Creative Resistance: Political Humor in the Arab Uprisings 9783839440698

During the uprisings of the Arab Spring between 2010 and 2012, oppositional movements used political humor to criticize

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Creative Resistance: Political Humor in the Arab Uprisings

Table of contents :
Forms and Functions of Political Humor in Arab Societies: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
Part I: The Maghreb (Tunisia, West Sahara)
Beyond Tanfis: Performativity and Quotidian Humorin Revolutionary Tunisia
Humor, Mockery and Defamation in Western Sahara: How do Sahrawi Artists use New Media to Perform Political Criticism?
Part II: Egypt, Sudan
“We started to Celebrate Being Egyptian”: Humor in the Work of Younger Egyptian Artists
From Equanimity to Agony: Portraits of Soldiers and Police Officers in Two Artwork Series of Egyptian Visual Artist Nermine Hammam
A Festival of Resistance: Poetic Documents of the Revolution
Towards an Understanding of the Role of Political Satire in Sudan
Part III: Syria, Palestine, Kuwait, Lebanon
“Candies from Eastern Ghouta”: Dark Humor in Visualizing the Syrian Conflict
If a Duck is Drawn in the Desert, Does Anybody See It? Humor, Art and Infrastructures of Palestinian Statehood
Dealing with Politics in Palestine: The Zan al-ʾAn Comics Project in Ramallah
From Kuwait’s Margins to Tolaytila’s Mainstream: Sheno Ya3ni Challenging Social Positioning through Dystopian Satire
A Critique of Religious Sectarianism through Satire: A Case Study of Lebanese Rap

Citation preview

Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf, Stephan Milich (eds.) Creative Resistance

Culture & Theory  | Volume 153

Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf is Professor for Middle Eastern Studies and Director of the Institute of Middle Eastern and South East Asian Studies at the University of Cologne. She obtained her PhD in Islamic Studies with a thesis on the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) and received her postdoctoral qualification degree (Habilitation) with a study on Palestinian narratives of the Arab-Israeli war 1948. She has carried out field research in various countries of the Middle East and has published widely on transformations of religious concepts, Islamism, (forced) migration in the Middle East, Islam in Germany, and popular culture in Middle Eastern societies. Stephan Milich is senior lecturer in Arabic Literature and Islamic Studies at the University of Cologne. His research interests include contemporary Arabic poetry and prose, culture and ideology as well as representations and concepts of exile and trauma in Arabic literature. He has published widely on modern Arab poetry and translated a number of literary works by contemporary Arab authors such as Mahmoud Darwish, Mohammed Bennis, Rosa Yassin Hassan into German. He currently works on representations of trauma in contemporary Arabic fiction with a special interest in ‘trauma politics’ as well as on German orientalism and ‘orient politics’ in WWI.

Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf, Stephan Milich (eds.)

Creative Resistance Political Humor in the Arab Uprisings

We like to thank the Fritz Thyssen Foundation who generously funded the publication of this book.

Bibliographic information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data are available in the Internet at http:// © 2020 transcript Verlag, Bielefeld All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Cover layout: Maria Arndt, Bielefeld Cover illustration: Courtesy of Masasit Mati Printed by Majuskel Medienproduktion GmbH, Wetzlar Print-ISBN 978-3-8376-4069-4 PDF-ISBN 978-3-8394-4069-8


I NTRODUCTION Forms and Functions of Political Humor in Arab Societies: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf & Stephan Milich | 9

P ART I : MAGHREB Beyond Tanfis: Performativity and Quotidian Humor in Revolutionary Tunisia

Nathanael Mannone | 53 Humor, Mockery and Defamation in Western Sahara: How do Sahrawi Artists use New Media to Perform Political Criticism?

Sébastien Boulay & Mohamed Dahmi | 79

P ART II: E GYPT , SUDAN “We started to Celebrate Being Egyptian”: Humor in the Work of Younger Egyptian Artists

Fabian Heerbaart | 103 From Equanimity to Agony: Portraits of Soldiers and Police Officers in Two Artwork Series of Egyptian Visual Artist Nermine Hammam

Stephan Milich | 131 A Festival of Resistance: Poetic Documents of the Revolution

Liza Franke | 153

Towards an Understanding of the Role of Political Satire in Sudan

Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann | 171

P ART III: S YRIA, P ALESTINE, KUWAIT , LEBANON “Candies from Eastern Ghouta”: Dark Humor in Visualizing the Syrian Conflict

Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf | 191 If a Duck is Drawn in the Desert, Does Anybody See It? Humor, Art and Infrastructures of Palestinian Statehood

Chrisoula Lionis | 223 Dealing with Politics in Palestine: The Zan al-ʾAn Comics Project in Ramallah

Anna Gabai | 243 From Kuwait’s Margins to Tolaytila’s Mainstream: Sheno Ya3ni Challenging Social Positioning through Dystopian Satire

Fatema Hubail | 259 A Critique of Religious Sectarianism through Satire: A Case Study of Lebanese Rap

Fernanda Fischione | 297 Authors | 327


Forms and Functions of Political Humor in Arab Societies Historical and Contemporary Perspectives S ABINE D AMIR -G EILSDORF & S TEPHAN M ILICH 1 “Cannot install ‘freedom’! Please remove ‘Mubarak’ and try again” CITED IN SALEM/TAIRA 2012

In 1964, the francophone Egyptian writer Albert Cossery published his novel La Violence et la Derision2 whose first English translation appeared shortly before the Egyptian uprising started in January 2011. The three fictive


We wish to express our deep gratitude to Yasmina Hedider for her meticulous editorial work patiently assisting the editorial process of this volume. Moreover, we would like to thank Fabian Heerbaart who provided his expertise on graffiti and street art in Egypt and beyond, as well as Susanne Eckstein and Lena Reuter for their assistance in the editorial process, and Angela Zerbe for her thorough proofreading of the articles.


The English translation carries the title The Jokers, translated by Anna Moschovakis, and published by New York Review Books in 2010, while the title of the Arabic translation is al-ʿUnf wa-l-sukhriyya (Violence and Satire), first published by Dar al-Hilal (Cairo) in 1993. The novel was made into a movie by Egyptian director Asmaa Al-Bakry in 2004. For a comprehensive overview of his oeuvre and an interesting analysis of Cossery’s complex thoughts on revolution, its impasses and (im)possibilities, see Shahin 2011.


revolutionaries Haykal, Kareem and Taher, fighting the authoritarian regime in the person of a tyrannical governor of an unnamed Middle Eastern provincial capital, decide to abstain from violent means of resistance and to resort to parody and satire instead. Drawing on overstatement and hyperbole, they praise the governor on posters in the streets and in a widely read newspaper in such an exaggerated way that everybody is immediately aware of the inherent, biting satire. Yet no one dares to criticize these expressions of adulation in rhyme and meter for it might imply criticism of the governor. Unable to stop the subversive wave of indignation that originated from these poems and posters, the ‘defenseless’ governor has to step down finally, and the revolution fought with non-violent, carnivalesque means turns out to be successful.3 In reality, of course, it is not as easy as in fiction to overthrow a tyrannical ruler by means of satire or other forms of humorous critique. Although Khalid Kishtainy, author of the classic Arab Political Humor (London: Quartet Books 1986) as well as of several satirical novels, affirms that “encouragement of the development and widespread use of political humor and satirical literature should be an essential part of any strategy of civil resistance”, he concedes that there has been “no record of a regime falling because of a joke” (Kishtainy 2009: 54). Nevertheless, opposition movements both in liberal and authoritarian countries have resorted to political humor as a strategy and means of nonviolent resistance (see Shehata 1992; Sorensen 2008; Varol 2014; Stokker 1995; Tsakona/Popa 2011; Tsakona/ Popa 2013). This applies also to the mass protests and upheavals of the socalled Arab Spring, which ignited in late 2010 in Tunisia and quickly spread to other Arab countries like Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Sudan, Morocco, Iraq and Lebanon. From 2011 onwards, a multitude of actors have heavily drawn on satire, irony and parody to criticize the symbolically charged figure of the president/king and the political system he represents or to shed light upon the shortcomings and absurdities of the social-political conditions in the everyday lives of the citizens. The forms of humorous cultural expression have been as diverse and transgressive as the geographical extension and expansion of the uprisings. Satire and political humor have been used extensively in manifold genres and art forms as well


Although the governor has already been brought down by satirical means, Taher decides in the end to assassinate the discharged governor.


as in popular culture such as jokes, films, comedy shows, graffiti and street art, resistance songs and music such as political rap and Egyptian mahragan, protest banners, caricatures and cartoons, user-generated video-clips, remixed memes and mashups. In this situation of ongoing anti-government protest, information and communications technology (ICT) and particularly social media have been considered to be an apt tool to incite, organize and coordinate the uprisings as well as a participatory medium. This has led to the rise of new forms of articulation of dissent and political criticism through the creation of counter-public spaces (cp. El Marzouki 2015; Khamis/ Vaughn 2011; Aman/Jayroe 2013): “Facebook, mobile phones, and Twitter became the primary means of circulating the jokes; jokes thus became one of the revolution’s most crucial weapons.” (Salem/Taira 2012: 192)4 However, the boom of political humor witnessed during the Arab uprisings did not take place only online. At central urban places such as Maidan al-Tahrir in Cairo, Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, the Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli (Libya) or the Pearl Square in Manama (Bahrain) protestors gathered to create revolutionary communalities and (re)claimed these places as public spaces.5 Occupying these places achieved a significant symbolic power, producing the new, utopian reality of a substantive revolutionary moment.6 Urban places were not only converted into forums for mass organization and mobilization (cp. Sadiki 2015: 4), but also became complex spaces of aesthetic production and democratic conversation, providing opportunities to unlearn civil obedience, rehearse egalitarian and democratic practices and acquire revolutionary capacities. During carnivalesque


One of the numerous jokes circulating in Egypt in 2011 goes as follows: “Nasser and Sadat ask Mubarak: “Poison or assassination?” He replies: “Facebook!” (cited in Salem/Taira 2012: 197)


In regard to Saudi Arabia, Asef Bayat (2017: 70) explains that “Saudi youth, constrained by the repressive police, created their own Tahrir in the virtual world, where they came together, communicated, chatted, and discussed the nation’s future.”


An insightful discussion on the adequacy and aptness of the term revolution for the respective countries is provided by Bayat in his book Revolution without Revolutionary (2017), coining the term refolution as a ‘mixture’ of revolution and reform. In this context, his critique on the all-pervasive neo-liberal condition is crucial. (see ibid: 21-23)


festivities which created connectivities across heterogeneous social groups, music, theatre, poetry, paintings and banners were produced and performed. (cp. Wahdan 2014; Sabea 2014; Le Vine 2015:1282) It was “a carnival of conviviality and fun, where people enjoyed the magical energy, the light and sound of those intimate and extraordinary moments.” (Bayat 2017: 70) This explosion of artistic expression during the Arab uprisings attained enormous media attention both within the Arab countries as well as in international media and politics.7 Yet nine years after these mass protest movements which were sparked by the desperate suicide of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010 (who died a few weeks later on January 4, 2011) – leading to the ouster of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali some weeks later – enthusiastic hopes of the civil societies in these countries for regime change, democratic transition, social justice, as well as for ending corruption and reducing unemployment have turned into disillusionment.8 In view of the fast return of repression and autocratic rule in countries like Egypt or the ongoing human catastrophes as well as religious and ethnic fragmentation afflicting countries such as Syria, Yemen and Libya, the conditions and potential for humorous political expression have been utterly altered, becoming more restrictive and risky than in 2011 and, in some countries, even before the uprisings. (see for instance in regard to Egypt Elsayed 2016; on Algeria, see Cheufra 2019) Processes of democratic and participatory political structures have been brutally interrupted and have faced backlash and crackdown with the exception of Tunisia, which is still in a fragile state of political transition.


It is important to note that while precedent protest movements like the Egyptian Kefaya! (‘Enough!’), the April 6 Youth Movement or, shortly before the uprising, We are all Khaled Said, had received considerable international media coverage, the numerous workers’ strikes and (independent) trade-union activities (see in detail Alexander 2010; Beinin 2009, 2016; for Morocco, see Buehler 2018), recurrently taking place over the last decades, have been rather neglected in the international media.


From the numerous publications on the political developments and afterlives of the Arab uprisings, see especially Kienle/Sika 2015; Achcar 2013; Lynch 2012; Beinin 2016; De Smet 2016; Ghanem 2016; Bayat 2017; Demmelhuber et al. 2017; Jumet 2017; Mittermaier 2018; Abi-Mershed 2018; Lacroix/Filiu 2019.


Although the Arab uprisings have neither led to a broader democratic transition nor succeeded in changing entrenched autocratic power structures in the region, a number of scholars consider them to be decisive moments in the emergence of a new democratic culture and a collective realization that breaking down fear-barriers and mobilizing popular movements are possible. Yet it goes without saying that protest and rebellion alone do not create a more just political order. While Sadiki (2015) considers the fact that the Arab uprisings were rather ‘leaderless’ – unlike mass protest in other regions with charismatic or intellectual figures such as Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Ali Shariati or Khomeini – as the sign of a rising “peoplehood” and a button-up process, Bayat (2017) classifies this ‘leaderlessness’ as a general organizational weakness partly responsible for the failure of the revolutions.9 Thus in line with Bayat (ibid: 139) who claims that “the long revolution may have to begin even when the short revolution ends”, a number of scholars and Arab intellectuals perceive the crack-down on the protest movements and the struggle for democracy and social justice to be an interim phase in people’s long-term struggle. (cp. Sadiki 2016; Chalcraft 2016; Makdisi 2016; Lacroix/ Filiu 2019) A significant indicator that this revolutionary process is ongoing became evident with the most recent protests. At the time of finalizing this introduction (October 2019), nationwide anti-governmental protests have broken out again in several Arab countries: in Sudan and Algeria where, in spring 2019, mass protests reemerged to end military rule after the successful ouster of former dictators Omar al-Bashir and Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika; in Iraq where in September and October 2019 thousands of protestors


On this point, Bayat adds that “[a]ctivists were distinctly against any ‘ideology’ and militantly disdained solid organization, recognizable leadership, not to mention any blueprint or alternative programs.” (Bayat 2017: 16) He does not mention that the post-ideological concepts of today’s mass movements are partly motivated by previous (socialist and anti-imperialist) revolutions turning eventually into oppressive regimes after having come to power. Nevertheless, his critical argument is strongly supported by the subsequent developments culminating in the fact that the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, and of course, the SCAF, both kidnapped the revolution in their own ways. Against the grain of individualization and post-ideology, mass movements and resistance have to replace ideology with a new (solidary and cooperative) belief system that unites the people, but remains immune to interior oppressive forces.


demanded the “fall of the regime”, their protests culminating in violent clashes between demonstrators on the one hand and police and army on the other hand; in Egypt where, since the military coup in 2013, waves of arrests of political opponents have been carried out, severely restrictive laws that further curtail freedom of speech have been introduced, and critics of the regime have to fear enforced disappearance (see HRW 2019), protesters started again in September 2019 to march in cities across the country, demanding the resignation of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Since various forms of political humor have been an important element of these protests, the aim of this volume is to examine its forms, functions and dynamics as a means of non-violent (non-physical) resistance in the context of the Arab uprisings. The majority of the contributions to this book are based on papers held by the authors at the international conference Creative Resistance: Political Humor in the Arab Uprisings, which – generously funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation – took place from 27-29 March, 2014, at the University of Cologne. While most of the papers given at the conference focused on the political humor used in mass protests in Arab countries in 2011 and 2012, this edited volume has been enriched by a number of new contributions that widen its thematic and geographical scope. It also includes perspectives on Arab countries in which no large-scale protests took place in the frame of the so called Arab Spring, and which have therefore been less in the spotlight of both international scholarship and the media. Before presenting the contributions to this volume, we will first give an overview of the rich tradition of political humor in traditional and modern Arabic culture, focusing on literature, satire and the political joke. Thereafter, we will introduce central theories and concepts of political humor, discussing them against the backdrop of humorous cultural expressions that occurred in the Arab uprisings. Although much has been written and published on the socio-political, economic and even cultural aspects of the ‘Arab Spring’, there is still a significant lack of research focusing exclusively on political humor as political criticism and resistance. The essays compiled in this volume not only illustrate the remarkable plurality and creativity of Arabic political humor today; they also highlight the great dynamics of change political humor has constantly been subject to, partly due to the extreme political and social developments and ruptures of the past years.





Mockery, lampooning and derision (tahakkum, hijaʾ), laughter (dahak), jest (hazl), satire (sukhriyya), and jokes and joke making (nukat, duʿaba) as social, cultural and political means of expression have a long and rich tradition in Arabic culture. They can be found across a variety of literary genres and periods ranging from pre- and old Arabic invective poetry with which poets of tribes ridiculed (those of) opposing tribes, to classical Arab poetry, satirical Abbasid and post-Abbasid adab and folk literature in the form of anecdotes, jokes and tales. Classic masters of adab such as al-Jahiz (776- around 868), who not only practiced witty humor, but also reflected theoretically on it10, the humorous ‘medieval’ folk anecdotes and tales attached to figures such as Juha/Nasreddin Hoca, the heroes of the Maqamat (written in rhymed and rhythmically structured prose) by Hamadhani (9671007) and al-Hariri (1054-1122) (see Neuwirth 2009), One Thousand and One Nights or subversive humor used by the historian Ibn Arabshah (13981450) (see Leder 2009) are only some of the manifold examples in Arabic literary and intellectual tradition in which wit, irony and (self)mockery were highlighted as a means to challenge power structures and to transgress social norms.11 Surprisingly, even a pious Islamic scholar like Ibn al-Jauzi (d. 1201) penned several books exclusively dedicated to humor. (see Marzolph 1992: 165-180) As an eminently (post)modern master of satire and cultural mediator between the old and the new, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1804-1887) has to be singled out. Confronted with emerging modernity/modernism, institutionalized discrimination and European colonialism, he renewed the rich heritage of Arab satire in highly subversive and original ways, creating his unique satirical style which abounds with “linguistic play” (Hamarneh

10 See his epistle Risala fi-l-jidd wa-l-hazl (‘The Treatise on Jest and Earnest’). See also Montgomery 2009: 209-239. 11 For more details on humor in pre-modern Arabic/Islamic literature, see Tamer 2009, Ammann 1993, Marzolph 1992, and Rosenthal 1956. Mention can also be made of an anthology of pre-modern heretical literature in Arabic, entitled Diwan al-zanabiqa (‘Poetry of the heretics’), edited by Jamal Jumʿa (2007), which highlights the key role of mockery and satire among a large number of prominent and less known poets and authors.


2010: 322), language masquerade, parody of genres and the characters’ selfimages, as well as meta-poetical irony. With the spread of the printing press in the 19th century, poetry and jokes as well as caricatures played a major role in expressing political dissent. Established during the second half of the 19th century in various Arab countries, satirical magazines peppered with the newly emerging art form of the caricature were crucial in promoting a new political culture. Among early Arabic satirical periodicals are the Egyptian Abu Naddara Zarqa (‘The Man with Blue Glasses’), founded in 1877 by Yaʿqub Sannuʿ12 (1839-1912), and al-Tankit wa-l-Tabkit (‘Fun and Reproach’), established by Abdullah al-Nadim (1845-1898) in 1881. (see Booth 1992; Ettmüller 2012) Both magazines employed satire to attack European colonial rule, corrupt local elites, Ottoman repression, political injustice and feudalism, oppression of women and outmoded social customs, often in the form of colloquial poetry (zajal). Furthermore, satire was used in the theatrical traditions of Karagöz/ Karakush, the shadow puppet theatre, as well as the traditional jokes on Karakush (the clown), still popular in 19th century Egypt.13 After World War I, early modern, so called neo-classicist poetry, lampooned and criticized British and French colonial rule and social lacunae in satirical ways, as for instance during and after the Iraqi Uprising of 1920 (thawrat al-ʿishrin) against the British. Prominent Iraqi poets such as Maʿruf al-Rusafi14 (18751945), Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863–1936), Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir (1896-1974) or Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1899-1997) exposed power interests among the domestic as well as the British ruling elite, infusing their powerful social or political critique with derision and ridicule. (see Izzidien 1971; Walther 1994) The same applies to poetry in other Arab countries like

12 For more on Yaʿqub Sannuʿ and his pioneering activities in the field of theatre and the satirical press, see Gonzalez-Quijano 2012: 11-13 and Amin 2010: 284292. Abou Naddara is also the name of a collective of Syrian filmmakers, see 13 One of the first Tunisian satirical magazines, founded in 1984 by Stenk Razine, was called Karakouz. For more on Tunisian satirical magazines and caricatures, see ʿAbd al-Raʾuf 2019. 14 On a cynical poem against the British and his own people’s failure, see Kishtainy 2009: 60.


Tunisia, Syria or Egypt with most prominent poets e.g. the TunisianEgyptian Bayram al-Tunisi (1893-1961) and Ahmad Shauqi (Egypt, 18681932) who satirized not only the colonial British, but also the domestic rulers. (cf. Kishtainy 2009: 59) After the end of colonial rule, the establishment of independent Arab nationalist regimes was accompanied by satirical critique too. The school of caricature around the Cairo daily al-Akhbar with Muhammad ʿAbd al-Munʿim Rakha stood out in the 1950s and 1960s (see Gonzalez-Quijano 2012: 12), later complemented by the “great Egyptian cartoonists […] Ahmed Hegazi (1936-2011) and Salah Jaheen (1930-1986)” (Guyer 2016: 210-211). Also in post-indepen-dence Egypt, the popular duo Nagm/Imam, with poet Ahmad Fuʾad Nagm (1929-2013) and singer Shaikh Imam ʿIsa (1918-1995), challenged the authoritarianism of Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser and the political establishment’s corruption and inefficiency, mocking the unjust absurdities common Egyptians had to cope with in daily life.15 Iraqi poets such as Ahmad Matar (born 1954) and Muzaffar al-Nawwab (born 1934) were at the forefront of using satirical poetry in order to challenge and lampoon political rulers, security services and the police. (cf. Milich/ Tramontini 2018; Kishtainy 2009: 56-58; al-Usta 2002; Bardenstein 1997) The Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-ʿAli, a colleague and friend of Ahmad Matar, mixed the sadness about the Palestinian tragedy with a sharp critique of Arab politics, exposing the injustice and selfishness of the reactionary Arab regimes. In Syria, the pioneer of the prose poem (qasidat al-nathr) and playwright Muhammad al-Maghut (1934-2006) created masterpieces of subversive political satire, getting to the heart of the Arab societies’ social and political maladies. (see Hamdan 2006; Milich/Tramontini 2018) Using paradox as a key literary device, he exposed the contradictions, taboos and frontlines he held responsible for the impossibility of political change and revolution, although he continued dreaming of a free and just Arab homeland: Whenever freedom rained down anywhere in the world, Arab regimes rush out to cover their people with umbrellas, fearing that they would ‘catch cold.’ Why would the Arabs appear to cling to everything and anything? Are they about to drown?

15 See Franke in this volume and Botros 2015.


Everything around us is cracking and collapsing. Where are the ruins? Did they sell them already? […]16

While poetry has been the major and most esteemed form of artistic expression for centuries, since the second half of the 20th century, fiction has become increasingly popular and valued.17 Modern Arabic fiction as a narrative genre criticizes social structures, backwardness and political abuse by way of irony or satire. To mention only three of the numerous examples of satirical fiction and prose writing in Arab countries: While Khalid al-Khamissi’s (born 1962) book Taxi (Cairo: Dar Shuruq 2007) prominently highlights Egyptian political humor in conversations with Cairene taxi drivers, revealing the population’s widespread discontent with the government, Palestinian writer Suʿad Amiry (born 1951) in Sharon and my mother-in-law (New York: Pantheon 2004) not only mocked the quotidian absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation (including her Palestinian mother-in-law), but also the mentality and dehumanizing acts of the occupier.18 Another effective strategy of satirical critique is illustrated by

16 See his poem Compulsory reasons, translated by Noel Abdulahad, at: https:// For the original poem in Arabic, entitled al-Asbab al-mujiba, see Maghut, Muhammad (2001): Sayyaf al-zuhur (‘The Executioner of Flowers’), Damascus: Dar al-Mada. 17 Literature and particularly poetry in both fusha and ʿammiyya have been the main, century-long platform to negotiate social and political concerns and developments, and still form an essential archive and resource for social critique and oppositional movements and actions (see e. g. Pannewick/Khalil 2015; Milich 2012a and b) to this day. Yet while Arabic literature has lost its outstanding position in today’s culture, with globally circulating forms of cultural expression being more relevant in the Arab uprisings, poetry has still played a role in the protests, used in banners, songs and chants, as the contribution of Franke in this volume shows. On Egyptian colloquial poetry in the protests of 2011, see also Radwan 2012: 215-222 and Radwan 2019. 18 Other outstanding satirical novelists include, for example, Sunʿallah Ibrahim (Egypt), Zakariyya Tamer (Syria), and, from the younger generation of writers, Hamdi Abu Golayyel and Ahmad al-ʿAʾidi (both Egypt). Important to note, humor does not seem to dominate the newly emerging genre of the revolutionary


Iraqi-American writer and scholar Sinan Antoon (born 1967) who narrates in his first novel Iʿjam (‘Diacritics’), published by the Beiruti Dar al-Adab in 2004, how the protagonist – in the words of Cameroonian philosopher and cultural critic Achille Mbembe (2001: 105) – “develop[s] ways of separating words and phrases [or even letters and characters] from their conventional meanings and us[es] them in quite another sense”, thus creating a whole vocabulary19, “equivocal and ambiguous, parallel to the official discourse.” Antoon’s novel blasphemously desecrates not only the one-party rule and the ‘leader’, but also exposes the absurd and cruel nature of Baathist culture and politics. According to Mbembe (ibid: 109), the task of the politically subversive writer is first to illustrate how “individuals, by their laughter, kidnap power and force it, as if by accident, to examine its own vulgarity”, a carnivalesque strategy the novel’s protagonist, a young Iraqi student of English literature, superbly masters, turning him into a threat for the regime that allows neither for laughter nor ambiguity; secondly, the novel shows how citizens can resist the colonization of their minds and the imposition “of a new mindscape” (ibid: 111), even though satirical resistance ultimately leads to the regime’s murder of the subversive student. The most common and popular cultural form and domain of laughter might be the joke, however. Political jokes whose authorship can usually not be traced back to its origin have been an important means to expose corruption and political grievances. (see Salem/Taira 2012; Kishtainy 1985, 2009; Shehata 1992) From Shehata’s (1992: 75) point of view “[p]olitical

novel, young authors from Egypt and Tunisia created during the uprisings. Besides their frequent auto-biographical tendency, their testimonial and documenttary style and diary form as well as the political analyses inserted in the literary text, one can only find few humorous expressions, often in the form of sarcasm and black humor in their novels. On the other hand, since 2011, and parallel to this former development, satirical literature (al-adab al-sakhir), mainly written in the vernacular (ʿammiyya) has been clearly on the rise, but a large part of this genre is not directly political in expression. (see Haland 2017; Jacquemond 2016) 19 al-Qaʾid (‘leader’) becomes al-qaʿid (‘the sitting one’); wizarat al-thaqafa (‘ministry of culture’) becomes wizarat al-sakhafa (‘ministry of abjectness’ or ‘absurdity’); al-baʿth (‘renaissance, mission’ – meant is the Baath Party) becomes al-ʿabath (‘absurdity’) etc.


jokes are an integral part of Egyptian life and can be heard in government offices by bureaucrats passing the time, in local coffee houses, among friends, and in the homes of millions of urban Egyptians.” Some scholars have elaborated on the thematic shifts Egyptian political jokes were subject to, exposing people’s current dissent and dissatisfaction with political circumstances. While in Nasser’s era jokes often criticized the secret police and the absence of freedom of expression, during the presidency of Sadat jokes were cracked on his clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Church. For the three decades of Mubarak’s rule, hundreds of jokes varying in manner and matter were directed at him personally and his policies (Hammoud 2014: 20; Shehata 1992: 87-88), often comparing him to a monkey, a donkey (Shehata 1992: 84-86) or a “laughing cow” (baʾara dahika; see Salem/Taira 2012). Since the early 2000s, when Mubarak was in his mid-70s, many jokes arose about scenes on his deathbed and his neverending presidency, often with bitter sarcasm. (see El Amrani 2011) El Amrani (2011) quotes for example the following joke which depicts even God as being afraid of Mubarak: God summons Azrael [the archangel of death] and tells him, ‘It’s time to get Hosni Mubarak.’ ‘Are you sure?’ Azrael asks timidly. God insists: ‘Yes, his time has come; go and bring me his soul.’ So Azrael descends from heaven and heads straight for the presidential palace. Once there, he tries to walk in, but he is captured by State Security. They throw him in a cell, beat him up, and torture him. After several months, he is finally set free. Back in heaven, God sees him all bruised and broken and asks, ‘What happened?’ ‘State Security beat me and tortured me,’ Azrael tells God. ‘They only just sent me back.’ God goes pale and in a frightened voice says, ‘Did you tell them I sent you?’

