Laughing Through Tragedy

The playwright Samuel Beckett once asked, "Does one ever know oneself why one laughs?" Apparently, no one answer has yet been found. Some find humor in tragedy. They try to find reasons to laugh especially when helpless. Such has been the case with Pakistan.

The sense of humor is what keeps Pakistanis sane. In a country ruled by the military for most of its existence, where the ruling elites are better known for corruption and thievery on a jaw-dropping scale, in a land viewed as a pariah around the world, where daily life is all too frequently punctuated by unimaginable violence, where is the little guy supposed to find relief?

Of course he looks for humor. Jokes. Sarcasm.

Here's an example of what Pakistanis find funny. When President Zardari visited New York a couple of years ago he vanished for two days. The president's disappearance was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. For those of you not aware of Zardari's reputation, in addition to being the widower of Benazir Bhutto he is also perceived to be one of the biggest crooks in Pakistan -- and there's some pretty stiff competition in that category. He's commonly called "Mr. 10 Percent" for the kickbacks he is alleged to receive in every financial deal. Before marrying Benazir, Zardari had a reputation as "a bit of a lad," as the British say. Here's the joke: Mr. Zardari had a wonderful night with a hooker. The next morning she asked "what about the money?" The president chuckled, "Come on, how could I take money from you?"

Brutal gags actually empower the powerless. You may not be able to find relief at the ballot box, or have electricity in your home most of the day or afford the food you want, but you can take your revenge on the system by sharing jokes.

The richer the language and the older the culture, the greater the impact of short words and sentences -- and the more potentially offensive. Expressions convey wisdom passed down over the generations.

A feudal system prevails in the the rural culture of Pakistan, and it is not unusual to hear stories that the head of a powerful clan tortured his servants or misused his powers to exploit one of his tenants. The dark gag also alludes to Pakistan's resentment at being subordinate to the U.S. With this background, grasp the sensitivity and seriousness of the following joke, which is making the rounds in Pakistan these days. The joke went viral on SMS was inspired by a small news item.

A village head was so offended by his servant that he went to the servants house and gave him a solid beating with his own slipper until the shoe was torn apart. The next day the servant, still wounded and sore from the thrashing, went before the village head and returning the torn-slipper said, "Sir, you left your slipper at my place."

The news item? "Pakistan Returns SEALs Helicopter Tail to US."

The humor of the Subcontinent continues to evolve and grow in richness. No country or culture has the intelligence and worldview to duplicate this brand of wit. Unlike the Jewish humor typified by Larry David and Woody Allen, which has been used as a means to deflect suffering and marginalization and is characterized by internalized neuroses, Pakistani humor is directed outwards to all targets both moving and stationary.

It's quite unfathomable to grasp what Pakistanis went through when Osama bin Laden was found in their own country. Claims that their Army didn't even know about it was the icing on the cake. Pakistanis were angry, ashamed, humiliated and confused all at the same time. But then punch lines like this one started to circulate: "Osama was living with his three wives in one compound for years. He must've called the SEALs himself."

Pakistan's Army has a strong grip over the society. It has always been treated as a sacred cow. Untouchable. People fear and resent the Army, which has been widely viewed as the only properly functioning institution in Pakistan, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their use of aid money to invest in different companies and other business ventures. A couple of weeks after Osama's killing, the Pakistan Navy's famous Mehran base in Karachi was attacked by a handful of militants carrying rocket launchers, automatic weapons and hand grenades. This blatantly exposed the military's "strength" to counter terrorism. A section of public was infuriated but mostly helpless, thus resorting to sarcastic humor to criticize the army.

"Welcome to the Pakistan Army Hotline ..
For Real Estate press 1;
For Banking Services press 2;
For Construction and Civil Contractor Services press 3;
For Logistics press 4;
For Agricultural Services press 5;
For Retail Services press 6;
For Consumer goods press 7;
For Bakery Goods press 8;
For Restaurant and Wedding Hall Services, including army music bands for hire and bridal outfit press 9;
And for Security Services and in case of enemy attack please hold on ... :
"You are in a queue but your call will be answered soon by 'Brinks'"

One of the first steps to ensuring a nation's death is to regulate and ban its humor. Humor implies tolerance. Without it a people wither on the vine. Hail the Pakistani culture that gives the little guy a chance to take revenge in his own way -- and face life's challenges laughing.

After all Samuel Beckett also said: Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.