Dispatches from Iraq #6

Laughing in the Dark

The following is a reflection written by Sheila Provencher, 32, who lives and works in Baghdad, Iraq, with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). CPT is an ecumenical organization that works with local people in areas of violence (including the West Bank, Colombia and Iraq) to seek nonviolent solutions to situations of injustice and oppression. Sheila, who holds degrees from Harvard and Notre Dame, joined CPT in Baghdad in December, 2003.

BustedHalo.com will feature Sheila’s occasional reflections on daily life in Iraq, the Iraqi people and the challenges they face during the American occupation.

Jokes can reveal a lot. I suspect they can reveal more about a situation than can many scholarly articles, political speeches, and media reports. In that light, here are some jokes from Iraq that I’ve recently heard.

There is a huge government-sponsored billboard (for real) near Tahrir Square, an area of Baghdad through which I frequently ride. The billboard proclaims, in huge Arabic letters: “One nation. One people. One constitution.”

Last week as we rode past, the cab driver laughed and said that the billboard was meaningless. In fact, he said, it should read, “Three nations. Crazy people. No constitution.”

My colleague Matthew gave an interview on Canada-TV the other day. The Iraqi cameraman asked if he could tell us a joke. “I hope you won’t be offended,” he said.

“Three people died and were sent to Hell. One was American, one was European, and one was Iraqi. They all asked if they could make a phone call to their families. The American talked for 10 minutes, and the demons charged him $20,000. The European talked for five minutes, and they charged him $5,000. The Iraqi talked for about two hours, and they charged him 50 cents. ‘Hey!’ said the American. ‘How come this guy only had to pay 50 cents, when he talked for hours?’

“‘Well,’ said the nearest demon. ‘It’s practically a local call.'”

“The kidnappers will pay $1000 to anyone who kidnaps and kills one Shi’a person,” she said. Then she smiled wickedly. “Huh! I should kill myself!”

An Iraqi friend told me that that still-popular joke is actually fairly old, having been born in the era of sanctions. Iraq has been hell-like to its citizens for quite some time. Here is another example from the 1990’s:

A cab driver was speeding down the highway, when he was cut off by a large delivery truck. He leaned out of his window to yell at the truck’s driver. “Hey, you! You ought to let me go first! I’m a professor at the university!” shouted the cab driver. “That’s nothing,” responded the truck driver. “I’m the university president.”

Other jokes are spontaneous, produced by more recent, grim phenomena. My neighbor Noor (not her real name) told me that kidnappers preyed on certain prime areas of the southern highway from Baghdad to Najaf, often traversed by Shi’a people going to bury their dead. “The kidnappers will pay $1000 to anyone who kidnaps and kills one Shi’a person,” she said. Then she smiled wickedly. “Huh! I should kill myself!”

I’ve heard similar jests from Sunni friends whose people are also threatened with kidnapping and torture, now at the hands of commando Shi’a groups.

Laughing in the dark. Why do we do this? Maybe it’s because of what C.S. Lewis once said: that evil cannot bear to be laughed at. So we laugh as a way to repel the darkness. Or maybe it’s either laugh or weep. Most of us do both.

But the important thing­-the most important thing–is to listen for the reality behind the jokes. To listen even to the seemingly despairing, cynical humor, because it can reveal what the heart of a people actually feels. Is anyone listening?