Laughter: the mighty sword in the face of impending peril

February 07, 2004 12:00 AM

Jokes are genius’ means of resistance; they usually deconstruct all forms of institutionalized power relations in human societies. There is a dialectical relation between a joke’s humor and its daring. For sometimes, how far a joke can go in violating a taboo can, in and by itself, generate laughter. At other times, the ability of a joke to generate laughter is what allows it to go so far in breaking a taboo. In the Arab world, due to centuries of oppression by others and by our own, jokes have become the last line of defense, where the helpless can express their political views without fear of persecution.

Although I am not aware of any research done on how many of the circulating jokes in the Arab world are political as compared to other regions in the world, I suspect we would score much higher than other nations. Due to its strategic position, the Middle East never experienced an era of political limbo. It has either been a super power or a colony. The state of continuous threat made relaxed political life seem like a luxury to the various rulers of the region, whether they were foreign invaders or local tyrants. This made the region fertile for very creative forms of expression, where one’s political conviction is implicit in daily practices, rituals and art.

As far as I know, the oldest cartoon known to humanity is an ancient Egyptian mural from around 2000 BC showing a wild cat standing up and holding a stick, like a shepherd, looking after a group of ducks; the predator pretending to be shepherding the prey. It is not a coincidence that the first political cartoon was found in the Middle East, nor that, of all Middle Eastern countries, it was found in Egypt. Egypt has the longest history of centralized authority, anyone who controls the capital controls the river and anyone who controls the river controls the country.

Today Egypt is known to be the source of sharp, biting, witty jokes. It is actually a popular art practiced in the streets and coffee shops of Cairo. A joke originating there is then quickly adopted by the whole region. Of course the names of the rulers, their wives, their sons as well as the names of places might change, but the original Egyptian joke stays the same as it flies from Iraq to Morocco and from Lebanon to Sudan.

When the Mamlouks were about to lose Egypt to the Ottomans, many of the Mamlouk sultan’s commanders defected and joined the conquerors. The man whose treachery was most effective in bringing down the Mamlouk empire was called Khayer Bek. His name is derived from the Arabic “khair” which means “good,” “charity” or “kindness.” The Ottoman’s rewarded him for his assistance, and made him the administrative ruler of Egypt in their name. On the day the news was announced, a cruel Cairene announcer walked through the streets of the city pretending to have a speech defect, and instead of pronouncing the man’s name with an “r” ­ Khayer ­ he pronounced it with an “n” ­ Khayen. The change must have gone unnoticed by the Turkish soldiers policing the newly conquered city. What they did not know was that khayen in Arabic simply meant traitor. That day in the afternoon, the Turks rallied the Egyptians to greet the convoy of their new ruler. And the Egyptians were earnestly chanting, as the man passed by their streets: “Yaeesh Khayen Bek” (Long live the traitor), either thinking or pretending to think that that was in fact the man’s name ­ and of course there was no one to punish.

Given the current situation in the Arab world, one can think of many officials who deserve similar greetings; one can imagine, if something like this happened today to some leaders, they would either execute the whole population, or more likely, they would not understand the joke and go on smiling, thinking that whatever name the people chant must be rightfully theirs and theirs alone.

Another practical joke, from Palestine, is said to have taken place during this second intifada. A Palestinian used to live with his father, their only source of income was a small piece of land that they used to plough together. The young man was captured and put in jail by the Israelis. His father sent him a letter telling him how difficult life became in his absence, since his father was too old to plough the land alone. The prisoner wrote back: “Father, please do not plough the land any more. My colleagues and I have buried weapons in the field.” The Israeli authorities opened the young man’s letter, and rushed to the father’s field turning every square centimeter of it upside down. Of course, they found nothing. In the next message the prisoner wrote to his father: “Father, this is the only way I could help you, I made the army plough the land for you.”

Arabs also like to make fun of themselves, and especially of the mighty among them. The contradiction between the might of Arab governments vis a vis their own people and their absolute weakness vis a vis the outer world is, in most cases, the theme of the joke; there is a whole category of Pan Arab jokes where two foreigners and an Arab are asked to perform a certain task, and the Arab always comes up with peculiarly creative solutions, here is an example: An international contest was organized among intelligence agencies. So the Germans, the French and some Arab security agency were challenged to find a lost rabbit in ten thousand square kilometers of forest. The French set up their computers and sent their men into the forest, in three days, they got the rabbit. The Germans did the same in two days. The Arab security officers rushed into the forest, and in less that fifteen minutes came out celebrating, holding a huge bear soaked in its blood, crying: I confess, I confess, I am a rabbit, please let me go.

Lastly there is a short Egyptian joke: A man was sentenced to death, for his judges thought he was too stupid to live. He was hung, yet, instead of dying, he kept moving his hands and feet hysterically in all directions. The executors thought he wanted to tell them something important so they brought him down. As soon as his feet reached the ground he yelled at them: “You fools. I almost died up there.”

Though not particularly funny, the joke sums up the condition of that poor Arab who made it, as he is sentenced to death by forces that seem much stronger. Yet to him, that cunning fox everyone thinks is dumb, death is just out of the question.

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