is it just where your writing took you?
Stand-up was really by accident, when I took part in a public speaking competition seven years ago then life would take a turn from there on. 9/11 had a profound impact on me, as it did on many people. I knew I needed to mentally gear myself up for the years to come. What compounded the problem was how Western elites and media pundits, and Islamist extremists on the other side of the equation, began to construct a discourse of a Huntington style clash of civilizations. In Australia, my concern grew at the Arab and Muslim communities' inability to respond coherently. We had so many embarrassing moments because of religious figures. The community's sense of introversion, conspiracism and victimhood concerned me. I was often requested by community leaders to perform stand-up routines to Western Sydney's youth, and the subtext of what I pushed is that one should refuse to be a victim, as once you become a victim; you disempowered yourself by shifting the burden of responsibility from yourself to ambiguous forces. Maybe it's because I'm an optimist, but terms like 'racist' should never be employed lightly, it takes a lot of hard work to be a racist. You can be ignorant, but 'racist' should be used with extreme caution.
As I was saying before, 2011 was a watershed moment, as there came a point when airport jokes just were not funny anymore, they were overdone, and I personally did not have negative experiences at airports in recent years.
Finally I think also there is something about humour that is deeply rooted in the Egyptian DNA. You just can't get live without it. Humour has been a problem for Egypt's rulers since ancient times, under the Roman occupation of Egypt Egyptians were barred from practising law because they made too many wisecracks in court.
Q: As of January 2012, you've done stand-up on three continents which has included diplomats, students and academics. When you first started in comedy did you ever envisage that you'd achieve this level of success?
The success is a matter of interpretation, only because I'm often disinclined to walk the traditional comedy club circuit, and have decided to stick to specific target audiences. So any level of success might be unknown to mainstream audiences but certainly with the groups you have mentioned. I always felt that the more success you have in this field, the more it will handicap other skills, in my case, political scholarship. Humour is the means to deliver a socio-political message; it is not an end in itself. Comedy clubs often showcase a swear-fest underpinned by aimless themes. Stand-up comedy should be a dialogue with the audience, and its constructive potential is enormous.
My academic presentations in Europe were an eye-opener; in Berlin, I was amused at how German scholars had problems with my stand-up humour, enquiring how it was possible to write and do stand-up, as if it was heretical and mutually exclusive when combined together.
Q: Is there a comic that is a strong influence on you right now?
Given that I'm speaking to Montreal aka French-lite, I have yet to arrive at the punch line.
Q: What can people expect from Amro Ali's future shows?
Although my intention of taking a Master of diplomacy was not to learn the skill of avoiding a straight answer, I will say this: When Mao Tse Tung was asked what the world would be like had Krushchev been assassinated instead of Kennedy, Mao replied "I doubt if Mr. Onassis would have married Mrs. Krushchev". No one can ever be certain, but check out amroali.com
Thank you very much for taking the time to share your experiences with the Montreal Review.