Mubarak jokes, and more

I have an article in the January/February issue of Foreign Policy that is entirely about Egyptian political jokes in the Mubarak era (with a few thrown in about other Egyptian rulers for good measures). May it bring some levity to these dark times...

What would happen if you spent 30 years making fun of the same man? What if for the last decade, you had been mocking his imminent death -- and yet he continued to stay alive, making all your jokes about his immortality seem a bit too uncomfortably close to the truth?

Egyptians, notorious for their subversive political humor, are currently living through this scenario: Hosni Mubarak, their octogenarian president, is entering his fourth decade of rule, holding on to power and to life through sheer force of will. Egyptian jokers, who initially caricatured their uncharismatic leader as a greedy bumpkin, have spent the last 10 years nervously cracking wise about his tenacious grasp on the throne. Now, with the regime holding its breath as everyone waits for the ailing 82-year-old Mubarak to die, the economy suffering, and people feeling deeply pessimistic about the future, the humor is starting to feel a little old.

More jokes here.

And here's an old but topical one, dating from the days of Sadat's bitter feud with Pope Shenouda (whom he had put under house arrest, or rather monastery arrest). It flows more naturally in Arabic, but you'll get the point it makes about the believer-president's attitude to sectarian relations:

Sadat, Pope Shenouda and Sheikh of al-Azhar are on a plane. Suddenly, the pilot comes out of the cockpit looking alarmed. “We have a big problem with the engines,” he says. “We have to shed weight, so one of you must jump.”

“I’m the president,” Sadat says, “all Egyptians and the whole Arab world is relying on me, so it has to be one of you two. I know how we'll decide this: I'll ask each one of you a question, whoever answers correctly can stay.” 

He turns to Sheikh al-Azhar and asks: “What do we call Algeria?”

Sheikh al-Azhar answers, “The land of a million martyrs, of course!”

Then Sadat turns to Pope Shenouda: “And what are their names and addresses, please?”

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.