The Egyptian sense of humour is proverbial, or it used to be. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who could not manage to cleverly rearrange the rules of semantics to add some wit to a conversation. Word jokes were everywhere and as a foreigner with bad Arabic I have often, albeit inadvertently, contributed a few gems of my own.
I once proudly used a word I thought described a certain movement when a friend slipped on the floor, and created a stony silence of embarrassment around the dinner table filled with my friend’s family. Turned out it was normally only used in the crudest of circumstances. I have made people laugh hysterically when I asked what “bizzahod” meant, when I thought it was a new Arabic word and was not trying to be funny at all. Years ago I turned my house upside down looking for a qamoos, dictionary, that I insisted was a gamoos, buffalo. I furiously kept repeating to my friends I had left it in my bag, much to the amusement of the native speakers present.
Another great tradition involves jokes based on where in the country you are from. The best Saeedi jokes I ever heard were told to me by the Upper Egyptian staff I used to work with. The day I had heard one somewhere else and proudly shared it with them, they fell on the floor laughing. There was never a question of anyone taking offence at a foreigner repeating a joke that made fun of people from the very area they came from.
Times have changed though. When once humour, sarcasm and satire were rampant, and greatly valued and appreciated, we now seem to have entered a phase where everything is taken seriously, on face value or in the worst way possible. Not that long ago Bassem Youssef would create a volley of laughter around the country that echoed on the streets every Friday night yet these days that is hard to imagine.
Personally I am a fan of satire and have used it many times writing this column. For many months this had no consequences whatsoever, possibly because besides my family and maybe one of my friends nobody reads it (See what I did there?). But then I wrote a column about my boss whacking me with a whip to make sure I was towing the company line that involved absolutely no free speech or opposing opinions. And everyone went nuts.
To this day it is a mystery to me why nobody that got so worked up realised that if what I wrote was true, it would be highly unlikely the article would be on the website of the very paper that supposedly stifled what I wrote about. I had written before about shaving the head of the reporters for not doing what I wanted, when a teacher cut the hair of two unveiled pupils, yet nobody called any of our staff to see if they needed a baseball cap. Go figure.
Earlier this week a popular Egyptian analyst wrote a satirical opinion piece which was very funny. The trick of good satire is to present ridiculous assumptions as objective fact, and only giving the truth away by the outrageousness of the premise. In the aforementioned article the writer presented several well known characters as secretly belonging to one of the political parties, cleverly showing how absurd many of the rampant conspiracy theories are.
He is a smart man and wanted to avoid being misunderstood, so he added a small paragraph at the bottom that spelled out the article was satirical, yet sadly that did nothing to dissuade the moronic masses. Followers of the party in question hailed their newly-outed members, opponents vilified former friends and the most creative way of misuse came from an unexpected bunch that acknowledged the satire yet pronounced the premise as highly possible. Sigh.
Of course there are many aspects of the current events that are no laughing matter, yet in times past there would have been at least a few people who would have found the fun in the dysfunction (thank you Robin Williams). The lack of laughter is a worrying sign because it might just be the only thing that can save our collective sanities. There are enough things that are depressing, abhorrent and deserve to be treated very seriously.
But being able to laugh at satire during hardship does more than just provide some much needed comic relief, it makes us realise there is a relativity to most things and that the worst thing we can do is take ourselves too seriously.
Egyptians used to excel in this and it is a quality I sorely miss.