Badarneh (2011: 318) identifies three major themes – besides ridiculing the leader cult and authority of the ruler – of contemporary Arab political jokes: economic reforms, lack of democracy and free elections. However, although political jokes on the ruler were widespread in all Arab countries, they were usually told in secret, since direct mocking of the president or king was either a social taboo or considered an illegal act, as in Syria or Libya where


mockery was only expressed openly during the Arab uprisings. 20 As Shehata (1992) has convincingly shown, jokes – particularly in countries with autocratic rule – are significant indicators of current political and societal sentiments, complementing, adjusting or even negating the highly manipulated state-controlled discourse in the media and other channels of public expression.21 As Salem and Taira (2012: 208) note, “[t]he feelings of hope and dramatic mood changes throughout the eighteen days of the revolution and beyond can be traced through these jokes.” Even more, jokes allow anyone to participate in creating new ones or producing new variations of already existing jokes: “In such a public space, all Egyptians can be editors and can participate in updating jokes with their own concerns.” (Salem/Taira 2012: 208) No wonder then that jokes circulate widely across national borders in social media, being adapted time and again to other regional contexts and specifics. Some puns however are limited to the local surroundings, as in the case of Syrian presidents Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad to whom numerous jokes with a lion (asad) as protagonist or, in the ridiculed form, a cat (qitta) were dedicated.22

20 In regard to Egyptian cultural productions and especially drama, Abou El Naga (2009: 298) specifies: “Egyptian theatre never resorted to the figure of the ‘president’”, using the historical figures of the king or sultan instead in order to elude censorship. 21 A differently directed, but highly interesting observation in regard to Egyptian political jokes, the conditions of their production and reception and the relation to political culture is reported by Samer Shehata (1992: 80) who writes: “Publishing Egyptian jokes would be like taking the country’s internal problems and exhibiting them publicly for the whole world to see. This group saw my [Shehata’s] research as tantamount to a criticism of Egyptian society. One person, trying to explain why he felt that publishing jokes would be wrong, said, quite oblivious to the importance of his comment, that the jokes reflected the lack of democracy in the country and the inability of the Egyptian people to be democratic. Quite differently, I do not believe the jokes signify the inability of Egyptians to be democratic. Rather, I interpret the jokes to reflect the Egyptian people’s continuous yearning and desire for democracy.” 22 On culture-bound humor in Lebanon, see Kazarian 2011: 339-341.


H UMOR T HEORIES Scholarly works on functions and types of humor often categorize three different theories of humor: 1) superiority theories, 2) incongruity theories and 3) relief theories. Superiority theories see humor driven by feelings of superiority of an individual or group against other individuals or collectives; laughter, then, results from disparaging or degrading others. (cp. Billig 2005: 37-56) According to this theory, one of its main functions is to foster a sense of unity derived from a collective feeling of superiority over outgroup members who are laughed at. (cp. Meyer 2000: 315) Incongruity theories, in turn, focus on cognitive aspects of humor and conceptualize it as a social phenomenon, depending on the violation of what is socially and culturally perceived as normal. From this perspective, the cause of laughter is based on the perception or recognition of incongruities and ambiguities, e.g. the discrepancy and gap between what is expected and what is surprisingly happening or suddenly revealed. (cp. Üngör/Verkerke 2015: 83; Dormann/ Biddle 2009: 805; Meyer 2000: 312-313.) The juxtaposition of mismatched elements in this context often involves the “transgression of social norms, or the breaking of established social patterns”. (Kuipers 2009: 221; see also Sorensen 2008: 171) Relief theories regard humor as a means for releasing tension, e.g. a kind of emotional and mental liberation and catharsis. This is supported by psychological and psychoanalytical investigations in humor and laughter which stress humor as an “emotion regulating mechanism that can improve mental health” (Martin/Ford 2018: 27). From this viewpoint, humor, comedy and laughter can acquire a healing effect, “enhanc[ing] the production of hormones called endorphins, which act as natural painkillers, thereby increasing vitality and reducing stress” (Papazoglou 2012: 316). As Martin and Ford (2018: 27) argue, emotion-regulating mechanisms and relief are also indicated by studies of survivors of extreme adversity such as the brutal conditions of concentration camps. In such situations, humor, in the form of joking about the oppressors as well as the hardships endured, can often be an important means for “maintaining group cohesion and morale; preserving a sense of mastery, hope, and self-respect; and thereby enabling individuals to survive in seemingly hopeless circumstances” (ibid). Similarly, Ostrower (2015, 2014) shows how survivors of the Holocaust explained to her in interviews how humor helped them in coping with the terrible realities. Thus, in particular so-called gallows humor or dark humor


can be perceived as a vital resource for dealing with violence, destruction and oppression, since it can mitigate anxiety, fear and pain or enable a distancing from one’s reality. As one current example, the Working Group on Jokes, War, and Genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, founded by Damir Arsenijevic in 2012, points out, jokes facilitate speaking about a terrifying past or a violent present, or help people regain insights and the truth of something they had “already known but chose to be silent about” (Arsenijevic 2019). In humor theories, this discharge of tension is one of the main functions humor is believed to fulfill, but as Kuipers (2008: 362) stresses, the functions and types of humor can intersect and mingle, often serving two or more functions at the same time. In any case, a shared humor obviously plays a crucial role for social relationships, community-building processes, mutual understanding and group cohesion. (cp. Terrion/Ashforth 2002) Yet humorous expressions not only foster group solidarity and cohesion, they can also create boundaries for the targeted “others”. Some scholars therefore hint at these negative aspects of humor that transcend the usual scope of superiority theories. Lefcourt (2001: 72), for instance, distinguishes “positive humor” that encourages group solidarity, from negative or “hostile humor” that separates and excludes. Not only can humor be morally objectionable when it treats something that should be taken seriously as a subject for play; it can also keep sexist and racist stereotypes in circulation, thereby supporting prejudice, aggression and unjust power formations. (see Morreall 2016; Weinstein/Hodgins/Ostvik-White 2011) Moreover, as Billig (2005: 23) points out, “negative” forms of humor can cause harm and suffering by humiliating its victims. Jokes or humorous expressions of extremely violent events can be experienced as a renewed or repeated form of aggression for the afflicted people. Mocking the afflicted can trivialize victims’ suffering or make people sympathize with the victimizer. However, since humor is a social phenomenon, determining what is funny always depends on the specific social and cultural context, thus varying from person to person within a society. While some people might identify certain themes or expressions as humorous, others might consider them as odd, offensive or off limits. Adding a further aspect, Kuipers (2008: 370) sees humor’s revolutionary potential as strongly depending on power structures and divisions as well as status relations between jokers and their targets. While in very repressive and unequal conditions the political humor of those


without power tends to be more clandestine and toothless, in more open societies it is likely to transcend boundaries or mobilize people. (cp. ibid) There is much scholarly disagreement about the potentially subversive effects of political humor in oppressive regimes and dictatorships. Many authors argue that because expressions of political humor remain largely clandestine and anonymous in oppressive regimes (such as the so called Flüsterwitze or ‘whispered jokes’ in Nazi Germany), internal tension relief and morale-boosting are more important than the effects on the targeted “outgroup”. (see Kuipers 2008: 369) Benton, for example, who investigated political humor in the former Soviet Union, maintains that political jokes in oppressive regimes “change nothing and will mobilize no one” but only “create sweet illusions of revenge” (Benton 1988: 54). Similarly, Swart (2008: 898) argues that political jokes can offer a brief respite from the realities of everyday life and a “reduction ad absurdum by means of which the regime, the hardships, the duplicity and even the fear and the humiliation are domesticated”. Although jokes might create a separate space a regime cannot infiltrate, the triumphs emerging from laughter hidden behind the hand to the mouth are usually transitory and restricted to individual psychological effects, rather exercising maintenance of self-esteem and good morale than provoking political changes. Even more, according to some theorists of humor and the political joke, expressions of political humor are not rebellious but foster further resignation, preserving the status quo and thus functioning as a “substitute for the political action that could otherwise effect change” (ibid: 899). Other authors in turn consider political humor in authoritarian regimes as a means which can make “people critically reflect on their situation, allow them to express hostility against those in power, create an alternative space, or even give people the courage to take up some more concrete actions” (Kuipers 2008: 396-397). Sorensen (2008: 185) equally stresses positive aspects by maintaining that although the role of political humor should not be exaggerated, it can play a crucial role in setting a different agenda and challenging fear and apathy. Literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1984: 90) had already pointed to the effect of laughter “overcome[ing] fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations”. In the context of revolution and radical political change, the notion of the carnivalesque, developed by Bakhtin, has proven particularly relevant and productive. As Bakhtin (ibid: 66) put it, “certain essential aspects of the world are accessible only to laughter”. For the Russian scholar


of French and comparative literature, during the limited temporal frame of carnivalesque acts and festivities, the official hierarchies of power are turned upside down: the ruler and his commandment become the subject of exposure, while the ruled uncover the hidden truth about their social situations and conditions. (cp. Bakhtin 1984: 92) The creation of these inverted roles in a newly-produced space of gay and free expression allows for “speaking truth to power”, thus enacting a radical subversion of the socio-political order. Even more so, it can present a new perspective on reality, envision new social norms and a new societal order, turning an unjust world ‘from its head unto its feet again’. One particular dimension of the carnivalesque for challenging power and exposing its defects is what Bakhtin calls “grotesque realism” (ibid: 18; see also on “grotesque satire” ibid: 303-304). Presenting the ruler in a vulgar, bodily degraded or dirty state – often in combination with pun and language play – radically undermines his authority and works counter to attempts at glorifying and aestheticizing power and sovereignty. While reflecting on the applicability of Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque to Arab societies, Badarneh (2011: 309) states that the main features of the carnivalesque “all manifest themselves in the data”, providing evidence of the high relevance of carnivalesque forms of humor for the Arab societies. His argument is supported by the observation that the concept of the carnivalesque might be much better situated in societies with a more ‘traditional’ hierarchical order than, for instance, in liberal democracies, in which citizens’ rights allow – at least to a larger extent – for the free expression of opinion and free speech. In the Arab region where a ruler’s glorification and divinization by nationalist discourse has been so omnipresent, subverting and mocking the tyrant’s hubris has offered rich – albeit dangerous – grounds for carnivalesque attacks. As the contributions of this volume show, Arab heads of state such as Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali or Muammar Gaddafi were all subject to extreme glorification (madih) and iconization and, in consequence, to subversive acts of parody and mocking (hijaʾ). However, moments of carnivalesque festivity in urban places where protestors gathered during the Arab uprisings, and the demonstrators’ usage of humorous artistic production are not unique to the MENA-region, since beyond sticking to an East-West binary, in a globalized world there are strong similarities between social movements and their cultural production, regardless of place and time, as for instance Eid (2019: 3) stresses and Werbner/Webb/Spellman-Poots


(2014) show in the political aesthetics of global protests, e.g. in the ‘Arab Spring’ and beyond. Although 2011 meant a deep rupture in the political culture of Arab countries, this kind of glorification and political propaganda continues in countries like Egypt, where in 2013, “Sisimania” spread. A large number of prominent figures of public life, the media as well as ordinary citizens – mention can be made of chocolates (see figure 1) fabricated by several patisseries in Cairo and showing nascent president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on its upper side – joined in in the chorus of glorification. A journalistic eulogy that reads like a masterpiece of parodying the leader, is former actress Lubna Abdel Aziz’ article “Catch the El-Sisi mania”, published 17 September, 2013, in Al-Ahram Weekly: He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. […] He responded to the 33 million voices clamouring in the streets. Yes, the Eagle had landed.

Figure 1: Sisi chocolate

Source: Authors’ own photography

In view of the ongoing dictatorship and the brutal violation of human and citizens’ rights in Egypt under al-Sisi, Abdel Aziz’ eulogy reads like a particularly macabre example of gallows humor – yet it is meant seriously.


This strategy of an almost carnivalesque spectacle, officially encouraged by the state, is all the more dangerous and might be all the more successful since it correlates with the desire of the ruled to become part of the spectacle, “to take part in celebrations [...] fed by a desire for majesty on the part of the people” (Mbembe 2001: 131). Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe provides an especially intriguing reading of Bakhtin’s notion of the “carnivalesque” in its grotesque, obscene and vulgar forms, applying it to the socio-cultural-political context of Sub Saharan African authoritarianism, with a focus on Cameroon. Mbembe (ibid: 103) aims at overcoming “binary categories [...] such as resistance vs. passivity […] state versus civil society, hegemony vs. counterhegemony [...]”, since for Mbembe, postcolonial relations are too ambivalent and complex to be put in a dualist conceptual framework. The postcolonial type of governance he calls “commandement” (ibid: 134, footnote 5), which he takes from Bakhtin, can indeed be transferred – with modifications – to the context of autocratic Arab governance, as for instance Mannone does in his contribution on Tunisia in this volume when he quotes from an earlier article by Mbembe (1992: 10) explaining that “the official world mimics popular vulgarity, inserting it at the very core of the procedures by which it takes on grandeur”. Thus, enacting carnivalesque forms of cultural expression are not restricted to the masses, but have to be considered as “essential characteristics that identify postcolonial regimes of domination”, in order to better understand “how state power organizes for dramatizing its own magnificence […]” (Mbembe 2001: 103-104).23 The coming-to-power of the new ruler of Egypt is staged as the advent of a superhuman, but genuinely humble, savior, stressing both his local embeddedness, his deeply rooted Egyptianhood, and – through quotations from Shakespeare, Lao-Tzu (sixth century Chinese philosopher), Napoleon and other prominent figures

23 With western politicians such as Donald Trump, this form of the grotesque must be expanded to liberal democracies as well, since we observe that while “in their desire for a certain majesty, the masses join in the madness and clothe themselves in cheap imitations of power to reproduce its epistemology, [...] power, in its own violent quest for grandeur, makes vulgarity and wrongdoing its main mode of existence.” (Mbembe 2001: 133).


of world history – his allegedly cosmopolitan character and experience. 24 These writings are therefore textual enactments of the many “spectacles”, offered “for its subjects (cibles) to watch” (ibid: 104). In Abdel Aziz’ article, a “loss of limits or sense of proportion” (ibid: 119) clearly manifests itself. What the ruler and his followers quite seriously intended – as superbly illustrated by Abdel Aziz in al-Sisi –, namely to foster the larger strategy of stabilizing power constellations, can be perceived by other individuals or groups in society as comic, cynical or grotesque, always depending on the social position, political orientation, set of values and (critical) attitude towards glorifying the ruler and other symbols and representations of (state) power. While venerating the leader is, for some, an act of duty or a common social habit, for others, it is a derisory, awkward and illegitimate expression of power that has to be ridiculed and desecrated.




As has been shown above, mocking the ruler or representatives of the ruling class has a rich tradition and history in Arab societies. With regard to the protests in Egypt, Salem and Taira (2012: 191) write that “[t]hroughout the eighteen days leading to the resignation of Mubarak, an incredible number of jokes were instantaneously and consistently produced while being embedded in, and interwoven with the Egyptian cultural narrative at large”. Yet during the period of the Arab uprisings and even more so in their aftermath, important shifts in the use of political humor can be observed. Anagondahalli and Khamis, comparing political jokes in Egypt before, during and after 2011, point out that while before 2011 telling political jokes in public was extremely risky for one’s safety, the revolution “created an atmosphere that transformed the use of humor from the private to the public sphere” (Anagondahalli/Khamis 2014: 13). Although jokes on former president Mubarak were told for many decades and provided a platform for people to express dissent and discomfort with the government, since early

24 Unpublished conference paper by S. Milich: “Commemorating the absurd, re-framing the real: Literary and visual satire and parody between the grotesque and the carnivalesque”, held at the International Conference Creative Humor, Cologne, 27-29 March, 2014.


2011 they were no longer covert or indirect. As Anagondahalli/Khamis (ibid) conclude, „relief humor made way for superiority humor. People were done cracking jokes to make light of the situation; the goal now was to openly deride and ridicule Mubarak to get him to leave”. Egyptian poet Iman Mersal [Iman Mirsal] (2011: 669) explains the new use of humor in this way: Egyptians “have resisted humiliation by humiliating the sources of oppression; perhaps humor helped us survive the nightmare”. And Salem and Taira (2012: 191) note that “Egyptians overcame fear with jokes that called on the subversive powers of the carnivalesque”. In Syria where political oppression was even more brutal and total than in Egypt, one had to be extremely cautious, since telling a joke about the president could result in long years of imprisonment. This however changed during the protests of 2011 – at least in zones and spaces no longer controlled by the dictatorship – when humor was turned into a confrontational means by which activists and protesters attacked the dictator verbally, aiming to make him leave as it had happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. In these contexts of political struggle, humor has been used less as a means of relief and relaxation, than to fight arbitrary oppression and physical repression, infiltrating hitherto “prohibited zones” (El Ariss 2017: 142). In Arab television, in particular since the 1990s, more and more comedy and satire shows have been broadcast addressing societal and political grievances in a humorous way, though its producers had (and still have) to be careful not to cross the red lines of censorship.25 The most popular and successful were Egyptian comedian (and physician) Bassem Youssef’s [Basim Yusuf] show El-Barnameg (2011-2014, with interruptions) and his Daily Show (2012) with millions of viewers across Arab countries and even beyond. Yet when Adly Mansur became interim-president (July 2013-June 2014) and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi president in June 2014, continuing any satirical critique of political circumstances somehow directed at the new dictator proved impossible, since censorship and legal prosecution by state authorities had become increasingly harsh. Before al-Sisi came to power,

25 Indicating the practice of autocratic regimes and rulers to circumvent or ignore the rule of existing laws, Jonathan Guyer (2016: 210) writes: “The red lines [of censorship] have less to do with laws and more to do with how far a cartoonist is willing to go to critique the powerful.” On the effect of the uprisings on current developments in the Arab media, see e.g. Lynch 2018.


Youssef had thanked former president Mohammed Morsi for providing him with such rich and ready-made material for satire. (see e. g. Jones 2017: 138) Months before the presidential elections in 2014, Youssef mocked al-Sisi and Sisimania in his comedy show, by trying to avoid mentioning his name, which nevertheless came up time and again in barely hidden words like the Spanish “si, si”, meaning “yes, yes” (see Naharnet 2014; Stack 2013). In autumn 2013, Youssef was accused of insulting the Egyptian military. After attempting to continue with private TV channel MBC Masr, the comedian resigned in June 2014, declaring that critical political comedy would no longer be possible in Egypt. Having then moved to the United States, he has had numerous appearances and performances in the USA and beyond with his own YouTube channel, addressing an international Arab and non-Arab audience. (see Montasser 2011; Gordon/Arafa 2014) In the Syrian context, the series Buqʿat Dawʾ (‘Spotlight’; 2011) even dared to ridicule the intelligence services. While some scholars argue that the Syrian authoritarian regime allowed a “commissioned criticism” (Cooke 2007: 72; see also Haugbolle 2009) in order to offer a democratic façade and a kind of safety valve for popular frustration which would hinder insurrection, others hint at the constant balancing act of Syrian artists and TV producers to not transgress shifting governmental red lines (cp. Joubin 2014)26, for limited freedom of expression is “fluid, evolving, and responsive to new political events” (Guyer 2016: 210). However, due to the boundaries of censorship, YouTube and other social media have turned into increasingly important platforms for political humor in the MENA-region. Independently made, improvised shows were released in great numbers (see e.g. Hammond 2017: 142-144), although in countries like Bahrain, even “Twitter parody accounts of high-ranking Bahraini officials […] were targeted by the government security services – who used IP spying techniques in an attempt to uncover the identity of those operating the account” (Jones 2017: 137). Besides online satirical shows like 3al6ayer or the Saudi sketch show La Yekhtar (‘Put a lid on it’; 2010-2016) whose episodes received up to three millions views, particular mention must be made of the Jordanian start up al-Kharabeesh (‘Scribbles’). Launched in 2008, al-Kharabeesh has meanwhile developed

26 For a more detailed discussion of limits and challenges in oppositional messages of Syrian drama production see also Wedeen 2019; Salamandra 2015; Della Ratta 2015.


into a big company with several YouTube channels featuring Arab satirists and stand-up comedians. Having gained even more popularity during 2011, it ridiculed Arab leaders and commented on the political events with satirical means. (see Elsayed 2016) In regard to Lebanese comedy and TV satire shows, Kazarian (2011: 335) states that theatrical productions and “TV comedy shows as Sl Shi, Irbat Tinhal (It will be resolved soon), La yumal, (Never boring), Bas Mat Watan27 (BMW, Haugbolle, 2007), and 8, 14, and Us have been ongoing, aiming at portrayal of the prevailing political dissonance in the country”. In Saudi Arabia, the comedy series Tash Ma Tash (‘No Big Deal’; 1993-2011) first aired on the Saudi state-owned channel (later bought and broadcast by MBC), mocking in several episodes shortcomings and defects of Saudi society. Although avoiding almost any criticism of the king and the royal family, its producers received death threats after ridiculing the clergy. The Saudi state reacted in September 2018 to this development by announcing via its public prosecutor that producing and distributing online satire and any social media material that “ridicules, mocks, provokes and disrupts public order, religious order and public morals” (Khaleej Times 2018) will be punished by up to five years in prison and a fine of three million Riyals (approximately 800.000 US dollars). The government’s fear of political satire appeared also recently, when Netflix bowed to its pressure and took down in Saudi Arabia an episode of a satirical comedy show in which the American comedian Hasan Minhaj mocked the kingdom’s account of what happened to the dissident journalist Jamil Kashoggi who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. (see Busby 2019) As Jones (2017: 137) states, “work on political satire in the Gulf States is still relatively non-existent”; this volume aims to reduce this research gap with a contribution by Fatema Hubail on a Kuwaiti satirical TV show. At the same time, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and YouTube provided new platforms for the dissemination of political humor not only in the respective countries but also for an international audience, while political public expression not only drew from local contexts, but also referred to elements and motifs of a shared global culture. The transnational dimension of the protests became visible through the diffusion of protest imaginaries, motifs and practices that inspired activists in different regions of the world (cp.

