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."

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