If you haven’t seen this already, type ‘Egyptian police parade 2020’ into YouTube. Don’t be surprised if the auto-search function suggests ‘topless Egyptian parade 2020’. Hit Enter and, from the results, there should be a cluster of short videos uploaded in early October 2020. The image stills might provoke titillation or disapproval (or both), depending on your disposition. Remind yourself that this is purely for educational purposes. Choose one video and watch. Now, if possible. (The rest of this review can wait.)
If you have found the right videos, you will have witnessed a horde of beefy, bare-chested Egyptian men performing choreographed, Rambo-shaming stunts on tanks, trucks, obstacle courses and goodness knows what else within an Olympic-sized stadium, in the scorching sun. My favourite shot is of a cluster of shirtless hunks standing erect on white police boats with the Egyptian flag fluttering behind them. Mostly because, in this version uploaded by YouTube user Joel Anderson, this image immediately follows a caption calling this spectacle a ‘gay circus’. The cheesy rock guitar riff in the background only enhances the scene. These are all police graduates, and this was their (supposedly) Covid-safe graduation ceremony. At the end of the video, these young men – fully clothed by this point and wearing face masks – are congratulated and presented with medals by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf and Stephan Milich, editor, Creative Resistance: Political Humor in the Arab Uprisings, Bielefeld, by transcript Verlag, 2020
When I first saw the alert for this on Facebook, I could not ignore it the way I usually do with social media notifications. The friend who posted it is a grim and serious academic, but his commentary introducing the video – and comments from some of his friends – was priceless. I was not disappointed. My laughter was not one of mirthful abandon as when, say, I am watching a toddler being playful or the scene with the Killer Rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even now, as I recall the Egyptian extravaganza, my jaw is wide open and I am laughing silently and incredulously to myself. At the time, I remember being compelled to share the video with a few friends, introducing it along the lines of ‘I have no words’ or ‘what the f**k?’
How can I effectively describe my reaction? Some of it is clearly context – this is Egypt, after all. Land of non-existent rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and police-led ‘virginity tests’ for women protesters. Site of systemic and systematic human rights abuses. Home, at the same time, of the historic and prestigious Islamic university, Al Azhar. Scene of an inspiring revolution in 2011 that quickly went wrong, bringing Sisi, yet another military despot, to power again – albeit one whom we hear very little about, since he is a Western ally. This bizarre footage was not intentionally humorous, and I was not alone in laughing – the comments on YouTube testify to this.
Creative Resistance: Political Humor in the Arab Uprisings has greatly helped me to contextualise this episode, among many others. It is easy, in hindsight, for many of us to lament that the outcome of the Arab Uprisings of 2010-12 is too depressing to contemplate. Using humour as a lens to analyse this historic era and its aftermath might strike some people as strange, trivialising or even distasteful. Not according to Sabinen Damir-Geilsdorf, Stephan Milich and the contributors to this collection.
They start by revisiting three dominant theories in academic studies of humour. Superiority theories posit that humour is a means of feeling superior by disparaging or degrading others. Incongruity theories suggest that humour emerges when we experience a discrepancy between what we expect to happen and what actually occurs – for example, the ‘transgression of social norms, or the breaking of established social patterns’. Finally, according to relief theories, humour is psychologically and emotionally cathartic, and can have a healing effect.
These theories are not mutually exclusive – humour can serve one or more functions at the same time. Additionally, humour can build social relationships, communities and positive individual identities in some settings whilst creating hostility towards ‘others’ in other settings. Understanding the role of humour in the Arab Uprisings, however, requires probing deeper with this analysis. This volume proposes that literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ is especially relevant in the context of modern Arab political humour. According to Bakhtin, the carnivalesque consists of momentary festivities or festival-like acts that can turn established structures of power upside down, including through ‘grotesque realism’. The idea of the carnivalesque could therefore be better suited to analysing political humour in authoritarian societies compared to liberal democracies in which freedom of expression is formally upheld by legal mechanisms.
The video of these virile police graduates oozing Egyptian manhood makes further sense in the light of the grandiose tradition of glorifying and divinising Arab rulers, from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. The current carnivalesque connection for Egypt has roots in the spread of ‘Sisimania’ in 2013, during the embattled and controversial presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi. Back then, even patisseries in Cairo were making chocolates adorned with pictures of soon-to-be President Sisi. Former actress Lubna Abdel Aziz wrote in Al-Ahram Weekly in 2013:
He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail…. He responded to the 33 million voices clamouring in the streets.