27 The title of this extremely popular comedy TV show means both ‘The homeland’s smile’ and ‘Yet a homeland just died’.


Porta/Mattoni 2014), between Egyptian Tahrir, Occupy Wall Street, Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the Martyr’s Square in Beirut, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Political jokes, memes, photographed texts from graffiti, posters, caricatures and cartoons were translated28 into English and even other languages such as, for example, the Syrian puppet show Top Goon – Diaries of a Little Dictator by Massasit Mati. The authors of the satirical posters from Kafranbel29 (Syria) alluded to Game of Thrones and Hollywood Films alike to reach a wider audience and gain international support for their struggle against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad. (cp. Anagondahalli/Khamis 2014) As Werbner, Webb and Spellmann-Poots (2014: 15) argue, protests in the Arab World and beyond used a wide range of visual and audio citations and intertextuality which was both “historical and spatial, fusing past images, tropes, slogans, musical refrains or images reproduced from events elsewhere with current images in new bricolages and assemblages.” Novel forms of political humor and irony can also be tracked in other recently emerging genres of Arabic cultural production. In postrevolutionary Egypt, for instance, a highly dynamic comic scene evolved. Several years before the outbreak of the Egyptian Uprising, Magdy El Shafy’s graphic novel Metro (2007), although censored by the state, had already attracted a large number of readers. Soon after the uprisings, new comics and comic magazines were published, such as Kharig al-saytara

28 On the problem of translation and translatability of humor and especially political cartoons and critical comics, see Mohamed 2016. 29 The internationally renowned posters by political Syrian activists in Kafranbel adamantly called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. They initiated their campaign when Syrian media refused to show any coverage of the demonstrations in Kafranbel, using social media and their creativity and humor to sharply criticize the regime as well as international politics. As in the case of other initiatives, their satirical voice has been brutally silenced by the war and the regime (unpublished conference paper The caricatures of the city of Kafranbel as a mirror of international politics by Larissa Bender at the International Conference Creative Humor, Cologne, 27-29 March, 2014). For more on Kafranbel, see Dibo, Mohammad (2013): “Kafranbel: The Conscience of the Revolution”, December 21,; and Hanano, Amal (2013): “Rising Up and Rising Down.” In: Foreign Policy, October 18,


(‘Out of control’), Tuk Tuk, Autostrad, Thawragiyya (‘revolutionaries’) and Doshma (see Khallaf 2012: 14), the last one with the clear aim to spread knowledge about civil and human rights. Most of these new magazines are published by art collectives in independent publishing companies. Similar developments in other Arabic countries have been noted. (see Hoigilt 2019) As for street art30 and graffiti, both have often been used in the Arab revolutions as an effective means for discussion, reflection and documenttation. Exposure in public spaces ensures access for a broad and wide audience, while at the same time their presence can (re-)appropriate, reclaim and reframe (urban) space. Such written or drawn interventions can offer important insights into the social and political life of a society. (cp. Youkhana/Förster 2015: 7) In Egypt as well as in Syria, graffiti and street art visualized the often erratic emotions many people felt in times that were marked by quickly changing situations. In Cairo, for example, Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which leads to Tahrir Square and was thus the epicenter of the protests of 2011, became a prominent site for artistic expression. Martyr portraits turned the site into a quasi-memorial ground, explicit images of soldiers on skulls criticized the military interim-regime, a woman carrying gas bottles depicted the economic hardship large parts of the society underwent and satirical pieces dealt with various social and political topics. Painter Ammar Abo Bakr, who created many artistic works in this street, described the painted walls as a newspaper which constantly reflects the country’s development.31 Ammar resorted to wit, thus combining two important functions that street art and humor have in common: to disturb, challenge and impact patterns of perception. Both might also undermine and attack power structures. And finally, the life of street art is – similar to a joke – not confined to the area it has been generated

30 The definition of the term street art is subject to controversies and has varying forms. Völker (2009: 8) for example argues that it describes a relatively new phenomenon which began spreading significantly from around the year 2000 in mainly urban areas. While some define graffiti and street art as different fields, others find it difficult to establish both as clearly separate categories as its practices are often similar and inspire each other reciprocally. In fact, they date back long into history. The practice of scratching names and images into surfaces is for example documented for Ancient Pharaonic Egypt. (cp. Architektur 2016) 31 Cp. interview with Ammar Abo Bakr by Fabian Heerbaart, March 20, 2013.


in. Its discursive aftermath often continues in photos that go viral on the internet, spreading quickly as the latest good joke does. Politics try to shape public and private behavior and thought by discursive as well as architectural and design policies. Street art and humor have proved to be solid tools of counter-action although they seem to have lost momentum in Egypt and other countries for now. Nevertheless, they can take over walls and minds at any moment. In the Syrian city of Idlib, a local civil society organization called Kesh Malek (‘checkmate’) started the campaign Syrian Banksy Project in March 2019. (see Rizik 2019) Referencing international events, brands and elements of global popular culture, the collective brilliantly links a global audience to their local problematics. One of their pieces depicted the iron throne from the Grammy-winning series Game of Thrones, rephrasing one of the series’ trademark sentences “Winter is coming” to: “Game of Freedom – Arab spring is here”. As this example shows, humor can be used not only as a trigger to initiate change but also to keep spirits up. Whereas humor had initially served the protestors to overcome the wall of fear the politicians in power had tried to build, at later stages humor was increasingly used to keep up the morale of resistance despite setbacks, while finally, during and after the year 2013 humor became a means to express despair, pain and shock. These later forms of political humor can be perceived as channels for coping with and reflecting on the disastrous developments shaped by counter-revolution, autocratic rule and extreme political violence. As a tendency, the character and spirit of humor in those countries in which protests took place transformed from a self-confident, defiant, and rebellious tone into a more defensively oriented device to express the disgrace and outrage about the failure of the revolutions or, as Nohia Rashwan (2019) has shown in the case of the Egyptian musician and song writer al-Manahwaly, moved from satirizing regimes to satirical selfcritique. In some cases, laughter has mingled with expressions of traumatic shock or deeply-rooted despair or even disgust. This kind of dark, cynical or grotesque humor and sarcasm is essential for coping with deteriorating situations in which nothing else seems to be left. At the same time, various Arab satirical websites and online shows have emerged since 2011, using humorous elements to critically comment on political events and expose their absurdities. Another example like the above mentioned is the Jordanian


Website al-Hudood (‘Limits’)32 whose co-founder Isam Uraiqat defines the aim of satire as “to deliver an idea in a different way, if it’s too difficult or painful to say” (Stuart 2016). While the satire on the website covers a wide thematic scope, including biting sarcastic lampooning of Arab politicians and leaders, it is always careful to adhere to red lines, which Kamal Khoury, the other co-founder of al-Hudood, explains as follows: “We don’t offend God or the [Jordanian] king.” (ibid) In many countries, in particular Lebanon, a vivid stand-up comedy scene has emerged with increasingly dark and taboobunting humor. For Egypt for instance, Richard Jacquemond (2016: 366) observes that “satire remains a privileged form of expression of the Egyptian youth’s discontent with the current state of affairs as well as a way to cultivate the spirit of freedom they experienced during the years 2011-2013”. Several of the articles in this volume address transformations of the usage and function of political humor, showing a great diversity of perspectives from which humor tells us about shared values and attitudes, critical thinking and collective patterns of political judgment. Arranged according to different regions, the contributions shed light on the specific local developments and characteristics of a wide range of forms and genres of political humor, opening up deeper comparative perspectives about them. The diverse humorous forms expressing current political critique must be read as significant indicators of the state of affairs and changes in a country’s political culture. To evaluate political and social changes from an economic, social or strictly political perspective will remain limited unless it is complemented by a thorough analysis of the cultural dynamics and structures at work (including their historical developments and references). For humorous art forms like the political cartoon “offer analysis and criticism of actors and institutions often absent from Western media, a deep dive into local concerns that go beyond news reportage” (Guyer 2016: 210) and economic-political analysis. Although some countries like Libya, Yemen, Bahrain or Algeria as well as some art forms relevant to political humor could not be included in this edited volume, the wide regional scope and diversity

32 See Some contents on the website are translated into English and provided at Another prominent example with millions of Arab viewers is for instance the Joe Show (see https://www. by the Egyptian Youssef Hussein, who lives in exile.


of forms of cultural expression analyzed in this book contributes significantly to a deeper understanding of the social and political role of humor and satire in the MENA-region. In the first part, which addresses the Maghreb region, Nathanael Mannone (Beyond Tanfis: Performativity and Quotidian Humor in Revolutionary Tunisia) highlights the situation of recent Tunisian satirical practice and performance by giving examples of humor and its function as a political, albeit ambivalent, weapon during two distinct political periods: Ben Ali’s government and the aftermath of the revolution in 2010/11. While the presented comic statements are made by Tunisians for a Tunisian audience, the metaphors being evoked are often universal. As indicated by its title, Mannone’s chapter lucidly transcends the discourse on humor as relief (tanfis), stressing rather the intricate ambivalences of the recent Tunisian politics of humor. Sébastien Boulay and Mohamed Dahmi’s article, entitled Humor, Mockery and Defamation in Western Sahara: How do Sahrawi Artists use New Media to Perform Political Criticism?, is about satire and comedy in the Sahrawi community in Western Sahara and the diaspora, engendered by a war between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front. By outlining the history of colloquial poetry in the Sahrawi community, the authors explore recent forms of mocking the leaders, which they describe as “politically correct violence”. However, it is important to note that this mockery might be quite controversial depending on the “target”, as it can be considered treason even within the community. In the second section on Egypt and the Sudan, Fabian Heerbaart in his chapter on political humor in Egypt (‘We celebrated to be Egyptian’: Humor in the work of younger Egyptian artists) examines various forms of art production such as street art, caricature, cartoon and stand-up comedy. He persuasively shows how humor is intertwined with the medium it is used in, uncovering the threatening aspect: it is not so much about the image itself as how it “acts”, and this agency challenges the monopoly of representation and interpretation – and, by doing so, the shaping of political power itself. While humor functioned as a moral resource during the revolution to strengthen one’s own positions and weaken the opposition, there is, as Heerbaart puts it, “nothing funny about politics right now”. In Stephan Milich’s contribution From equanimity to agony: Portraits of soldiers and police officers in two recent artwork series by Egyptian visual artist Nermine Hammam, the focus shifts towards different forms of humor in contemporary Egyptian visual arts


about the revolution, as exemplified by Egyptian photo artist Nermine Hammam. While in 2011 her art series Upekkha on young police officers still had an ironic, carnivalesque stance, 2012 witnessed a shift from the carnivalesque to the grotesque, expressing emotions of fright and terror in scenes of military violence against civilians put into the foreground of Japanese landscapes of beauty and silence. Liza Franke’s article, entitled A festival of resistance: poetic documents of the revolution, is about the influence of poetic language and topics on new feelings of identity and nationalism. She presents protest poetry created by the young generation of poets succeeding the leading “rebel” of political poetry in colloquial Egyptian, Ahmed Fuad Nagm. The author emphasizes their importance for the political resistance against authoritarianism and corruption. Shifting from Egypt to its southern neighbor Sudan, Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann gives an overview of Sudan’s recent history of civil unrest and its (dis-)connection with the uprisings in other countries of the Middle East and North Africa by focusing on political satire. In her chapter Towards an understanding of the role of political satire in Sudan, she identifies important similarities and differences between the Sudanese movement of political satire and those with greater media coverage like the Egyptian. Fuhrmann shows how collectives, formed via social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, not only documented, but accelerated protests in Sudan – and therefore changed the rules of political satire in terms of content, control and censorship. Like the previous articles on Egypt, this article too is defined by its complex articulation of the diverse creative ways the artists choose to get people out in the streets to demonstrate, a point which the Sudanese artists have in common with their Egyptian neighbors. The third section of the volume deals with forms of political humor in Syria, Palestine, Kuwait and Lebanon. Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf’s contribution ‘Candies from Eastern Ghouta’: Dark humor in visualizing the Syrian conflict focuses on the creative resistance of Syrian artists and activists during the civilian uprising which has now turned into one of the most terrible human catastrophes. Her chapter provides an overview of the forms and functions of political humor used by Syrian oppositional individuals and manifold, newly-established artist collectives between 2011 and 2013. At the beginning of the protests in 2011, political humor often ridiculed and derided the cult of personality around the formerly untouchable president Bashar alAsad and his father Hafez al-Asad, in order to break down existing fear-


barriers and mobilize protests. However, soon after the brutal crackdown on the protesters, humorous artistic expression was increasingly infused with forms of black humor. At the same time, the shock-effects created by turning atrocities and threats into objects of satire were used as a way to present and negotiate different perspectives and opinions on the revolution/war, document events and reveal the absurdities and paradoxes of social reality. Palestine, which has not been a central stage in the Arab uprisings, can nevertheless be perceived as being in a constant state of uprising due to the Arab-Israeli conflict that has been going on for more than 70 years, and the increasingly heavy tensions between citizens and state institutions. The perception that the merit of a work is measured by its usefulness is a burden long-shouldered by artists operating across diverse zones of conflict. This is particularly pronounced in Palestinian artistic production, as Chrisoula Lionis illustrates in her chapter entitled If a duck is drawn in the desert, does anybody see it? Humor, art and infrastructures of Palestinian statehood. As part of the nation-building project artists have long been charged with the responsibility of validating collective identity and narrating the Palestinian ‘story’. Her chapter investigates the way in which humor is employed in contemporary Palestinian art as a means to temper both this aforementioned burden, as well as the political, cultural and social impact of the failed ‘peace process’ and the continuous denial of a Palestinian sovereign state. Providing a conceptual framework of humor in contemporary art built around the key terms of the burden of proof, anticipatory aesthetics, over-identification and futurity, this chapter aims to shed light on the ways in which contemporary Palestinian art offers a space in which to enact infrastructures of Palestinian statehood and, in turn, mediate understandings of Palestine’s past, present and future. Anna Gabai (Dealing with Politics in Palestine: The Zan al-ʾAn Comics Project in Ramallah) discusses comics as a means of initiating political debate and satirical self-reflection. After giving an overview of the history of comics in Palestine, the author shows how comics and cartoons have contributed to its (ongoing) nation-building process and, at the same time, how they manage to raise controversial inter-Palestinian issues, addressing rather sensitive problems and grievances in humorous ways. Focusing on one recent example, Gabai highlights how Palestine’s popular artists in the Zan al-ʾAn Studio depict the Israel-Palestine conflict as a central theme by using irony to express the contrast between ideology and daily life struggles. In her article entitled From Kuwait’s Margins to Tolaytila’s


Mainstream: Sheno Ya3ni Challenging Social Positioning through Dystopian Satire, Fatema Hubail discusses a TV series called Sheno Ya3ni (‘So what!’) broadcast on a YouTube channel run by a group of young Kuwaiti comedians. Playing with the discrepancy between appearance and reality, the setting of the series is a place called Tolaytila (‘Toledo’) suggesting a “welcoming space, one that engages the same culture as the ancient city of Toledo once did” (Hubail). However, Tolaytila emerges as an uncanny, dystopian state of repression. Performed in colloquial Kuwaiti dialect, the comedy show addresses not only the Kuwaiti, but also a larger khaleeji audience. Hubail convincingly draws on French critic Jacques Rancière “to explore the ways in which Sheno Ya3ni creatively (re)negotiate[s] the boundaries of their social positionings as Kuwaiti citizens and khaleejis through dystopian satire” (Hubail). Last but not least, Fernanda Fischione’s chapter with the title A Critique of Religious Sectarianism through Satire: A Case Study of Lebanese Rap explores the concept of irony in Lebanese rap and the self-positioning of artists and musicians. While concentrating on rap as oral poetry and a form of storytelling, its social dimension in war-torn Lebanon is reflected on in terms of religious heterogeneity and perceived individual hybridity. Thus, humor and ironic criticism in rap music are often linked to the central issue of religion and taʾifiyya (‘sectarianism’, ‘confessionalism’), many times embracing a taboo-breaking direction. The authors of this volume wish to address the need for more comprehensive research on the various forms of political humor and its embeddedness in daily social and political struggles and practices. While much still needs to be done on the contents and conditions of production of humorous cultural expressions as well as its aesthetics, future research on political humor might concentrate more extensively on the manifold ways of reception and the effects political humor unfolds socially, culturally and politically. One crucial question for the present moment might be whether humor, the comic and laughter remain limited to their uses as a political weapon, as a tool for satirical critique and for coping with despair and restored repression (“relief”), or whether current forms of political humor can unfold a ‘positive’ potential to “cultivate” (Bayat 2017: 137) new forms of egalitarian sociality and practice that emerged during the mass protests, envisioning alternative social worlds. A better understanding of the social dynamics and more generally the political culture in the respective societies


requires deeper insights into the logic, nature, social contexts and effects of Arab political humor.

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eg/NewsContentPrint/5/0/19963/Arts--Culture/0/Revolutionary-satireBassem-Youssef-speaks-to-Ahra.aspx. Montgomery, James (2009): “Jahiz on Jest and Earnest”, In: George Tamer (ed.), Humor in der arabischen Kultur, Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 209-239. Morreall, John (2016): “Philosophy of Humor”, In: Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Naharnet (2014) “Egypt’s Bassem Youssef Back on Air, Mocking Sisi Mania”, February 8, Neuwirth, Angelika (2009): “Ayyu ḥarajin ʿala man ashaʿa mulaḥan? AlḤarīrī’s plea for the legitimacy of playful transgressions of social norms.” In: George Tamer (ed.), Humor in der arabischen Kultur. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, pp. 241-254. Ostrower, Chaya (2014): It Kept Us Alive: Humor in the Holocaust, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Publications. Ostrower, Chaya. (2015): “Humor as a Defense Mechanism during the Holocaust.” In: Interpretation 69/2, pp. 183–195. Pannewick, Friederike/Khalil, Georges (eds.) (2015): Commitment and Beyond. Reflections on/of the Political in Arabic Literature since the 1940s, Wiesbaden: Reichert. Papazoglou, Konstantinos (2012): “Humor and Trauma.” In: Charles Figley (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Trauma. An Interdisciplinary Guide, Sage Publications, pp. 315-316. Porta, Donatella/Mattoni, Alice (2014): “Patterns of Diffusion and the Transnational Dimension of Protest in the Movements of the Crisis: An Introduction.” In: ibid (eds.), Spreading Protest. Social Movements in Times of Crisis, pp. 1-18. Radwan, Noha M. (2012): Egyptian Colloquial Poetry in the Modern Arabic Canon: New Readings of Shi’r al-‘Ammiya, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Radwan, Noha M. (2019): “Post-Coup Recuperation in al-Manawahly’s Songs.” In: International Journal of Cultural Studies, 10.1177/1367877918821111. Rizik, Rana (2019): “War and Art: The Graffiti Movement in Syria.” In: The Atlantic Council, September 19, syriasource/war-and-art-the-graffiti-art-movement-in-syria/. Rosenthal, Franz (1956): Humor in Early Islam, Leiden: Brill.


Sabea, Hanan (2014): “‘I Dreamed of Being a People’: Egypt’s Revolution, the People and Critical Imagination.” In: Prina Werbner/Martin Webb/ Kathryn Spellman-Poots (eds.), The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest. The Arab Spring and Beyond, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 67-92. Sadiki, Larbi (2015): “Unruliness through Space and Time. Reconstructing ‘Peoplehood’ in the Arab Spring.” In: Larbi Sadiki (ed.), Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring. Rethinking Democratization. Abingdon, Oxon/New York: Routledge, pp. 1-13. Sadiki, Larbi (2016): “The Arab Spring: The ‘People’ in International Relations.” In: Louise Fawcett (ed.), International Relations of the Middle East, Edition 4, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 325-355. Salamandra, Christa (2015): “Syria’s Drama Outpouring. Between Complicity and Critique.” In: Christa Salamandra/Leif Stenberg (eds.), Syria from Reform to Revolt. Volume 2: Culture, Society, and Religion. Syracuse/New York: Syracuse University Press, pp. 36-52. Salem, Heba/Taira, Kantaro (2012): “al-Thaura al-daHika: The Challenges of Translating Revolutionary Humor.” In: Samia Mehrez (ed.), Translating Egypt’s Revolution. Cairo: AUC Press, pp. 183-212. Schutz, Charles E. (1977): Political Humor: From Aristophanes to Sam Ervin, Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses. Shahin, Bassem (2011): “Albert Cossery’s Revolutionary Poetics of a Poetics of Revolution.” In: Journal of Postcolonial Networks 1/2, pp. 1-41. Shehata, Samer S. (1992): “Politics of Laughter: Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak in Egyptian Political Jokes.” In: Folklore 103, pp. 75–91. Sorensen, Maijke Jul (2008): “Humor as a Serious Strategy of Nonviolent Resistance to Oppression.” In: Peace & Change 33/2, pp. 167-190. Stack, Liam (2013): “It’s ‘Sisi-Mania,’ as Nationalist Fervor Sweeps through Egypt.” In: New York Times, October 25, https://thelede.blogs.nytimes. com/2013/10/25/its-sisi-mania-as-nationalist-fervor-sweeps-throughegypt. Stokker, Kathleen (1995): Folklore Fights the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940–1945, Madison, NJ: Associated University Presses. Stuart, Hunter (2016): “Jordanian Website Turns to Satire to Combat Heavy News.” In: Middle East Eye, May 23, /features/jordanian-website-turns-satire-combat-heavy-news.


Swart, Sandra (2008): “‘The Terrible Laughter of the Afrikaner’ – Towards a Social History of Humor.” In: Journal of Social History 42/4, pp. 889917. Tamer, George (ed.) (2009): Humor in der arabischen Kultur, Berlin/New York: De Gruyter. Terrion, Jenepher Lennox/Ashforth, Blakon (2002): “From ‘I’ to ‘We’. The Role of Putdown Humor and Identity in the Development of a Temporary Group.” In: Human Relations 55/1, pp. 55-88. Tsakona, Villy/Popa, Diana Elena (2011): “Humour in Politics and the Politics of Humour: an Introduction.” In: ibid (eds.): Studies in Political Humour, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 1-32. Tsakona, Villy/Popa, Diana Elena (2013): Editorial: Confronting Power with Laughter. In: European Journal of Humor Research 1/2, pp. 1-9. Al-Tuchi, Nail (2012): “Ali Farasat.” In: SGMOIK 34, pp. 16-19. Al-Usta, ʿAdil (2002): Muzaffar al-Nawwab: al-sawt wal-sada, Cairo: Maktabat Madbuli. Üngör, Uğur Ümit/Verkerke, Valerie Amandine (2015): “Funny as Hell: The Functions of Humour during and after Genocide.” In: European Journal of Humour Research 2/3, pp. 80-101. Varol, Ozan O. (2014): “Revolutionary Humor.” In: Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 23, pp. 555-594. Völker, Clara (2009): “Street, Art, Hype.” In: Katrin Klitzke/Christian Schmidt (eds.), Street Art – Legenden zur Strasse. Berlin: Archiv der Jugendkulturen Verlag, pp. 10-15. Wahdan, Dalia (2014): “Singing the Revolt in Tahrir Square: Euphoria, Utopia and Revolution.” In: Prina Werbner/Martin Webb/Kathryn Spellman-Poots (eds.): The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest. The Arab Spring and Beyond, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 53-66. Walther, Wiebke (1994): “Camil Sidqi az-Zahawi (1994): Ein Irakischer Zindiq im ersten Drittel des Jahrhunderts.” In: Oriens 34, pp. 430-450. Wedeen, Lisa (2019): Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Werbner, Prina/Webb, Martin/Spellman-Poots, Kathryn (2014): “Introduction.” In: ibid (eds.), The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest. The Arab Spring and Beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 1-15.


Youkhana, Eva/Förster, Larissa (2015): “Introduction.” In: ibid (eds.), Grafficity. Visual Practices and Contestations in Urban Space, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, pp. 7-17.

Part I: The Maghreb (Tunisia, West Sahara)

Beyond Tanfis Performativity and Quotidian Humor in Revolutionary Tunisia NATHANAEL MANNONE 1

In the aftermath of the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, increasing attention has been paid to humor and its function as a political weapon or tool. Humor is well known for its utility as a coping mechanism and its ability to influence political discourse. However, we should be careful not to romanticize humor’s effects as wholly positive, for in the words of Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering (2015: 15), humor has the ability to “disturb conventional wisdom […] or drive us deeper into our prejudices”. While articulating his theory of carnivalesque laughter, Mikhail Bakhtin (1984: 94) instructs us that “laughter could never become a weapon to oppress and blind the people”, or that “its idiom is never used by violence and authority” (ibid: 90). In the broader world of comedic discourse however, we must acknowledge the pernicious effects of humor alongside its positive attributes; John Morreall (2005: 76-77) reminds us that fascists too used political humor to forestall debate. We may further recall the historical ubiquity of wartime caricatures and their centrality in othering enemies, as well as the role quotidian humor plays in structuring our values (and biases), leading one to conclude that humor is not simply a reflection of a given


The following chapter is based on a period of investigation spanning from 2010-2015 as well as fieldwork in Tunisia (2011, 2012, and 2013-2014).


society, but for better or worse, actively structures the world around us, similar to other discursive traditions and forms of cultural production. A performative view of humor does not set it apart from other forms of cultural production. Using the twin strategies of censorship and cooptation, Ben Ali’s regime clearly attempted to attenuate perceived threats within the creative industries and even the most quotidian forms of cultural production were not immune from the state’s gaze, threats of punishment, or the lure of ever-shifting patronage networks. However, even amid the stifling political climate during Ben Ali’s tenure, artists found remarkable and entertaining ways to criticize the regime. Moncef Dhouib’s 2006 comedic film, La Télé arrive pokes fun at hierarchical attempts to control Tunisian culture. (cp. La Télé Arrive 2006) This film depicts a town named al-Malga and its cultural committee led by a Mr. Fitouri, who receives a phone call from high office in the capital, informing him that a German television crew will be coming. The committee which is comprised of caricature personalities (the staunch feminist, the more or less clueless Islamist, the young leftist revolutionary, the corrupt and misogynist leader, among others) then scrambles to make the town friendlier to what they perceive as European dispositions and tastes. The cultural committee undertakes everything from the erection of a statue aimed at projecting contemporary Tunisian values without abandoning their cultural heritage (or reproducing clichés), to cleaning the streets, making costumes for all the inhabitants, and a welcome sign. Additionally, the town’s unemployed are instructed to sit in the central café, donning European-friendly attire and act as if they are all busy reading newspapers and books. At the end of the film, when the television crew arrives we learn that they came, in fact, to make a documentary about the venomous scorpions of North Africa in the hopes of promoting research to develop an anti-venom, rendering all of the committee’s preparations pointless. Several scholars have shown that under a repressive political system such as Tunisia’s before the revolution, film-makers often resort to allegory in order to pass the censors while still engaging in political discourse (cp. Lang 2007: 321; Gana 2011; Hayes 2000: 76; Martin 2011: 271-284; Mannone 2015: 62-85) and it is true that Dhouib’s film is a thinly masked allegory for the Ministry of Culture under Ben Ali and its policies in the cultural realm. 2


Dhouib even refers to this film as his “revenge” (Interview with Moncef Dhouib, May 9, 2014; cf. Interview with Moncef Dhouib, June 6, 2014).


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Looking beyond how the system of cultural control was reflected within cultural products, one does not need to look far for structural evidence of attempts to control artistic production that could potentially challenge the state: for instance, at the time of the revolution, only twelve cinemas remained in operation of the 110 operating at independence in 1956. (cp. Ennafaa 2013) In an analogous example, Mohamed-Salah Omri (1998: 137) has shown how there were more than 30 satirical newspapers in colonial Tunisia, in Arabic alone, not to mention others in French, Hebrew, and Italian. Khaled Kishtainy and Omri have also highlighted how political cartooning in colonial Tunisia debased and degraded the colonial administration and were widely popular. (cp. ibid; Kishtainy 1998: 81) By the eve of the 2011 revolution there was little room for critique of the regime, humorous or otherwise. In 1998, Omri (1998: 137) stated, “[t]oday, only the independent French-language weekly Tunis Hébdo can be considered a systemic, although limited, effort to carry on what was a vibrant tradition”. Omri’s work on the decline of satirical newspapers in Arabic in part illustrates that the enervation of cinemas was not solely the result of French attempts to cultivate a suzerain Francophonie economic bloc as Tunisian independence began to loom ever more likely – nor could said decline be traced to the impact of home video and piracy on cinematic markets later on – but was part of a larger trend in the systematic disassembly of Tunisian cultural industries in general. Cartoons’ potency in mirroring and reproducing popular political sentiments should come as no surprise as throughout their history – as Fatma Müge Göçek has shown, from their birth in the Italian renaissance, Louis XIV’s unsuccessful attempts to ban them outright, their role in the French Revolution, their exertion by world powers for propaganda purposes during both World Wars (cp. Göçek 1998: 1-12), to anti-colonial struggles, all the way to the present day – the character of cartoon and caricature has been markedly political throughout. Cartoon and caricature, while not always humorous, were deemed a threat and censored by both the French colonial regime and Bourguiba after independence. The perceived threat of the humorous demands that we revisit Bakhtin’s (1984) postulation that seriousness and laughter are mutually exclusive and even antagonistic. Indeed, for Jacques Derrida, the division between serious and non-serious speech-acts disappears when we embrace the idea of simultaneous


iterability.3 The serious potency of humor and cartooning is further acknowledged by the attempts of authorities before the revolution and undisclosed political parties after the revolution to hire several of Tunisia’s contemporary caricature and cartoon artists.4 Indeed, all governments, from the colonial regime to elements within the current government, have shown that they recognized the power of humor, both readily visible and hidden to the state. Orally transmitted jokes were not a tolerated form of expression in Tunisia prior to the revolution. During my fieldwork in Tunisia, several interlocutors have described the same ritual process they would go through in order to tell a joke about Ben Ali: They would shut the windows and blinds, turn off their mobile phones and place them face down in the other room, just in case the regime was able to listen through them. This practice was not limited to Tunisia, as Syrian writer and lawyer Khawla Dunia (2013: 180) informs us: “We switch off the phone and pull out the battery if we want to talk politics.” It is certainly a function of the academic gaze or rather the limitations of that gaze that my Tunisian friends only began telling me, a foreign researcher, jokes about Ben Ali’s regime after he was deposed. Still though, these jokes were told privately, in carefully controlled situations and company, and often spoke directly to contemporary politics. For example: After the attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush called Jacques Chirac and said, ‘we need to find Osama Bin Laden,’ so Chirac called his friend Zine Abidine Ben Ali and asked for some help. Ben Ali was happy to oblige and they all traveled to Afghanistan together. Upon finding the house, Bush went in alone and within 5


According to James Loxley (2007: 168), “Derrida argues that all marks or signifying elements – characters, words, sentences, pictures, hieroglyphs, gestures, uniforms and so on – must be repeatable or iterable; they must be able to function beyond a particular context or situation if they are to function as marks at all. A non-iterable mark just would not be a mark; it would not be able to signify or stand for something since it would not be recognizable as an element of language, a code or a system of signs. But the iterable mark therefore combines sameness and difference in a combination that is not necessarily stable: without being iterable, no mark could ever mean the same thing in different contexts; yet because it is iterable, a mark can never be constrained to signify a single meaning.”


