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Ramadan and Eid

Hi everyone!
Today I’m celebrating Eid al-Fitr with my family. This celebration is an important one for all Muslims as it marks the end of Ramadan. Ramadan is the time of the year when Muslims fast from dawn until dusk to commemorate the revelation of the Quran. The fast requires one to refrain not just from eating, drinking, and sexual activities but from activities considered sinful in the faith—including gossiping, smoking, and lying.

Although I was born in a Muslim household, I did not grow up as a devout, practicing Muslim. (Which is to say I didn’t pray five times a day, as required by the pillars of Islam; I only visited a mosque about once a year, etc…) As I grew up, however, I found it incumbent upon me to gain a rich understanding of the religion. During my adolescence, I struggled a lot with my sense of self, considering the ostensibly mutually exclusive natures of my various identities. Islam, in addition to the other factors that have inevitably shaped my worldview, would be something I had to deeply understand in order to know myself and the state of our world.

a delicious iftar dinner I had with friends

a delicious iftar dinner I had with friends

 

In earlier years, I have always taken Ramadan as a time to learn about Islam in a didactic manner. I did this to to try to comprehend how the religion can be placed in current events. What does Islam have to say about women’s rights, family planning, the creation of the universe, war, and etc.?

This Ramadan and the last one, however, have been incredibly important for me because I’ve used the time to connect more spiritually with the faith. I’ve always been impressed with the way in which religion provides profound meanings to the lives of many people. As I make difficult decisions and face new challenges, I am also finding myself turning to faith to find answers to pressing questions. Certainly I haven’t turn to a full-fledged believer overnight. I still have many questions about the Islam and its tenets and I am continuing to investigate them.

Fasting itself has been quite fascinating. I truly enjoy doing it as an exercise in self control. So many aspects of life in the developed and highly-industrialized world are based on instant gratification that my patience level has declined significantly over the years. Fasting helps me curb many of the incessant instinctive emotions that fall prey to instant gratification. I’ve discovered, for example, that the feeling of hunger has often been only an illusion in my daily life. I certainly don’t deny that we need nutrition to survive! However, I often turn to food when bored or simply because I’m tempted by a delicious-looking dessert. Most days during Ramadan, I found that I hadn’t been physically hungry, but hungry because I had been denying myself something that I wanted.

Many people successfully execute the act of self-denial throughout Ramadan only to fall back into the vicious habit of over-consumption once the month is over. I hope that I can continue to apply the lessons I’ve learned during Ramadan throughout the year and to other disciplines. Maybe I can use the experience to help assuage my problems with chronic procrastination!

drinking "chai" after a long and exciting day

drinking “chai” after a long and exciting day

Cuban Reflections

Hello readers,
It’s been quite a while since I’ve written here so you’ll have to forgive me if I ramble. The past year has been a dynamic time filled with almost sublime experiences. I’m finding myself changing in both microcosmic and macrocosmic aspects so it’s quite difficult to contain the essence of my continually expanding worldview.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I spent spring semester in the beautiful and complex island of Cuba. The experience was so novel to me that almost every minute was a learning experience. However, I cannot inundate you all with all the tiny details of my trip, as that would be neither helpful or entertaining. Just as importantly, I will try to avoid overarching generalizations. It’s important for me to do both so that I can best encapsulate the enigma that is Cuba.

the state newspaper

the state newspaper

Sitting here in the comforts of my Fairfax home, I find it hard to place myself back in Cuba. If I think very intensely, I can imagine myself walking the orderly, Cartesian streets of Nuevo Vedado; the Soviet-style city plan presents an immediate contradiction to the unconfined and lush greenery endemic to the island. I trace the itinerary I would take to the university, the path changing subtly depending on which route provides the best shade against the encroaching spring heat. Every once in a while I come across a café, each one vending fundamentally the same menu items as the last. Variety is a luxury in Cuba.

