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A sense of humor is something so individual and so personal, that sometimes one person’s humor is another’s insult. Humor differs from one country to another, even from one area to another within the same country or even the same city. It is a very illusive aspect of human interaction. When shared it is a great bond, when unappreciated it could be a great cause of embarrassment or frustration. There is no worse position to be in than that of trying to explain a joke. Quite often there is no explanation.
In some countries humor has its own distinctive flavor. English humor is known for its sharpness, its sometimes painfully forthright criticism, but mainly for its low key, cleverness, be it in situation or rendering. Not many people outside the sphere of the British influence, appreciate this type of humor. Unlike American humor which stems mainly from ridiculous situations and quite often is farcical, thus giving it a wider audience considering that farce transcends language.
In some cultures most sexual innuendos or references would be considered humorous, while in others it would be taboo. The worst thing that could happen to a joke is to be taken literally. The moment that happens, the humor of it disappears. You want to confound someone telling a joke, just ask them to explain, or tell you why! This kills it.
Egyptians have a unique sense of humor, in the sense that most of it is actually translatable, and does not lose much in the translation. Humor in Egypt is a double edged sword. Not only is it a safety valve for people under tremendous pressure, but it can also become stinging criticism. In all its forms, be it oral, written, drawn or sung, Egyptian humor is greatly appreciated and sought, first by Egyptians, then by the rest of the Arabic speaking world, and finally in its translated form, by the rest of the world.
During the first wave of Egypt’s revolution, during those famous 18 days of continuous sit-ins and skirmishes in Tahrir square, from 25 January to 11 February, 2011, the number of jokes were legion and extremely funny. A great deal of irony went into them, as the political situation was up in the air. Even with all the tragic deaths of all those young people, there were still times when jokes were recounted, and which alleviated some of the tension.
The worse the situation, the more the jokes. Egypt had gone through a great deal of turmoil over the years, and for each era there were the jokes with a particular flavor. During Nasser’s rule, most of the jokes centered around the security forces and lack of freedom of speech. These were whispered about for fear of retaliation. After the defeat in 1967, army personnel were the butt of most of the jokes. Most of these were rather cruel, with a sarcastic and derogatory edge. During the war of attrition, between 1967 and 1973 the jokes were general, definitely less derogatory, but with the fighting still it’s subject. Of course, running parallel to all these situational jokes are the continuous jokes dealing with the Saidi’s (Upper Egyptians) something like the Irish and Polish jokes, the ones dealing with men and women, and the jokes about drunks, but in our culture as drinking is taboo, it is about people high on drugs.
After the 1973 war the relentlessness of jokes subsided a bit. But not for long. When things started going wrong internally, when the economy boomed for just the elite, but the majority started feeling the pinch, the jokes came back with a vengeance. With every major incidents, there was a peaking in the jokes. There were the jokes about Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. The “peace” jokes are legion, even Sadat’s assassination generated some.
With the advent of Mubarak, the jokes subsided at first, but not for long. He was perceived as “La Vache qui Rit” (The laughing cow on the famous cheese) and totally ineffectual. Jokes were made about his blundering remarks that put people in awkward positions, like once on a visit to a manufacturing plant, he pointed to a man on top of a silo and shouted out to him asking him what his job was. The embarrassing reply came that he was one of the Presidential security detail! Another time after touring a small factory of hand woven carpets, just as he was stepping into the car, he told the owner that he hoped to visit him next year and see that all that has been mechanized! It took months to pacify the man, that this was an off remark that meant nothing. This was all fuel to the fire, he gave us a rich amount of material for our jokes.
The one who surpassed all in that aspect was Morsi and his Brotherhood. Their very antics, especially on television and in Parliament, were enough, without embellishment, to keep most Egyptians in stitches. But Morsi takes the cake. His speeches were classic. To date one of the running jokes is that we need him to give another speech as we need some cheering up! The poor man was clueless as to the reason people paid such great attention to his speeches. The number of ridiculous statements that man made are only topped by the number of embarrassing acts he put us through, and in the most public circumstances.
Not only was he the butt of many a joke, but the whole setup of the Brotherhood, and their followers of supposed Sheikhs who kept tailoring “fatwas” or religious edict to fit in with whatever decisions they made. The most flagrant was that of forbidding the acceptance of the proposed IMF loan as being “haram” (forbidden by God), when they were giving SCAF a hard time, but when they took over, the same Sheikhs tailored another “fatwa” that the IMF loan was no longer “haram” as there will be no interest paid, but what will be paid would be “administrative fees”. Can you imagine the jokes this alone generated? Another situation that generated a tsunami of jokes was his infamous National Security Meeting that was televised live on air – without the participants’ knowledge. This was the ultimate in ridiculousness.
Now, after his deposition, and now that the Brotherhood is on the run, and practicing terrorism, most of the jokes have a cruel twist to them. Like the very popular song about the army now being dubbed the “Brotherhood pesticide”. Whenever you want to disperse a gathering of the Brotherhood members, turn on that song and they all scuttle back under their rocks.
A humorless person must be a very sad person indeed.