Egyptians who pride themselves on being the first civilization to brew beer and use fishing rods can enjoy a new distinction. Egyptians apparently also were among the first humans to crack jokes.
This sense of humor still pervades Egyptian society. When a passenger in a Cairo taxi complains about a cockroach in the car, the driver shares his irritation -- at the fact that the insect has not paid for the ride.
"Historically Egyptians have always been ruled by a strong central government. Joking was a unifying act of an oppressed people," said sociologist Issam Fawzi.
A recent statement issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture quoted a study by a British Egyptologist who lectured on the prevalence of humor in ancient Egypt. The lecture revealed that ancient Egyptians "enjoyed bawdy jokes, political satire, parodies and cartoon-like art."
Not much has changed since then, Fawzi said. Themes related to political authority, sex and religion feature most prominently in humor.
A recent cartoon in Roz al-Youssef magazine showed a young man asking a girl's father for her hand in marriage. As such a ritual usually involves agreement on a dowry, the man is quoted as saying: "How about I pay half the dowry and get her on weekends?"
The cartoon makes light of the difficult economic situations that prevent many young people from getting married, and also lampoons the strict social traditions governing such an event.
A new Egyptian government recently was appointed to replace that of Atef Obeid, who became an object of mockery during the four years he was prime minister.
The new government is now headed by former telecommunications and technology minister Ahmad Nazif. A recent cartoon in the al-Arabi newspaper showed two well-dressed women sitting on a couch gossiping.
One asks: "What is the difference between Obeid and Nazeef?" The answer: "One is operated manually, the other automatically."
When the US dropped food packages during the 2001 US-British strike on Afghanistan, Egyptian cartoonist Mustafa Hussein published a cartoon depicting a member of the Taliban sitting on a hill, holding a hamburger in his hand and screaming: "Where is the ketchup, you infidels, you sons of dogs?"
Egyptian humor is even promoted as a tourist attraction. The Insight Travel Guide says: "Egyptians make use of the smallest incident to provoke laughter. In a cafe or bar, wisecracks are fired back and forth with increasing hilarity until the whole company falls off its chairs."
Fawzi said coffee shops, a traditional meeting place for all classes, are one of the main places for joking.
"Because there is a coffee shop in practically every street, regulars know each other and would crack jokes against taboo issues such as the president, sex and religion," he said.
During Egypt's war with Yemen in the 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was president at the time, demanded that Egyptians stop cracking jokes about the country's armed forces.
"Abdel Nasser even had an intelligence unit responsible for collecting jokes, because he knew that jokes represented what the people think," Fawzi said.
On the other hand, Anwar Sadat, who ruled between 1970 and 1981, hated the jokes that circulated during his reign, Fawzi said, while President Hosni Mubarak simply ignores the jokes.
Sex and religion, two taboo topics rarely discussed seriously in Egypt, slip easily into jokes. One particular joke circulated widely following the 1995 parliamentary elections in which the banned Moslem Brotherhood group nominated candidates under a campaign entitled "Islam is the solution," tells of the wife of a Moslem cleric who complains her husband makes love to her only once a month.
Talking to her neighbor, also married to a sheikh, the woman is aghast to find out she sleeps with her husband five times a day, the same number of prayer sessions observed by practicing Moslems.
The woman returns home and plasters her apartment with posters saying: "Islam is the solution."
"The reason people tell jokes is that Egypt is so full of contradictions," Fawzi said.
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