“Prosperity,” wrote stoic philosopher Seneca, “fosters bad tempers.” This helps explain why Egyptians have such good ones. Humor has always served as a transformative outlet for sorrows and frustrations, and laughter as the balancing pole of Egypt’s psychological high-wire act. But heaviness has lately crept into the nation’s psyche. There’s nothing funny about street clashes, soccer riots, body counts and cynical political maneuvering; or about the fact that Egypt’s dourest citizens have risen so loudly to the fore.
I attended a Cairo costume party in the 1990s, where friends dressed as “terrorists” in Salafist garb, and a male Copt came in a niqab, parodying cultural phenomenon that seemed ludicrously alien at the time but are now familiar, and dead serious. To the hyper-pious, displays of merriment are unseemly – an entirely un-Egyptian sentiment that is nonetheless gaining ground. “Those Salafists,” someone told me, “when they have to laugh, they go around the corner.”
Watching the recent video clip of Salafist parliamentarian Mamduh Ismail launching into a call to prayer while the People's Assembly (dominated by religious party representatives) sat in session, one was torn between tears and hilarity. Many of the men seated near the impromptu muezzin restrained smiles, eyes sparkling with amusement, as the speaker of the house issued reprimands and the paunchy zealot prattled unconcernedly on.
The incident reminded me of the time I saw a man, known in my downtown Cairo neighborhood as a deranged but harmless vagrant, lying on a curb fondling himself through his galabiyya, oblivious to his surroundings. In the eyes of passers-by darting glances at the man in flagrante I saw the same glint of forbidden glee as in those of the parliamentarians while Ismail called them to prayer. “This guy is clearly wacko,” the look said, “but don’t expect me to do anything about it.”
In another Egypt, Ismail would have been laughed out of parliament, or escorted gently from the chamber, as befits someone dotty and infirm. But these days, however many eyebrows such religious exhibitionism may raise, the public looks on transfixed.
Ismail’s performance is unlikely to bring the issue of parliamentary piety and how it directly interferes with intelligent discourse to the fore. Listening to the People's Assembly swearing-in ceremony last month, I wished I had a guinea for every time a parliamentarian evoked Allah’s name. It would have made a tidy sum to return to taxpayers for enduring this uninspired, conformist spectacle.
If that wasn’t enough, comedian Adel Imam, tutelary deity of the Egyptian belly-laugh, was recently sentenced to three months in jail for “defaming Islam” in his portrayals of Muslim characters. This not only reflected the fanatical vitriol of Islamist lawyer Asran Mansour who filed the charges, but the priorities of a judiciary that would allow such a case to be tried, when its august attentions might have better been turned in a thousand more urgent directions.
For half a century, Imam’s films lampooned societal idiosyncrasies with the self-knowledge that always illumined Egyptian humor, but has somehow vanished into thin air. His “The Sleeper in the Honey” tackled the taboo obsession with virility: a mysterious epidemic hits Cairo rendering the male population impotent. From “Terrorism and Kebab,” satirizing homegrown terrorism (a citizen obliged to obtain a mundane bureaucratic permission ends up having to take hostages to secure it), to “Embassy in the Building” (about living beside the Israeli embassy), Imam never shied away from piquant topics, nor were his films considered offensive by a vast, enthusiastic audience.
Whenever I want the latest jokes, I call a lawyer friend who moonlights as a tabla player and hears every bon mot that makes the rounds. Egyptians jokes are typically fresh, topical. When locusts invaded Cairo a few years back, Al-Azhar’s sheikh declared eating them was halal and they immediately acquired the sobriquet “the poor man’s shrimp” (shrimp is considered an aphrodisiac). When Hosni Mubarak ran for president in 2005, my friend told me that God had advised the 77-year-old to wish his countrymen farewell. “Really?” asked Hosni, “Where are they going?”
Following the railway catastrophe of 2002, when several hundred people died trapped inside a burning train, my friend asked whether I’d heard about the man buying a third class ticket to Upper Egypt. “Fried or grilled?” the ticket-seller asks. Yes, this was in terrifically poor taste, but it answered the need to make light of something too heavy to bear; to break as it were, the anger, grief and disgust into smaller, more digestible pieces.
In the year since Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt has witnessed more than its share of tragedies and travesties of justice – plenty of grist for the humor mill. However, when I called my lawyer friend last week he said, “Sorry, no jokes today.”
In the present ambiance I, an American, could be accused of sedition for recalling the words of Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli defense minister, but here it goes: “I would not fear the Egyptians even if they possessed nuclear weapons,” he said. “But I will begin to feel very nervous if they stop making jokes about themselves and about others.”
Maria Golia is an American author living in downtown Cairo. You can visit her website at www.mariagolia.wordpress.com. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.