N. Mannone, Notes from Fieldwork, September 2013 – June 2014. Tunis.


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minutes, emerged yelling ‘Allahu Akbar!’ – Bin Laden had converted Bush to Islam. Chirac thought, ‘how ridiculous!’ So he went in alone. After 20 minutes, he came back out yelling ‘Allahu Akbar!’ Bin Laden had converted Chirac to Islam as well. Ben Ali simply went in. An hour later, Bin Laden came out from the house yelling ‘Ben Ali 2009! Ben Ali 2009!’5

There are innumerable jokes that criticize the tactics employed, and margins by which Ben Ali won the supposed ‘elections’. There were, in addition to the jokes, overt critiques in other realms of cultural production as well. Protesting the ridiculous margin with which Ben Ali won the 1999 elections, Bendir Man (Bayrem Kilani), wrote the song 99%, which he summarized the overall message to me by sarcastically stating: “Ninety-nine per cent. I love our democracy.”6 In fact, Kilani’s whole stage persona was a tongue-incheek mockery of the system as a whole. Omri has pointed out that: The name itself, modelled after Superman, Batman, etc., refers to bandir or drum, and tbandir or drumming. Tunisians use this term to refer to singing the praises of and entertaining the powers that be, a sarcastic take on music and culture of those that supported and propagated the life of the regime. (Omri 2012: 143)

99% was not Kilani’s only foray into dissident music; his other songs such as Système and Raffle culminated into a corpus of dissident music that did not take him long to get noticed and he does not mince words in describing how Ben Ali’s regime attempted to silence him throughout his career: “they arrest[ed] me, beat me, stole my guitar, forbid my media and any concerts.”7 Although we do not have the room here for an exhaustive account of the pre-revolutionary state’s treatment of cultural production, one may clearly state that Ben Ali’s regime had its metaphorical fingers in virtually every genre and field, using financial incentives and punitive measures throughout to pervasively force its will upon the populace. Thus, it is not hard to imagine why many of the critiques taking aim at the Tunisian state under Ben Ali (or the elements of which it was comprised) were coded in the comedic register or allegory.


N. Mannone, Notes from fieldwork, July 18, 2012. Tunis.


Original emphasis. Interview with Bayrem Kilani (Bendir Man), August 3, 2011.




T UNISIAN H UMOR 2011-2013: S AFETY V ALVE OR P ERFORMATIVE P OLITICS ? Since Ben Ali fled the country on January 14, 2011, politicians have been mocked via every possible medium. The now-defunct televised puppet show Logik Siyassi (Lujik al-siyasi), which means ‘Political Logic’, hilariously criticized politicians and even assembled marionettes of the leader of the Ennahdha party, Rached Ghannouchi, then President Moncef Marzouki, and Prime Minister Hamadi Jebeli into a rap group called the Troika Boys who offered ballads tailored to be both topical and timely. 8 The talented Seyes Khouk, whose name might be translated as ‘take it easy on your brother’, imitates the leading politicians’ voices over the radio and pits them against the problems of the day. (cp. Seyes Khouk 2015) Captain Khoubza is a web cartoon series depicting a Tunisian superhero, who dons a chechia (traditional cap), a cigarette dangling from his lips and battles the forces of evil despotism with his baguette. (cp. “Captain 5obza” 2012) The superhero cartoon character was inspired by a photograph taken in 2011 of a male protestor ‘defying’ police by dropping to one knee, pointing his baguette at the lines of approaching police like a rifle being fired from the hip, with a cigarette effortlessly dangling from the side of his mouth; an act that earned him the proud moniker of ‘Bread Captain.’ (cp. News Wires 2011) Captain Khoubza has also released several comical mini-series including a spoof of the American television show Lost (2004-2010). In Dho3na (‘We are Lost’), Tunisia’s leading politicians had to survive on a desert island after their plane crashed because they could not agree on a destination. (cp. “Dho3na” 2013) Captain Khoubza – in the feature film, the web-shorts, or in one of the series (such as Dho3na) – relies absolutely on an intricate understanding of national politics as they develop in order to comprehend the references, the punch lines, and the critiques that each line of dialogue is meant to evoke; it is timely, intertextual, comedic critique that is, crucially, made by Tunisians for a Tunisian audience. At the same time, the metaphors evoked within the series (e.g. political leaders crashing a plane due to indecision and infighting) are often universal.


Unfortunately, however, at the time of this writing the show has stopped production amid speculation that political pressure was behind its being taken off-air. (cp. Muhadhab 2012)


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The more visible and well-known productions however, are only the tip of the iceberg in the socio-political gauntlet that Tunisian comedy has become. For instance, modeled after the photo-blog Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things (cf. Rocha 2010-2013), which showcased a seemingly endless array of photos wherein the now-deceased North Korean leader inspected the most minute of national issues (cp. ibid), the Tumbler account Moncef Marzougui Looking at Things attempted the same levity. It aggregates a selection of President Marzouki’s well-staged ‘photo ops’, as he inspects everything from agricultural production to hospitals and the Boy Scouts, into a collection, inspired by global culture and curated to illustrate the ridiculousness of political theatre. (cp. “Moncef Marzougui looking at things” 2012-2015) The start-up bande dessinée Lab 619 made by a consortium of Tunisian caricature and cartoon artists (first published in March of 2013) has criticized everything from emigration to Europe to commodification of the revolution. The number 619 evokes the first three numbers of a bar code for products made in Tunisia, suggesting that it is purely Tunisian. Perhaps more important than the content of the series are the efforts made by its contributors to promote the art form of caricature in Tunisia: They meet often to steer the direction of the magazine and the topics it discusses, and they travel around the country in their spare time to offer free workshops for those who want to learn cartooning.9 Their workshops, like the magazine, were predominantly self-funded in order to maintain their “creative freedom” (Ben Hamadi 2014), and it was only in the third edition10 of the magazine that the team took the difficult decision of accepting sponsorship from an advertiser in order to offset production and distribution costs.11 In addition to radio, cinema and printed cartoon and caricature, the revolution has also opened space allowing for the creation of a veritable deluge of memes.12 Taking the meme as a lens into quotidian humor, one can easily


Interview with Daoud Chakib, December 1, 2013; cf. Interview with Nidhal Ghariani, December 5, 2013; cf. Interview with Noha Habaieb, April 19, 2014.

10 At the time of this writing (February 2016), Lab 619 has published its Fifth Edition. 11 N. Mannone, Notes from Fieldwork, September 2013 – June 2014. Tunis. 12 Usually, memes are understood as computerized cultural productions with the potential to be widely circulated and can range from a simple picture with a caption to viral videos.


see how patterns of production, transmission, consecration and consumption have changed. Perhaps more importantly, the simple fact that nearly anyone can create a meme in just a few minutes that could potentially go viral means that memes and meme-caricatures could potentially offer a more accurate barometer of popular political sentiments than past forms of cultural production. The resultant form of discourse, or rather the extension of existing discourses, could be viewed as an expansion on Foucault’s (1995: 281) postulation that “[d]elinquency functions as a political observatory. In their turn, the statisticians and the sociologists have made use of it, long after the police.” Lisa Wedeen has also touched on the dynamics of open political critique and discourse to be read as an alternative system of signification by stating: For an authoritarian regime that relies primarily on public dissimulation, the existence of alternative yet carefully circumscribed visions of political life operates as a mechanism of surveillance – a barometer for reading (even tempting expressions of) contempt and frustration among ordinary citizens. (Wedeen 1999: 91)

It is no surprise therefore that former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser was reported to have requested frequent briefings on the jokes being told about his government. (cp. Kishtainy 1998: 147) These meme-cartoons, which may be a new generation’s adaptation of the time-honored art form of political cartooning, are already intertextual but also constitute a key element within a collage of different forms of production that are available at any moment to take up everything from the most universal to topical of issues. The use of memes further allows monitorial citizens to be ready, to borrow a simile from Henry Jenkins, similar to a parent at a pool: They are not “absentee” but “poised for action if action is required” (Jenkins 2006: 226). With the advent of the meme-caricature, the ability to censor and control cartoon production has been destabilized. This is of course because of a multitude of factors: first, a meme costs very little to produce or consume; second, there are few barriers to entry (mainly, the use of a computer and access to the internet) (cp. Rowley 2015); third, because they are often image files and can appear in such profusion means that they can be difficult to censor or control. Lastly, because memes do not originate in copyrighted material and are often made anonymously, they take up far more controversial issues often well before other forms of cultural production, with (relatively) less fear of repercussion. Memes share this attribute with


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anonymously produced or pseudonym-authored online cartoons, such as the Tunisian web cartoon DebaTunisie.13 We should note however that while it is difficult to identify and force the creator of a meme to account for a given message it still has to be shared and circulated, which is where the exposure to government reprisals may be highest depending on the laws of the state in question. (cp. Butler 2011) The utility of memes for one seeking to engage with controversial topics is observable throughout many issues. For example, during the aftermath of the revolution many decried the money they believed was being funneled to Tunisia’s Islamist parties from Qatar. Evidence of Qatar’s business influence in post-revolutionary Tunisia continued to mount, as it purchased a number of Tunisian companies and “bought 380 million euros of treasury bills and promised to fund a series of projects in energy, environment, water, real estate, humanitarian and social issues and a contribution to Tunisia’s Martyr’s Fund for families of the dead and injured” (Kilkelly 2013). Memes were present from the very start and have incessantly, brutally critiqued the Ennahdha-Qatar partnership. Internet discourse became so vicious that interim President Moncef Marzouki asked Tunisians to stop criticizing Qatar, which of course back-fired, and netizens responded with a Facebook page entitled Campaign to insult the state of Qatar which gained 23.000 supporters in 48 hours. (cp. ibid) Memes therefore are extremely similar to cartoons in that, to quote Omri: As Cultural representations, cartoons are deeply intertextual, and, like most humor, very local. Because they are based on quick effect and condensation, they naturally draw on formulas, euphemisms, proverbs, and even clichés. (Omri 1998: 139)

In line with Tunisia’s first president after independence, Habib Bourguiba, who had promoted theatre and television as “educational and civic tool[s]” (Perkins 2004: 183), Ben Ali attempted to promote internet penetration and individual ownership of computers in Tunisia. (cp. Hanley 2005) In a 2005 interview with Delinda C. Hanley, Ben Ali stated:

13 The author of DebaTunisie goes simply by the name Z, in order to avoid repercussions from publication of cartoons. (cp. The Economist 2011)


We’ve built computer and Internet clubs in cultural centers across the country. We’ve connected educational institutions, from primary schools to universities, to the Internet. We even offer low- or middle-income Tunisian families opportunities and incentives to purchase ‘family computers’. (ibid)

Indeed, as of December 2009, 3.5 million Tunisians had access to the internet in a country with a total population of 10.5 million. (cp. Miniwatts Marketing Group 2012) Since Ben Ali’s ouster, internet penetration has continued to rise and in 2012, roughly 4.2 million Tunisians had access to the internet. These numbers stand in stark contrast to the one per cent (or 100.000 people) internet penetration reported in the year 2000 (cp. ibid), a figure nonetheless unsurprising given the early stage of internet development and infrastructure worldwide. Memes’ aforementioned attributes, coupled with ever-rising internet penetration that was estimated at the end of 2014 to be around 49 per cent of the total population of Tunisia (cp. ibid), has made user generated content on the internet one of several key loci of epistemic violence. Omri (1998: 139) pointed out that during the Gulf Conflict, most news came from “tightly controlled” Western media outlets and thus, cartoons had helped to fill a gap in commentary and perspective. Speaking to the American context, Henry Jenkins (2006: 210) claims that, “[t]hose silenced by corporate media have been among the first to transform their computer into a printing press”. Jenkins contends that this is because the “low barriers to entry expand access to innovative or even revolutionary ideas […]” (ibid), finally adding, “[…] images (or more precisely the combination of words and images) may represent as important a set of rhetorical resources as texts” (ibid: 222). Jenkins was speaking specifically about the importance of word-image combinations within the American context, but user-generated content may be even more important within the Tunisian context. It is clear that with the exception of the Francophone media, news-media coverage of the Tunisian revolution and events since (compared to Egypt for example) has not been particularly high. Ethan Zuckerman’s analysis of Google Trends data on January 12, 2011 (two days before Ben Ali fled) showed how within the Anglophone press, Tunisia’s revolution had garnered a “spike of attention that’s lower than the attention Tunisia received for losing to Ukraine in the first round of the 2006 World Cup” (Zuckerman 2011). The relative dearth of media coverage on Tunisia may be a mixed blessing: Tunisia’s media presence has been, and is likely to continue to be, overshadowed by coverage


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of other states in the region. Concurrently, it confers power upon usergenerated content and indigenous production, allowing Tunisians greater ability to articulate narratives of events with less foreign media influence. The low barriers to entry, low cost, and the difficulty involved in censoring this born-digital material as well as its role in shaping the numerous competing discourses have all had an effect in propelling the timehonored art of online caricature and cartoon-making. While one might suspect that this trend could be seen as devaluing or ‘watering down’ the artistic value of caricature, it is notable that many of Tunisia’s cartoonists and caricaturists nobly celebrate the rise of this new form of expression and do not see it as an affront to their creative space.14 Many in fact use online media to disseminate their comic strips and to publish quickly their most topical of political commentaries.15 (cp. Ben Hamadi 2014) However, we should note that caricatures have not migrated completely online; the morning papers in Tunisia, which have also increased in number since the revolution, will continue to publish caricatures, and many caricature artists continue to publish both in print and online.16 This process is consistent with Jenkins’ contention that the internet will not supplant television or other instruments of diffusion, but will propel further integration between the media, towards “convergence.”17

14 N. Mannone, Notes from fieldwork, September 2013 – June 2014. Tunis. 15 Cf. N. Mannone, Notes from Fieldwork, December 2013 – June 2014. Tunis. 16 Many of the contributors to Lab619 fall within this category. 17 Jenkins (2006: 243) elaborates on convergence: “Convergence does not depend on any specific delivery mechanism. Rather, convergence represents a paradigm shift – a move from medium-specific content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, towards increased interdependence of communications systems, towards multiple ways of accessing media content, and toward ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture. Despite rhetoric about “democratizing television,” [sic] this shift is being driven by economic calculations and not by some broad mission to empower the public […]. In some cases, convergence is being pushed by corporations as a way of shaping consumer behavior. In other cases, convergence is being pushed by consumers who are demanding that media companies be more responsive to their tastes and interests.”


T ANFIS , C ONSECRATION , T ECHNOLOGY , AND R ESISTANCE Contemporary performative philosophies of action extend the poststructuralist theories of symbolic violence, in addition to our individual complicity in the reproduction of power, down to language itself. James Loxley (2007: 40) states: “[W]e could hardly claim, surely, that the ordinary language through which we live is not penetrated by or complicit with unequal power relations, relations that accomplish the oppression or silencing of certain social groups.” In anticipation: to support this interpretation of performativity does not entail falling into Lila Abu-Lughod’s trap that there exists a propensity within social science to interpret “all forms of resistance as signs of the ineffectiveness of systems of power and of the resilience and creativity of the human spirit in its refusal to be dominated” (Abu-Lughod 1990: 42). On the contrary, dissident or critical though some utterances may be, there is also the complicit, contentious, or pernicious side as well. Even if a product or speech act is not consecrated as truth by some other entity, as it is circulated, it has an impact, however small, on socio-political consciousness. Wedeen succinctly summarized and criticized the argument of those who do not see the political in the everyday by stating: Syrian resistance is made up primarily of mundane transgressions that do not aim to overthrow the existing order. Some scholars have argued against designating these largely discursive triumphs as ‘political’, because they cannot affect the overall situation of the regime’s dominance. But ignoring these transgressive practices, as James C. Scott18 points out, may mean neglecting the lived circumstances in which collective action is generated and sustained; quotidian struggles can and do grow into large-scale and conscious challenges to the political order […] The popularity of political satires and cartoons and the prevalence of jokes unfavorable to Asad tell us that although Syrians may not challenge power directly, neither do they uncritically accept the regime’s version of reality. (Wedeen 1999: 87)

18 Cf. Scott, James C. (1990): Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New Haven: Yale University Press.


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With the benefit of retrospection in having witnessed the region’s numerous (ongoing) revolutions and within them, how the everyday, ‘quotidian struggles’ became ‘direct challenges,’ we have an opportunity to take Wedeen’s point further. Jokes and humorous discourse are not limited to criticizing the government, but society as well, often by harnessing or criticizing (and in many cases, both simultaneously) patriarchy, heteronormativity, religion, and even national or regional rivalries in the process. To take an example, people from the Tunisian city of Sfax are stereotyped to be very good in dealing with money, and this perception is continually (re)produced in popular humor. For example, there is a joke stating that: “If a Sfaxian is given a mansion in heaven, he will rent it out and go to live with his mother-in-law in hell.”19 This joke, like all that evince the stereotypes or biases of a given populace, does more than simply reflect said biases; they actively create them. In their work exploring the intersection of racism and humor, Dennis Howitt and Kwame Owusu-Bempah succinctly argue: Even those ignorant of the stereotype can decipher the joke as reflecting a stereotype. In other words, the joke builds the stereotype, the stereotype does not make the joke. The stereotype is firmly established by the joke despite its unfamiliarity to the listener. (Howitt/Owusu-Bempah 2005: 48)

On the one hand, these jokes attack or produce the social structures upon which the political status quo depends, on the other, they most certainly act as a coping mechanism.20 The relieving effect of humor is enshrined in the Tunisian expression Kuthr al-ham ydhahak (‘excessive sorrow makes you laugh’), or to give a possible English analogue, ‘you have to laugh to keep from crying.’ In light of this function, one of the main questions that must be asked is, to what extent did Ben Ali’s regime utilize that relieving function and attempt to exploit it into what Wedeen and Cooke have referred to as a metaphorical “safety valve” (Wedeen 1999: 72)? Several scholars, most notably Wedeen, postulate that in Hafiz al Asad’s Syria, tanfis (‘letting out air’ or ‘breathing room’) (cp. ibid: 88), was allotted for these expressions to

19 N. Mannone, Notes from Fieldwork, June – August 2012. Tunis. 20 “The joke creates ‘others’; it does much more than simply reflect the tellers’ and listeners’ feelings.” (Howitt/Owusu-Bempah 2005: 57)


allow precisely for that relief, in order to prevent a larger challenge to the governing configurations of power, to project the façade of an open society, and to more closely monitor transgressions against the regime. (cp. ibid: 91; cf. Cooke 2007: 70-74) Evidence abounds that Ben Ali’s regime administered a tanfis-like space. Omri offers the most concise and convincing example of tanfis while showing that during the Gulf War of 1991, Ben Ali showed remarkable dynamism in the mechanisms of censorship when he allowed a larger margin of freedom to cartoon artists in dealing with the issue, effectively attempting to co-opt the momentum of the popular outrage wrought by the crisis. (cp. Omri 1998: 133-154) Omri’s work heavily substantiates beliefs that Ben Ali’s regime administered segments of cultural production when politically expedient or convenient. However, analyzing how humor has always been beneath the surface and has always “devoured” (Mbembe 1992: 11-12) the regime and its narratives and actively worked to structure the social world by impacting and maintaining habitus(es), we see how tanfis cannot efficaciously characterize a segment of cultural production or even a given cultural product. Nor does tanfis allow us to account for the potency of less visible (or less traceable) forms of humor, such as memes and orally transmitted jokes. While Ben Ali’s regime may have viewed some cultural productions as tanfis, the performative political impact of such works was not necessarily negligible. Within children’s comic books, according to Franz Fanon, the “collective aggressiveness” underlying widespread racism is released, chiefly upon the young. (cp. Fanon 2008: 124-126) The performative power of humor both with its ability to criticize a regime, and its tendency towards (re)production of power structures (especially those of misogyny or racism), would therefore seem to complicate any interpretation establishing a binary between ostensibly bona fide ‘resistance’ and that which is ‘everyday’. We should also note that many of the jokes taking aim at Ben Ali drew upon the matrices of sexuality or patriarchy and in so doing, reinforced some of the very social structures upon which his regime’s survival depended.21 While the available

21 The following joke is instructive in this regard: “Ben Ali wanted to see if his wife (Leila Trabelsi) was cheating on him so while she was sleeping, he placed a razor blade into her vagina. The next day, he went to the government headquarters only to find all but one of the ministers bleeding from the crotch of their pants. He


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evidence shows convincingly that a tanfis-like space was administered by multiple regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa, any observer bifurcating those works or speech acts that constitute direct political action and those which are simply ‘letting off steam’ ignore the liminality between the two categories and leave unacknowledged the dynamics by which a quotidian utterance or work becomes recognized as ‘resistant’. Wedeen’s (1999: 89) statement rings true that, “[a]bstract juxtapositions of the ‘safety valve’ formulation versus the idea of ‘resistance’ obscures the ambiguity of these practices, which, however, are no less political for being ambiguous”. In an effort to maintain academic reflexivity, we must also acknowledge that as a work’s resistant character is very much determined during its reception (and potential consecration as ‘resistant’), academics are very much a part of this process, which makes the act of bifurcating ostensibly ‘genuine resistance’ vis-à-vis everyday political expressions all the more problematic. The interplay between innumerable social fields provides many avenues of consecration for artists squeezed into the margins by neoliberal capitalism. Examples of this type of consecration abound before the revolution: In attempts to reach the webpage of a blogger who was censored, internet users would come across error message ‘404’.22 This became a badge of honor and often yielded the perception that if you were censored, you were probably speaking the truth. Tunisian cyber activist Azyz Amami (2011) even stated explicitly: “A blogger with a blog that wasn’t censored isn’t really a blogger… When they see Ben Ali blocking someone they knew this guy was telling the truth.”

turned to the one not bleeding from the pants and said, ‘All of these men are dead. But you, you will be my new Prime Minister.’ Honored, the minister replied ‘Thukran Thayyid al-Raʾith!’” (N. Mannone, Notes from fieldwork, June – August 2012. Tunis.) A knowledge of Arabic is essential for the punchline of this joke and yet, if a non-Arabic speaker was to understand that the man meant to say ‘Shukran Sayyid al-Raʾis’ (‘Thank you Mr. President!’) and yet was unable because, as is implied, his tongue was split resulting in a lisp, the joke becomes comprehensible. 22 ‘404 Page not found’ error message was used in a poor attempt to mask censorship with technical difficulties. Zuckerman shows how the Tunisian state attempted to “fool” users with the ‘404’ error message that the server could not be found. (cp. Zuckerman 2008b; Ben Mhenni 2008)


Zuckerman further explored the relation between curiosity and censorship in his 2008 Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism, which holds that if people cannot access ‘banal’, mundane, and non-political content such as pictures, videos, and tweets of cute cats, then they will learn how to use internet tools (such as forwarding proxy servers and other technology to block their IP address) in order to do so. (cp. Zuckerman 2008a) While it is important to note that Zuckerman’s theory does not contend that this process alone will politicize a population, he states: When the government blocks DailyMotion, it impacts a much wider swath of Tunisians than those who are politicially [sic] active. Cute cats are collateral damage when governments block sites. […] Blocking banal content on the internet is a self-defeating proposition. It teaches people how to become dissidents – they learn to find and use anonymous proxies, which happens to be a key first step in learning how to blog anonymously. Every time you force a government to block a web 2.0 site – cutting off people’s access to cute cats – you spend political capital. (Zuckerman 2008a)

One might add that upon censoring, the government does not just spend political capital, it can also bestow social or symbolic capital (cf. Bourdieu 1983) on censored parties. The evidence of this dynamic abounds: when discussing this theory as well as the cyclical nature of censorship and curiosity, caricature artist Nidhal Ghariani, known by his nom de plume, Needall, humorously proclaimed: “Exactly! It’s like that movie, ‘what’s in the box, man?!’”23 The aforementioned process of consecration has continued until today, although we now see artists going much further. In his rap entitled Boulicia Kleb (‘Police are Dogs’), Alaa Yaacoub, known by his stage name Weld El 15, stated: “In Eid I want to look for police to slaughter in the place of sheep,” (Weld El 15 2013) and, “as you made my father cry, I will burn your father” (ibid). Yaacoub was promptly charged with threatening police and was

23 Needall was referring to the end of the film Se7en, wherein one of two protagonists (Brad Pitt) begs his partner (Morgan Freeman) to tell him what is in the box he just received. Fearing his reaction, Freeman will not disclose its contents, and as Pitt continues to beg he quickly becomes emotionally distraught while demanding to know, “what’s in the box?!”. (cp. Interview with Nidhal Ghariani, December 5, 2013)


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incarcerated in 2013. (cp. BBC 2013) Tellingly, the BBC notes that their local correspondent volunteered that, “Yaacoub was not a popular performer in Tunisia, but received a lot of support from journalists and bloggers after he was charged” (ibid). Jabeur Mejri was also imprisoned for his cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohamed “in the nude”. (AFP Tunisia 2012) Weld el 15’s and Mejri’s respective cases have been taken up by many in Tunisia, abroad, and even Amnesty International. (cp. Amnesty International UK 2014; Amnesty International 2013) Many in Tunisia who have fought tooth and nail for freedom of expression view these artists’ incarcerations as an assault on their newly acquired liberties. However, during informal and offthe-record conversations with several artists, the suspicion was voiced that Mejri, Weld el 15 and others before them, purposely planned to cross the line of tolerable expression into the taboo in an attempt of creating ‘buzz’ or selfpromotion.24 The resentment of artists using this dynamic to their advantage is palpable. Using his popular character of E-Revolution, Ghariani published a single frame wherein his character points his finger at the reader and the words, tellingly written in English, read: “In my country if you’re still not famous it’s because you haven’t committed a fashionable stupidity yet.” (see figure 1) Figure 1: In my Country (series ERevolution by Nidhal Ghariani)

Source: Nidhal Ghariani 2013, with permission by the artist, https://www.face

24 N. Mannone, Notes from Fieldwork, September 2013 – June 2014. Tunis.


Referring to artists transgressing into the taboo in order to create ‘buzz,’ one artist who wanted to remain confidential remarked, “oh now they will get invited to international festivals!”25 Partly resulting from the aforementioned dynamic of creating ‘buzz,’ artists are themselves reproducing and policing the boundaries of tolerable expression. In 2012, in an attempt to criticize those who claim to speak in the name of Islam, Ghariani penned ‘Allah’ in Arabic calligraphy and added to it a copyright symbol with the words “all rights reserved.” (see figure 2) Figure 2: Allah (series ERevolution by Nidhal Ghariani)

Source: Nidhal Ghariani, 2012, with permission by the artist, https://www.face

Ghariani’s intention was to criticize those in his country that claim a monopoly right to interpret God’s will. Given that the Ennahdha party was in power at the time, as well as the religious challenge to their legitimacy coming from more conservative parties (e.g. Ansar al-Sharia), Ghariani’s caricature sought to highlight how religious comportment and interpretation had become a domain of appropriation, claims to legitimacy, and ultimately the right to speak. However, despite attempting to highlight competing claims to religious legitimacy, the cartoon was short-lived; the requisite number of people had reported it as ‘offensive content’ and Facebook had promptly removed it. More than having his work removed from Facebook,

25 Original emphasis. N. Mannone, Notes from Fieldwork, September 2013 – June 2014. Tunis.


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the reaction Ghariani received from his friends was the hardest to take: many assumed he meant it to be a joke but in his mind, it was a serious critique of politics. Ghariani further stated: I asked [my friends], ‘what did you understand from this?’ They didn’t know, they just thought it was sacrilege, something I wanted people to laugh about but it wasn’t. Not all caricatures, or my caricatures, are intended to make people laugh. 26

Comprehending that there had been a misunderstanding, Ghariani let matters rest and did not publicize the caricature further. 27 As the line delineating tolerable expression in Tunisia is negotiated freely for the first time in contemporary history, we should ask ourselves the (intentionally loaded) question, who should decide for Tunisians what constitutes an incitement to violence? Reception of censored works can vary, from ‘proper dissident’ to someone perceived (even if unfairly) as venturing into the taboo to create publicity or ‘buzz’. These cases illustrate that what words do in the world once uttered, as in Rolands Barthes’ critical essay The Death of the Author, it is the reception and reaction caused that determines performative value. (cp. Barthes 1997: 146-147) Thus, we see how a ‘resistant’ character is very much determined in the consumption of a work or utterance, which should cause observers (including academics) to give pause before designating the character of a work as bona fide dissent, for we too act as mechanisms of consecration through which a work’s character is determined. These cartoons, memes, series, and orally transmitted jokes are no different from other forms of cultural production; although their performative character is certain, their perlocutionary function and political impact is determined during reception.




