Papyrus and limestone were their most famous raw materials, on which they would use sarcasm and humor to criticize social and political conditions. Museums worldwide have preserved papyrus showing such depictions. Humor altered with the times, and was represented either via a puzzle, riddle or joke. The purpose of jokes, since the dawn of history, has been to deal with taboo subjects that cannot be tackled openly.
When Romans ruled Egypt, they forbade Egyptian lawyers from accessing Alexandria’s courts because they used to laugh at Roman judges and their poor verdicts, and make jokes and songs to defend political prisoners. “Egyptians are twisted and bitter people with a sense of humor,” said Roman poet Theocritus.
Egyptians made fun of Ottoman rulers’ appearance, saying they were arrogant and overweight. Egyptian scholar Al-Jabarti wrote: “Egyptians made jokes about the Turkish pasha.”
During the French occupation, Egyptians mocked their French rulers. Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of those who made such jokes, making humor a crime for which people would be punished and even executed. During the British occupation, Egyptians used to meet in cafes just to laugh at the cruel occupiers. This led to the British closing them down.
When Egyptians start to lose their sense of humor, this represents a big crisis. Such an atmosphere prevailed during the last few months of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in 2013, when most Egyptians suffered severe depression. That is what made them take to the streets to end Brotherhood rule and take back control of their destiny and their capacity to laugh.
Laughter shows a desire to live; Egyptians resort to sarcasm and humor to express their own viewpoint or evade their problems.
Political and economic conditions have heavily affected Egyptians’ ability to speak out, thus resorting to sarcasm and humor to express their pain. The smile on Egyptians’ faces, engraved since the beginning of their civilization, hides the details of their bittersweet lives.
When Egyptians tell a joke, their purpose is not to make you laugh, but to make themselves laugh. Laughter shows a desire to live; Egyptians resort to sarcasm and humor to express their own viewpoint or evade their problems.
• Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. He can be reached on Twitter @ALMenawy