Laughing as Protest in the Middle East

04/08/2015 01:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

Sarcasm, irony, wit. Who's got the monopoly on those? There are definitely places that are more known for taking the proverbial piss (England comes to mind). Despite the lack of humor of those that attacked Charlie Hebdo, humor and satire plays a huge role in the Middle East. Taking jabs at each other and society is a way that people connect, laugh, and point out the stuff thats harder to talk about directly. Everyone has an uncle that plays off of words, does a show at every family gathering, points out the silliness around them. And when all other means of expression and protest are committed at one's peril, jokes and humor may be the only way to express the inexpressible.

One could argue that this happens more in the Middle East than elsewhere because there are so many dualities between what should be and what is. The Western world has its hefty dose of hypocrisy and absurdity, but the Middle East may take the lead in openly displaying this hypocrisy. Porn and prostitution flourish while leaders require chastity, bloggers are arrested while leaders pass constitutions promising free speech, women are "precious" members of society that must be hidden. Often, the Middle East feels like what the U.S. would be like if Sarah Palin was the dictator, teen pregnancies in between Bible class and Church included. 

These dualities are present in many places, including in Egypt, which experienced a historic and grand revolution only to have a new authoritarian leader come to power and actually acquit the previous dictator of all his sins. There's no small irony in these events, and for a while, a start-up satirist, Bassem Youssef, was having a great time pointing out these absurdities online on YouTube. His homemade videos led to a network show pointing out the hilarity in what was happening in transitional Egypt. A la Jon Stewart fashion, in addition to social jokes, he often showed the latest headlines and television news shows. He directed his comedic commentary at the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and then later, once they were removed, to the new government. But six months ago, he went off air after too long worrying for his and his family's safety. He doth protest too much.

The dualities are compelling food for satire fodder, and another place in the Middle East, Iran, may take the cake in the sheer number of these contradictions. The gap between official rhetoric of the Iranian government and the regular lives of Iranians can be mindblowingly huge. Women shouldn't work, yet women are at least half of the student body and excel in traditional male industries, like engineering and science. Or women shouldn't care about the way they look, and should be pious, meanwhile plastic surgery, botox, hair dye and bright scarves reign. Or men and women shouldn't party together, or dance together, or smoke, or drink and the list goes on and on of the things Iranians shouldn't be doing but are doing. 

A celebrity in this world of illustrating the gaps in reality and rhetoric is Mana Neyestani, a famous cartoonist who was jailed for his satire inside of Iran.

His example also shows that violence over jokes doesn't just happen in Paris. Neyestani's cartoons were seen as so offensive by a minority that several people were injured and killed as a result of the clashes.

Now having fled Iran, he continues to cartoon, almost daily, about the injustices and absolute absurdities of life in Iran. Below are some of his most recent comments. 


Online Fundamentalism Mana Neyestani for Iran Wire


Preliminary Hearings for Moussavi and Karoubi (two leaders of the green movement that have been under house arrest since 2009) Iran Wire


Child Marriage as depicted by Neyestani on Tavaana

Other notable Iranian satirists include Ebrahim Nabavi, Saman Arbabi, Kambiz Hosseini, Nikahang Kowsar, all working on the same commentary. Those are the superstars though, and there are plenty lesser known (and female) artists and comedians working in the space.

The natural next question is whether this is a new phenomenon, this satire in the Middle East. The answer is clear no. There's a guy, a guy from the 1300s or so, known as Mullah Nasruddin that is the center character of a hefty number of mischievous jokes, many dirty, and also often poking fun at the religious leadership of the time, in keeping with the practice of undermining the power structures. Everyone has co-opted him as their own, from Syria to Afghanistan, so that he essentially serves as the village idiot in all stories. Just a basic google search shows hundreds of jokes, all with the same kind of absurd and yet critical humor. One representation of the sarcasm:

Nasrudin and two other travelers stopped to eat the lunches each of them had packed for their journey.

One of the travelers bragged, "I only eat roasted salted pistachios, cashews, and dates."

The other said, "Well, I only eat dried salmon."

Then both men looked at Nasrudin, waiting to hear what he would say.

Seconds later, Nasrudin held up a piece of bread and confidently announced, "Well, I only eat wheat, ground up and carefully mixed with water, yeast, and salt, and then baked at the proper temperature for the proper time."

So yea, Middle Easterners laugh, and they've been satirizing for a long time. But the question still remains, if we love jokes, can we joke about anything? Depends on who you ask. The government will say politics is off limits. But people? An improvised list of things that people don't like to make fun of:

1- Parents.
2- Tribe.
3- Religion. 

Recently, I took my mother to a story telling show, and lots of the performers talked about their parents' faux pas. After the show, she commented on how badly people view their parents in America. Talking badly about your parents is fairly new phenomenon in the West and its not really okay yet in a lot of the Middle East. Parents are sacred, the ultimate sacrificers, thou doth not speak against them. 

Tribe works in the same way, publicly talking badly about your family is just not okay. And religion, too, may not be open for jokes, though religious leaders very clearly are. What's the distinction? It's like making fun of Jesus versus making fun of the Pope. Below is a cartoon from Nikahang Kowsar making fun of the Supreme Leader's (the highest religious authority in Iran) obsession with outside media.


A final cartoonist to mention, that would make any discussion of satire in the Middle East incomplete, is Ali Farzat. A Syrian satirist that's been jailed and assaulted by the government, he has a sharp pen that draws the ironies of today's realities in the Middle East. A notable cartoon depicts the time when he was continuing to draw cartoons though his hands had been injured by the government.



Middle Eastern satire will continue, because when events are so extreme -- revolutions, wars, dictators, brutal laws, immigration, isolation, and economic stagnation -- one can feel hopeless. Often in the West there's a sense that these things can be countered by a community effort, a town hall meeting, a letter writing campaign, a Meetup, a new association, or neighborhood group. But in the Middle East, a lot of the time, all of this can feel quite futile. 

In the place of all the effort that can't be exerted, humor expressed every day, over dinner, in taxi cabs, and on text messages about the absurdity of life in the Middle East is commonplace. And somehow these jokes give power to the powerless. These jokes exclaim that though many are forced to live under unfair circumstances, they will not be made the fool. That there might be submission but not acquiescence. In this way, laughter is perhaps the best protest.