Challenging these sorts of sentiments – which are expressed in all sincerity by the regime’s supporters – is not as simple as pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Yet partially undressing for the emperor seems to be de rigueur, but I digress. The point is, dictatorial Arab regimes have a habit of violently silencing dissenters and critics. In these circumstances, resistance can take the subtler form of outdoing the regime’s own over-the-top narrative of glorification. Nathaniel Mannone’s contribution on Tunisian humour post-Zine El Abidine Ben Ali investigates the notion of tanfis, or the ‘safety valve’ that Arab dictatorships occasionally allow for their citizens to let off steam. Extravagant pomp and ceremony are one way of enabling this. Yet, in the years before the revolution, tanfis did not stop the regime from brutalising people who were caught merely telling jokes about Ben Ali. People would shut their curtains and unplug their phones before they even considered telling these jokes in the supposed safety of their own homes.
Change came with the advent of the internet. Suddenly, memes could be produced anonymously with ambiguous messages that made rulers uncomfortable, tanfis or no tanfis. Tunisia’s post-2011 transition has seen this tradition of mock glorification continue to flourish. Even reformist president Moncef Marzouki was not spared – the Tumblr account Moncef Marzouqui Looking at Things aggregated a selection of the President’s well-staged photo opportunities as he inspected everything from olive bottles, giant chess sets, and ‘a scary guy in a funny hat’. Modelled after the photo-blog Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things, parodying the late North Korean dictator’s penchant for admiration, the Tunisian variant exposes the ridiculousness of political theatre.
This example is probably nearer to the experience of citizens of semi-authoritarian or transitional regimes who enjoy slightly more room for manoeuvring political humour to criticise the ruling regime. They remind me, for example, of the satirical website The Tapir Times in Malaysia. But what happens in states where things have gone from worse to unimaginably horrific, such as Syria? Even here, the contributors argue, attention to political humour can provide for enriched analysis. Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf points out in her chapter on Syria that ‘black’, ‘dark’ or ‘gallows’ humour can be a coping strategy and a form of political resistance. Many survivors of extreme adversity – including Holocaust survivors – testify that joking about what they endured helped them to maintain group morale and individual dignity within hopeless circumstances. Cartoons of a deadpan Bashar Al-Assad, depicted casually strangling children, are examples of how grotesque humour has evolved as a coping strategy and political resistance in Syria. Stephan Milich’s chapter on Egyptian artist Nermine Hammam and her creative chronicling of police brutality from the euphoric beginnings of the country’s revolution to its terrifying undoing covers similar analytical territory.
Framing the volume within Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque allows the editors and contributors to acknowledge the seriousness of what is happening in regimes such as Syria and Egypt without turning them into exceptions. After all, modern Arab states are no strangers to failed revolutions, or revolutions doomed to perpetual failure due to internal and external sabotage. The two chapters on Palestine, by Chrisoula Lionis and Anna Gabai, contextualise the Arab Uprisings within a wider history of political struggle in the region. In her chapter on museums and other arts infrastructures, Lionis shows that fictional visions of a future, actual Palestinian state share the functions of incongruity and relief in dominant theories of humour. Political humour and visual art thus intersect in nation-building and solidarity-making in ways that challenge the binary stereotype of Palestinians as either permanent victims or permanent terrorists. Gabai’s chapter on the comic strip Zan al-‘An, set in Ramallah, focuses on everyday political analysis from different Palestinian perspectives. The comic strip’s humour is ‘sarcastic, cynical, ironic and absurd’, teasing out the ‘discord between ideological narratives and the blank reality of everyday life’. Furthermore, the strip contextualises the significance of the Uprisings for Palestine, which has been in ‘a constant state of uprising due to the Arab-Israeli conflict that has been going on for more than 60 years’. The chapter by Sébastien Boulay and Mohamed Dahmi on Western Sahara also explores the role of humour in situations of perpetual uprising – in this case, by Sahrawi activists against the Moroccan regime and the Sahrawi political leadership. Taken together, these chapters emphasise that any analysis of political humour in the Arab Uprisings must acknowledge that these protests and the crackdowns against them are but part of a longer revolution-in-progress. Some of these regimes, for example, have experienced their pre-Uprising ‘dress rehearsals’, such as Syria’s Damascus Spring (2000-01). Others, such as Sudan and Algeria, saw the successful ouster of their dictators – Omar al-Bashir and Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika – only later, in 2019. It is to the editors’ credit that this volume includes an illuminating chapter on Sudan by Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann. Sudan is particularly interesting for its own history of successful uprisings against dictatorial regimes in 1964 and 1985. This chapter provides much-needed context for Sudan’s most recent democratic transition by looking at the use of humour by the student-led, pro-democracy, and non-violent Girifna movement, founded in 2009.
