Palestinians fight back with bitter laughter

PALESTINIANS tell a sad little joke about a car factory which is built on the West Bank. When the first car appears, customers complain that it has only first and second gears, but the owner says: "Why do you want more? Before you need third you will have reached the frontiers of the Palestinian state . . ."

The joke, illustrating current Palestinian disappointment with what they have got from the peace talks, is one of hundreds faithfully recorded by anthropology professor Shariff Kanaana of Beir Zeit University, north of Jerusalem, since the beginning of the Intifada against the Israelis in 1987.

He says: "It is the most authentic way of finding out the real mood of the people. A joke only circulates if people think it contains a truth." All the jokes he collects are political - usually invented in reaction to an event like Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War or the Hebron massacre - because Palestinians at home and at work talk of little else but politics.

The jokes illuminate some particular Palestinian attitudes and preoccupations. During the intifada, for instance, there was a series of stories denigrating those considered timid in resisting the Israelis, such as gently-nurtured Palestinian youths in Gaza known as "kit-kat boys", who, before stoning soldiers would "first wrap the rock in Kleenex and then throw it".

Hebron and its 80,000 inhabitants, some 15 miles south of Jerusalem, are the target of the Palestinian equivalent of Polish jokes. Hebronites are considered tough but stupid. A year ago 29 of them were shot to death in the al-Ibrahimi mosque by Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein. Within three days other Palestinians were saying: "The casualties would have been higher if Goldstein had not shot them in the head."

Over the last eight years Prof Kanaana, 59, says there have been three cycles of jokes revolving around the intifada, Gulf War and peace process. Before 1987 he says Palestinian jokes and anecdotes showed an attitude of "self-hatred, disrespect, self-deprecation, even contempt". For instance, a shopkeeper sells human brains for transplants, but demands most money for a Palestinian brain because "it has never been used".

Reagan, Gorbachev and Arafat go to see God to make requests for their people. When the first two whisper in his ear, God says: "This will not happen in your lifetime." But when Arafat mutters his request for a Palestinian state, God says: "Not even in my lifetime."

None of the same pessimism is found in more than 200 jokes and anecdotes from the intifada. When a Palestinian confronts an Israeli he is usually portrayed as outwitting him. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 at first produced a wave of confident stories about the prowess of Saddam Hussein, contrasted with the timidity of the US and its Arab allies. Asked how long it took him to occupy Kuwait, Saddam says: "Four hours." "And Saudi Arabia?" "Eight hours." "And Bahrain?" "Bahrain we can take with a fax," says the Iraqi leader.

With the defeat of Iraq in 1991 the Palestinian mood became bitter. One story went: "This pilgrimage season, instead of the Muslims going to Mecca and circling around the Holy Shrine the Americans are going to put the shrine in a satellite and make it circle around the Muslims."

In the study of his old stone house in Ramallah, between Beir Zeit and Jerusalem, Prof Kanaana has stacked folders full of jokes, anecdotes and instant legends (during the Gulf War Palestinians from many different towns and villages said they had seen Saddam's face on the moon). He says folklorists do not normally take jokes seriously or collect them because they are an instant - and often transitory - popular reaction to an event. But he says a story told and retold by Palestinians to other Palestinians is likely to be a truer reflection of what they think than interviews.

Many jokes and stories revolve around obscene puns. At the beginning of the peace process in 1991 there was a rash of jokes revolving the Arabic word hamameh, which literally means "dove", the symbol of peace, but also, in colloquial Arabic, "penis".

If Prof Kanaana is right that jokes are the best guide to political feelings, then the mood over the last year has become very bitter. Israel's failure to withdraw from the rest of the West Bank and the failings of the Palestinian administration have produced a wave of angry and obscene jokes attacking Arafat, often focussing on his wife Suha. Closure of the West Bank and Gaza reminds Palestinians that their economic survival depends on working on building sites in Israel. They say: "Why does Baruch Goldtsein have a palace in heaven? Because he brought 29 Palestinian labourers with him."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Mail Machine Operative

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an i...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Day In a Page

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US