Egyptian jokes and humor provide a short-cut to insights about Egyptian society and politics--or an end-run around the society's various repressions. Middle East Issues contributor Catherine Manfre, a writer and editor based in Cairo, runs down the state of everyday stand-up in Cairo.
Mubarak in Hell
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt dies and goes to hell and is greeted by the devil. The devil says to him, “Since you were a leader of a country for many years, I’ll allow you to choose which room you’re tortured in for the rest of eternity.”
Mubarak walks down a corridor with doors on either side, opens the first door and inquires what type of torture he would endure. The man at the door says, “You’re tortured for eight hours with burning flames, eight hours of hot oil and eight hours in boiling water.”
Thinking he should try his luck elsewhere, Mubarak opens each door on the corridor and finds similar replies.
He comes to the final door. The man says he will endure twelve hours of torture on a terrible looking machine, followed by another twelve hours in a burning tub of oil. Mubarak tells him that sounds terrible, and he thinks he’ll just stick with the first door he opened.
The man leans in and whispers, “No sir, this is the Egyptian room, the supplies of oil are never delivered on time and our torture machines never work.”
Humor’s Way Out of Egypt’s Hells
While political expression is largely prohibited, inflation is on the rise, and little chance for social mobility, creating and telling jokes about conditions in Egypt is one way many people cope with the realities of life. It’s not exactly making lemonade from lemons, but at the very least it dulls the bitterness.
Many Egyptian jokes poke fun at political and economic conditions that most feel they can do little to change. Will poking fun at themselves and their country make things better? Probably not, but if you feel like you’re powerless to change your life, laughing can be a welcome relief.
Egypt’s Version of Florida Elections
Egypt is a democracy in the same sense that Earth was created in a week: it says so on paper, but the reality is very different. The Arab Republic of Egypt has had three presidents in its half-century modern history: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak has been in power since Sadat’s assassination in 1981, and while it seems that most don’t agree with him and think he does little for his country, he always seems to get a large percentage of the vote.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin asks Mubarak, “How do you always win with 99% of the vote? I wish I won with that type of percentage.” Mubarak responds, “Next time you have an election, let me know and I’ll send my people to help you out.”
The Russian election is coming up, and Mubarak sends some advisors to Russia to help Putin in his election. The results come out: 99% Mubarak.
The Inevitable Mother-In-Law
Perhaps resigning oneself to existing conditions is not optimal, but poking fun at life is reflective of a culture of not taking life too seriously. In a place where family is central to most people’s social sphere, and job opportunities are abundant only for the few and the privileged, people’s boundaries do not extend too far from home…and neither do their jokes, some of which adapt familiar, universal themes to Egypt.
A man is talking to his friend and asks him how he is doing. His friend says he’s very happy today. When the man asks him why, his friend says, “My mother-in-law died last night.”
Lost in Translation
Much of the Egyptian population is centered in Cairo and the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, with Cairo’s population exploding in recent years to around 22 million people; Egypt’ population is around 70-80 million. The dichotomy between city and country is vast, with little infrastructure or development for the local population extending outside of these two cities.
Those living in Upper or southern Egypt are referred to as Sayyidi by those in Lower Egypt. There are a multitude of jokes that reflect the stereotypes about this group of people. Many jokes focus on their more tribal village way of life and lack of education.
Humor is an enormous part of Egyptian culture and is probably lost to many visiting the country since even Egyptians fluent in English sometimes refuse to translate jokes because so much of the humor is rooted in the language.
There is probably a sociological analysis of a society’s ability to be self-reflective and use the outcome to produce humor. I’m not sure what that analysis is, so I’ll just sit back, listen, and laugh.