For balance, the volume also includes perspectives from contexts where there has been ostensibly no revolution – not overtly anyway – in this case, Lebanon and Kuwait. Fatema Hubail’s chapter on Sheno Ya3ni, Kuwaiti comedians who launched their YouTube channel in 2012, shows that resistance is not only political but cultural, too. The group’s skits are set in the fictional ‘Great Republic of Tolaytila (Toledo)’ – ‘a city-state with cupcakes as its main currency’. Tolaytila’s citizens appear happy and serene, but each episode reveals a world of social restrictions, hypocrisy, and pervasive monitoring by an ‘all-seeing’ state. Although Sheno Ya3ni do not have a particular regime as their target, their comedy is not any less political. Take the sketch A’raf makbuta (‘Confined/Hidden Norms’), which exposes what really goes on in the bridegroom’s experience of a typical Khaleeji (Gulf Arab) wedding. An innocent-looking groom prepares for a group photograph and is ogled at lasciviously by other men. They eventually start ‘fingering’ him (Hubail’s term, not mine), in a re-enactment of the actual harassment, molestation and inappropriate touching that men face at the hands of other men on their wedding day. The exposure of these practices by Sheno Ya3ni occurs against a backdrop of toxic masculinity that goes hand in hand with political hypocrisy in patriarchal, authoritarian regimes.
The final chapter on Lebanese rap, by Fernanda Fischione, addresses the question of the role of religion in the Uprisings. It is indeed surprising that religion does not figure more prominently in any of the chapters recounted so far. Even the two chapters on Egypt – by Fabian Heerbaart (on street art, comics, stand-up comedy and internet memes) and Liza Franke (on popular poetry) – do not touch on religion. In Lebanon, however, rap music as cultural resistance – or ‘conscious rap’ – explicitly explores themes of religious hypocrisy and sectarianism. Lebanese rappers adopt Sufi themes and metaphors to put themselves in the shoes of the Prophet Muhammad, seen through their eyes as a social justice reformer. They justify these creative choices by drawing links between rap’s affinity with poetry and the orality of the Qur’an.
Initially, this chapter’s focus on the aesthetics of rap and poetry in relation to Islam and political activism made it seem disconnected from the theme of humour. What helped its argument come alive to me, however, was my own enjoyment of the work of the Syrian-American poet and rap musician, Mona Haydar. Released in 2017, Haydar’s first single, ‘Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)’, went viral and was named by Billboard magazine as one of the 20 Best Protest Songs of the year. Her next single, ‘Dog’, also went viral. A feminist take-down of hypocritical Muslim sheikh-bros, the track is earnest, politically savvy, and utterly hilarious. This balance of humour and righteous anger is on display from Haydar’s deadpan opening line: ‘If you think this song is about you / I don’t know what to tell you’. She then breaks into the first refrain: ‘Sheikhs on the DL / Sheikhs in my DM / Begging me to shake it on my cam in the PM / Sheikhs on the DL / Sheikhs in my DM / Ridin’ in that Audi like a Saudi Arabian’. Haydar raps in English, but there is definitely resonance here with the Arab-language track ‘Innocence’, for example, by the Lebanese rapper Naserdayn al Touffar: ‘God has neither parties nor Salafist wings / God is innocent of all religion in which women have no rights / When you pray to your Lord, don’t orient yourself towards the Ka‘ba / God is sick of Saudis, in front of them he wears a bulletproof vest’.
Creative Resistance makes no apologies for focusing on political humour as resistance in the Arab Middle East and North Africa. Even the editors of Critical Muslim used a bit of humour to frame our analysis of the Arab Uprisings – our first ever issue, published in January 2012, carried the tongue-in-cheek title ‘The Arabs are Alive’. But, as with the editors and contributors of Creative Resistance, this was no cheap tit-for-tat against Orientalists and Islamophobic ideologues who harp on whether Muslims can even have a sense of humour or political acumen. I am, of course, personally embittered by the imbecilic public rhetoric on Islam and humour – by both anti-Muslim and Islamist-apologist ideologues – that has been dominated by the Jyllands-Posten or Charlie Hebdo ‘Muhammad cartoon’ controversies. The contributions to Creative Resistance show that humour in Muslim contexts is about so much more than whether Muslims can laugh, or whether they are capable of intellectual criticism and political protest. What this volume provides is a range of genres (visual art, online videos and memes, comic strips, political jokes, satire, street art, and rap music), a range of political regimes (monarchies, military regimes, republics, and occupied territories), and a range of outcomes (revolutionary successes, failures, and ‘wait-and-sees’) showing that political humour is a form of creativity, justice-seeking, and intellectual analysis. If the contributions sometimes feel slightly exploratory or not entirely focused on ‘humour’, this is because humour is generally neglected in more ‘serious’ scholarly studies of social change. The contributors also highlight the difficulty in measuring the depth, breadth and impact of the reception of political humour amongst the wider public. Again, this is a challenge shared by scholars of political humour more generally, especially regarding authoritarian or transitional contexts.
The more pertinent question is whether, in addition to providing political capital for resistance or relief, humour can have ‘positive’ potential to cultivate ‘new forms of egalitarian sociality’ that emerged during the Uprisings. In other words, can humour not just be a political weapon, but a vehicle for creating a better and more just society? This does not mean we are forbidden to laugh about surreal video montages of topless Egyptian police graduates. But perhaps we should reflect further on why we are laughing and what we are going to do with our laughter.