Gaza's gallows humor.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 5 2009 6:39 AM

What Is There To Laugh About in Gaza?

Not much, unless you're Palestinian.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Gaza is not a funny place. The air reeks of burning shopping bags, walls are pockmarked by gunfire, and the glum faces of "martyred" men glare down from street signs. Over the last month, one wretched wartime anecdote has crowded out another: 30 dead when troops shell a United Nations-run school, white phosphorous scars a mother and kills four of her children, tank fire slays a humanitarian doctor's three daughters. Nothing to laugh about here, right?

Unless, of course, you happen to be Gazan, in which case you might need to.

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Like manyforeign journalists, I recently toured the remnants of Jebalia, a border town pummeled by Israeli tanks and artillery during the latest round of fighting. As I passed a chicken cage crushed beneath a shelled coop, Khaled, my aggressively serious guide, smiled for the first time since I met him. "I am sorry, but it seems the chickens are dead," he said, gesturing to a mess of feathers jutting from a pile of wires and concrete. "We had hoped to make you broilers."

If tragedy and comedy are inseparable, as Eugène Ionesco believed, the Gazans are equipped to be among the world's funniest people. The strip is nowadays little more than a prison for its 1.5 million residents.The water is nearly poisonous, travel is restricted even for Fulbright scholars, and what remains of the civil infrastructure is administered by a mirthless set of militant Islamists.

And, weirdly, rage and sorrow often did give way to laughter among Jebalia's erstwhile residents. One man, a half-blind veteran of the British Mandate years, swung seamlessly from excoriating the U.S. government to weeping over his lost home to cackling about the death of his donkey. Why would Israel want the beast dead, he wondered—it couldn't even hold a gun.

This is the flavor of a great deal of modern Palestinian wit, a brand of gallows humor so deep it could have only sprung from a strip of land so routinely trampled by plagues (1348, 1839), earthquakes (1294, 1903, 1914), and marauding empires from the Assyrians to the British. Under the particularly bleakcircumstances of the last century, it's not surprising that many of the most famous and infamous Palestinians—Edward Said, Yasser Arafat, Sirhan Sirhan—are better known for their indignation than their humor.

But jokesters there are, and those who do make it into the limelight are oftenwry.The late Emile Habibi was particularly so.In his hallmark work The Secret Life of Saeed, he described the misadventures of an Israeli Arab "pessoptimist" who, out of self-concern, becomes an informant for the young Jewish state.As Saeed strives ineptly to placate his new masters, dodging conflict in a land beset by it, Habibi reads a lot like a Levantine Joseph Heller.

So it goes in Gaza. And this time around, war has yielded plenty of scenes Habibi or Heller could have appreciated. The atmosphere even penetrates the Al-Deera Hotel, an oasis of swank in grim Gaza City that is frequented by reporters, nonprofit workers, Hamas spokesmen, and the remnants of the Gazan elite. After filing morose copy, journalists recline in wicker chairs, puff water pipes, sip coffee, and trade war stories as a sort of collective therapy.Anything could be fodder: the Hamas policemen's blue coveralls, the Italian journalist shot at by Israelis while he was on the phone with their commander, the shuttered duty-free shop at the Egyptian border crossing.

After this, Cairo seems like Coney Island. Egyptians are renowned for their humor—reputedly rooted in millenniums-old Nile valley traditions—and today much of their comedyis straight vaudevillian slapstick, giving parts of the capital a circuslike ambiance. If Gaza is the Arab world's Euripides, Egypt is its Farrelly brothers.

Despite the repressive central authority—another millenniums-old Nile valley tradition—Egypt is still a land of ample silliness. Stretch-marked and asthmatic belly dancers wiggle under fluorescent lights, grizzled men shuttle taxis bedecked with fuzzy stuffed hearts, and fleshy bureaucrats snooze in state offices. Along downtown streets, fully veiled women ogle sexy underwear shops and droves ofslick-hairedyouth lean against cars for hours, inviting more substantial comparisons to Arthur Fonzarelli than to any member of Hamas.

In one of the finest portraits of the city, Cairo: The City Victorious, Economist correspondentMax Rodenbeck describes Egyptian jokes as"a kind of currency, such that a wisecrack from the most importunate beggar may bring instant reward." But thislust for distraction,Rodenbeck suggests, may well be rooted in generations-old poverty.

Recent years have only added to the list of troubles Egyptians might rather forget.Since Anwar Sadat was gunned down nearly three decades ago, the country has lived under a suffocating "emergency law" and watched many of its social services decay. Today, the Nile is murky, the traffic mind-bending, and the politics suppressed.

In both Jebalia and Cairo, wit is medicine, a sort of whiplash of the mind against trauma. Decades ago, absurdist dramatists pushed the idea that comedy exists to help us bear the tragedy of existence. But you don't need to read Samuel Beckett to get that.Khaled, my guide in Jebalia, said as much as walked past a group of chuckling men."If they don't joke," he said, "they'll go crazy."

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