On the charter plane ride out of Havana back to Miami, I wondered to myself the “reverse culture shock” I would face upon returning to the hyper-consumerist culture of the U.S. with its surfeit of choices and varieties. I faced no such experience. Immediately upon getting through security, I perused through several cafeterias at the Miami-Dade International Airport in search of dinner; and the expansive amount of consumption possibilities did not strike me the least bit as odd or different. This excess was my idea of normal. It was what I was used to. It’s what makes sense to me.

in Santiago de Cuba, the keystone province for Fidel's Revolution

in Santiago de Cuba, the keystone province for Fidel’s Revolution

I took this picture during an art installation that took place on a rooftop. My history professor was also an artist.

I took this picture during an art installation that took place on a rooftop. My history professor was also an artist.

In the campos of Central Cuba. We are headed to a waterfall in this picture.

In the campos of Central Cuba. We are headed to a waterfall in this picture.

It’s important to recognize this realization because it is one of the many things that adds nuance to the Cuban experience. Most foreigners who visit Cuba and say life is difficult on the island are inevitably using their disparate, privileged lives as a point of comparison. When we, in the developed world, can have a strawberry-banana smoothie in the middle of December—using bananas imported from Guatemala, strawberries from California, apple juice from Washington state, and sorbet developed by German ice-cream makers—while Cubans can only choose from two national beer types—life may seem difficult, or at least monotonous for the Cubans. On the other hand, the travelers that say life is pretty easy in Cuba are probably not fully conscious of the disparity in the commodities and services that their middle-class incomes can purchase in Cuba, with that of the extremely limited markets that the average Cuban can access.

Cubans who say life is rather comfortable in Cuba may have a deeper understanding of the social inequalities before the 1959 Revolution; they may be taking into consideration the violent-free state of the nation, and its universal health care and impressive educational achievements. Those who resent the country and its leaders are typically disillusioned with the state’s lethargic bureaucracy, the lack of access to the Internet and its vast array of knowledge, human rights violations, and many other daily frustrations. This former group feels it is entitled to the state’s existing services and resents the fact that there is an immense amount of goods, services, and knowledge that it cannot access simply because of absurd politics.

In other words, Cuba is enigmatic to a large extent because of the divergent viewpoints with which the country can be seen and experienced. The toxic relationship between the U.S. and Cuban governments and their mutually exclusive treatments of one another have undoubtedly added to this opacity. Both governments would need to undergo major introspection and change in order to clarify the convoluted nature of each respective nation and its relation to one another. In this regard, the experience I’ve gained in Cuba is invaluable. The normalization in relations cannot thrive without a firm, rich understanding of what living on the other side of the “iron straits” is like.

Baracoa, Cuba

Baracoa, Cuba

Other notes:
There is truly no way to better your language skills than to immerse yourself deeply into the culture. Within the four months that I was in Cuba, reading Spanish literature, taking courses in the native language, and discussing with locals, my Spanish improved more significantly than it had in an entire year. Yes, it can be nerve-wrecking, often embarrassing, and even frustrating to throw yourself into another culture and language. The most annoying occurrence for me was having a multifaceted, complex idea in my mind that I could not convey clearly in Spanish because of my limited speech. Having this experience, therefore, was enriching not just because I improved upon my Spanish but gained an invaluable experience walking in the shoes of the countless people for whom English is a second language. It truly is a privilege to be a fluent English speaker in today’s world and for this skill I will always be thankful and henceforth humbled.

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I will never forget Cuba because of the improvement that occurred in my confidence during my time there. The strange environment, the other groups of students, and even the uncomfortable experiences have contributed to a surge in my understanding of my abilities, my weaknesses, and strengths. Traveling certainly strengthens character because it exposes people to novel challenges. The lessons gained from each experience may not always be applied to following circumstances. However, the mere act of having overcome such challenges reduce one’s vulnerability to future detriments. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore outside of my comfort zone, an idea with which I was not always comfortable. I’ve experienced in Cuba, though, that this area is where my growth will be its most salient.

