x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

There's just one thing missing in our big cities: a sense of fun

Cultivating a sense of humour can reach across any physical or verbal boundary, even breaking them down.

New Yorkers are renowned for their prickliness, Parisians for being aloof, Cairenes for their shouting. Big cities are stressful places, and the defence mechanisms of the citizenry are many. However, in my experience, the best antidote to the frantic pace of city life is humour. As the UAE's cities evolve into genuine metropolises, a liberal sense of humour and a willingness to jest need to be encouraged.

There can be little doubt that humour has significant value as a way of making sense of the world, often by poking fun at entrenched ideas or stereotypical behaviour. Many of my Arab friends have wonderfully developed senses of humour, and are delightfully puckish. Observing the quantity of laughter and mirth emitted from groups in public spaces here confirms a robust appreciation for playfulness and levity.

Yet more often than not, humour seems to be constrained by the boundaries of race, nationality or ethnicity. Although humour naturally flowers within the context of familiarity and trust, it has the potential to improve and enhance relationships between widely different types of people. Given the obvious diversity of the major cities in the UAE, humour can serve as a bridge between different groups, as well as to function as a technique to gently modify behaviour. Sharing a laugh produces a simple bond between people, but there is also a subconscious desire to avoid being the object of laughter. Perhaps gentle teasing, in a good-natured fashion, is an easy way to address some of the petty annoyances that seem to punctuate everyday life.

I must confess that I personally have an infantile sense of humour that finds vulgarity hilarious, slapstick compelling, and pranks irresistible. For nearly a decade, a large - and realistic - inflatable snake accompanied me on every journey. On one occasion, I found myself camping in the desert with a mixed bunch of friends with a limited quantity of shared language. Two of the Emirati men seemed to be particularly out of conversational options, so I performed a flanking manoeuvre and leopard-crawled my snake out of the darkness from under their chairs. One leapt like a scalded cat, but the other, graceful as a ballerina, moved his leg a few centimetres to the side, took a drag from his cigarette, and turned his head to look me in the eye. Then he roared with laughter, as did we all.

It proved to be the beginning of our friendship, and he obviously told his friends - perhaps to beware of me as a fool - so that I became known as "the man who loves snakes". Years later, our friends still chuckle at the story. Humour brought us closer together and livened up the party considerably. Since childhood, I have found "candid camera" style pranks endlessly enjoyable. The quantity of these whizzing around the web is enormous, and they are approachable because they often need no language or cultural context. Imagine producing such a show here in the UAE, playing jokes on all levels of our multicultural society. It would be hilarious to watch, yet I suspect that indignation and fury would be the likely response of the victims. But it would make us all that little more aware that we can laugh at ourselves, and that our "serious" lives can be injected with levity.

In Boulder, Colorado, a small university town where I lived for seven years, we had a town fool who wore a jester's cap and who poked good-natured fun at people's behaviour. Mostly on the bustling pedestrian mall, the fool mimed and mimicked, engaged in witty banter, and teased relentlessly those who littered, parked unacceptably, or behaved antisocially. It was street entertainment with a purpose: to modify behaviour gently, and humorously.

Festivals around the world allow humorous play to sprout in the public domain. The splashing colours of Holi, the dousing water festival of Songkrang in Thailand (and elsewhere) and various carnival celebrations provide inversions of normalcy that provoke public merriment. In such festivals, the established social order is suspended temporarily, and everyone who chooses to appear in public is equally part of the fun. To be out and about during these times is to accept that fact, and to welcome being tinted, splashed, smeared with foam or even having your necktie cut off.

During such festivals, play rules the day and laughter is not confined to precise categories of people or cliques of individuals. The result is a generalised and egalitarian laughter that suggests that many of us take ourselves too seriously for too much of the time. As the stress and alienation of burgeoning cities takes its toll on the populace, we need to remember to laugh, to play and to acknowledge that all of this pomp is just a little bit silly.

Christopher K Brown is associate professor of English language and literature at Zayed University