Expounding on Bakhtin’s (1984: 90) contention that laughter or the grotesque “is never used by violence and authority”, Achille Mbembe

26 Interview with Nidhal Ghariani, December 5, 2013. 27 Ibid.


(1992: 10) claims that “the official world mimics popular vulgarity, inserting it at the very core of the procedures by which it takes on grandeur”. Indeed, Derridian simultaneous iterability in humor, or a “mark” or utterance’s potential to be repeated in different contexts (cp. Loxley 2007: 168) for the purpose of humor, is a strategy very much employed by authorities, institutions, and even states. In 2011, shortly after Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia, the Tunisian Tourism Board began an advertising campaign designed by the advertising firm Memac Ogilvy that was at once insensitive to the sacrifices and suffering endured by the Tunisian people but also, a brilliant advertising campaign designed to refute the negative image of Tunisia brought about by what little coverage it did receive during the revolution, turning it on its head by employing simultaneous iterability. The Board took out advertisements on London buses that brandished the phrases: “They say that in Tunisia, some people receive heavy-handed treatment”, beside a picture of someone receiving a massage (BBC 2011). Another reads, “They say Tunisia is nothing but ruins”, while depicting a tourist exploring some of Tunisia’s magnificent archeological heritage (ibid). These were not the only advertisements on display, and there were several other puns utilizing the same formulae to provocatively downplay Tunisia’s then-current image in the media. The campaign effectively sought to address, mimic, and devalue foreign images of Tunisia as racked by violence and unrest, and instead, in truly Bakhtinian fashion, attempt to destroy that fear with laughter. Another brilliant example of an institution exerting an iterable mark in humorous fashion can be found in the NGO Engagement Citoyen’s 2011 stunt in La Goulette: On the morning of October 17, 2011, inhabitants of La Goulette and passers-by awoke to a large picture of Ben Ali plastered to El Karraka Fort, similar to those that once adorned billboards, shop walls, and even the sides of apartment buildings before the leader’s deposition. A video of the event entitled Ben Ali is Back, was posted on YouTube shortly thereafter. The video shows Tunisians infuriated by the reappearance of Ben Ali’s likeness and in reaction, they gather and begin to tear down the poster. Once the poster had been removed completely, a message underneath read: “Beware, dictatorship can return. On October 23rd, go vote.” (“The Return of Dictator Ben Ali” 2012) This time using the near-universally loathed image of Ben Ali and all of the political sentiments it would provoke, knowing that


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it would circulate widely on the web – in order to create ‘buzz’ – an NGO was using risqué humor for political purposes. Humor is not simply the domain of the people but is exerted by companies to sell everything from blankets to yogurt as well as by nongovernmental organizations and even governments towards any number of diverse aims. We should be careful not to wholly interpret humor as a symbolic reclamation or triumph over the authorities; for humor has always been a functional layer in the schemata of cultural production, and by that we mean a base from which the observable and more tangible elements in a society are articulated and take shape. Further, if we embrace performative philosophies of action, humor absolutely has an impact on socio-political consciousness that we should be careful not to gloss over, even if one determines that a work or speech act constitute tanfis. Most importantly perhaps, as Mbembe pointed out when speaking about obscenity, humor is a domain where the structures of social and political power are not only “subverted” but can be “reaffirmed” and reproduced as well. (cp. Mbembe 1992: 29) From caricatures and memes, to the jokes now being told freely in the street, an epistemological battle is continually raging throughout the fields of Tunisian cultural production and in many ways, quotidian humor and cartooning represent the frontlines.

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Ennafaa, Dora (2013): “Tunisie: La salle CinéVog au Kram renaît de ses cendres.” In: HuffPost Maghreb July 14, http://www.huffpostmaghreb. com/2013/07/14/tunisie-cinevog-kram_n_3593746.html. Fanon, Franz (2008): Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Press. Foucault, Michel (1995): Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House. Gana, Nouri (2011): “Essential Viewing: Five Tunisian Films from a Postrevolutionary Perspective.” In: Jadaliyya April 18, http://www. Göçek, Fatma Müge (1998): “Political Cartoons as a Site of Representation and Resistance in the Middle East.” In: Fatma Müge Göçek (ed.), Political Cartoons in the Middle East, Princeton: University Press, pp. 1-12. Hanley, Delinda C. (2005): “Tunisia’s President Ben Ali Seeks Solidarity to End Poverty.” In: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April, pp. 39-41, Hayes, Jarrod (2000): “A Man Is Being Raped: Nouri Bouzid’s Man of Ashes and the Deconstruction of Sexual Allegories of Colonialism.” In: Maureen Eke/Kenneth W. Harrow/Emmanuel Yewah (eds.), African Images. Recent Studies and Text in Cinema, Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, pp. 73-88. Howitt, Dennis/Owusu-Bempah, Kwame (2005): “Race and Ethnicity in Popular Humour.” In: Sharon Lockyer/Michael Pickering (eds.), Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 45-62. Jenkins, Henry (2006): Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York: University Press. Kilkelly, Colin (2013): “Qatar’s Influence in Tunisia.” In: Tunis Times October 15, FRIDE.pdf. “Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things”, 2010-2013 (http://kimjongillookingat Kishtainy, Khalid (1998): Arab Political Humour, London: Quartet Books Limited.


Lang, Robert (2007): “Sexual Allegories of National Identity in Nouri Bouzid’s Bezness (1992).” In: The Journal of North African Studies 12/3, pp. 309-328. La Télé Arrive/The Television is Coming (2006): Tunisia/France, R: Moncef Dhouib. Lockyer, Sharon/Pickering, Michael (2005): “Introduction: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humour and Comedy.” In: Sharon Lockyer/Michael Pickering (eds.), Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-24. Loxley, James (2007): Performativity, New York: Routledge. Mannone, Nathanael (2015): “Intertextuality in Tunisian Cinema: State, Allegory, and ‘Sexual Breathing Room’.” In: Middle Eastern Literatures 18/1, pp. 62-85. Martin, Florence (2011): “Cinema and State in Tunisia.” In: Josef Gugler (ed.), Film in the Middle East and North Africa: Creative Dissidence, Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 271-284. Mbembe, Achille (1992): “Provisional Notes on the Postcolony.” In: Journal of the International African Institute 16/1, pp. 3-37. Miniwatts Marketing Group: “Internet World Stats, Internet Usage Statistics for Africa”, Accessed March 11, 2013, http://www.internetworldstats. com/stats1.htm. Miniwatts Marketing Group: “Internet World Stats, Usage and Population Statistics: Tunisia”, Accessed March 11, 2013, http://www.internetworld “Moncef Marzougui looking at things”, 2012-2015 (http://moncefmarzougui Morreall, John (2005): “Humour and the Conduct of Politics.” In: Sharon Lockyer/Michael Pickering (eds.), Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 63-78. Muhadhab, Iman (2012): “al-Bramij al-sakhira tuzʿij al-hukuma alTunisiya.” In: Al Jazeera August 28, News Wires (2011): “Baguette-Wielding Superhero is Facebook Sensation.” In: France 24 July 19, Omri, Mohamed-Salah (1998): “‘Gulf Laughter Break’: Cartoons in Tunisia during the Gulf Conflict.” In: Fatma Müge Göçek (ed.), Political


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Cartoons in the Middle East, Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publications, pp. 133-154. Omri, Mohamed-Salah (2012): “A Revolution of Dignity and Poetry.” In: boundary 2, 39/1, pp. 137-165. Perkins, Kenneth J. (2004): A History of Modern Tunisia, Cambridge: University Press. “Raffle”, September 18, 2009 ( CI-1RE). Rowley, Marc (2015): “Of Memes, Macros, and the Mainstream.” In: Littérature et résonances médiatiques: nouveaux supports, nouveaux imaginaires, Cahier ReMix 5/1, Montréal: Figura, remix/of-memes-macros-and-the-mainstream. Scott, James C. (1990): Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New Haven: Yale University Press. Seyes Khouk (Mosaique FM): Comprehensive list of Podcasts, accessed July, 2015, “Système”, September 18, 2009 ( HWnSaY4). The Economist (2011): “Drawing Tunisia’s Revolution.” In: The Economist November 23, tical-cartoons. “The Return of Dictator Ben Ali”, February 8, 2012 ( com/watch?v=um5QvW5XHwY). Wedeen, Lisa (1999): Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Zuckerman, Ethan (2008a): “Sami Ben Gharbia and Video Activism.” In: My Heart’s in Accra February 8, 2008/02/08/sami-ben-gharbia-and-video-activism/. Zuckerman, Ethan (2008b): “The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.” In: My Heart’s in Accra March 8, 2008/03/08/the-cute-cat-theory-talk-at-etech/. Zuckerman, Ethan (2011): “What if Tunisia Had a Revolution, but Nobody Watched?” In: My Heart’s in Accra January 12, http://www.ethanzucker “99%”, September 18, 2009 ( GFnw).

Humor, Mockery and Defamation in Western Sahara How Do Sahrawi Artists Use New Media to Perform Political Criticism?1 S ÉBASTIEN B OULAY & M OHAMED D AHMI

It may seem surprising or even morally wrong to speak of humor in the context of conflict, of repeated human tragedies and of individual and collective suffering. Yet, as one becomes interested in the artistic productions that circulate on the web, coming from Western Sahara and Sahrawi society, one realizes quickly that humor and mockery occupy a significant position. The circulation of this cultural production on the web reaches audiences and stirs up discussions of sensitive issues that could not otherwise be discussed in public. The war opposing the Moroccan government2 and the Polisario Front – Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro created in May 1973 – lasted fifteen years (1976-1991). The cease-fire was to lead the Polisario Front, under the guidance of the UN, to a referendum on selfdetermination for the Sahrawis. Since then, a situation of neither war nor peace between both sides has persisted, with one side occupying the western part of a vast territory of more than 260.000 km2, while the other side controls


Our sincere thanks to Mick Gewinner and Joanna Allan for proof-reading this text.


Mauritania withdrew from the conflict in 1979 (with no casualties) after failing to obtain the southern part of Western Sahara.


the eastern section.3 While actual fighting is no longer taking place, the war has continued on other fronts. Those include human rights abuses in the Moroccan-controlled area, and media and information censorship which have been exacerbated by the emergence in the mid-2000s of lively web performances. The Sahrawi population currently lives in three areas: 1. the refugee camps near Tindouf (southwestern Algeria), hastily set up in late 1975/early 1976 after the Moroccan invasion of the territory and from which a Sahrawi state in exile emerged – the Saharawi Republic proclaimed on February 27, 1976; 2. the area under the control of Rabat which clearly established a policy to occupy the territory (through building infrastructure, massive settlement of Moroccans, mining natural resources, cultural assimilation and repression of the Sahrawi population); 3. the diaspora which is mostly found in Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Spain and whose communities actively participate in the Sahrawi’s dynamic political life. With the internet, these three areas seem to have merged into one, thanks to social networks and new phone applications which allow poetry and songs to circulate abundantly. Poetry, sometimes sung, has always been the main channel for expressing emotions in Western Sahara (cp. Norris 1968; Miské 1970; Taine-Cheikh 1985; Schinz 2009; Tauzin 2013), including politics (cp. Taine-Cheikh 1994; Boyé 1988), where mockery plays an important role and brings out, through subtle prowess, style and honor. Poetry has always prevailed in the history of the Sahrawis. Early on, the Polisario Front convinced artists to be on the radio, then on television and the web, in order to defend its cause and values, attack its enemies and glorify nationalism. (cp. Allan 2011; Deubel 2012; Robles et al. 2015; Ruano Posada 2016) The emergence of this new media (which relies heavily on images) has prompted artists to innovate their performances and reach new audiences. In order to better understand the roles, patterns and constraints of humorous performances4 in contemporary Sahrawi politics, we deliberately chose

3 4

Regarding the history of this unresolved conflict cf. Zunes/Mundy (2010). The term performance refers to the broader meaning ethno-poets use, that is, an articulated event which englobes a larger text or verbal dimension. (cp. Calame et al. 2010)




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to examine three examples.5 They seem particularly original and unusual in their poetic and musical content, compared to other existing Sahrawi artistic production.

“ALLO ! B AN K I -M OON ?”: M OCKING THE I NTIMATE E NEMY The first performance, Allo! Ban Ki-Moon? (cp. “Allo! Ban Ki-Moon?”, 2014), that we present in this text was written and performed by Moustafa Ould El-Bar Abdeddaïm, a well-known and respected artist in the Tindouf refugee camps. Born in 1954 in Western Sahara (then under Spanish rule), he received a traditional Quranic education from his family and, as he says, 6 did not attend public school. Moustafa Ould El-Bar Abdeddaïm comes from a family of poets and scholars and has been passionate about poetry and writing from an early age. Starting in 1974, he fought alongside the Polisario Front and remained committed throughout the war (1975-1991) to the Sahrawi Liberation Army as a ‘political commissar’ (responsible for monitoring troop morale). After the cease-fire of 1991, he joined the Sahrawi government as a local judge and was also appointed national poet7 by the Ministry of Culture. He says that he composes only in Hassaniyya8, although his father educated him thoroughly in literary Arabic. We heard about his poem in July 2014, shortly after his first recording during the Dakhla film festival (April 29-May 4, 2014), in one of Tindouf’s


This research was conducted with the support of the MINWEB program (Emergence, 2014-2016): “Minorités, identités numériques et circulation des messages politiques sur le web dans le Sahara”, 2014-2016 ( jets/axe-2-migration-pouvoir/article/minweb-minorites-identites).

6 7

Cp. Interview by the author (S. Boulay). Tindouf, March 2, 2015. This status means that these poets are always solicited by the government in official media broadcasts or in national festivities.


Arabic dialect spoken in the whole West Saharan region (Mauritania, Northern Mali, Western Sahara, Southern Morocco and South-West Algeria).


refugee camps.9 That summer, his performance on video circulated widely in the ‘occupied territories’ on Sahrawi phones via WhatsApp. The performance was later edited and put online by the Sahrawi media group Equipe Media10, an information agency based in the occupied territories and run by young Sahrawi activists whose goal is to “break the media blockade imposed by the Moroccan authorities”11 and reveal the situation Sahrawis face in Western Sahara. The main activities of this agency are producing videos as well as making statements about human rights abuses in Western Sahara. Moustafa Ould El-Bar Abdeddaïm said he wrote his poem to express his disappointment following yet another adjournment (April 2014) by the UN Security Council which had called, once again, for a new resolution on a selfdetermination referendum in Western Sahara (the first one dates back to 1963). So much hope had been generated at the time, that to adjourn without action deeply disappointed and angered him. As soon as he heard the news, he wrote a fifty-verse poem. Its originality lies in a conversation between the present Moroccan monarch, Mohammed VI, and the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon. The first protagonist complains to the second and behaves like a spoiled child, whimpering to an adult losing his patience, over the possibility this new resolution could bring in case the vote was in favor of Western Sahara’s decolonization. In this “poem-operetta”, as the author called it in our interview,12 the performer does not only mock the attitude of the Moroccan monarch, portrayed as a temperamental child stressed by decisions ‘grown-ups’ have to take. On a wider scale, he also mocks international diplomacy which, according to him, seems to boil down to a few phone calls made between powerful men. Inspired by imaginary poetic contests, which are fairly common in this literature from the west of the Sahara desert (cp. Mohamed Salem 1995), this conversation turns out to be successful, thanks to the performance of its author, who invests himself totally in the grotesque exchange. It is punctuated with many gestures and declamations, throwing in questions which energize


According to the poem’s author, the recording was made by a young Sahrawi cyber activist, settled in Europe, but who returns to the refugee camps on a regular basis.

10 See 11 Interview by authors. Laâyoune, July 10, 2014. 12 Cp. Interview by the author (S. Boulay). Tindouf, March 2, 2015.




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the conversation. The performer wears a black turban around his neck, loose West Sahara men’s clothing called drrâca and sits on a comfortable couch. He brings his text to life, making it both sharp and playful. He is obviously enjoying himself in front of the camera, though no audience is present. Table 1: Extract from the poem “Allo! Ban Ki-Moon?” 13 Majles el-emen u lemîn el-câm Wa l-mabcût aṣḥâb el-qarâr ḫallâw es-sâdîs ∂u l-eyyêm itḫabbaṭ cand esmac l-aḫbâr Ja gâbe∂ b-eydu tilifôn Gâl “Allo, Allo, Ban Ki-Moon?” ∂âk anâ mafgûc u maṭcûn Biyye ḫabr el-qarâr ed-dâr niqâš w eṣdar f el-qânûn Yacnî teṣfiyya-t l-isticmâr Vâgacni šeklu w al-maḍmûn Vâgacni ḥâni nestašâr “Allo, yâ Frâns, yâ šarôn” Yâ ḥaqq el-vîtu, Yâ Tatâr Yâ Ban Ki-Moon anta mejnûn? Redd aclîh Allo b-iḫtiṣâr Allo, ûgef tell el-mudûn tasmacni… ∂ er-rîzu maṭyâr El-mejnûn u ḥagg u megrown Wa l-bâbaġûra wa š-šeffâr

The Security Council and Secretary General The (special) envoy, decision makers Have left out Number 6 these days Becomes confused when he hears the news He immediately grabs his phone And says “Allo, Allo Ban Ki-Moon?” It’s me, I am upset and furious What is this resolution being discussed and issued under the banner of decolonization Its content and form both offend me I am upset, hold on I seek advice Allo France? Allo Sharon? Oh power of veto oh Tatars Ban Ki-Moon are you crazy? He replies “Allo” that’s it [BKM] Allo ... stay north of the cities Can you hear me? ... This line is terrible Totally insane madman babaghour14 and bloodthirsty

13 Translation by S. Boulay in association with Ndaye Iasid Mahamud and supported by MINWEB, May 2015. 14 Babaghour is a Hassaniyya word, rarely used and outdated, which refers to a person ripping off someone else’s property, or as well to the ‘village idiot’.



ǝlla anta w asma ha men huwn eṣ-ṣaḥra mâ lak gedd eġyâr Minhâ w aṭlas ∂âk el-mesjûn Minhâ w anhu ∂âk el- ḥiṣâr W el-baṭš eš-šâhad bîh el-kawn Allo … w en-nahab el kill ennhâr Allo… hâ∂a r-rizû malcûn Kîvak yetgaṭṭac b-istimrâr u mreg lâ yebga lak garṣôn Fem u lâ yebga lak masmâr U lâ caskar candu beydôn U lâ silâḥ u lâ tacmâr Allo sâmacni u lâ kûn Metcannat mezelt acl afkâr […]

That’s typical of you. Listen carefully – Not even a crumb of the Sahara is yours So free that prisoner and stop besieging the Sahara And stop torturing, the world is watching Allo ... and stop your daily looting Allo ... this damned line Like you, it continually cuts off Get out! Not one of your boys (soldiers) is left none of your scrap metal is left Not a soldier with a jerrycan No weapon nor ammunition Allo, listen and do not be inflexible [...]

The first third of the poem presented here, which already displays nearly 18.000 views on YouTube, summarizes with humor what, according to the author, ultimately holds back the resolution of the conflict. That is, a few phone calls between powerful men, one wanting to complain to two of his strongest allies, France and Israel – and the other one, impatient to obtain a resolution for this longstanding conflict. Ban Ki-Moon represents international rule of law by urging the young Moroccan monarch to end the human rights abuses, the looting of natural resources and the ongoing occupation of a territory that does not belong to him (“Listen carefully – Not even a crumb of the Sahara is yours”). The poem is written in a classical meter (le-bteyt ettâmm). The comic force of the performance lies in ridiculing the powerful and emphasizing their grotesque nature (“Ban Ki-Moon are you crazy?”). He uses a familiar tone, even vulgar at times, which is common in the poet’s speech – given the lexicon and the rhythm he chooses to use. The poet mixes the Hassaniyya (unknown to both characters) with median Arabic and a Moroccan dialect, adding to the unlikeliness of the dialogue. He plays on the weaknesses of the powerful, demystifying them, but also humanizing them,




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upturning their official image by employing a classical device of comedy in politics. (cp. Mercier 2001)

“M ONOLOGUE TO THE M ARTYR ”: “I C AME TO T ELL Y OU ...” The second production (cp. “Monologue to the Martyr”, 2015) that we want to discuss is the work of a younger author, Mohamed Ghali, born in Laayoune in 1970 (under Spanish rule at the time), who arrived with his family in Tindouf in 1976 during the exodus (Intilaqa)15. While attending school in Libya between 1980 and 1984 (a common situation for many other Sahrawi children) he became passionate about theater,16 pursuing it during his studies in Algeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Polisario Front later sent him to the Institute of Dramatic Arts in Algiers in 1995-1996. He first performed a monologue called Yawmiyyat lajiʾ (‘Diary of a refugee’) in 1999, staged with two partners, and later produced his own production in 2005-2006 following the Intifada of young Sahrawis in the occupied territories. From 1999 to 2006, he hosted a cultural program on Sahrawi national radio before moving to Spain in 2006 where he remained until 2011. Since returning to the camps, he has worked to develop this type of artistic production through the Ministry of Culture of the SADR, conducting workshops and theatrical performances in a culture where poetry and singing predominate. The Monologue to the martyr/One Man Show was performed only once during the 13th Congress of the Polisario Front (held in 2011) which was dedicated to the Sahrawi politician Mahfoudh cEly Beyba who died in 2010. He was one of the movement’s historic leaders and was later considered a ‘martyr’ for the cause. This performance was recorded by the cameras of the SADR TV and circulated widely on Sahrawi social networks (Facebook). According to the author, it was also shown on a Moroccan or pro-Moroccan website, though some sequences were cut.17

15 This term is used by Saharawis to designate their exodus to Tindouf following the invasion of the northern part of Western Sahara by the Moroccan army. 16 Cp. Interview by the author (S. Boulay). Tindouf, March 2, 2015. 17 Interview by the author (S. Boulay). Tindouf, wilaya of Smara, March 2015.


The performance depicts a character, half crazy and simple-minded, who follows the tradition of visiting the dead and comes to visit an anonymous martyr (among others). He tells the dead martyr the news and also expresses his feelings about the situation in the camps. Mohamed Ghali told us during the interview that one of his brothers died as a martyr in the early days of the Sahara war (1975-1991), a frequent occurrence amongst Sahrawi families. The actor speaks in Hassaniyya but introduces many words borrowed from classical Arabic, including modern political vocabulary. The fifteenminute long play is self-mocking and describes what most Sahrawi refugees feel today, after having fought for and founded a state and its institutions from scratch, by meeting UN demands. Only (black) humor and emigration allow for an escape from this lingering situation which has worn out so many people and today threatens the unity of the Sahrawis in Tindouf. This unity is sacred above all to the author, as he ironically and recurrently points out in his poem: I came to tell you. I came to tell you all. I came to tell them. I came to tell myself ... that we came here together ... That we settled (here) together ... That we will leave together ... That we live together ... That we will die together [...].18

The familiar “you” is addressed to the anonymous martyr, the collective “you” to those attending the performance, and “them” to those who are absent (Sahrawis from the occupied territories, the diaspora and the camps). Mohamed Ghali addresses all Sahrawis with the “we”, the living and the dead, reminding them to remain united in adversity and in their everyday struggle. He suggests that they follow the example of the martyrs: Martyrdom is the source of legitimacy, it is the reference. For Muslims, the Quran is the source. And for our political cause, the reference is the martyrs, because they gave everything for the cause of the nation. We answer to God and to the martyrs, for every Sahrawi, his father could be a martyr, or a brother or a cousin, or he himself could be a future martyr, etc. So we have to respect the person who gave everything. Martyrs

18 Translation by the author (M. Dahmi), July 2014.




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are a red line for us. If you make a mistake, you are told ‘Beware!’, the martyrs will hold you accountable. That’s the general meaning of the play.19

In a wacky tone, not without disenchantment and fatalism, in a packed room with officials sitting in the front row (among them Mohamed Abdelaziz, President of SADR and Secretary General of the Polisario Front at that time), Mohamed Ghali mocks a population resigned to obeying not only international institutions – but also national institutions, and Sahrawi authorities: [...] We organized the wilâyas, we organized the constituencies (circles) we organized the neighborhoods, we organized the municipalities. Water infrastructure was also organized, so were the roads. We set up the administration ... [...], and everyone has his administration. Some brave ones (even) pray at dawn [fejer] in the administrative building so that if a citizen shows up, someone is there. I saw someone asking a welder to weld him to his chair so he would not move from the administrative building. The welder replied ‘no it is not possible to weld human flesh to a chair!’ He answered back ‘you are jealous (of me)! I’m not asking you to weld me to the chair, but to weld the chair to me!’ [...] We set up a census, a postal system, archives, a veterinarian service, we created the justice system, the gendarmerie, the police, and forensic medicine. We wrote the Constitution, we set the law and we followed the law. The law is… respected... and the constitution is… respected... and the system is… respected... the gendarmes are… respected... the police are... respected... the constitution is… respected... the police are... respected [using an increasingly whiny tone]... the law is… respected...20

The character is ridiculous in his attire, looks confused when talking and can hardly control his emotions (from elation to grief) which increase along with loud and sometimes merry music. He represents the depression and disillusionment of a society that seems to have been deceived by all kinds of powers and tries to preserve its dignity by comparing itself to peoples supposedly in worse situations.

19 Interview by the author (S. Boulay). Tindouf, wilaya of Smara, March 2015. Translation by Ndaye Iasid Mahamud, supported by MINWEB, February 2016. 20 Ibid.


And me? And me, what do I have? I am… respected! I am (even)... very respected! Very very very [respected]... I am a citizen and the citizen is… respected! [...] We do not have any floods, we have no crises, no ruptures, no tensions, no mines, no organized crime, we are protected from globalization, and we are saved from pollution, from sadness, from headaches. We have paracetamol, aspirin and we are... respected. We are… respected! Some people have less than us! Some people in Somalia do not have this. Some people in Darfur do not have that. Some people in Afghanistan do not have this. Some people in Denmark do not have that... well ... it’s someone from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who told me! They told me that people in Denmark do not have this or that but I didn’t go to Denmark to [check]! [...] [Laughs]. [...].

