With Osama bin Laden unlikely to branch out into comedy, it's important to give westerners a taste of Muslim humour.
You could say that writing about humour is like joking about quantum physics – unlikely to trigger even a subatomic ripple of laughter from people. Nevertheless, I have decided to venture where comics fears to tread, because I feel it is important, given the warped image of Muslims in the west, to take a tour of the funny side of Muslim culture.
As Musab Bora observed last week, “After the Prophet cartoons furore there was a general assumption that Muslims are an uppity lot, reluctant to laugh at themselves.” He has gone some way towards trying to dispel this myth with his spoof blog.
However, what Bora overlooked is that, while the embattled Muslim communities in the West may generally be focusing their attention on projecting a serious and earnest public image of themselves, humour and laughter are indigenous to Muslim societies – as much as it is possible to generalise about more than a billion people living in more than 50 countries.
In fact, many Muslims I know would split their sides laughing at the idea that people in the west regard them as mirthless. Part of the problem is that the world's most famous Arab and Muslim is not an actor, singer or comedian, but a middle-aged man with a long beard in a cave whose stand-up routine is dedicated entirely to calling for the downfall of western civilisation.
While there is plenty of comedy potential in the Bin Laden brand, I don't think the al-Qaeda franchise will be taking advantage of it any time soon. In fact, the funniest international face to come out of the Arab world in recent years is the former Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad al-Sahaf (his surname means “the scribe”), whose surreal, tongue-in-cheek press conferences during the early days of the US invasion became legendary.
“I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad,” he told journalists on one occasion.
“Lying is forbidden in Iraq. President Saddam Hussein will tolerate nothing but truthfulness, as he is a man of great honour and integrity. Everyone is encouraged to speak freely of the truths evidenced in their eyes and hearts,” he assured them with a wry smile on another.
Nevertheless, some of his statements had a ring of truth about them: “I speak better English than this villain Bush.”
Who could question the veracity of that?
In the comedy stakes, nonetheless, al-Sahaf is a small fish. Under the West's radar, there is a vibrant comedy tradition which is well worth exploring. As I am Egyptian, I will focus on Egypt. In the Arab world, largely thanks to Egypt being the “Hollywood” of the Middle East, Egyptians have a reputation for being laid-back, armed with a ready smile and unable to resist joking about anything that moves.
In fact, Egyptians see humour as an essential survival mechanism against the grind of daily life. Egypt may be poor in many ways, but the country throws up rich pickings for the natives' irreverent wit and sharp tongues. Egyptians are forever joking about politics, corruption, nepotism, sex (there are even plenty of “knob” jokes), the gender wars, marriage, the class struggle, social hypocrisy, prices, public transport, shortages, and more.
Funnily enough, just as many in the West think Muslims have no sense of humour, Egyptians think the inverse. In Egypt, Brits have a reputation, earned during colonial times, for being cold and mirthless in stiff-upper-lip fashion. If an Egyptian asks another Egyptian, “Are you English?”, what he means is stop being so serious and lighten up.
Egyptian cinema and theatre is overrun by comedy: from mainstream slapstick, to biting satires and black comedies. The versatile Ahmed Helmi currently is top of the comedy pyramid, having ousted the ageing superstar Adel Imam.
Unsurprisingly, our dear, beloved president is a common subject of popular derision. Here's one popular joke which recently did the rounds:
Mubarak, Bush, and Queen Elizabeth are roasting in hell together. Queen Elizabeth decides that she needs to reach her loyal subjects on earth to see how they are doing. She asks the devil for a phone, talks for five minutes, and is then shocked to learn that the bill is £5 million. Unable to argue with Satan, she pays up.
Bush also calls his people, talks for 10 minutes and is shocked when presented with a bill of £10 million. This God-fearing man decides that he has no recourse but to settle.
Mubarak thinks to himself: “I know I should call my people! I may not have been the best president, but I was a president, and I want to call my people.” Satan hands him the phone and he talks for 20 hours and receives a bill for just £1.
Bush and Elizabeth are up in arms: “Why was his call so cheap?!” they demand.
“It was a local phone call,” the devil replies.
Another joke speaks volumes about the Egyptian people's frustration at their president's longevity:
Some 75 million people gathered outside the presidential palace to demand that Mubarak step down.
When Mubarak hears the noise, he asks one of his advisers what the racket is about. His aide, wishing to break the news to him gently, says: “They've gathered to say goodbye to you.”
A bewildered Mubarak asks: “Why? Where are they going?”
Although the cinema cannot be as daring as street-level humour, some films have taken surprisingly bold digs at the Egyptian government. One of the biggest box office hits in the 1990s was al-Irhab wal Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). In the film, a hard-pressed man who works at Cairo's sewage treatment plant visits the Kafkaesque main government building called al-Mugamaa in order to try to transfer his kids to a school closer to home.
The man in charge of transfers is never there and his colleagues refuse to help because one is busy talking to her friends all day on the telephone and the other is constantly praying. When security try to eject him for attacking the bearded civil servant, he manages to grab one of their rifles and triggers a panic that a terrorist attack is in motion.
This accidental hostage-taker is joined by a downtrodden shoeshine, a humiliated conscript, and a risqué prostitute. However, the minister of interior and his aides outside assume it is Islamists who have taken hold of the building. When it comes around to discussing their demands, the hostage takers and their hostages can't think what to ask for so decide to order kebabs while they think.
One aide is against caving in to this demand “because they might enjoy it so much up there, they won't want to come down”, he tells the minister atop the minaret of a nearby mosque. When the hostages hear that their demand has been rejected, they begin chanting in unison: “Give us kebab! Give us kebab! Or we'll make your lives hell!!”
The minister orders kebab to be delivered. After filling their stomachs, no one can decide what to demand next. Their personal demands are too petty, they decide, and so they call for the resignation of the entire government. This makes the minister snap and order the raiding of the building at dawn. But they all make their escape by walking out as hostages pretending that a group of Islamists are inside, ready for a shootout. Having flirted with rebellion, they return to their normal, apathetic lives.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 12 November 2007.