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The International Writers Magazine: Middle East Culture

Poking fun at life: The world and the Arab world!
Marwan Asmar

Should we all confess our sins to one another we would all laugh at one another for our lack off originality. Should we all reveal our virtues we would also laugh for the same cause.
Gibran Khalil Gibran,
Late Lebanese poet


I’ve always been interested in laughter simply because I think I laugh a lot on anything and everything. I cry too, and I suppose these are extremist traits in my character. But laughter, jokes, and mirth is what characterizes human development, and makes us cope with the intricacies and problems of life.

To use an old hackneyed phrase laughter is what makes the world-go-round, everyone likes to laugh whether he is Chinese, American or Brazilian and it is wrong to say certain nationalities are more serious, glum or frivolous than others. But stereotypes are very much part of our human and cultural existence.

Americans are tough, loud and noisy, the English are reserved and conservatives, the French are sexy and the Germans are stiff and upper-lipped. Of course these are stereotyped and reinforced by television, the cinema and Hollywood and in no way are actual representations.

But our views of the world have become invariably influenced by what we see on the silver-screen. Take the English, while many say they are reserved and conservatives, some of their television comedy bring roars and roars of laughter with people nearly falling off their chairs!

The Japanese are likewise. The cultural stereotype is that they are serious, hard-working with determination, cooped up in factories developing the latest computers and software.
But there is also a Japanese sense of humor that may be extreme at times—also formed through television—of them undertaking "severe" activities as part of their make-up of having fun or being sportive. No doubt sociologists would say such activities are "release valves" from the strict "work diet" or "work ethic" they follow to continue the Japanese economic dream.

The Arab World
In the Arab world, there is another set of stereotyping. Egyptians are happy-go-lucky people, they like to talk, laugh and tell jokes, they are open-minded, and boisterous. "Their comedy is hilarious, you feel their audiences consumed, very much interacting with actors on stage," said an avid watcher in Amman. In spite of their economic situation and living standards, Egyptians take a more laid-back approach to life where a good laugh or being merry doesn't come amiss, she added.

They resemble the Lebanese who adopt an outward attitude, like to enjoy life with no reservations, and prefer the cafes and dancing. Today, their "playful" character is enforced by satellite channels like Al Mustaqbal and LBC through the constant quizzies, and this is despite the current political turmoil their country is going through.

However, some observers say such appearances maybe deceptive, since many also live on sedatives, and this may go to the 15-year-old civil war which Lebanon went through between 1975 and 1990, or the constant Israeli invasions they are subjected to with the latest brutal battles between Hamas and Israel since Oct 7th 2023. But the stereotypical character continues to be of laughter, of people who love to be happy, merry and exuberant.
"We love to laugh, both with and at," one Lebanese observer stated. "We laugh at ourselves above anything else, but we also use humor as a bond to our friends and a weapon against our enemies," adding Lebanese "jokes have a repetitive character…this tireless beating around the bush before getting to the point is a trait of Lebanese humor."

Popularly their relationship with the Syrians maybe skin-deep, expressed through humor and jokes spread on the Internet. The jokes are extensive, expressing a relationship that developed over the years between the two countries and people's.

Inside Syria, the laughter and mirth continues, however, unlike the Lebanese, there is also a sense of seriousness. A Syrian friend of mine once told me "Syrians express their political frustrations by turning to jokes about life and society, to writing these on the walls and telling them in cafes." Syrians, he said, turn to everyday life to make up their jokes, while staying away from politics and officialdom.

Jordanians on the other hand are thought of as serious people, tough in their mannerisms, hard in their approach to dealing with people, not like the Lebanese or the Egyptians for instance, that are seen as relaxed and friendly. Jordanians are stereotyped as glum, with constant facial contours, never flinching for a smile.

Observers, but not necessarily experts on human behavior said the reason for such a Jordanian posture has to do with the fact the country, for the most part, is land-locked, there is no sea to smell the freshness of the air and pounding waves, Jordan is dry dominated by a harsh environ, in spite of sea-locked Aqaba which is to the far south of the country. This is unlike Lebanon, Syria or Egypt where the sea dominates the geographical terrain. The sea brings out inner biological changes that reflects on attitudes, feelings and expressions, another colleague of mine used to tell me.

Others simply say the somber expressions emanate from the tough economic existence of low wages, unemployment and poverty. Political scientists may well argue laughter, and mirth requires a stable political situation, not a country overshadowed by the Palestinian disaster of 1948, and the creation of the Palestinian problem. How can you laugh, when you have this hovering on the social, political and economic fabric of society, and refugee camps scattered around the country.

But if this is the case, then the Palestinian plight have hegemonized the atmosphere of the surrounding countries of the Fertile Crescent and the rest of the Arab countries. Perhaps this is too simplistic, for after all Palestinians, even ones in refugee camps do laugh, and therefore an explanation has to be social-psychological.

And besides, it's never really true to say Jordanians never laugh, don't tell jokes and are not humorous. I have never actually found that in my working experience. We like to stereotype and say these set of people belong to this color, or have a distinct attitude, but these are mere generalizations and are nearly always wrong.

There is dullness, but there is also humor, people like to read their horoscope, in fact, some keep telling me when they read a newspaper, this is the first thing they look at. Jordanians also like looking at Abu Mahjoub, the cartoon character developed by Imad Hajjaj which has become a national household name, and they are romantic—with the implication that dull people are never romantic—and are always the first to celebrate April Fools Day, including one or two sprung up on me!

Putting the stereotypes aside, social commentators argue with all these things, how can any one say Jordanians are dull. In 1998, a news item struck me in one of the national newspapers that suggested Jordanians spent JD 6 million to buy flowers in celebration of Valentine's Day. This is quite a large figure when considering that Jordan was reeling under a bad economic patch, and suggests a different picture of lightheartedness.

There is always a constant "jack-in-the-pot" style of telling endless jokes to suit all occasions, with war and politics very much the main theme. Jokes appear all the time and seem to be the main stable diet, even at the worst of occasions, and probably to add some cultural color.

English Professor Abdullah Al Shunnaq, who lectures at the University of Yarmouk, simply rejects the dull, boring stereotype aspects that Jordanians are given. He says these are simply fallacies. "Jordanians laugh and make jokes just as much as anybody else in the world, the humor is always there, take me for instance, I am always laughing and so are you!"

In fact, in the early 1990s, he and his professor friend Dr Mahmoud Farghal who also used to teach English at Yarmouk, collected all these "Jordanian jokes" and published them in academic English journals to demonstrate the themes, semantics and behavior on language.

Besides, in the workplaces I have frequented the atmosphere is always laughter. There are complaints here and there, complaints about political developments, the economic situation, honor crimes, but there is always laughter at the end of the day. "If you don't laugh, you will burst," Fawzi Al Bossoumi, a retired journalist, used to say to me.

© Dr Marwan Asmar April 2007

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Reading in Aqaba
Dr Marwan Asmar

One of the best places to read is along the promenade in Aqaba. Just sit on one of the benches, and open your book, nobody will bother you, the traffic is light, so no noise, the breeze is pleasant, and every once in a while you can turn around to look at the beach and the distant sea.

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