The monologue’s comic strength, provoking increasing collective laughter, is based above all in the exceptional theatrical work of the tragic clown: his sloppy look, removing the large boubou (male dress) which normally envelops the whole body and is a source of pride to men; the actor appears to be a man with no honor, a fool, who can say anything and yet be entirely forgiven. There is a sense of sharing a common experience with this ridiculous character, whose words smoothly address global and local issues, the revered dead and those living but doomed. The poet uses literary Arabic and the Hassaniyya dialect to express traditional proverbs which are a long way away from the desperate situation he describes. In a final sequence, the character opens a coffin near him and pulls out the clothing of the first fighters of the Saharawi liberation army and then leaves the stage. He reminds the audience that the sacrifice of martyrs gives the energy for their struggle, but an armed struggle appears, in this context, almost anachronistic.



The third performance (cp. “Chkoun?” 2012) that we want to present in this essay is a song written and acted out by Najim ʿAllal, an artist from the refugee camps of Tindouf. Najim ʿAllal has been a Sahrawi nationalist star for many years, and a few years ago he started to openly criticize the Polisario Front and its representatives. He went from being a singing star to being a traitor of the nation. This occurred when his last album Shebab et-taghayyur




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(‘Youth of Change’) was released in 2011, right after the “Mustafa Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud” case. While head of the Sahrawi police, Salma had gone to see his father in the Moroccan-controlled area in May 2010 and was later banned by the Polisario Front from returning to the camps. He was suspected of betrayal and accused of spreading propaganda supporting the enlarged autonomy Morocco had announced in 2007. Najim ʿAllal, at the time, publicly voiced his friendship for him and paid tribute to him in a song. (cp. “Najem Alal chante pour Mustapha Salma” 2011) Najim ʿAllal was suspected of trying to destabilize the Sahrawi power within the camps and since then is believed to be under the supervision of the authorities of the SADR. It has not prevented him from circulating his album via his personal website21 and posting images showing evidence of the brutality of the Sahrawi police that he experienced himself. This song is undoubtedly a great success among internet users and has been credited with more than 160.000 views. Despite the technical possibilities to artificially raise the number of views of a video, this number remains quite significant. At present, this song is being broadcasted as a video clip (a slide show) by TV Laayoune22, Morocco’s official channel in Western Sahara, which is not really surprising given the political stand recently adopted by the singer. The song is a direct criticism of the President of the Sahrawi Republic who has been repeatedly reelected since 1982.23 The singer criticizes him for (still) not knowing his people, an opinion he summarizes in the chorus of the song, which is repeated in the three stanzas. These stanzas remind the President that the Saharawi people have never ceased to renew their trust in him but that, given their feelings of abandonment and misery today, he should step down and give way to the young. The singer criticizes both the President and the Government of the SADR for their inability to govern and to listen. In addition to the shock the artist caused by criticizing directly and for the first time ever the head of the Saharawi State (all the more unusual as he

21 ʿAllal, Najim: Personal Website, (Website is not available anymore) 22 Public channel (set up in 2004) created by the Moroccan government for a Sahrawi audience and largely dedicated to the Sahrawi cultural heritage. 23 The President Mohamed Abdelaziz died on May 31, 2016, a few months after the first writing of this text.


lives in the camps) the music he uses is also responsible for making his performance a success. Thanks to light rap music, the protest in his song is immediately reinforced, though it is eventually appeased with a melody borrowed from popular music. The performance includes a slide presentation that illustrates the situation in the Tindouf refugee camps. These images reinforce and highlight the singer’s criticism of the poverty the population faces today, which he blames on the Polisario and their leaders. No doubt influenced by the events of the ‘Arab Spring’, the artist24 does not hesitate to shout at the Sahrawi President a mighty “get out!” (Irhal!), voicing the exasperation some of the population feel in the camps. The video which extensively uses median Arabic and Moroccan Arabic (“Chkoun?”) is clearly aimed at a Hassanophone audience. The entirely subtitled lyrics in Arabic in the video reinforce this point. Lyrics of the song “Chkoun” (translation)25 Chorus We who since seventy-five (1975) Have had to leave our land, and have become refugees We waited thirty-six years Endured hunger, asylum and abuse, Today, we let you lead us, And yet you ask us who we are, Mr. President? “Who ... Who ... Who ... Who ... Who are you? Who ... who ... who ... who ... who are you?” “Who ... Who ... Who ... Who ... Who are you? Who ... who ... who ... who ... who are you?”

24 Unlike the previous two authors, we were not able to either meet or approach Najim ʿAllal in the Tindouf camps. There is currently a taboo regarding who he is. It is unrealistic to contact him in the camps or interview artists about him and his efforts without risking the accusation of undermining the government. 25 Translation by the authors in association with Abdeljelil Meyine, supported by MINWEB, May 2015.




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Stanza 1 [...] We who put you there, We who involved you in this cause, We who gave you our “yes” We who made you president, You have poisoned us You killed our feelings ...

We thought you knew us, And we stood up to support you, We never opposed you, Excuse us “Mr. President” If you did not manage to become familiar with us Over four decades, it is too late (you will no longer do it now)

Chorus Stanza 2 [...] We who are in the tents each day, Unknown future, pain, embargo; The cold, the heat, the lack of houses, Poverty buried us and inflicted physical pain, You do not bring us news, You have sucked out so many (things) that nothing is left ...

We are the sons of a good people, We never criticized you We supported you, young and old, And as long as you want to sting us, You no longer have the qualities (to govern) us, get out! Get out, enough with sticks!! [...]

The strength of these words lies primarily in the portrait the singer dares to make of the President of the SADR. He portrays him as a man holding on to power (a situation similar to the Maghreb heads of state who were overthrown during the Arab Spring), insistent on making poor decisions and cut off from the realities of a population who obediently accepted his guidance for a long time. The virulence of the text is offset by a music hall melody, which is catchy and fun, and by the almost endearing images of everyday life in the camps. Then, portraits and photographs of the artist show him with green sticky tape crossed over his mouth. The images are aimed to ridicule the censorship under which he says he suffers, and to show him with his friends in a protest tent pitched in front of administrative buildings. The subversive insolence of the artist is clearly assumed and dramatized, creating laughter among the audience, since only an idiot would be foolish enough to take such action and expose himself to possible reprisals from the leadership.


However, only those disappointed by the Polisario and the Sahrawi supporters of the Moroccan Sahara end up laughing. The Sahrawis wanting to achieve the independence of Western Sahara hate this song and believe that its only benefit represents the creative freedom of expression the SADR government is willing to give to artists. We have three examples of contemporary Sahrawi oral performances which, in different comic styles communicate a critical and mobilizing political message. Before analyzing the socio-political semantics of these performances, let us first take a look at their aesthetics. Humor is not limited to the text: the performance26 also lies in its context, in its theatrical set up, its gestures, choice of words, images, melodies, and aspects that an ethnopoetic approach (cp. Calame et al. 2010) invites us to consider.




Among the various elements that make the performance effective, first comes the context in which it is presented. To be receptive to this creative work one must be Sahrawi and know the Sahrawis intimately and what they have gone through since 1975. In the three mentioned performances, various socio-political issues and even economic concerns are referred to: blocking the resolution at the UN Security Council (following France’s veto), Morocco’s monarch blackmailing his allies and the international community, the political situation in the camps and the weariness of the people, particularly some of the youth who are ready to take up arms again, at least to see major changes in the governance of the SADR (cp. Gomez Martín/ Omet 2009). These three performances all articulate the deadlock the Sahrawis face, despite trusting powerful leaders to solve the situation, both locally and nationally (the Sahrawi State and its administration) as well as internationally (the UN). The second key element of these statements is language: performed in Arabic, the first two writings are essentially in the Hassaniyya dialect, while the third (song) is in median Arabic. If the first two seem to target a Hassanophone audience (although classical Arabic words are significantly present)

26 The difference between text and work in oral literature is essentially discussed by Zumthor (1994).




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the third one, subtitled in Arabic, seems addressed to a much wider audience than the young Sahrawis living in the occupied territories or part of the diaspora (Morocco, Algeria) and who tend to be losing the Hassaniyya language in favor of Arabic. While Hassaniyya is used essentially among Sahrawis, opening to median Arabic clearly points to the desire to reach wider audiences. Language determines who ‘we’ are and who ‘them’ refers to. The author of Allo! Ban Ki-Moon? believes that transmitting the Hassaniyya language and Sahrawi culture to the younger generations is an essential goal that nationalist poets have to pursue. In this parody, the fact that these two powerful men communicate in Hassaniyya illustrates a kind of familiarity between them and the Sahrawi people. These three performances illustrate different forms of oral expression and elocution. Monologue to the martyr was performed live at a (very official) political convention of the Polisario Front and the author says it was played only on this single occasion. Moustafa Ould El-Bar Abdeddaïm’s imaginary telephone conversation seems to have been performed in public many times (especially during an official festival). It was later filmed in a room and recorded on a phone before being transmitted to the information agency Equipe Media (based in the occupied territories) who edited the sequence before putting it online. This video might have been filmed several times before reaching its final version. Comparatively, Najim ʿAllal’s song is more elaborate and artistic with regard to the text, the music and the images. While oral performance is clearly present in the first two enactments, it does fade out in the video. The theatrical performance is present in the monologue but is reduced in the telephone conversation and absent in the song. The Monologue to the martyr is probably an unrefined recording of a primary orality performance (cp. Ong 1982) which was not thought of nor enacted prior to being posted on the web. The poem Allo! Ban Ki-Moon? was recorded outside its usual context for web audiences and the clip Chkoun is a mix of melodies, lyrics and images. In all three productions, the artist’s physical involvement (visualized through images) is crucial in establishing performance and efficiency and varies accordingly. It is ubiquitous in the Monologue to the martyr where the actor deploys a range of attitudes, postures, facial expressions, dance movements, etc., all of which are pivotal to the performance being successful or not in provoking laughter. In Allo! Ban Ki-Moon? the poet of the Polisario Front brings to life the conversation (making it almost real) and alternates


from one character to the other in a relaxed and amused way. In the song Chkoun the artist is not really physically present in the musical video clip though one strong and ridiculous image shows him protesting against censorship by having his mouth barred with sticky tape. Posting these three oral productions on the web further raises the issue of the digital archiving of videos and their political messages, as going online greatly increases exposure (in time and space). Similarly, the content of artistic performances is impacted by the web. Such is the case with Najim ʿAllal who could never have performed his song in the Tindouf refugee camps. The web offers a privileged space to express his most critical dissatisfaction, and chances are high that his song will remain accessible for many years. To conclude, all three performances have been quite successful thanks to their creativity and originality. Najim ʿAllal resorts to rap and with particularly well-chosen images addresses President Abdelaziz. Mohamed Ghali’s Monologue to the martyr puts together a theatrical genre virtually unknown to the Sahrawis which is meant to create laughter and touch the audience, whereas Moustafa Ould El-Bar Abdeddaïm sets up a unique telephone operetta (unknown in traditional poetic contests), yearning to invent new performances. This burgeoning creativity is undoubtedly motivated by the desire to touch an audience, especially the young who are accustomed to social networks.




The political significance of all three performances cannot be analyzed separately from their ability to make people laugh or smile. Jean-Marc Moura (2012: 14) recently observed that it is necessary to distinguish between what is comical – which establishes (and proceeds from) the distance between those who laugh and what is laughable – and what is humoristic when “the subject and object of laughter are inseparable”. Two of the performances can be considered comical. The powerful are ridiculed, the poet making a clear distinction between ‘them’ (Ban Ki-Moon and Mohamed VI) or a ‘he’ (the president of the SADR) and a ‘we’ (the Sahrawi people forgotten by the powerful). In contrast, the third performance, the monologue, is clearly humoristic as the author includes himself in the ludicrous. The audience of the Monologue to the martyr is clearly implicated in the self-deprecating role




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of the actor, in the way Nelly Feuerhahn (2001: 195) described Jewish humor as a “self-ironic vision of the collective ‘we’ of the community”. The comic style of all three performances is however different. In the case of Allo! Ban Ki-Moon? the characters who are ridiculed do not belong to the Saharawi community, and the artist succeeds in creating a sense of community in order to trigger laughter. The Monologue to the martyr also reinforces this sense of a common destiny by using a tone of discontent and a fatalistic attitude. If the song is more humoristic because of the theatrical martyrdom of the singer and his insane insolence, it almost calls for division and rebellion against the Saharawi official power, thus undoubtedly leading to the weakening or even fragmentation of national unity. The Sahrawis in the camps are very attached to this national unity, though Mohamed Abdelaziz’s permanency as head of state is probably more subject to criticism. This was especially the case during the Arab Spring when Najim ʿAllal recorded his album. Mohamed Ghali says he uses “black humor”,27 while Najim ʿ Allal’s humor can probably “turn sour” as he directly criticizes the President of the SADR. Hence, ʿAllal attacks the prevailing and established political order of 40 years in the Tindouf camps which had guaranteed political unity during hardship. These performances are politically efficient depending on the status of their authors and/or on their capacity to move away from social games, which will allow them to endorse the role of the clown or the fool. Najim ʿAllal’s Chkoun has been extremely successful on the web because the singer criticizes the power that brought him to stardom and gave him, to a certain extent, the legitimacy to sing on behalf of the Sahrawi nation. The higher the social position of the targeted character, the more the artist will have to excel in his performance. He will also need to be well-known and carry sufficient social weight. (cf. Boulay 2016) The media which broadcasts the performance helps the web user to identify the artist’s political affiliation. Since the telephone conversation and the Monologue to the martyr are both broadcasted on Sahrawi nationalist media (RASD TV and Media Team) it immediately helps to identify the political orientation of these performances. However, to know that the Moroccan public channel in Western Sahara, TV Laayoune, broadcasts

27 Interview by the author (S. Boulay). Tindouf, wilaya of Smara, March 2015. Translation by Ndaye Iasid Mahamud, supported by MINWEB, February 2016.


Najim ʿAllal’s song, casts immediately a doubt that the singer of the Polisario Front turned round and promotes the Moroccan ‘solution’. The conflict has indeed moved onto the web and internet sites (which have flourished over the last years) which is today the preferred media, allowing conflicting parties to express themselves and circulate political messages. If mocking must remain “a politically correct violence” (Feuerhahn 2001: 187), as it is the case with Allo! Ban Ki-Moon? and the Monologue to the martyr, then the frontal attack of the SADR president can be seen as transgressive and defamatory by the Sahrawi population, at least by those who remain attached to the national political cause. By transgressing this border between satire and insult (cf. Taine-Cheikh 2004), the singer shakes or attempts to shake the authority in the camps and is ready to become a martyr for freedom of speech which he considers to be prohibited in Tindouf. This radical criticism of power was quickly presented as an act of treason and believed to be ordered by the Moroccan authorities to destabilize the population in the camps. At the same time (2011), the Monologue to the martyr, performed at a very formal occasion and in the presence of the President of the SADR, which mocked the life in the camps and the weariness of the population due to the political deadlock, seemed to be favorably accepted by the official audience. It was later broadcasted on state media which showed that self-deprecation is acceptable when used to highlight underlying problems. It is also believed to strengthen the feeling of unity. Najim ʿAllal’s song, which is extremely direct and rude, is interesting for the basic problems it evokes. It is however, often criticized for the way it goes about it, since it transgresses the codes of respect and honor of this society, and ends up reducing or canceling its “potential protest”. (cp. Regamey 2001: 43) All three performances actively question the limits the power(s) assign artists to in their criticism of those power(s) and the freedom they have to infuse political messages which are ultimately not so much addressed to the powerful but to the people that need to be (re)mobilized around a community. The primary function of mockery is to promote a good social balance and not to destabilize order. (cp. Mercier 2001: 13) Even Najim ʿAllal appears as a medieval jester who maintains his criticism of the system, takes responsebility for the dissatisfaction and “neutralizes the protest by expressing it” (ibid: 15-16). Moreover, the act of transgression is not only about disruption and division; it also enables the rediscovery of the moral boundaries of the society and can even create new ones. (cp. Hastings et al. 2012: 21)




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To conclude, beyond their critical dimension, these new artistic performances offer an unprecedented space for discussion and communication among the Sahrawis, depending on their political positions and where they are located (refugee camps, occupied territories, diaspora). Each expresses different political scenarios – the peaceful path of the UN, the renewal of the Polisario Front by the youth, the resumption of the armed struggle or the offer of ‘autonomy’ by Morocco – but also discontent regarding the impossibility of resolving the conflict and its consequences on people’s lives. These performances which circulate on social networks and phone applications, maintain the link between the Sahrawis who live on both sides of the wall and in the diaspora, in a common “idea of community” (Regamey 2001: 44). Going beyond emotions and individual experiences, the pleasure of laughing or smiling and the constant need to escape from the especially difficult living conditions are the main reasons for sharing these performances.

Note on transcription of the Arabic west-Saharan dialect, Hassaniyya : t, English th in “think”; ḥ, aspirated h; ḫ, velar sound, Spanish jota; ∂, th English “the”; dj, sound palatalized dental; š, French ch; ṣ, s emphatic; ḍ, d emphatic; ṭ, t emphatic; ẓ, z emphatic; ∂, ∂ emphatic; c, spirant sound emitted by the compressed larynx; ġ, r “grasseyé”; long vowels are indicated by a circumflex: â, û, î.

R EFERENCES Allan, Joanna (2011): “Nationalism, Resistance and Patriarchy.” In: Hispanic Research Journal 12/1, pp. 78-89. “Allo! Ban Ki-Moon?”, May 28, 2014 ( v=ASdcZqWhF0k). Boulay, Sébastien (2016): “‘Returnees’ and Political Poetry in Western Sahara: Defamation, Deterrence and Mobilization on the Web and Mobile Phones.” In: The Journal of North African Studies 21/4, pp. 667-686. Boyé, Mahfoudh Ould (1988): Contribution à l’histoire littéraire de la Mauritanie, de la pénétration coloniale à nos jours. Dissertation, Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris III.


Calame, Claude/Dupont, Florence/Lortat-Jacob, Bernard/Manca, Maria (2010): La voix actée: Pour une nouvelle ethnopoétique, Paris: Editions Kimé. Deubel, Tara Flynn (2012): “Poetics of Diaspora: Sahrawi Poets and Postcolonial Transformations of a Trans-Saharan Genre in Northwest Africa.” In: The Journal of North African Studies 17/2, pp. 295-314. Feuerhahn, Nelly (2001): “La dérision, une violence politiquement correcte.” In: Hermès 29, pp. 187-197. Gómez, Martín Carmen/Omet, Cédric (2009): “Les ‘dissidences non dissidentes’ du Front Polisario dans les camps de réfugiés et la diaspora sahraouis.” In: L’Année du Maghreb V, pp. 205-222. Hastings, Michel/Nicolas, Loïc/Passard, Cédric (eds.) (2012): Paradoxes de la transgression, Paris: CNRS Editions. Mercier, Arnaud (2001): “Introduction: Pouvoirs de la dérision, dérision des pouvoirs.” In: Hermès 29, pp. 9-18. “Minorités, identités numériques et circulation des messages politiques sur le web dans le Sahara”, 2014-2016 ( Miské, Ahmed-Baba (1970): Al Wasît – Tableau de la Mauritanie au début du XXème siècle, Paris: Klincksieck. Mohamed Salem, Abdallahi Ould (1995): “Le gtâc: joute oratoire en poésie maure.” In: Notre librairie vol. 120-121, pp. 232-237. “Monologue to the martyr”, July 15, 2014 ( .php?v=764992300223995&set=vb.100001396965450&type=2&theate r). Moura, Jean-Marc (2012): “Poétique comparée de l’humour.” In: Alain Vaillant (eds.), Esthétique du rire, Nanterre: Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest, Nouvelle édition [online]. “Najem Alal chante pour Mustapha Salma”, August 7, 2011 (https://www. Norris, Harry T. (1968): Shinqītī Folk Literature and Song (Oxford Library of African Literature), Oxford: Clarendon. Ong, Walter J. (1982): Orality and Literacy, London/New York: Methuen Ltd. Regamey, Amandine (2001): “‘Prolétaires de tous pays, excusez-moi!’ Histoires drôles et contestation de l’ordre politique en ex-URSS.” In: Hermès 29, pp. 43-52.




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Robles Picón, Juan Ignacio/Gimeno Martín, Juan Carlos/Awah, Bahía Mahmoud/Laman, Mohamed Ali (2015): “La poésie sahraouie dans la naissance de la conscience nationale.” In: Les Cahiers d’EMAM [online], pp. 24-25, Ruano Posada, Violeta (2016): Sahara Ma Timbah (“The Sahara Is Not For Sale”). Music, Resistance, and Exile in Saharawi Culture. PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, London: University of London. Schinz, Olivier (2009): Dans le feu de la parole. Jouer avec les mots en Mauritanie. PhD thesis, Faculté des lettres et des sciences humaines, Université de Neuchâtel, Neuchâtel. Taine-Cheikh, Catherine (1985): “Le pilier et la corde: recherches sur la poésie maure.” In: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies XLVIII/3, pp. 516-535. Taine-Cheikh, Catherine (1994): “Pouvoir de la poésie et poésie du pouvoir. Le cas de la société maure.” In: Matériaux arabes et sudarabiques (N.S.) 6, pp. 281-310. Taine-Cheikh, Catherine (2004): “De l’injure en pays maure ou ‘qui ne loue pas critique’.” In: Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée 103-104, pp. 103-126. Tauzin, Aline (2013): Littérature orale de Mauritanie: De la fable au rap, Paris: Karthala. “Who ... who ... who ... who ... who are you?” (“Chkoun?”), April 29, 2012 ( Zumthor, Paul (1994): “Poésie et vocalité au moyen âge.” In: Cahiers de Littérature orale 36, pp. 10-34. Zunes, Stephen/Mundy, Jacob (2010): Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Part II: Egypt, Sudan

“We Started to Celebrate Being Egyptian” 1 Humor in the Work of Younger Egyptian Artists F ABIAN H EERBAART

I NTRODUCTION This article examines the use and functions of humor2 in the work of younger Egyptian artists3 living in Cairo. It is mainly based on personal observations made since the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and interviews conducted with artists in the period between 2012 and 2014. After a short theoretical outline, the paper discusses different media and art forms in which humor is employed. It demonstrates how the function of humor is closely intertwined with that of the medium it is used in, as examples from street art, cartoons, comics, and stand-up comedy in Egypt illustrate. This paper examines the relation between humor and forms of power as the censorship that might result from perceived threats. The conclusion recaps aspects of the changing environment under which creative and artistic expression have materialized in Egypt in the years following the revolution of 2011.


Interview with Noha Kato, October 15, 2014.


In Arabic the word fukaha is often used when referring to humor. Another one is hazl which also translates as ‘fun’.


The interviewees were between 22 and 35 years old. Note that the term young (or youth) is a difficult one as its definition depends among others on the endogenous and exogenous perceptions and might vary in different contexts (e.g. social status, work).





As humor functions in different ways in different contexts, generalizations about its role and meaning can be quite tendentious. However, Egyptians often state that they are known for having or keeping a good sense of humor (cf. Heerbaart/Lohse 2015) and often refer to themselves in this context as Ibn Nukta (‘Son of joke’). Helmy and Frerichs (2013) postulate that humor played an important role during the eighteen days of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. They argue that humor was used as a moral resource (to keep the spirits up), to defend and to attack and, in doing so, to strengthen one’s own position and weaken that of the others. The resulting laughter implies thus a psychological aspect as well as a physiological act as Dugas (1902: 2) asserted a century ago, as humor is a means to create a feeling of reward (emotions are set free or manifest via humor and it causes bodily sensations [act of laughter]). This means humor can serve to create pleasure or relief. This function is embraced by the relief or release theory that considers its emotional, cognitive and social features. It is a relief from stress, helps to free one from constraints and can have a solidarity-building effect. In protests, for example, it can be about the feeling of “[…] ‘scoring one against them’ in the game of state vs. street” (Helmy/Frerichs 2013: 460), thus having an effect “[…] on the balance of power between the oppressors and the oppressed” (ibid). And this is done by “[…] redefining realities or creating other ones or recomposing their structure and hierarchies and resetting the situation, for example, in a ‘comic frame’ rather than a ‘tragic frame’” (ibid: 467). Thus, humor can serve also as a tool to transform visions about the (physical and imaginary) world surrounding us, which leads us to the socalled incongruity theory according to which “[…] humor arises from surprising characteristics or absurdities which violate common sense, or taken-for-granted moral and social norms,” as Helmy and Frerichs (ibid: 455) have put it. Those targeted by the use of such humor may fear losing their power monopoly or being mocked or ridiculed. In this last sense, humor can then function as a social corrective, to reinforce group unity and to exert social control or to keep a social equilibrium. Thus, it can, besides destabilizing, also regulate and stabilize and therefore fulfills a vital function in social or democratic control. The roots for this so-called superiority theory date back to 1900 when Henri


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Bergson (1900: 12) remarked: “Le rire doit avoir une signification sociale” (‘Laughter has to have a social significance’). Taking the above-mentioned rebellious and disciplinary aspects of humor into consideration, humor is often attributed with a positive value; in contrast, laughter and ridicule can also hurt and destroy. Humor oscillates between playfulness and seriousness and enables the expression of criticisms and complaints that could otherwise be perceived as threatening. On the level of popular culture, a big industry has developed worldwide around humor. In Egypt, the film industry with its Musalsalat (‘Sitcoms’) feeds the commonly shared humor and vice versa. During and after the revolution of 2011, humor has been manifest in various forms on the streets of Cairo and other cities. Circulating jokes, reverberating performances and songs alluding in hilarious ways to elements of popular culture and local practices, witty signs and slogans on boards being held up and a blossoming street art scene have all reflected and reinforced the people’s multilayered sense of humor.


Figure 1: “il-Shaʿb yurid ʾeh? Dukhul il-hammam” (‘What do the people want? Enter the toilet’)

Source: Fabian Heerbaart, own photography, Cairo, August 2011

Figure 1 suggests that people might be more concerned with everyday struggles and needs than with politics. The sentence under the drawn character in this picture reads “il-shaʿb yurid ʾeh? Dukhul il-hammam” (‘What do the people want? They want to use the toilet’) which is an allusion to the much chanted and famous slogan “il-shaʿb yurid isqat in-nidham” (‘The people demand the fall of the regime’), that echoed on the streets during the revolution.


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I MAGES – I CONOPHILY AND I CONOPHOBY IN THE C ONTEXT OF C AIRO As already mentioned, humor can challenge or undermine power structures. The same holds true for images, which are a way to communicate humor. Images have the capacity to generate power or to attack and thus erode it. Therefore, controlling and manipulating the flow of images is an important concern for those in power, although this has become increasingly difficult since the advent of new media technologies. The very act of controlling the production and circulation of images suggests an awareness and recognition of the power and impact of images, as Bruno Latour (2002) has shown. Of importance is not what an image is but where it is and how it ‘acts’. It is this ‘agency’ which worries those who want to create or keep a monopoly on representation and interpretation. At this point censorship often comes into being. In the context of Egypt, the now almost classic case of Magdy El Shafee and his graphic novel Metro (considered the first graphic novel for adults in Egypt) can be mentioned. Soon after its first publication in 2007, the book was banned and the publishing house raided by police, who seized all the copies. A case was filed against El Shafee and his publisher; both were sentenced to a fine of 5000 L.E. each. Officially, they were penalized for offending public morals, but it is likely that the drawings were perceived as dangerous. Politicians had been mocked in different scenes – a no-go according to El Shafee (cp. Jaggi 2012)4 and many readers could identify with the problems and topics depicted in the book such as the prevailing power structures and the social grievances the main character resolutely confronts and opposes. The state’s reaction thus clearly exemplifies the power of images. But it is not only official censorship which targets images; censorship is also carried out by individuals or groups who feel offended by an image or perceive it as harming moral values.


