Jokes as Weapons

Sharif Kanaana on the Palestinian Sense of Humor

Sharif Kanaana has studied Palestinian's culture of humor for over fifteen years. Arafat in particular was a favorite target of ridicule. Frank Hessenland visits the Palestinian ethnologist in Ramallah.

photo: AP
"The truth is that the harshest jokes came straight from the Palestinian Authority," Sharif Kanaana explains

​​"These boxes here and here and these here, too. All these boxes are full of jokes and legends from the Palestinian people. It has become my life's work to collect them. This box here, for example, contains the periods from the beginning of the Oslo Accords to their abandonment."

Sharif Kanaana is a seventy-year-old Palestinian ethnologist at the Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. His specialty is Palestinian oral history, narrated history as it appears in the mouth of the people and vanishes.

For fifteen years Kanaana has observed how much Palestinians communicate through jokes and anecdotes. He has compiled thousands of them in boxes and on file cards. Until recently the most popular were Palestinian Arafat jokes. Kanaana can tell hundreds of them.

"I want a Palestinian state," Arafat says to God, who wishes to fulfill a wish for him. God hummed and hawed. "It will not happen in your lifetime, Arafat." "I want Jerusalem." "Nor will this happen in your lifetime, Arafat." "Then at least I want to be as good-looking as George Clooney." "Arafat!" says God, "that won't even happen in my lifetime."

Give me liberty or give me jokes

As in East European countries or in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a culture of jokes has developed among the Palestinians after decades of repression and condescension from the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority.

"When people are made the passive object of history, without freedom of press or an open book market, not to mention participation in power, says Sharif Kanaana, "they hit back against those in power with jokes." The Arafat jokes leave no topic unturned, not his appearance nor his occasional unpopularity among the people.

"When Feisal Husseine, the East Jerusalem Palestinian leader, prepared one day to receive Arafat at the still-functioning airport in Gaza, he ordered twenty men from his guard of honor to wait for Arafat at the airport. He handed them weapons and told them to salute and that each should fire thirty shots when Arafat arrived. All of them nodded enthusiastically, feeling honored. Only one man from Hebron asked: "Okay, I understand. I'll do it. But what should I do if I kill Arafat with my first shot?"

Jokes, encouraged by the authorities

Unlike East European rulers, however, Palestinians do not take everything so seriously. When political opponents were muzzled, tortured, or a parliament member was beaten up, jokes were permitted and even encouraged by the authorities, Kanaana explains.

"The truth is that the harshest jokes came straight from the Palestinian Authority. Our leaders invented them and passed them on to each other. It is said that Arafat himself regularly laughed at Arafat jokes. But what we know for certain is that members of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority came up with the worst sex jokes about Arafat and his wife."

There was a lot for Palestinians to joke about – Arafat's wishes, his obstinacy, his mismanagement, the corruption, the repression, the rotating prime ministers. Jokes, however, were only made about things and people who made a difference.

Arafat was number one in the stories for over fifteen years. But six months before his death, Kanaana says, jokes about him abruptly ceased, as if his people had quietly buried and forgotten him all at once.

On the other hand, the latest joke has the current head of the government Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) visiting a Turkish bath with Arafat. Arafat has to pay 50 shekels for admission, Abu Mazen 100 shekels. In response to Mazen's indignant inquiry as to why, the bath owner replies: "The simply corrupt pay 50 shekels. You pay for two."

Frank Hessenland


Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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