x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Revolutionary humour never gets old, it just gets repeated

Humour exists in the darkest of places - and especially during revolutions.

'A sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to our steps as we walk the tightrope of life," one Arabic proverb advises.

When things are especially grim and serious, there is no better way to cope than with a joke, a witty comment or what is now being dubbed as revolutionary humour.

Throughout the Arab world, Egyptians are known for their sense of humour. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in the heart of the ongoing uprising taking place in Cairo's Tahrir Square over the past two weeks.

"Can you go already, my hands are hurting from holding this sign," one sign in Arabic, held by a young protester, implored President Hosni Mubarak. Next was an older protester whose own sign read: "Leave ... my voice is gone from all the yelling."

The different backgrounds of the protesters comes across in the creative elements and self-mockery of the signs. For instance, a man identified himself as a carpenter by carrying a hammer and a sign that read: "The carpenter's union of Egypt asks Mubarak: what kind of glue are you using?"

Another, portraying himself as a poet and a romantic, held up a heart-shaped pink sign that read: "Leave ... I want to get married."

As the camera pans across Tahrir Square, the urgent nature of the protests is leavened by the comedy relating to every aspect of protesters' lives. One man with a big afro hairdo held a sign demanding: "Mubarak, leave so I can go home and cut my hair."

The "leave so I can ..." joke is quite popular. From caricatures to the use of ancient hieroglyphics, protesters are using their creativity to give their voices force.

But it is not just the signs that are turning the square into a stage for comedy, with protesters showing up in self-made hats of empty water bottles, bricks and even bread, tied to the head with scotch tape and headscarves.

"We need to protect our heads from thugs," said a protester wearing a cooking pot on his head. Women came dressed in colourful outfits, with some in tiger-print headscarves and a sign on their backs warning the regime they are "tough as tigers".

New jokes about Mr Mubarak and other Arab leaders, and some old standbys, are being sent back and forth by text messages and BlackBerry messenger.

I have read so many jokes starting with an Arab leader getting on board a plane - an obvious reference to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's decampment from Tunisia.

"Did you hear the one about the devil and ... ?" is often the opening line, ending with some unpopular politician, during dinners with family and friends. No dinner is complete without a political joke or two.

The use of revolutionary humour is not new of course. Lebanon's 2005 Cedar revolution was rife with humour even against the tragic backdrop of Rafiq Hariri's murder. I recall so many funny signs, although some were in rather bad taste.

Regardless, humour has also accompanied Middle Eastern revolts, partly because the same issues have been around for decades, which is the tragic truth and comedy of it all.

"Candles are the most efficient and harmless form of light and warmth, so keep a whole stock of them at home as they are the best for the preservation of the environment. Signed, the manager at the ministry of electricity of Lebanon," read one popular note.

Even when bombs were falling nearby during the 2006 summer war in Lebanon, my Lebanese relatives and friends were more focused on their coffee than the violence. "Who bought this brand of coffee? In times of conflict, one needs a really good strong cup of coffee," said one elderly neighbour, complaining about my choice.

Arabs may be accused of many things, but keeping their sense of humour, and a dose of sarcasm, in the worst of times has often proven to be their salvation.