The book had been translated later into English, German and other languages and was published in various countries since 2012. A new Arabic edition was also sold – even in Cairo.


Figure 2: “Vodamoan. Il-quwwa bayn riglik ” (‘Vodamoan. The power is between your legs’); Graffiti by Keizer

Source: Fabian Heerbaart, own photography, Cairo, October 2012

This witty graffiti piece by the Egyptian street artist Keizer is playing with a slogan that the telecommunication company Vodafone had used in an advertisement campaign for mobile communication. The slogan was: “Il-quwwa bayn idik” (‘The power is between your hands’). Keizer’s alternation in his graffito read “Vodamoan. Il-quwwa bayn riglik” (‘The power is between your legs’). Adding this vulgar connotation served Keizer as a barometer to test the spheres of tolerance in post-revolutionary Egypt.5 The reaction came quickly and his wording was whitewashed by unknownindividuals (see figure 2). This iconoclastic act of destroying or censuring an image or in this case the text attached to it, might imply that the iconoclasts seem to think that they must free others from the power or the impact of the image and to show them its constructedness. Bruno Latour (2002: 65) wrote on this issue over a decade ago: “Die Bilderkrieger begehen immer den gleichen Fehler: Sie glauben naiv an naiven Glauben” (‘Iconoclasts are always making the same


Conversation with Keizer in front of the Graffito in Cairo, October 12, 2012.


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mistake: they believe naively in naïve beliefs’). However, one might question whether Latour’s statement was not made in the same vein? It can be read as an assumption about interpretation and reception that is quite similar to the one he made for iconoclastic acts. In other words: Does Latour then also believe in the naïve beliefs of iconoclasts, denying them the ability to be very aware of what they are doing? That their act might not be solely reactionary but a reflected, politically motivated and very consciously performed act?

H UMOR IN S TREET ART Besides Keizer, many other artists took to the streets and walls to express themselves in public space. Since the uprisings in Egypt in 2011, street art has been used intensively as a field for discussing and commenting on social, political and religious issues as well as for expressing wishes, hopes and demands. Political, artistic, social and activist elements and dimensions are intertwined in street art, through which the authority of prevailing regimes over signs can be questioned and eroded. In this way the public might be encouraged to critically reflect their environment and its constructedness. This, in turn, can encourage a change in behavior within or towards public spaces. In terms of Henri Lefebvre’s Critique de la vie quotidienne (1946), it might then be the first step towards changes in everyday life and practices. The works of painter and street artist Ammar Abo Bakr illustrate well this role of street art as an important tool within processes of social and political reordering. Humor also plays an important role in his works as the following example illustrates. In 2011, Ammar Abo Bakr addressed a statement by the Salafi politician Abdel Moneim Al Shahaat in which Al Shahaat had qualified and condemned the ancient pharaonic history, civilization and religion of Egypt as dirty and belonging to unbelievers. For Ammar Abo Bakr, the iconographical history of the country is a precious heritage and serves as an important inspiration.6 Thus, Abo Bakr was much angered by the Salafi politician’s statement. In response, Abo Bakr – at the time an art teacher at the Fine Arts department of the university in Luxor –


Interview with Ammar Abo Bakr, March 20, 2013.


created, with the help of his students, a mural in Luxor that uses the language and style of the old pharaonic paintings found in the tombs. The passersby reacted very positively and were amazed by the beautiful art work. Abo Bakr waited several days until the painting was quite well known and entrenched in the minds of the people. He then created a stencil of Al Shahaat’s face and sprayed it all over the pharaonic painting. When the passersby noticed this change, they were confused, sometimes angry and asked who this person was and why something like that was ‘ruining’ the beautiful painting. That, of course, was Abo Bakr’s aim. In his words: “I didn’t put any text, meaning: you can decide who is the dirty, the ugly, the bad”.7 Other examples of humor in street art as a means to present alternative structures, change modes of perception, and attack existing power structures, are to be found in the now legendary Muhammad Mahmoud street in downtown Cairo. In November 2011, heavy fights between protesters and security forces took place in this street, which is connected to Tahrir Square. At least 50 people were killed and the then ruling military council erected about seven walls in the area to keep protesters away from the nearby Ministry of the Interior and other proximate vital government buildings. Filmmaker Salma El Tarzi, together with artists and activists, then initiated the No wallscampaign in March 2012 that attempted to reshape those walls. As part of this campaign, Abo Bakr and a team painted a visual continuation (trompe l’oeil) of the wall and included a mock plaque that renamed the street ‘No walls street’ (shariʿ ma-fish gidar).


Interview with Ammar Abo Bakr, March 20, 2013.


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Figure 3: “No walls campaign”

Source: Fabian Heerbaart, own photography, Cairo, April 2012

This intervention mocks the government’s attempts to control public space and to demoralize protests. Abo Bakr’s team instead was moralizing by ‘muralizing’: it encouraged the citizens not to be intimidated by the physical obstacle (and the politics behind). The authorities might have dominated the physical area, but the team around Abo Bakr laid claim to the imaginary, cognitive and semiotic spaces – a symbolical but not less powerful act. A similar strategy was used by Graffiti artists Nazeer and El-Zeft who painted in November 2012 a huge smiley on a nearby barricading wall on Qasr El Ainy Street. The smiley disrupts and dislocates the wall’s impact. The hostility suggested by the wall is diminished, and those who raised the wall are mocked. This interweaving of humor and art thus serves to demonstrate new perspectives and epitomizes Verbeek’s (2012: 18) statement that “Art can play an important role in drawing attention to the influence of things”. This is to be seen in the context that politicians often try to establish public space as an organically given thing and want the citizens to accept it as such – a naturalization of the (constructed and planned) environment. Street art in the form of urban hacking highlights this artificiality of the ‘nature’ surrounding us via disruptive interventions – a rupture of the


environment and its rules and systems. (cf. Friesinger/Grenzfurthner/Ballhausen 2010) Again, this is also one of humor’s functions. However, street art itself can become the object of expectations (and perceptions) and its ascribed rebellious character can be ‘naturalized’ as the next example shows. In November 2013 the deadly fights of 2011 in Muhammad Mahmoud Street were approaching their second anniversary and preparations were under way for its commemoration. Ammar Abo Bakr recalled in an interview8 that the media had realized that this street and its paintings had a special meaning. In other words “[…] that the publicly made thing can transform into a thing that makes publics” (Boomgard/Doruff 2012: 14). Therefore, Abo Bakr wanted to lead the media astray and mock and go against their expectations (of, for example, newly-painted, huge martyr portraits). With a team, he covered the long wall of the American University’s Old Campus on Muhammad Mahmoud Street in a pink camouflage. A simple, yet explicit phrase was written over it: “Kill and undress, imprison and enjoy – we are very prepared (for you)”.9 The work was a statement directed at the then interim-president general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who, in the eyes of the artists was playing the part of a ruthless strong man, while at the same time attempting to charm the public with alluring, almost romantic words and phrases. The work of Abo Bakr and his team was a strong and daring statement considering the political circumstances. The rules for self-expression in a public context had changed since the overthrow of President Muhammad Mursi in July 2013. Protests were officially banned and state security tightened its grip on public space. The new protest law, passed in 2013, included a draft to punish graffiti (cf. Kirkpatrick 2013), which was perceived as restricting the freedom of artistic expression. The following year witnessed a further setback for public and artistic expression. In summer 2014, Hisham Rizk, a young activist and graffiti painter, was found dead. Officially, he had drowned in the Nile, but skeptical voices described his death as a (unofficial) warning to the whole street-art community.


Interview with Ammar Abo Bakr, June 14, 2014.


The phrase ‘We are very prepared’ has a strong vulgar connotation in the sense ‘We are ready with our sticks [penises]’, (translated in: Stone/Hamdy 2014).


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Despite growing restrictions and repression, social media continued to be full of mockery about events, and state media discourses, while TV shows, cartoons and comics continued to comment and satirize events.




Cartoons and comics can serve as a barometer for analyzing flows within a society, as they reflect or create moods and feelings. They are a site of representation and resistance with a multiplicity of meanings and forms embedded within them. Their visual rhetoric can, like street art, challenge official images and discourses. Historically, cartoons and caricatures have always been very popular in Egypt. The first satirical journals such as Abou Naddara10 and al-Tankit wa-l-Takbit11 had been published in Egypt by the end of the 19th century. According to Göçek (1998: 7), “[…] the Egyptian press remained the major source for cartoons in the Arab world until 1925”. With the fight against the British colonial occupation, the medium of caricature saw rapid growth in Egypt (cp. Gonzalez-Quijano 2012: 11) “[…] and political cartoons even helped topple several governments in the 1930s and 1940s” (Khallaf 2012: 14). The impact of cartoons and caricatures can be measured by their popularity among the people as well as by the reactions of the political and ruling elite. For example, under President Anwar As-Sadat (1970-1981) Egyptian caricature experienced a decline as Sadat began imprisoning people who were considered dissidents or instigators of destabilization. In the recent history under President Mubarak (1981-2011), the aforementioned graphic novel Metro by Magdy El Shafee in 2007 was also an important trigger according to Shennawy, a Cairo-based cartoonist and illustrator: After that [the publication of Metro] the word comic strips became again known for people […] It was kind of a thermometer: you can exactly know how people are

10 Published from 1878-1910 by Yaqub Sanu, also known as James Sanua. The complete issues of Abou Naddara have been digitalized and can be accessed via: 11 First published in 1887 by Yaqub Sanu. (cp. Göçek 1998: 6-8)


reacting towards this kind of art. So a lot of people were with Magdi El-Shafee […] So we knew if we launch something similar, it will be appreciated by readers.12

In January 2011, Shennawy and four colleagues launched the comic magazine TokTok which addresses an adult audience. TokTok since then has published quarterly, and it has not been the only initiative. Other magazines and books13 have come out, taking up the history and tradition of famous magazines such as Sabah al-Khair and Rose al-Yousef. Jonathan Guyer (2015) observed a “[…] new wave of sequential narratives that has drenched the Arab region”. Douglas & Malti-Douglas (1994: 1) had already stated twenty years earlier that “[…] Arab comic strips are a flourishing genre with an enormous readership and a political and ideological range extending from leftist and other secular modernist to Islamic religious perspectives”. From September to October 2015, the Cairo Comix Festival14 took place for the first time, promoting collaboration and exchange between various artists. It was founded by Shennawy, Magdy El Shafee and Haytham Raafat. It may be considered a sign of the dynamics and initiatives taking place within this art form. Meanwhile, the challenge of dealing with a (shifting) political and social environment remains significant, and artists therefore have to carefully choose whom and what they address and where they publish. As Anwar, a cartoonist working for the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, has put it: “If you were to draw Sisi as a killer […] you will get claps from Facebook. This would make you a hero, but I’m not sure it will change anybody’s opinion” (quoted in: Guyer 2014). Often it comes down to the decision whether to sneak in a critical tone in a newspaper with the help of symbols or subtleties or to publish online on social media which might permit a much more direct language. However, online activity is also more closely monitored now, which is illustrated by the case of cartoonist Islam Gawish. Gawish was arrested in January 2016 for running a Facebook page15 without official permission from the Ministry of the Interior. (cp. Walaa 2016) Although Gawish was released the following day, the case caused an uproar. Fellow cartoonists had quickly produced and published

12 Interview with Shennawy, March 15, 2012. 13 For a more detailed account see Khallaf (2012). 14 For more information on the festival, cf. 15 For Gawish’s Facebook page, see


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drawings in solidarity with Gawish. His lawyer said that the authorities perceived his drawings as a threat. Gawish’s website, which at the time had over one million followers (in November 2016 it reached two million), addresses mainly social issues which, however, might also be associated with and related to politics. Observers have remarked that Gawish’s drawings are obviously considered by state officials to be anti-government. Although Article 67 of Egypt’s constitution protects artistic expression, fears of a new wave of repression regarding artistic and creative production have lingered.

T HE S TAND - UP C OMEDY S CENE That being humorous can be quite ‘serious’, was Mohammed Qandil’s experience in the context of his past work as an author for the satirical Bassem Youssef TV-Show.16 Qandil, a cartoonist and scriptwriter who goes by his artist name Andeel, has always known that working in the field of comedy entails a certain risk. However, working for Egypt’s biggest comedy show meant facing constant pressure and expectations and bearing a huge responsibility: You are running a TV-Show and the moment it is on, all the social networks are talking about it, repeating jokes, taking screenshots and adding their own jokes to them and it’s crazy and kind of fucks your brain to work in something that big […] I was never worried about what the ‘big guys’ think about the jokes. I was more worried about the extent of the influence that we were having, how many were watching us, how much we were influencing the way they think, choose and behave and how much that could change me, the way I see my work and ideas.17

These responsibilities and possibilities of humor are a point Andeel’s brother Ali Qandil, a stand-up comedian, really believes in: to reach out to people,

16 Bassem Youssef, then Egypt’s most famous satirist, quit his popular show in 2014 due to ever increasing pressure. As a fierce critical voice and commentator of political and social conditions, he had already faced severe criticism and even trial in the previous years and his show had even switched the broadcast channel. (cf. Croitoru 2013) 17 Interview with Mohammed Qandil, October 24, 2014.


provide an alternative channel for information and put serious information and ideas in a ‘funny frame’ that makes people laugh while at the same time fostering new visions and perspectives in their minds. “Let me tell you why I stopped talking about politics. I was full of energy, and suddenly I found that the problem is not in the regime or the system […]. As a stand-up comedian, I am much closer to the crowd than the government is […] so I can tell them the truth face to face.”18 His brother Andeel strikes a similar note when he says: “[…] I have been doing humor for a living for a really long time and I believe in it. I think it is a really important tool and area for experimentation and human interaction.”19 While the Qandil brothers ascribe these potentials to humor, others seem to lack this view and appreciation. Noha Kato, a stand-up comedienne, complains that many producers are not willing to promote stand-up comedy due to concerns about profitability. 20 Venues to perform at are rare, the organizational structure poor and Kato feels it is a big hustle for the 15 minutes she then performs on stage. “I’m not asking for a large fee; I just want respect,” she says.21 None of the comedians I interviewed is able to make a living from standup comedy. If comedy is commercialized, then in a way that ignores its (serious) social function at the expense of superficial, one-directional entertainment, according to Andeel and Kato. “It takes away the art and turns it into a product,”22 criticizes Kato, while Andeel finds there is a lack of “[…] actual belief in comedy as a craft, a way to communicate with people”.23 So comedy, a tool for dealing and coping with daily life, is being turned into a commercial product used for superficial entertainment. Kato suddenly was promoted as ‘the female’ comedian and received numerous requests for TVinterviews – not because of her material and topics but because she is a woman. “In Egypt we have this thing that women are not funny. So they told

18 Interview with Ali Qandil, October 25, 2014. 19 Interview with Mohammed Qandil, October 24, 2014. 20 Interview with Noha Kato, October 15, 2014. 21 Ibid. 22 Ibid. 23 Interview with Mohammed Qandil, October 24, 2014.


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me, ‘you are the only female who is funny’, which is a little insulting”, Kato comments.24 In order to professionalize stand-up comedy in Egypt and create awareness, acceptance and respect for it, Hashem El Garhy founded the Al-Hezb El-Comedy (‘Comedy party’) in 2011. Al-Hezb El-Comedy promotes a platform for aspiring artists and offers an organizational structure for established ones. The aim is to reach out not only to the already existing audience which according to El Garhy consists of a specific stratum of society, but also to a wider group and areas that are far away from the central cultural hubs Cairo and Alexandria. El Garhy explains: The challenge is not to gather the audience […] or the comedians […] it’s bigger than that. It is to create a culture of understanding what stand-up comedy is. Although it has been around for nearly ten years as a new art form [in Egypt] […] the masses don’t know what stand-up comedy is. And that is the biggest challenge. You have a country of 90 Million people here; you could have comedy everywhere.25

Kato faced a similar challenge when she began performing: her family did not know what stand-up comedy was. While her mother (who had done theater work in the past and thus assumed that stand-up comedy was similar and thought Kato would be acting) was excited when her daughter started to do stand-up comedy, her father was worried because he did not understand what stand-up comedy was: He asked me: ‘why would you go on stage and make people laugh at you?’ And I said: ‘Dad, they don’t laugh at me, they laugh with me – it’s different.’ And he was also worried that I was an actress and that there would be love scenes and kissing and I said: ‘Dad, I am alone on stage, there is no one else.’26

According to Kato and El Garhy, standing on a stage with a microphone is usually associated with the so-called ‘monologue’ or musical comedy in Egypt, an art form that has been very popular traditionally and involves the performance of a humorous text, dance or song. This tradition might explain

24 Interview with Noha Kato, October 15, 2014. 25 Interview with Hashem El Garhy, October 16, 2014. 26 Interview with Noha Kato, October 15, 2014.


Kato’s observation that the audience in Egypt seems to be more open when musicians talk about politics, sex and religion than when stand-up comedians do. “If you do it with a microphone and you don’t use a band, it is not accepted. You are in the dark zone”, she says. 27 Stand-up comedian Mohammed Morgan also speaks about the challenge to make smart jokes and “clean comedy” as he calls it.28 This means comedy without offensive content: “Believe it or not, clean comedy is difficult but amazing – amazing when you make a clean joke, not hurting anyone but everybody laughs at it.”29 As one of his aims is to engage people in critical reflection, people are expected to take his topics – embedded in a funny context – seriously. This concern is shared by the stand-up comedians Adham Abdelsalam and Rami Boraie.30 Abdelsalam and Boraie use standup comedy as a tool to create awareness for social causes. Therefore, they rely on the multiplier effect which means using jokes that can easily be retold to anyone due to their non-offensive content and thus they can reach a wide audience. Meanwhile, the changes on the political field in recent years have also left their mark on the comedy scene in Egypt. During President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, politics, sex and religion were considered taboo. After the revolution of 2011, those topics often underwent a certain politicization. This continued under the mandate of President Muhammad Mursi and the Muslim Brothers but almost came to a standstill when the military seized power in July 2013. “It was funny to make jokes when the Muslim Brotherhood was in charge because it really was funny” but “[…] there is nothing funny about politics right now,” explained Rami Boraie in October 2014.31 He also stated that the number of young comedians (newcomers) was still growing despite a decreasing stand-up comedy audience in live broadcasts.32 Noha Kato’s general conclusion in October 2014 about comedy in Egypt expressed her disillusionment. With reference to Bassem Youssef’s show that, despite or

27 Interview with Noha Kato, October 15, 2014. 28 Interview with Mohammed Morgan, October 25, 2014. 29 Ibid. 30 Interview with Adham Abdelsalam, March 11, 2012. Interview with Rami Boraie, March 24, 2012. 31 Interview with Rami Boraie, October 17, 2014. 32 Ibid.


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because of its publicity and influence, had to be stopped in 2014 due to ever increasing pressure, she concluded: “That is when I knew that comedy is dying in Egypt.”33 Kato’s statement expresses a frustration that many artists and activists have felt since the coup d’état in July 2013. Incidents such as that concerning author and journalist Ahmed Naji34 who was sentenced in February 2016 to two years in prison on charges of spreading content that harms public morals, might feel like a return to 2007 when Magdy El Shafee was condemned for similar reasons. According to Boraie, the only funny thing left about the current regime is the media coverage. What Boraie is referring to are incidents such as a press conference in December 2013 for the promotion of the draft of a new constitution. A huge banner hung in the conference room, displaying five people and a slogan that should have read: ‘A constitution for all Egyptians’. But not only was there a missing letter (y) in the intended word ‘Egyptians’ (Masriyin) which therefore read ‘determined’ (Musirrin). Moreover, three out of the five displayed people turned out to be not very Egyptian. They were non-Egyptians whose photos had been taken from worldwide photo stocks and websites. (cf. Wiener-Bronner 2013) The reactions on social media did not take long – a myriad of images, comments and jokes began to circulate, questioning, for example, how much the regime appreciated its own people if it displayed photos of other nationals and even misspelled the word ‘Egyptians’.

33 Interview with Noha Kato, October 15, 2014. 34 The charges concern Ahmed Naji’s book The Use of Life. It had passed censorship and been published in 2014. However, after extracts had been published in a stateowned newspaper in 2015, a reader complained that Naji’s text contained scenes and descriptions of sexuality, drug use and sophisticated social criticism which had caused in him, the reader, sickness (high blood pressure). He then filed a case against Naji. Naji was first acquitted but then finally sentenced to a two year prison sentence in February 2016. The verdict found him guilty of “violating public modesty” (Madamasr 2015). After having served almost one year in prison, his fourth appeal was finally successful. He left prison on December 22, 2016, but is subject to a travel ban and has to appear for a new hearing before court in April 2017. (cp. Pen International 2016)


I NTERNET M EMES Figure 4: Emoticons featuring the Egyptian President al-Sisi.

Source: Screenshot from Facebook, February 12, 2018.

So-called internet memes enjoy huge popularity in Egypt. They are easy and quick to create. Usually an image (e.g. film-still) from an iconic Egyptian theater comedy or movie is manipulated with a phrase written on or underneath it, or other elements are added with the help of graphic programs. In this way, it creates a comment. The original scene is recontextualized as the meme then references contemporary events, such as social issues or political developments. This form of political satire in the public sphere reaches many people. One of Egypt’s most popular websites working with humor, Asa7be Sarcasm Society, currently has over 14 million followers.35 According to Shady Sedky, one of its cofounders, the website takes the people’s voice and translates it online. (cp. Farid 2015) The combination of elements of popular culture (for example movies with cult status in Egypt) with current topics has proved to be a formula for success. However, online media are not an uncontested field. In May 2016, five members of the troupe Atfal al-Shawarea were arrested. The collective used their mobile phones to shoot videos on the streets that deal with various issues in Egypt and uploaded them to their Facebook page. After posting a video in which they commented critically on President Sisi and his regime,

35 For the Facebook page of Asa7be Sarcasm Society, see https://www.facebook. com/asa7bess/.


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they were detained and faced various charges. (cf. Hamama/Zalat 2016) A year earlier, the case of Amr Nohan, a young law student and former soldier, had caused an uproar. Nohan had added Mickey Mouse ears to a picture of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and had shared it on Facebook. A military court found him guilty of threatening and insulting the regime and its leaders and sentenced him in October 2015 to three years in jail. (cf. Farid 2015) Again, sarcastic comments on this verdict came quickly. One stated that the regime’s fear of Mickey Mouse was very telling.

C ONCLUDING T HOUGHTS The revolution of 2011 had witnessed a huge creative and artistic flow. Elements of popular culture, intertwined with new communication technologies, various forms of humor and artistic production commented on and interacted with the social and political landscape of Egypt. During the years following the revolution there were a large number of initiatives and actions taking place within the independent art scene36 in Egypt, such as artists painting on walls in public spaces, the organization of the Cairo Comix Festival, or the foundation of an organization that promotes the stand-up comedy scene (Al-Hezb El-Comedy). New perspectives and discourses arose and visual and verbal activism were engaged in establishing new and counter-narratives. After the take-over of the military in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in February 2011 and during the presidency of President Muhammad Mursi from June 2012 to July 2013, attempts were made to counteract forms of artistic expression and satire. 37 These were, compared to what happened after the military coup in July 2013 and the

36 The term independent is often used in opposition to the state sponsored art scene. However, a clear definition is difficult and boundaries are often fluid with artists being active in both. 37 Besides the accusations against Bassem Youssef, charges against cartoonist Doaa El-Adl can also be mentioned. She faced accusations of blasphemy and insulting religious figures during President Mursi’s reign. (cf. Cartoonist Rights Network International 2013)


coming to power of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, however, relatively unsuccessful and harmless and the artistic scene enjoyed relative freedom. Since the military takeover of July 2013, there has been a heavy crackdown on the opposition. It has also affected artistic production on many levels, especially since 2014. Some artists have left the country. 38 Art institutions were subjected to raids (for example the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art and the Merit Publishing House in December 2015 and the Studio Emad Eddin in January 2016). (cp. Madamasr 2016; Fahim 2016) Artists such as writers Fatima Naoot39 and Ahmed Naji were sentenced to jail terms in early 2016. This also needs to be seen in the light of the moral policies the government is pursuing. The government has cast itself in the role of moral champion protecting Egyptian society40 (e.g., against negative foreign influences) which it declares to be in a state of decay. In fact, societal issues are a sensitive and important topic in the work of many artists I interviewed. Egyptian society has often been characterized in the interviews as having been exposed to many negative influences, thereby becoming deformed and losing its true character (although this comes with an essentialism that there is the or a true character or essence of ‘Egyptianness’). The Pharaonic heritage, the Coptic and Islamic traditions, the influence of the Gulf countries and the so-called ‘Westernization’41 are some subjects frequently mentioned in this context. Rami Boraie defined Egyptian society as “funny and weird”.42 Ahmad Nady, caricaturist and cartoonist, made a similar statement. Nady is often asked why he focuses

38 See also the famous case of the singer Ramy Essam (cf. Morgan 2014) or multidisciplinary artist Ganzeer. (cf. Pollack 2014) 39 Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 20.000 L.E. on charges of blasphemy and contempt of religion. She had criticized on her Facebook page in October 2014 the Islamic ritual sacrifice of animals for the celebration of ʿId al-Adha (‘Sacrifice Feast’) as a massacre. (cf. Egyptian Streets 2016) 40 See for example the case of Egyptian belly dancers who have been sentenced to jail terms for harming public morals. (cf. Egyptian Streets 2015) 41 This term usually refers to the adoption of industrial goods and popular cultural elements of Western societies. It often has a negative connotation, in the sense of eroding local traditions. 42 Interview with Rami Boraie, March 24, 2012.


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mainly on everyday issues in his works rather than writing fiction. According to him, in Egypt “[…] reality is funnier than anything imagined”43 and topics that might be the subject of fiction in other countries are realities in his homeland. It is against this background that the two young Egyptians Hossam Atef and Atef Saad visualized their notion of daily social life in Cairo in December 2014. While Saad was wearing a Spiderman-costume, Atef took photos of him performing everyday tasks and dealing with the daily struggles Egyptians face, such as having to jump on microbuses as they are driving by. After four days of shooting, Spiderman got exhausted (while the photos went viral). He could not take it anymore. Atef told a newspaper “All Egyptians are superheroes for enduring these difficulties every day” (Gehad 2014) and stated on his website that “[…] no other people on earth can handle what we’re facing every day”.44 These statements translate on the one hand into feelings of being lost, frustrated, and forlorn but on the other hand into a feeling of pride for successfully enduring such difficulties. Furthermore, the statements suggest a deep alienation from the state, its institutions and politics, and the perception of an ‘identity crisis’ or ‘cultural schizophrenia’ which many Egyptians had already felt in the years preceding the revolution of 2011. The alienation from the state is however not equal to a rejection of the country. On the contrary, slogans such as “Egyptian with all pride/ Proud to be Egyptian” (Masri bi-kulli fukhur) were written on many walls. By engaging in and with societal matters in public spaces, on stage and on paper while having recourse to the large variety of Egyptian popular culture and traditions, artists and citizens were also expressing a nationalism and patriotism – not one bound to any institution but to symbols and ideas. Lina Khatib (2013: 152) therefore spoke of a “citizen nationalism” and “[…] a declaration of belonging to the land”. Writer, poet and theatre director Nora Amin said in this context: “We removed the concept of the state and replaced it with homeland.”45

43 Interview with Ahmad Nady, March 12, 2012. 44 Statement on the website of the project, cp. 45 Nora Amin in the lecture A song waiting to be sung in Cologne, November 21, 2014.


