Telling a joke like that could get you maimed, tortured and even killed in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The most common penalty was tongue amputation. Iraqis know the story of Lt. Gen. Omar al-Hazzaa, one of Saddam's top officers. During a backgammon game with friends in 1984, the subject of Saddam's mother came up. Al-Hazzaa joked, "Who is she, anyway?" Saddam and his four brothers all had different mothers. Everyone laughed, but one of them informed on him. According to accounts from family survivors who later fled Iraq, first al-Hazzaa's tongue was cut out, then his sons had their tongues cut out while their wives were forced to watch. Then his male family members were killed in front of him, and his wife and daughters turned out of their home. Finally he was executed.
Nor was such penalty reserved for the mighty. Last week a poor Shiite family showed up at a human-rights group in Baghdad to see if they could find where their son's body might be buried; they produced the official death warrant that ordered him executed "for telling jokes and showing disrespect to Saddam Hussein and other officials." When jokes could kill, Iraqis traded them in secret. Now the laughter is gushing out (our favorite, below photo). Iraqis are beginning to tell jokes about the Americans, too. Here's one that covers three nationalities: A TV interviewer asks an American, an Afghan and an Iraqi, in turn: "What is your opinion about electricity shortages?" The American replies, "What's an 'electricity shortage'?" The Afghan says, "What's an 'electricity'?" The Iraqi says, "What's an 'opinion'?"