Hahaha, here I am in the Sierra Maestra, right next to  the base that housed Fidel and his compañeros during the Revolution.

Hahaha, here I am in the Sierra Maestra, right next to the base that housed Fidel and his compañeros during the Revolution.

Hello from Cuba!

This spring, I will be far from the mountainous Roanoke region and instead will spend a semester in the heart of Cuba. Throughout the semester I will be taking courses at the Universidad de la Habana, improving my Spanish and taking in Cuban history and culture. I cannot contain my excitement for this opportunity, as traveling to Cuba has been a dream of mine since I first learned about the Revolution. My first few weeks have been admittedly difficult since I am not accustomed to the lifestyle here nor do I have an excellent grip on my Spanish. I am nevertheless still incredibly happy about being here as the challenging nature of this semester will only strengthen my confidence and skills. I look forward to learning more about myself, the island, and the complex relationship between the U.S. and this country while I am here. My friend Maya and I have already traced out our travel plans and they include a hike through the Sierra Maestra, tours of cigar factories, and of course excursions to beaches throughout the island. Take a scroll through the pictures below to learn more about my experience thus far.

 

Overview of Havana Vieja, colonial Havana, with the Orthodox church in the right.

Overview of Havana Vieja, colonial Havana, with the Orthodox church in the right.

Overview of the Plaza

Overview of the Plaza

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It’s practically impossible to resist dancing when you hear Cuban music.

It’s practically impossible to resist dancing when you hear Cuban music.

At Havana Vieja, there’s an installation of bears painted with symbols of various different countries to celebrate the joint world effort to protect the environment.

At Havana Vieja, there’s an installation of bears painted with symbols of various different countries to celebrate the joint world effort to protect the environment.

Chillin at the Malecon

Chillin at the Malecon

Perhaps it’s because everything is so new and novel to me, but it feels like there’s always a surprise at each corner in Havana.

Perhaps it’s because everything is so new and novel to me, but it feels like there’s always a surprise at each corner in Havana.

And a lot of these kinds of promotional posters which I, for one, really like.

And a lot of these kinds of promotional posters which I, for one, really like.

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Prague!

This weekend I visited the magnificent city of Prague! After finishing class on Wednesday, I took a speedy flight that landed me in Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport. I headed out to to my comfy hostel immediately after I arrived, and I just crashed! (Being the excellent preparer that I am, I had pulled an all-nighter before my trip to finish writing a paper.) In any case, I woke up early the next morning to an ominously downcast Prague sky. The cold weather and bleak sky did not deter me from discovering the city, though. I spent the first day checking out Prague’s New Town. One of the best aspects of being in the Czech Republic (at least this time of the year) is experiencing a culture that is not completely saturated with tourists. I enjoyed listening to the Czech language, observing the architecture, and even eating local cuisine. The latter effort was rather difficult since I don’t consume pork and pork is the foundation of Czech cuisine. After a delicious meal and blissful aimless wandering, I went back to my hostel to warm up. The next morning I participated in an excellent free tour of the city. My host Diana guided a large group primarily through the city’s Old Town with entertaining historical commentary. We visited the Astronomical Clock and the Jewish Quarters, among other fascinating sites. After the tour, I went to walk across the Karlovy Most (The Charles Bridge) because one absolutely has to experience the bridge during the daytime and the evening. The bridge is a fascinating structure that crosses the Vlatava River. Erected in the gothic style, it is lined with statues of religious figures throughout its length. Also scattered across the bridge are talented musicians, artists, and crafts merchants. I toured the bridge again on my last day, after taking a boat tour of the city.

During my last day in Prague, I also took some time to discover the Prague Castle and the Lesser Quarter. Rife with a wide array of gorgeous architectural styles, the Lesser Quarter was bustling with tourists even in the relentless cold. I grabbed a freshly-baked Nutella-filled cinnamon bread roll as I wandered through the crowds and took in the sights and sounds of the city.

I headed home early on my last day to be able to get ready for my 6 A.M. flight the next morning.

