For the first couple weeks after the war started, it was hard to get people to share their Saddam Hussein jokes. This land between the two rivers is the home turf of one of the oldest classics of comic literature, "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights." Scheherezade has to tell a new story every night to keep the tyrant from beheading her, and many of them are off-color, ribald and funny.
They also make a point about the arbitrary exercise of absolute power, something Iraqis knew as much about as Scheherezade. Then again, in those first weeks, even well into April people weren't even ripping down Saddam's portraits-Coalition soldiers were. Not until it became clear that he was really on the run did Iraqis start desecrating his image, and sharing the jokes they had secretly traded for so long.
Saddam jokes provided a furtive source of critical comment about a regime that brooked none. "Hey, there's a new show on TV," goes one, taking off on Saddam's multi-hour long orations that dominated the airwaves. "It's called, 'The President Sleeping'." This joke is usually told with a loud snore. Many of the jokes are ostensibly aimed not at Saddam but at Izzat Ibrahim al Duri, vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council (number 6 of the Americans' Most Wanted list). An early Saddam intimate, Duri had long been sidelined, so he was a safe target. And his background for higher office was a source of constant mirth. He had been a street seller in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, peddling blocks of ice; he owed his success to having hidden Saddam in his fridge when the young revolutionary was on the lam.
One day, goes a common joke, Duri's driving his wife around and she sees all the portraits of Saddam and says, "Izzat, where are your pictures?" So he finds one traffic circle in the capital that still has an empty signboard, and has his own larger than life picture put there. Saddam comes by and sees it. "Izzat, what is that picture of you doing there?" "Oh, it's nothing, Sir, sorry Sir, I'm just getting a new passport and it's my passport photo." Iraqis, banned from travel and contemptuous of Tikrit bumpkins, find that joke tremendously funny.
Granted, many of the jokes don't translate well. Perhaps you have to have spent time in Iraq to appreciate this one, which takes off on the president's constant and unpredictable changes of costume, from business suits to sheikhs' robes to combat fatigues. Izzat Duri knocks on the 20-foot-high front door of the palace and Saddam's wife shows up in a babydoll nightie, tells him Saddam isn't there, but holds the door wide open. The hapless Duri drags himself off and all night long he ponders whether she had been coming on to him. The next day Duri goes back and again the wife opens the door, this time only in her underwear. He may be slow, he may be thick, but he finally gets it. The third day, Duri returns to the palace in the buff, and knocks expectantly on the door. Saddam opens it. "Izzat, why are you naked?" "I, uh, Sir, I couldn't remember if we were supposed to wear civvies or military today."
There are a number of stories very like that one in the "Arabian Nights," which was a classic of ribaldry as well as tyranny. Most of its stories were set in what is now modern day Iraq, and one thing about a funny story, it has legs. There's one much like this in "Arabian Nights," though the punch-line is adapted: Saddam's retainers give him a parrot for his birthday, trained to chant, as Iraqis so often had to do, "Long Live Saddam." The tyrant takes the parrot home and grows very fond of hearing him constantly chanting to him. The next morning Saddam wakes up and the parrot's in an ugly mood, squawking "La i laha illa 'llah", "There is no god but Allah," and other religious slogans. Saddam summons his bodyguards and they exclaim, "Let's execute the damn bird!" "Stick it on a spit and roast it alive!" Saddam, ever attentive to the art of cruelty, shakes his head at the uninspired brutality of his retainers. "No, just pluck out its feathers and cast it into the street," he commands. A few days later the parrot's strutting through the market and everyone stares at it. "What's the matter?" the parrot snaps. "You people never seen anyone against the government?"
Iraqis aren't the only ones telling jokes these days. American soldiers occupying the country haven't yet started in on Iraqis; the situation is still too raw and chaotic. Instead, the butt of American jokes remains the French, who rebuffed the coalition and did their best to prevent the war. "How does a French soldier salute?" asks Marine Lt. Matt Nichols of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, stationed in Nasiriya, while he was taking a sponge bath with a bottle of mineral water. This one's a sight gag: Nichols throws his hands up as if to surrender. Another Marine pitches in. "For sale, used French weapons. Never been fired. Only dropped once." Or, "Too bad the French weren't in the coalition. They could have taught the Iraqis how to surrender better."
A British officer in Basra tells this joke, in the spirit of the mainly Anglo-American coalition. A British gentleman and a French lady with a lap poodle are sharing a compartment in a train with an American soldier. The soldier gets up to open the window and bumps into the French woman. He starts to apologize, but she berates him as rude and clumsy. After a few minutes of this he calmly reaches over, grabs her poodle by the scruff of the neck and throws it out the window. Beside herself with rage, she demands that the Brit come to her assistance. "Certainly, madam," he says, turning to the American. "I beg your pardon sir, but it appears that you have thrown the wrong bitch out the window."
The Brits also have a few jokes about the Americans, though they tend toward the polite. "The world needs to go to war every once in a while, if only to teach you Americans a little geography," says an officer in the Royal Commandos. It is true that an awful lot of the American brass, having routinely mispronounced the country hosting the U.S. Central Command as Gutter instead of Qatar (more properly voiced as KAH-tar), are now calling Iraq, "Arak," which sounds more like the alcoholic drink so popular in the region.
Iraqis are just getting around to telling jokes about the Americans, but most of them are probably too off-color to repeat. Saddam is a much more inviting target, though, with pictures of him on everything from wristwatches to monuments, not to mention the dog-eared currency. Poets were forced to write paeans to him; no painter could work unless he had done portraits of Saddam. Now they'll all want to settle scores. As the paunchy potentate probably cowers in his bolthole somewhere, finally powerless to do anything about public opinion, it's open season. Call it the thanks of an ungrateful nation.
As Iraqis always like to say in English when they leave one another, "Hello!"