When humor becomes a form of resistance

Lebanon’s new flag now features a Bridgestone tire.

BEIRUT: “The Lebanese state calls on its citizens to depart from the country,” read a recent, viral text message circulating among Lebanese citizens after UAE, Qatar and Bahrain issued warnings against travel to Lebanon to their citizens last month. As surrounding countries begin to fear the worst about Lebanon’s prospects for stability, the joke text epitomizes the type of darkly humorous reactions now spreading like wildfire among the Lebanese on social media platforms. Rather than succumbing to fear of civil war, why not share a funny statement about the country’s shaky security situation?

In the wake of every security related incident, hundreds of jokes are posted on different social media sites, especially Facebook.

Browsing a few recent status changes you’ll find a wealth of black humor.

“Citizens should call the Interior Ministry to inquire why we didn’t hear yet any gunshot and or see anyone burning tires,” reads one, playing on the frequency of security incidents and lack of information being disseminated by the government.

Another Facebook user pleads with a hypothetical love interest: “Darling, the only reason for not being able to date you tonight is the bad security situation.”

One joke posted on Facebook seeks to sardonically organize the unrest: “Addressed to followers of different sects: Please organize a weekly schedule for burning tires so that no overlap will occur.”

And yet another status plays off a popular Arabic proverb: “You just need to throw the bomb in order to make sure of its sound” – a reference to the famous saying, “Throw the needle and enjoy its calm sound.”

While the jokes are all in good fun, they also serve as an outlet for the deeper psychological trials of day to day life in Lebanon.

“Lebanese face permanent existential threat to their daily lives as they might be at anytime victims of instability,” says social psychologist Mona Fayyad who is a professor of psychology at the Lebanese University.

One symptom of living with this permanent threat of instability is evident in statistics about the incidence of depression in Lebanon.

According to the Order of Pharmacists, Lebanon imported in 2007 1,081,836 tranquilizers, according to the latest statistic that the Order has made available.

For a country inhabited by only 4 million, this amount is surprising and tends to confirm some media reports estimating up to 47 percent of Lebanese suffer or have suffered from depression.

Fayyad argues that although the Civil War ended, Lebanese have yet to enjoy real security. She says that today there are still three basic areas in which the Lebanese still feel a threat: existence, stability and basic living conditions.

The tendency for Lebanese to draw comedy out of these fears about the country’s deteriorating situation also has a psychological explanation, Fayyad says. Since most citizens feel unable to change the course of events or have an impact on them, they tend to cope with uncertainty through humor.

“This is the way Lebanese face the reality; this is a kind of resistance,” Fayyad says.

Salim al-Lawzi, 26, frequently uses his Facebook account to sarcastically comment on recent political developments. “The statements said by some politicians are sarcastic to the extent that I feel the urge not to take them seriously,” he says.

Lawzi adds that there are two things fueling his cynical Facebook statuses.

“The first reason is, that by doing this, I tend to release tension and the second is to make people laugh and add a sense of humor to the already tense situation of the country.”

Blogger and political activist, Nasser, takes on the famous quote from Albert Camus, that the most absurd way to die would be in a car accident. Nasser refutes Camus via Facebook writing, “I guess it is a different case in Lebanon where the most absurd way to die is during a mini-civil war.”

Nasser says his penchant toward making fun of the current situation in Lebanon is a response to the nonsensical events going on around him.

“When things in Lebanon tend to be illogical, logical thinking will not be useful anymore,” he explains.

One of Nasser’s tactics is to edit breaking news stories by adding information or restructuring the articles to make it funny.

Another popular joke that has gone viral on social media is similarly based on a bit of creative alteration using the Lebanese flag.

A nation’s flag should represent what the country stands for and is an important symbol, embodied in the flag’s shape, images or choice of colors.

While the traditional Lebanese flag features the iconic Cedar tree, recent clashes around the country that prompted protests and tire-burning led Lebanese jokesters to replace the tree with a new symbol to represent their beloved country. Instead of a Cedar, the center of the new flag now features a Bridgestone tire.

Now just wait until the flag meddlers get their hands on the national anthem, which already endured a political dispute over its lyrics just months ago.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 13, 2012, on page 2.




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