Egypt, jokes and resistance

11Feb11

During the last ten years of the Ceauşescu regime in Romania (it fell in December 1989), a very remarkable man named Calin Stefanescu conducted a very remarkable study of jokes. Stefanescu worked as an engineer on the Bucharest public transport system, and thus travelled around the city a lot and earwigged people’s conversations as he did so. He collected about 900 jokes, often having to guess the punchline or set-up line because he hadn’t heard properly, and because people were afraid to tell jokes too loudly.

Under Communism, whether in the Soviet Union, the wider Eastern Bloc, or the bizarre tinpot kingdom of the Ceauşescus, pretty much all jokes ended up being about the regime. (Good selection of Russian jokes on Wikipedia.)

But what Stefanescu did was analyse them; what they were about, how soon a joke about a major development hit the streets, and how many of them there were. And he came to a rather remarkable conclusion; that in the last three years before the fall of Communism/Ceauşescu in his country, the number of jokes about the leader and his wife doubled. I can’t prove it, but anecdotally this seems to have been the case at the end of the Soviet regime as well. Hell, even Gorbachev was told an anti-Gorbachev joke on a US chatshow:

Man frustrated at being in a lengthy queue for vodka at a store in Moscow tells the guy behind him, “Right! That’s it! I can’t stand this anymore. I’m going to go and kill Gorbachev!”

Ten minutes later he’s back.

“So did you kill him?”

“No. I got to the Kremlin and found the queue was even longer than this one.”

The fascinating inference here – though the proof is tenuous – is that there is a link between humour and revolt. Perhaps as more and more people heard more and more gags they felt emboldened, realised that everyone around them felt the same way as they did.

Few of the jokes that Stefanescu collected seem hilariously funny now. E.g. this one based on the fact that all publications in the country had to feature pictures of the Ceauşescus on the cover:

Q. Why are there no pornographic magazines in Romania?

A. Because the first page would be too horrible.

Ah, but Egyptians … now there’s a bunch of people who know a good gag. Long before the recent uprising, Hosni Mubarak was the subject of plenty of Egyptian jokes, whether about the brutality of the regime or its corruption. More recently the jokes have also been about how long the old man has clung on to power (“Don’t you think you should write a farewell speech, Mr President?” “Why? Is everyone leaving the country?”)

The widest-known one is probably this:

Hosni Mubarak went to a primary school to give a talk to the children. When he’d finished his speech, he asked the children if they have any questions they’d like to ask.

One little boy put up his hand. “What is your question, Ramy?” Mubarak asked.

Ramy said: “I have four questions:

“First, why have you been a president for 30 years?

“Second, why don’t you have a vice-president?

“Third, why are your sons taking over Egypt economically and politically?

“Fourth, why are you doing nothing about the miserable economic state of the country?”

Just at that moment, the bell rang for break. Mubarak told the kids that the session would continue after the break.

When they resumed Mubarak said, “OK, where were we? Oh! That’s right! Questions! Who has a question?”

A different little boy put up his hand. Mubarak asked him his name.

“Tamer,” said the boy.

“And what is your question, Tamer?”

“I have six questions:

“First, why have you been a president for 30 years?

“Second, why don’t you have a vice-president?

“Third, why are your sons taking over Egypt economically and politically?

“Fourth, why are you doing nothing about the miserable economic state of the country?

“Fifth, why did the bell for break-time ring 20 minutes early?

“Sixth, what have you done with Ramy?!”

Interestingly, there also used to be a sub-genre of jokes about how passive the Egyptian people were under his rule, complaining quietly, putting up with things, hardly ever taking to the streets in protest. Well, not any more …

In a country where most people live on $2 a day or less, the wealth of Mubarak and his family  hasn’t gone unnoticed. Another popular joke has Mubarak on his deathbed asking his chief advisor how the Egyptian people will survive without him. “Don’t worry Mr President,” says the advisor, “Egypt is a great nation and her people are strong. Even if there is no bread, they can survive by eating stones.” Mubarak thinks for a while and says, “Make sure my eldest son has gets the monopoly on trade in stones.”

Wonder if they have any good jokes in Iran?

BTW, I had to nip into a public toilet the other day. There was a metal box on the wall with a big silver button on it, and a handwritten sign saying “Press for free David Cameron speech.” So I did, and got two minutes of hot air! Hargh!! Boom-boom-tish! Okay, okay, I’m going …

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One Response to “Egypt, jokes and resistance”

  1. 1 thebristolblogger

    My Favourite:

    Q: What doesn’t vibrate and fit up your backside?

    A: A Soviet designed device to vibrate and fit up your backside.


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