Prague was certainly one my favorite experiences. The city is filled with a rich, diverse history that is not much like that of western Europe’s. Considering that it has only been about 25 years since the Czech Republic relinquished the shadow of the Soviet Union (through a bloodless revolution, as the Czech like to proudly point out) the country has accomplished a great deal. To a tourist, the remnants of the satellite’s inefficient and imperious history is indeed just that: history. It will be fascinating to observe the CR’s evolution in the European Union as its people bridge their disparate histories and world views to create a new, cohesive identity for themselves.

I would love to visit Prague at another time in my life– next time in the summer, when the city glows like a gem in the distance.

The gothic style bridge tower

The gothic style bridge tower

A view of the Charles Bridge with the Prague Castle in the background

A view of the Charles Bridge with the Prague Castle in the background

The advent of capitalism hasn't been entirely positive in the CR. Above is a picture of one of the "rich" parts of town.

The advent of capitalism hasn’t been entirely positive in the CR. Above is a picture of one of the “rich” parts of town.

The Prague National Museum has been undergoing renovation for five years. It will open up next year so sadly, I missed it. That's a picture of national hero Vaclav Havel, the CR's first president and the leader of the Velvet Revolution, on the front of the building.

The Prague National Museum has been undergoing renovation for five years. It will open up next year so sadly, I missed it. That’s a picture of national hero Vaclav Havel, the CR’s first president and the leader of the Velvet Revolution, on the front of the building.

Classy cars

Classy cars

Panorama of the city in the foggy atmosphere

Panorama of the city in the foggy atmosphere

They set up a Christmas market in the Old Town Square.

They set up a Christmas market in the Old Town Square.

The Astronomical Clock

The Astronomical Clock

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Entrance to the Lesser Town

Entrance to the Lesser Town

The Lesser Town, with its colorful architecture in the background.

The Lesser Town, with its colorful architecture in the background.

A statue of Jewish-German writer Franza Kafka, who wrote his novella Metamorphosis (one of my favorite reads) in Prague.

A statue of Jewish-German writer Franza Kafka, who wrote his novella Metamorphosis (one of my favorite reads) in Prague.

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Travels!

During fall break, I had the amazing privilege of visiting Paris and the Netherlands. An overnight coach ride and a ferry took me from London to the heart of Paris, where I visited the Musee d’Orsay immediately after my arrival. The museum contains some of the most notable works of Impressionism, among other pieces. It was amazing to experience the magnificent paintings that I learned about in my Modern Art course in real life! I saw Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette and Millet’s The Gleaners, among other pieces. Afterwards, I made sure to remain in the spirit of Paris and had a crepe and some coffee while I waited for my friend Andrea, who herself was coming from Rome, to pick me up from the museum. Andrea is studying abroad in Paris this semester and guided me through the city for the rest of my tenure. We headed straight to her homestay for a nap first, though. (We fell asleep watching a Spanish movie. So multicultural! :) ) In the evening, we went out to discover the city and ate… Italian food! The next day consisted of a trip to the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral, where I saw the cathedral’s famous rose window. After taking shameless touristy photos, we headed off to the Louvre Museum!

It was simply incredible. The Louvre itself is a piece of art and the works contained inside are some of the most valuable in the western canon. I saw Jacques Louis David’s most notable works (including the imposing, magnificent Coronation of Napoleon), quintessential Manets, and of course the Mona Lisa. By the end of my visit to the Louvre, my friend Corinne, who is studying in Seville this semester, joined us and we headed out to see the Eiffel Tower. The evening ended blissfully as the three of us had cheese and drinks under the luminous glow of the monument, with people of all walks of life surrounding us.

The next morning I took a coach to Amsterdam and arrived at a bustling city around 7. After running into quite some trouble in Amsterdam, I took a shuttle to my hostel in the city of Noordwijk, on the western coast of the Netherlands. There, I unpacked my bags and headed out to the beach, where I watched the stars with a friend. (We saw two shooting stars!) The next day, I went back into Amsterdam and visited the Anne Frank House and then strolled through the Red Light District while it was still daylight and PG-13. I headed back to hostel in the evening and enjoyed the Halloween party.

