‘You believe that venerability and sublimity are to be found only in frowning. However, the books of jurisprudence don’t say that laughter is a sin or is reprehensible and you – God protect you from envy! – are quick and intelligent.’ (Leg Over Leg: 5.1.2)
‘The rights of women are too many to list.’ ‘I have taken that in,’ I said, ‘lock, stock and barrel. But tell me, what sort of men do women love most?’ ‘If I tell you,’ she replied, ‘you’ll kick up a row.’ ‘Speak,’ I said, ‘and don’t worry! Conversation’s carpet has been unrolled and will not be rolled back up until we reach its end.’ ‘At the End of Days, then!’ she replied.’ (Leg Over Leg: 4.9.13)
Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1805/06-1887) ended a long life full of jokes and paradoxes with a final farewell jest. Although buried in a Christian cemetery near his birthplace in Lebanon, he had asked for his grave to be marked with a crescent, not a cross. ‘Intellectually and personally,’ Rebecca Johnson writes, this piously sceptical Muslim Christian scholarly comedian was ‘a series of irresolvable paradoxes’. One could, however, disagree – and the value of disagreement drives almost every verse or paragraph he wrote. The precious quality that will eventually resolve every paradox, inside the literary work if not in the warring world at large, is humour.
In al-Shidyaq’s unruly, pioneering masterpiece Leg Over Leg, the hero’s wife and soulmate has one complaint above all else about the ‘Franks’ – that is, the English and French – among whom the couple have passed several years. Forget the grey skies, the starchy manners and the quite deplorable cooking of greens. For all their wealth, the Franks, in contrast to the merriness of daily life in Cairo, Tunis or Damascus, just don’t have enough fun. ‘Life is not to be valued according to the length of its nights or the number of its days, by views of green land, or by observing instruments and machines. Rather, its value lies in seizing the convivial moment with those who are dear’. Banter lends shine and sparkle to our days, and ‘The world’s worth lies in exchanging bon mots.’ (4.12.11) Good laughs and good sex, the narrator maintains, go hand in hand. They even rhyme. So let’s hear it for a marriage spent in ‘carousal’ and ‘arousal’, ‘in witty contestations’ – ‘and conjugal relations’… ‘in joking’ – ‘and poking’.’ (4.12.12) For al-Shidyaq, laughter really does make the world go round.