Newspaper article International New York Times

Egypt's Jokers Won't Be Gagged

Newspaper article International New York Times

Egypt's Jokers Won't Be Gagged

Article excerpt

The people have long known that their strongest weapon is satire.

In 1798, after Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Egypt, some local grandees wanted to get close to him, so they gave him six slave girls. At that time, Egyptians were under the influence of the Turkish taste that considered a fulsome figure a prerequisite of feminine beauty. Napoleon was more fired up by Parisian elegance and refused to sleep with any of the women because they were, in his opinion, fat and reeking of fenugreek.

Misinterpreting his aloofness, the Egyptians mocked Napoleon for a lack of virility, contrasting him and his troops unflatteringly with the Egyptian "manhood" of Ali Kaka dolls -- figurines with enormous penises. Despite such vulgarity in a conservative society, Egyptians took Kaka into their hearts and the dolls became wildly popular, even taking the form of pastries for children.

As related by a 1992 book on political humor by the journalist Adel Hammouda, editor of the independent news weekly El Fagr, it was a way for Egyptians to get back at the French general who had occupied their country. Egyptians had discovered that their strongest weapon was satire.

The scores of quips caused Napoleon to issue an edict threatening to punish anyone who told or laughed at jokes at his expense. Their subversive effect may have played a role in restoring Egyptians' morale: Twice within the space of three years, there were revolts. One resulted in the assassination of Napoleon's deputy, Gen. Jean Baptiste Kleber.

As far back as 1836, the English Orientalist Edward William Lane noted in his "Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians" that "the Egyptians are particularly prone to satire." He observed how "the lower orders sometimes lampoon their rulers in songs, and ridicule those enactments of the government by which they themselves most suffer."

In 1877, the journalist Yaqub Sanu (also known as James Sanua) founded the first satirical newspaper in Egypt, Abou Naddara. He wrote such trenchant criticism of Ismail Pasha, the Ottoman khedive (or viceroy), that the newspaper was soon suppressed. Sanua was forced into exile in France, where he resumed publication. When the khedive wrote to Sanua offering money and titles if he would desist, Sanua refused. Instead, he published the letter, causing a scandal that incensed the khedive still more.

The tradition of Egyptian political humor continued through modern times. In the aftermath of defeat in the 1967 war against Israel, Egypt's soldiers became the object of ridicule. The jokes got so out of hand that Gamal Abdel Nasser finally called on Egyptians to stop poking fun at the army.

But Egyptians' political jokes do not come without a price: Through the years, hundreds of artists and writers have paid heavily, with fines, imprisonment and worse, for their courageous irreverence and wit. In the 1960s, the chief of Egypt's General Intelligence Directorate, Salah Nasr, was convinced that the American Embassy in Cairo was behind the jokes going around about Nasser, by then the president. …

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