Benghazi, Libya comedian embarks on Montana tour | State and Region

Mohanad Elshieky is excited to come to Montana for a short tour this week. Don’t ask him to go cross-country skiing.

The comedian, who was born in Benghazi, Libya and now lives in Brooklyn, took part in the winter activity at Bozeman in 2014.

“It’s something I will never do again,” he said. “Really almost dead. That’s why it took me eight years to come back to Montana.

This ill-fated Bozeman trip was the only time Elshieky had ever been to Montana. That changes this week when he performs in Billings, Bozeman, Missoula and Helena.

“I didn’t choose the cities,” he admitted with a laugh. “I would be lying if I said I know Montana well.”

He will be new to Montana, but not to acting. Elshieky has been at it for some time, with a resume headlined by spots on “Conan” and Comedy Central and a gig as digital producer of “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”

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Still, he wanted to perform in Montana and sought advice from other comics who had filmed in the state. “I love playing in front of audiences I’m not used to performing at, and places where tours like this don’t happen often.”

This desire comes from his childhood. Libya didn’t have much of a comedic scene while Elshieky was growing up. “You would watch a comedy play or a theater,” he said. “They were doing sitcoms or whatever, but stand-up, no.”

Elshieky grew up watching American comic books, but he didn’t start doing comedy himself until he moved to Portland, Oregon to attend college. He took a class in public speaking and the teacher suggested he try stand-up.

One of the main things he talks about in his act is Elshieky’s status as an immigrant. The first thing he did on his ‘Conan’ spot was announce he was born in Benghazi (“That usually gets a standing ovation,” he deadpanned after the crowd didn’t seem know how to react). But the immigrant experience isn’t something he inherently tries to focus on.

“My main goal is for people to have a good time and enjoy it,” he said.

“But,” he admitted, “I am an immigrant. And that’s something I can’t choose to part with.

Mohanad Elshieky, who was born and raised in Benghazi, Libya, will continue his Montana tour with shows in Bozeman, Helena and Missoula.

Photo courtesy of Mohanad Elshieky

“I don’t consider myself a political comedian,” he continued, “but at the same time, I recognize that most of the things that make me who I am are political in this country. I’m talking about my personal life, like what it’s like to be an immigrant, and for me, those are everyday things. I’m from Libya and I’m from the city of Benghazi, for me, those are places where I grew up. But if you say ‘Benghazi’ here in the United States, that’s a political statement.

In this way, Elshieky’s work seems particularly suited to this moment, when it seems that the line between what is political and what is personal is becoming increasingly thinner.

It may seem like there’s an added layer of difficulty doing comedy during this time, but Elshieky doesn’t sweat it.

“I feel like no matter what time it is, it’s never a 100% good time,” he said. “There is always something bad going on. And that’s the world we live in.

Elkshieky made headlines when, in 2019, he was removed from a Greyhound bus by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Spokane while on tour. The agents accused him of falsifying his asylum papers. He eventually settled down and received $35,000 from the federal government.

It was another part of the immigrant experience, the retrograde sting that can hide behind the good and welcoming things that people from other countries are exposed to in America.

Still, Elshieky isn’t worried about performing in Montana, a place generally considered a stereotypical “red state.”

“It’s always something to think about whenever I travel, but at the same time, I’ve been to small towns in Oregon before, and Oregon outside of Portland is pretty red,” said he said of Montana’s right-wing reputation.

“Once you’re off social media and just going to talk to people in real life, it’s not really intimidating,” he said. “Audiences have a good time no matter what they think or believe as long as you’re a good comedian and have good writing and jokes.”

More than not being fearless, he’s up for the challenge of performing for people who might not share his views. “I know how my set would go in a liberal place,” he said. “So it’s always fun to see how I can work with an audience that maybe isn’t as liberal.”

He said he had played shows where he freaked out, worrying about how his act might be perceived by the small-town crowd.

“And then I have the best show ever,” he said.

Maybe by next week he can add four more shows to that list.