Baghdad, March 12, 2007. Even in its darkest days, Iraq has proven to be a target-rich environment for its jokesters. Saddam Hussein made a particularly good foil. When the former dictator was hung, goes one of recent vintage, the executioners asked him if he had any last requests. "Yes," he replied. "Call out the reserves!" (Iraqi reservists were called up repeatedly, some serving 20 years or more during his many wars). Iraqis don't have Saddam to kick around anymore, but there's no shortage of replacement subjects. The jokes they tell now are not always terribly funny, at least to foreign ears, but they have a lot to say about their present predicament.
A lot of them are about fleeing the country, as 3.9 million have done already. Question: What's the best job in the Iraqi government? Answer: Foreign ambassador. Or: an Iraqi finds Aladdin's lamp and rubs it 'til the genie comes out. "Master, your wish is my command." The Iraqi asks him to make a bridge connecting Iraq to Europe, so he can run away. "Master, that is a very hard thing to do." Okay, the Iraqi tells him, then just make the situation in Iraq better. The genie thinks for a moment and replies, "How big do you want the bridge?"
Jokes don't always translate well, especially when they depend on puns in Arabic, a language rich in double entendre. Take this bilingual joke, which plays on the word sadr, which means breast, and Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia leader. President Bush asks Bill Clinton for his advice. "What should I do about the Shia?" Clinton replies, "Do what I did with Monica, grab al-Sadr." Bush is a regular target, as are American soldiers. The American president, goes one joke, decides to make an undercover visit to Iraq, so he hides his face under the checkered keffiyeh scarf, and goes out on a Baghdad street. "What's all the commotion about?" he asks an Iraqi. "Don't tell anyone," the Iraqi replies, "but Bush is in Iraq."
Then there's this one: "Breaking News", goes the crawl at the bottom of a satellite TV channel. "President Bush demands a timetable for the withdrawal of the Iraqi people from Iraq."
The Abu Ghraib scandal spawned a whole genre of bitter jokes. A prisoner is released and when he goes home, he asks his mother, "Did you see me on TV?" "No," she says. "Mom, I was the third butt on the right." Soldier jokes tend to focus on the cultural disconnect. An American soldier spends a year in Najaf, where he learns some of the expressions common in that Shia holy city; then he's transferred to Fallujah, where he's captured by Sunni insurgents. "You're an occupation soldier, aren't you?" demands the insurgent. "I swear by Imam Hussein, I am not." (The Shia saint is never invoked by Sunnis.) "Hah," says the insurgent, shooting him dead, "You're a Shiite!" Or: after four years of occupation, an insurgent goes to a sheikh for religious guidance. "Sayid, if we get the Americans out, can we keep their female soldiers as slaves for sex?" The Sheikh responds promptly. "Son, if you get the Americans out, you can even have sex with me."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki comes in for some harsh ones. Al Qaeda kidnaps him and says they'll douse him in gasoline and set him alight unless a ransom of one million dollars is paid. His supporters go out in the street looking for donations. "What are most people giving?" one would-be contributor asks. "Oh, some gave five liters, others ten."
Most jokes nowadays though, are directed at the Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani--and for the most part they're light-hearted and goofy. The position of president is largely ceremonial, but Talabani is a well-liked figure, even among non-Kurds. Talabani himself has good-naturedly quoted them from time to time, which is a measure of his skill as a politician. Here's one he told at a press conference: Talibani is out walking and runs into an old man drinking on a hill. "Join me," says the old man, and Talibani says sure. After a bit, the old man asks who he is. "I'm Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq." The old man scoffs. "One drink and he thinks he's Talabani, who will he be in 30 minutes, Bush?" Or, a soldier in the Kurdish peshmerga militia is told they'll have to fire a 21-gun salute when Talibani arrives in Erbil. "What if we get him on the first shot, can we stop?" Most of these are groaners, but not all. Talabani decides he wants to personally interrogate a captured, would-be suicide bomber. "Come on, confess. How many times did you blow yourself up?"
Suicide bombings in Iraq are no joke, but the perpetrators are fair game--imbecility the usual theme. An Al Qaeda cell prepares the suicide car, packing it with explosives, and then wires up the bright lights switch to the detonator. But the bomber objects; "what if I forget and turn the brights on?" So instead they agree to wire the bomb to the horn. The bomber climbs in and, as his comrades wave goodbye, gives a parting toot.
In a place best-suited now to black humor, the laughs come easily. There's only one subject that really seems taboo, which is death squads and sectarian killings. Perhaps it's a recognition that Iraqis can survive the excesses of insurgents and suicide bombers, American soldiers and Iraqi politicians, but when they turn to killing one another over religion, there's just nothing funny at all.
-With Ayad Obeidi in Baghdad
(AP Photo/Ali Abbas, Pool)