On my last day in Amsterdam, I took time to discover the haunting yet fascinating Van Gogh Museum, afterwards strolling through the beautiful Vondelpark. I worked my way back to downtown through the quirky Waterlooplein flea market, where I purchased souvenirs for my friends. Early Sunday morning, I headed back to London. I spent the following weekend in the wonderful city of Edinburgh and even took a tour of the Scottish highlands!

Although it’s a platitude at this point, it’s entirely true that traveling broadens one’s mind and introduces novel ideas to people. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned on my travels:

1) OK, let me backtrack a little and elaborate on my last statement. I’ve recognized that one does not become smarter simply by merit of traveling! I’ve run into a multitude of people who, despite their vast travels, exhibited very little knowledge of disparate cultures and geographies. One Australian boy, who had been throughout Europe and the U.S. asked me where I am originally from. Upon hearing my answer, he responded: “So you’re from Afghanistan- obviously there’s ISIS in Afghanistan.” *Sigh*

Another girl told me of her travels to India. When I asked her how the experience was, she complained: “well the toilet was a hole in the ground.” You went to the other end of the world to discover that people have disparate lavatory facilities than the ones you’re used to? I don’t mean to be excessively critical. Everyone I met during my travels was very nice and even helpful. That being said, I realized that if you don’t take it upon yourself to be inquisitive and critical of the region, languages, and cultures you observe, traveling alone will not be an enlightening experience.

2) Tourists are profoundly changing the landscape of famous cities. In Paris, for example I went to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, only to arrive at its location and find the painting surrounded by a swarm of tourists. Don’t get me wrong- art is mean to be enjoyed. The more that people have access to art, music, and literature, the better. But I was disappointed to find people scowling at me because I didn’t want to snap a picture of the painting—or better yet, take a selfie with it. I simply wanted to stand in front of the painting and take in its beauty but the cloud of eager tourists made me quite apprehensive and I left.

Amsterdam, too, is a city altered by tourists. Many Dutch people seem to take pride in their pragmatic approach to the pressing issues of marijuana use and prostitution. But to the vast majority of tourists, such liberalism is so novel, that they can’t help but exploit the city’s tolerance. Perhaps it was because of the sheer volume of people relative to the small city center, but the tourists gave the city a rather riotous, arguably hedonistic, vibe.

3) The American identity is so strange. Being Afghan-American is a rather weird experience by itself. But being Afghan-American in Europe- amidst a capitalist world order, in the context of the “decline of the west,” and in the middle of an unprecedented amount of world crises and scientific and technological achievements- is even weirder. And I don’t know if I can explain it any more elaborately. It’s just weird. A boy in my university once joked about the stereotypical “dumb American.” In my mind, I was thinking: “Well you can’t listen to Jay-Z on your iPhone while you’re wearing a ‘Breaking Bad’ t-shirt and call Americans stupid.” Simultaneously, I am incredibly critical of many aspects of Americanism—not least being our government’s crummy foreign policy.

I thinking “Breaking Bad” is an excellent microcosm of the complexities of the American identity. As a brilliant T.V. show, it is a prime example of American ingenuity. However the premise of the show rests on a man who has to resort to methamphetamine production to pay for his cancer treatment because our healthcare system is so decrepit, we cannot secure the health and wellbeing of a man who contributes so significantly to society.

Lest I veer in more tangents, I will conclude my reflection here. I don’t think I’m anywhere near figuring out what it means to be American, but this is one of the many things I’ll continue to think about in the short amount of time I have here.

There are a ton of other intriguing lessons and observations I’ve picked up from my tenure here in London and in my cursory travels throughout Europe. If you’d like to discuss the study abroad experience with me, please feel free to contact me at haidarih@hollins.edu

Meanwhile, I am planning my weekend to Prague! I will keep you updated on my holiday destination.

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With Charlemagne’s statue at Notre Dame

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In front of the Cathedral itself

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the Rose Window

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One of the many love-locked bridges in Paris

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Rally for Palestine: Amsterdam edition

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The Dutch are big on Halloween!

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Against the backdrop of a quintessential Amsterdam street

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More pictureque Amsterdam

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The great Scott monument in Edinburgh, dedicated to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott

 

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The view from Arthur’s Seat, where I caught a view of the gorgeous Scottish city

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More picturesque Edinburgh

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Lakes!

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Tundra! (?)

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Searching for Nessie

 

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Oxford

This past weekend, I took a day trip to Oxford with Madchen and our friend Udita. It was a spectacular experience that included eating street pizza (of course), taking a boat trip down the Thames, and visiting some great museums.

I think many Americans are surprised by the “digestibility” of the U.K. It seems that traveling throughout the region is inevitably easier because of its small size. But I think it’s important to highlight the value of the U.K.’s excellent transportation infrastructure, which facilitates travel greatly. We reached Oxford by a comfortable bus ride that costed £13 (about $21) for a round trip. Conveniently, the coach to Oxford runs every 30 minutes from a bus station easily accessible by the Tube (the subway). Therefore visiting a fascinating city like Oxford and taking in its culture and knowledge does not require a great amount of investment in time or money.

The weather was crisp when we arrived at Oxford. We strolled through the tiny city, taking in its array of architectural sights and myriad sounds, until we reached the city centre. There, we bought our tickets to a 50-minute boat ride and afterwards relaxed in a nearby coffee shop with afternoon coffee.

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After the blissful boat ride we stopped by the Christ Church Cathedral, where I cheerfully pointed out the architectural designs to Madchen. (That’s Decorated Gothic!) We didn’t see the Cathedral’s nave because it required a fee. (It was a little frustrating to see how commodified a lot of the region’s attractions had become.) The most enriching aspects of the trip, however, were free. The three of us stopped by at the fascinating Bodleian Library; Madchen went on to take a tour of the Library while Udita and I went on to the awesome Museum of the History of Science.

We finished the trip off by listening to the Sunday evensong at the St. Mary Church. Adherence to institutionalized religion is quite uncommon in the U.K. so I wasn’t surprised to see that many of the other attendees were also tourists (and a Muslim interfaith group). Nevertheless, the liturgy was a beautiful, calming end to a great day.

Stand Up Comedy!

This Thursday I went out to see Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed live. One of the perks of living in such a cosmopolitan city is having such a wide variety of things to do—all at a pretty cheap price for students!

 

I watched the show at the Soho Theatre, a popular venue for concerts, comedy, etc...

I watched the show at the Soho Theatre, a popular venue for concerts, comedy, etc…

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As a member of the former “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour,” Ahmed’s work typically centers around identity issues in the post 9-11 world. He delivered great laughs addressing religion and his experiences as an Arab in Hollywood, among other topics.

I have always been a proponent of using humor to shed light on complex and controversial topics such as politics and race and ethnic issues. I do firmly believe that providing a space where people can laugh about the shared experiences of displacement, generational gaps, and identity crises—experiences all too common for immigrants—can be a very progressive act. I think that sharing these common experiences creates a sense of camaraderie among people who might otherwise feel alone in their “otherness.” Even more so, through trivializing serious issues such as discrimination, comedians such as Ahmed succeed in highlighting the absurdity of such practices.

Ahmed’s routine at the Soho Theatre consisted of more than just racially-charged humor, though. He also addressed dating and family life. I think broadening his comedic act was a positive move on Ahmed’s part. By conveying that he faces some of the same issues as other single middle-aged men (Arab or not), Ahmed illustrated the honest, if trite, idea: “we’re not all that different”.

 

I took a picture with Ahmed after the show!

I took a picture with Ahmed after the show!

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