Part of my interviewees perceived this as a move away from what Helmy and Frerichs (2013: 462) have called “a culture of self-denial” towards a culture that accepts and celebrates its differences and perceives the nuanced history and cultural diversity of Egypt as enriching. In the words of Noha Kato: “We started to celebrate being Egyptian.”46 If and how this positive attitude will continue in light of recent political and social developments in Egypt or if people will “[…] end up feeling they are just part of a bigger joke”47 remains to be seen. At the end of the day, art and humor have not receded and are still used as a medium to confront and reflect on Egyptian society, politics and social realities. When the Egyptian market was hit by a sugar shortage in October 2016, a video appeared online showing two men talking about the need to get ‘stuff’. They then phone a man called ‘Sokkary’, meet him in the dark, and exchange money for white ‘stuff’ (“the one that is fine and spreads nicely”) in small plastic bags. Back home, they consume their ‘stuff’ (which turns out to be sugar) with tea.48 Meanwhile, in October 201749 Andeel started a new video-episode called Big Brother (Akh Kibir) which is aired by the newspaper Mada Masr on Facebook and YouTube.50 Big Brother sits in a galabbiyya51 in front of a décor that includes popular items such as a football club emblem, a miniature-pharaonic statue and flowers and even an endlessly dripping tap and talks about the everyday life and problems of Egyptians, presenting surprising viewpoints and solutions. Big Brother’s remarks are witty and include all kinds of sideswipes at his fellow citizens and international politics. He describes his efforts as follows: I’m trying to fix the country because the country needs fixing – it’s much better to suggest solutions on the internet because you feel as if you are contributing without causing any actual disturbance to the political sphere, so it’s a performative effort. 52

46 Interview with Noha Kato, October 15, 2014. 47 Interview with Mohammed Qandil, October 24, 2014. 48 For the video, cp. 49 The last episode of the first season’s 14 episodes was aired on February 1, 2018. 50 For the playlist of the first season’s 14 episodes, see 51 Traditional Egyptian garment for men. 52 Information given in a chat exchange with the author, February 17, 2018.


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He also plays with social class when he uses a certain dialect, but he remarks: I might sound like your typical working-class handy man, but I might also be one of the richest people in your neighborhood, because – thanks to the open market and the death of class-related politics in the late seventies – Egypt is a country where nobody knows exactly where they stand class-wise.53

Big Brother is a man of the people, even if his name might be associatively linked to the circles of a surveillance state. His episodes are “[e]ntertainment for you [the people] and for the poor, bored officers keeping an eye on your channel.”54 In episode 1355 he talks about the many problems that the education system in Egypt is facing and suggests a simple way to handle the issue: abolish education completely, because if there is no education then there can also be no education-related problems. And the positive side effect: it will be even easier for the state to handle the people, if they are kept ignorant. Big Brother’s advice on how to end poverty56 is not less pragmatic: get rid of the poor by means of a three-step program that includes: building walls around poor areas; when a poor person wants to leave the area and enter a “clean and good” area, he/she has to go through a visa application process – just as Egyptians have to when they want to, for example, enter Europe. Big Brother suggests learning from the experience of European countries: “Why don’t you learn cleanliness, intelligence and that endearing racism from them?” 57, he asks. At the same time, he advocates resorting to one’s own ancient traditions and making use of them: “We have a long history of sacrificing ourselves.”58 He explains that in pharaonic times the most beautiful women were thrown into lakes, which is stupid according to him, as it is a waste of (beautiful) resources. Sacrificing instead the poor and ugly-faced, he continues, will have a double benefit: on the one hand, it will reduce the number of poor (and ugly) people and resolve overpopulation, and on the

53 Information given in a chat exchange with the author, February 17, 2018. 54 Information given in a chat exchange with the author, February 17, 2018. 55 For Episode 13, cp. 56 For Episode 14, cp. 57 Ibid. 58 Ibid.


other hand these sacrifices can be used to please the higher powers and win their favor for the country. The name of this mass-sacrifice project will have a pharaonic touch and be called The Withered Lotus Flower. As for the international criticism or human rights concerns he concludes that there should be no problem: “Saudi Arabia is chopping necks and arms all the time. Nobody can talk to them about it.” These are Big Brother’s suggestions and solutions which are, however, humble and not binding as he stresses in each episode. He concludes: “The way I talk is the way everyone should talk but no one is as brave as I am. My opinion is modest, even though it’s the only right one.” 59

R EFERENCES Bergson, Henri (1900): Le rire: Essai sur la signification du comique, Paris: Félix Alcan, Bergson_le_rire.pdf. Boomgaard, Jeroen/Doruff, Sher (2012): “The Art of Publics: Fielding Misunderstanding.” In: Open (Cahier on Art and the Public Domain) 24, pp. 8-17. Cartoonist Rights Network International (2013): “Egyptian Cartoonist Sued over Drawing Deemed Anti-Islamic.” In: ifex January 3, https://www. Croitoru, Joseph (2013): “Portrait of the Egyptian TV Satirist Bassem Youssef: Fighting over the ‘Pantie Revolution’.” In: Qantara February 16, sem-youssef-fighting-over-the-pantie-revolution. Douglas, Allen/Malti-Douglas, Fedwa (1994): Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Dugas, Ludovic (1902): Psychologie du rire, Paris: Félix Alcan, https: // Egyptian Streets (2015): “Two Egyptian Belly-dancers Sentenced to Prison Over ‘Debauchery’ in Music Videos.” In: Egyptian Streets September 3,

59 Information given in a chat exchange with the author, February 17, 2018.


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Egyptian Streets (2016): “Egypt Court Rejects Writer Fatima Naoot’s Appeal against Jail Sentence for ‘Contempt of Religion’.” In: Egyptian Streets March 31, Fahim, Kareem (2016): “Crackdown by Egypt Draws Attention to an Anniversary It Aimed to Avoid.” In: The New York Times January 23, Farid, Farid (2015): “Egypt Meme-Makers in Sisi’s Sights as Former Soldier Jailed for Mickey Mouse Facebook Post.” In: International Business Times December 16, sis-sights-former-soldier-jailed-mickey-mouse-facebook-post-1533674. Friesinger, Günther/Grenzfurthner, Johannes/Ballhausen, Thomas (eds.) (2010): Urban Hacking: Cultural Jamming Strategies in the Risky Spaces of Modernity, Bielefeld: transcript. Gehad, Reem (2014): “Spiderman ‘Exhausted’ by Cairo.” In: Ahram Online December 7, gypt/Politics-/Spiderman-exhausted-by-Cairo.aspx. Göcek, Fatma Müge (1998): “Political Cartoons as a Site of Representation and Resistance in the Middle East.” In: Fatma Müge Göcek (ed.), Political Cartoons in the Middle East, Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, pp. 6-8. Gonzalez-Quijano, Yves (2012): “La caricature arabe: toujours Abou Naddara.” In: SGMOIK SSMOCI 34, pp. 11-13. Guyer, Jonathan (2014): “Gallows Humor: Political Satire in Sisi’s Egypt.” In: Guernica May 15, Guyer, Jonathan (2015): “CairoComix: Excavating the Political.” In: Madamasr October 12, cairocomix-excavating-political. Hamama, Mohamed/Zalat, Shady (2016): “Atfal al-Shawarea: A Fatherly Fear of Sarcasm and the Street.” In: Madamasr May 13, area-a-fatherly-fear-of-sarcasm-and-the-street/.


Heerbaart, Fabian/Lohse, Michael (2015): “So lacht Ägypten: Comedy am Nil.” In: Streng Öffentlich January 25, strengoeffentlich/strengoeffentlich424.html. Helmy, Mohamed M./Frerichs, Sabine (2013): “Stripping the Boss: The Powerful Role of Humor in the Egyptian Revolution 2011.” In: Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science 47/4, pp. 450-481. Jaggi, Maya (2012): “The Godfather of Egyptian Graphic Novelists: Magdy El Shafee.” In: Newsweek June 25, godfather-egyptian-graphic-novelists-magdy-el-shafee-65109?rm=eu. Khallaf, Rania (2012): “Comics Stand up to View.” In: SGMOIK SSMOCI 34, pp. 14-15. Khatib, Lina (2013): Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle, London: I. B. Tauris. Kirkpatrick, David D. (2013): “New Law in Egypt Effectively Bans Street Protests.” In: The New York Times November 25, http://www.nytimes. com/2013/11/26/world/middleeast/egypt-law-street-protests.html?_r=0. Latour, Bruno (2002): Iconoclash: Gibt es eine Welt jenseits des Bilderkrieges?, Berlin: Merve. Lefebvre, Henri (1946): Critique de la vie quotidienne, Paris: Grasset. Madamasr (2015): “Update: Novelist and Editor Accused of Publishing Sexual Content to go to Court on November 14.” In: Madamasr November 3, Madamasr (2016): “Studio Emad Eddin Inspected by Authorities, Operations Continue as Normal.” In: Madamasr January 14, http://www.madamasr .com/en/2016/01/14/news/u/studio-emad-eddin-inspected-by-authorities -operations-continue-as-normal/. Morgan, Marwan (2014): “Egyptian Singer Moves to Sweden Seeking ‘Safe City Residency’.” In: Daily News Egypt October 29, http://www.daily Pen International (2016): “Egypt: Writer Ahmed Naji Released but Faces Appeal Hearing in January.” In: Pen International December 22, Pollack, Barbara (2014): “Hieroglyphics that Won’t Be Silenced. Ganzeer Takes Protest Art Beyond Egypt.” In: The New York Times July 10,


| 129 Stone, Don Karl/Hamdy, Basma (2014): Walls of freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution, Berlin: From Here to Fame. Verbeek, P.P. (2012): “Politics at Issue: On Art and the Democratization of Things.” In: Open: The Politics of Things – What Art & Design do in Democracy 24, pp. 18-29. Walaa, Hussein (2016): “Egyptian Cartoonist Arrested for ‘Unauthorized’ Facebook Page.” In: Al Monitor February 5, /pulse/originals/2016/02/islam-gawish-egypt-cartoon-criticismarrest.html. Wiener-Bronner, Danielle (2013): “Banner Promoting ‘All Egyptians Constitution’ Neglects to Include Actual Egyptians.” In: The Wire December 17, 12/egypt-constitution-banner/356241/

From Equanimity to Agony Portraits of Soldiers and Police Officers in Two Artwork Series of Egyptian Visual Artist Nermine Hammam S TEPHAN M ILICH “The martyr teaches me: no aesthetics outside my freedom” MAHMOUD DARWISH 2002: 147

Figure 1: UPEKKHA Series by Nermine Hammam (2011)

Source: Hammam 2011a (Figure 27 of 52); with permission by the artist.


Against an idyllic panorama of Alpine mountains, we see four soldiers standing upright and looking at the camera or aside in a manner somewhere between grimness and boredom. (cp. Hammam “Upekkha”, image 27/52) The high grass is fresh and full of pink flowers, and at the far-away horizon snowy mountains rise high into the sky. With their arms behind their backs, their batons fixed at their hips by a black belt, and their slightly overexposed red military helmets, the military camouflage uniforms merge only too smoothly with the scenery of green hills and white mountains. The image belongs to a series of prints entitled Upekkha (the Buddhist term for “equanimity”, a state opposite to both disquietude and indifference), created in March 2011. The series Upekkha fuses photography with naturalist painting and grew out of the particular moments when, during the days of the January Revolution in early 2011, the Egyptian army entered the squares and streets of downtown Cairo, while demonstrators did not yet know whether they would be attacked by state forces or not. The Egyptian artist, filmmaker and designer Nermine Hammam (born 1967), who took photographs of numerous young soldiers writes about the moment when she decided to portray state power by re-framing soldiers’ appearances: “Then they came, descending upon us in the square, cumbersome tanks screeching through Cairo’s desolate streets where, only days before, there had been bustle and congestion.”1 To the astonishment of the artist, the young soldiers did not manifest solely “angry stereotypes of power and masculinity”, but also “military tenderness, virile coquetry and masculine frailty.” (ibid) This simultaneous, oxymoronic appearance between military violence and tenderness, brute masculinity and obvious frailty, made Nermine Hammam ask herself about the essence of political power and its manifestations: “What is power and who, ultimately, wields it? Then it dawned on me: Power is a myth, a construct. It resides only in the images that we hold of it, rather than in its inherent reality.” (ibid) According to Hammam’s observations, power is not just an empiric fact with an “inherent reality”, but is rather created by “an elaborate performance complete with props”, “a carefully choreographed performance of uniforms and equipment, a strength in numbers, a united display of force” (ibid). In order to uncover this discrepancy, Nermine


Statement quoted from the artist’s website: .html.


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Hammam reframed the sceneries of young soldiers at Tahrir Square by replacing the original cityscape of Cairene buildings and streets with a retropostcard format highlighting sceneries of military presence against the backdrop of idyllic cheerfulness and touristic carefreeness. In this atmosphere, almost free of oppression and fright, armed presence appears to be out of place. These moments passed too quickly. What has emerged since, or re-emerged, is the relapse into recurring nightmares of political oppression, violence or stagnation.2 In the years to follow, it has been difficult to distinguish those aspects of current reality that were new to the contemporary political and social landscape of the countries of the ‘Arab Spring’, whose populations rebelled against injustice and oppression, from those other developments that must be perceived as plain continuities of previous repressive conditions. Seven years after the first moments of uprising, however, authoritarian forces have regained power, with Egypt at the forefront of a return to repression also evident in other parts of the region and the world. In retrospect, one might wonder what could be humorous in these depictions of tamed military presence in front of idyllic landscapes. Does this ironic fusion of touristic landscapes and representatives of an oppressive state have a humorous effect on the spectator, and if so, how can this form of humor be grasped and defined? To answer these questions, I will focus in this article on visual3 artworks that address these recent changes and developments in Egypt, focusing on representations of soldiers and police officers. I will argue that the examples


On the political developments of the years following the uprising, see e.g. Sowers, Jeannie & Toensing, Chris (eds.) (2012): The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest and Social Change in Egypt. London: Verso; Kienle, Eberhard (2012): “Egypt without Mubarak, Tunisia after Bin Ali: Theory, History and the ‘Arab Spring’.” In: Economy and Society 41/4, pp. 532-557; Rutherford, Bruce K. (2013): Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab world. Vol. 48. Princeton: Princeton University Press; De Smet, Brecht (2016): Gramsci on Tahrir. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt, London: Pluto Press; Bayat, Asef (2017): Revolution without Revolutionaries. Making Sense of the Arab Spring, Palo Alto: Stanford UP; Long, Badouin (2019): L’Égypte de Moubarak à Sissi: Luttes de pouvoir et recompositions politiques, Paris: Karthala.


For recent scholarship on the visualities in the Arab uprisings, see e.g. Khatib 2013 and 2016; Sabea/Westmoreland 2012.


I draw on begin by playing with carnivalesque and ironic elements in early 2011, but continue by making use of grotesque, obscene and shocking elements mirroring the increasingly oppressive, dark, incongruent, and counterrevolutionary ‘reality’. While many have analyzed the role of digital media in the uprisings as a means of protest and resistance, little attention has been paid to the visual representations of events and developments that include humorous elements. In this article, I am, however, not so much interested in the more conventional forms of political humor such as political jokes or cartoons whose social functions have been analyzed comprehensively in many previous studies as well as in a number of essays in this volume. 4 Neither am I concerned with forms of humorous cultural production that can be seen as a political weapon or as a means to achieve relief in the viewer. Quite the opposite: I will argue that these masterpieces of visual art invite the spectator to reflect on her/his own concept of the world and their capacity to perceive social and political reality and truth in a mediatized environment. Instead of relief, looking at these images has an irritating and unsettling effect that does not automatically call for action, but rather for a kind of perception that might be able to better protect and shield the consumer from mediatized political manipulation. Assuming that these recent artworks by Egyptian artists like Nermine Hammam are more geared towards illuminating and critically scrutinizing the psychological, social and visual conditions of power and its symbolic representations and sensory receptions than spreading political messages, their conceptual artwork can nevertheless be read as an artistic “diagnostic of power” (Toukan 2015: 337) that makes deliberate use of humorous, albeit not funny, elements. To illustrate my argument, I will analyze two series of visual art created by the Egyptian artist Nermine Hammam: Upekkha from 2011 and Unfolding from 2012.5 These two series of artworks are part of a


See the contributions by Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf, Anna Gabai, Fabian Heerbaart and Nathanael Mannone in this volume; see also Salem, Heba/Taira, Kantaro (2012): “al-Thawra al-dahika: The Challenges of Translating Revolutionary Humor.” In: Samia Mehrez (ed.), Translating Egypt’s Revolution, Cairo: AUC Press, pp. 183-211.


For more on Nermine Hammam, see her website http://www.nerminehammam. com/aboutme.html; for more on her works previous to 2011, especially her series Eschaton/The Sea (2008), see Hafez 2012, pp. 45-56.


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larger project of overall five series that address in different ways and on different levels the recent changes that have occurred since 2011.6 Referring to most of Hammam’s previous works, the following comment by Khaled Hafez (2012: 45) applies to these two series as well: “The complex work of Nermine Hammam, with its highly stylized photo manipulation and layering, creates visually-stimulating images that leave the viewer with more questions than answers: questions about violence, changing tastes and beliefs in the behavior of her subjects.” Reading these two series together, I aim to highlight the development not only from one particular mode of aesthetic technique to another, but more specifically from the ironic mode of carnivalesque humor to a form of the grotesque and obscene in which horror and anxiety dominate the effect on the viewer. In my conclusion, I will reflect on the subtle differences in form and content between two different modes of representation or desired effects of an artwork: forms of expression that aim at deliberately subverting representations of power by particular techniques of artistic presentation, and those that wish to pull the viewer out of his comfort zone.




Another picture of four military police officers (al-shurta al-ʿaskariyya) in front of a mountainous postcard setting is “Image 31 of 52” of the Upekkha series. In this picture, the four good-looking young men are smiling and laughing at the spectator, giving lively signals with their hands and branches, as though indicating to a spectator/passer-by the direction she/he asked for – ironically each of them showing in a different direction.


The three other series are Maat (2011), Cosmos (2013) and Witeko (2014) as well as Cairo Days, photographs taken in 2011 and 2012. See her website:


Figure 2: UPEKKHA Series by Nermine Hammam (2011)

Source: Hammam 2011a (Figure 31 of 52); with permission by the artist.

Again, the overexposed colors of their red military caps produce an aesthetically accomplished interplay with the red and orange plants and flowers of the (East Asian or Alpine?) mountain and lake-scenery and the green railing the police officers are casually leaning on. What is particularly striking is the complete accordance and harmony of their joyful and friendly facial expressions with the touristic scenery and almost carnivalesque exuberance, lending the postcard motif in retro colors perfect authenticity: there is no indicator that would contradict the spectator’s assumptions that these chic young men are enjoying their holiday leave in, for instance, Switzerland – except for the fact that they are Egyptian police officers in Cairo. Gaining quickly the spectator’s sympathy, the postcard actually turns into an advertisement, with the potential effect of improving the image of the Egyptian police.7 Yet, contrary to conventional consumerist advertising,


Hammam writes: “After seeing these protagonists [the policemen], so young, innocent and de-masculinized, I felt an urge to parody propaganda posters from the 1940s and 1950s that feature strong nubile men and women in idealized settings.” (Hammam 2012d: 11-12) Compare also with Nermine Hammam’s statement about the particular moments when the army was welcomed by the demonstrators: “I was just taking pictures of anything in my way. And then, the


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these images are not “eventless” (Berger 1972: 153), because we as spectators can contextualize the scenes we see, wondering what will happen next. Whereas these police officers express a mood of gaiety and fun which does not correspond completely to the meaning of the title of the art series, Upekkha, in “Image 21/52”, we find two other young soldiers in arms, looking with total equanimity down into the nowhere from an elevated location. As Hammam explains on her website, she “seeks out individuals in states of abandonment, marginalization or altered states of consciousness, relentlessly uncovering the vulnerability behind the mask, the frailty behind the gun […]. Strongly influenced by her background in filmmaking, her images form sequential narratives, like the stills of a film, related in time and space.”8 In the backdrop of the picture, impressive mountains are covered by snow, again evoking a high mountain region: Figure 3: UPEKKHA Series by Nermine Hammam (2017)

Source: Hammam 2011a (Figure 21 of 52); with permission by the artist.

army came in and I started observing that they were united with the people, amongst the citizens.” (Hammam 2011b) 8

Nermine Hammam’s Website:


In Buddhism, the Pali term Upekkha means equanimity and designates one of the four sublime or pure mental states of “Brahmavihara” (the four Buddhist virtues and at the same time meditation techniques applied to achieve these virtues and mental states), capable of counteracting the defilements of lust, avarice and ignorance, as well as sorrow and anger. 9 Moreover, Upekkha is also one of the forty traditionally identified subjects of Buddhist meditation: a state of complete balance of mind, meaning psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by unsettling experiences or irruptive events – and thus difficult to achieve in a mega-city like Cairo, and even more so in moments of revolutionary upheaval, usually accompanied by chaotic, insecure and unbalanced conditions.10 Again, the postcard-like motif of two daydreaming soldiers beautifies the military presence in Downtown Cairo, re-framing the image of the military by transferring it to sceneries of peaceful and meditative non-action and tranquillity. The dominant shades of blue and the soldiers’ juvenile, statuesque Greek beauty accentuate the impression that these soldiers are currently not on a military mission. Away from the presence of military power and authority, the human aspect of these young men – despite their being part of a hegemonic institution – comes to the fore (cp. Bihr 2017: 265), asking us to reflect on the complex power relations in state and society and, more directly, the relationship between state power, representatives of the state, and the protesters and citizens. Seen from a conceptual vantage point, the juxtaposing of an idyllic tourist paradise with the urban reality of the “closed horizon” (Hafez 2011) or the narrow world of Cairo as the real location of the young soldiers and policemen, provokes a cognitive dissonance, a ‘ridiculous’ paradox that hides behind the beauty of the pictures. The soldiers seem to tell us with their gaze, their facial expressions and gestures that they are not in fact situated in their real location, but are perhaps dreaming of another, possibly more beautiful world in which they don’t need to appear fierce and strong. The intrusion of foreign sceneries into the Cairene setting, or vice versa, only makes too obvious how far away this Egyptian reality is from the happy sides


See e.g. the Encyclopedia of Buddhism (eds. Pruthi/Chaturvedi 2010) and Wallace 1999.

10 A further aspect is the perception of all beings as equal, making no difference between enemy and friend. (cp. Wallace 1999)


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of global wealth. In an interview with Heba Elkayal, Nermine Hammam talks about her emotions when walking in the streets of Cairo: “I experience a sadness whenever I walk in the streets of Cairo. I think the streets are a reflection of what’s inside.” (Eltorie 2011: 153) Replacing crumbling buildings and a cityscape “cracked and broken” with idyllic landscapes might express a desire to transform our inner images “of what’s inside”.11 Hammam, explaining her motivation for these artworks, took “pictures of them”, because they were “looking so frustrated, nervous and severely agitated and I felt that I wanted to take them, transport these boys somewhere else.” (Hammam, “Upekkha”) Omar al-Qattan highlights yet another aspect of the series, opposed to the dimension of irony and humor, when he writes: “The impossibility of the landscape in which Hammam places them seems, to me, to express the underlying tragedy of this extraordinary series: these young men will, because of poverty, remain where they are, trapped and imprisoned.” (Al-Qattan 2012: 4) Without having asked these “boys” about their state of mind and verified her own interpretation of reality, the judgement made by Hammam, although highly probable, remains only a presumption. By re-framing the soldiers’ reality and transferring them to a new, idyllic surrounding, the spectator receives two contradictory messages at the same time: like a reversed or tilted image, she/he can either read the image as a manipulated scenery of military action in revolutionary circumstances, or she/he can simply overlook the markers and signs alluding to the military and perceive the image as an idyll, devoid of manifestations of conflict, power or violence – depending on whether the spectator believes in the suggested ‘truth’ of the image or decides to concentrate instead on the image’s incongruity and discord.12 In consequence, it is up to us and depends

11 In another passage of the interview, Hammam talks about the effects the living environment has on the artist and the production process – perceiving Cairo as a place of “visual bombardment”: “I am human, whatever one sees becomes internalized and reflects whatever work one produces. It is an accumulative affect, and one that one can become numb to its effects.” (Eltorie 2011: 154) 12 The German writer Jean Paul (1763-1825) was one of the first authors who defined humor as the inverted sublime (“das umgekehrt Erhabene”) which destroys the finite by displaying the existing difference with the idea (of infinity). Humor is thus the figure of speech par excellence by which the artificial image of reality, the idea, is shown in its falseness and replaced by discrepancy.


on our own cultural and political norms, values and dispositions as to how we see and read these pictures, and more generally, the world surrounding us: we can either believe in the beautiful, yet artificial image, or reject the seductive offer implicit in the aestheticized scenery. Although only optional, the critique inherent in this conceptual art insists on our responsibility to position ourselves with regard to current political situations and developments, all the while hinting at the intricate complexities of mediatized forms of manipulation. With a relaunch of Hammam’s website in 2017, further images have been added to the series by the artist. In some of these new images the backdrop of the scenery is no longer idyllic. In two of them, we see citizens arguing and quarrelling with soldiers against a background consisting of a Japanese temple or landscape (image 34 and 41), while in yet another picture, soldiers stand in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (image 48). In picture 35, however, a soldier, seemingly in a state of depression (he is holding his hand against his forehead), is situated in front of an erupting volcano. Comparing some of these pictures that have been added later with the previous ones, one can assume that the negative political developments of the last five years might have motivated the artist to soften or even break with the idyllic, albeit ironic representation of state power. In Upekkha, this evolution of the possible readings of these pictures is also reflected in one of the artist’s statements on her work: When I first produced this body of work, I intended it as a statement against the harshness and inhumanity of war; a criticism of the painful uncertainty, felt by these young men, at being thrown into a conflict they had not asked for […], but in light of recent developments in Egypt, I now view these images with a great deal of nostalgia. They are a capsule of time and of sentiment; a faithful, if naïve, rendering of how we, Egyptians, felt during those 18 perfect days in the Tahrir Square, when everything felt ‘just right’ and Egypt’s future seemed so bright.” (Hammam 2011b)

As a preliminary conclusion, one can say that the series’ humor is mainly produced by its technique of superimposing two antagonistic worlds (military and tourism = soldiers turned into tourists) that usually have


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nothing in common.13 In contrast to a political joke, the recipient will neither laugh nor find relief. Nevertheless, the political joke and these photographs have a commonality that are at the heart of many forms of humor: first, the incongruence between the two realities already mentioned and, second, the expectation produced by one element (or order) of the picture that is undermined or re-framed by a second, antagonistic element (or order) uncovering the first and exposing its supposedly real nature. This technique is repeated in a subsequent series of art works which will be discussed in the following. While the quality and effect of a joke depend on the adequate deployment of language, narrative form and style by the speaker, the visual representation has no prescribed time sequence, but appeals to the viewer in one single instant, without succession or chronology. Yet, there is another dimension we might take into account: Read from an ethical point of view, the picture asks us not to forget that the soldiers we see are human beings, serving the army of the Egyptian state. And like these young men, we too become implicated (or even complicit) in the political, social and media dynamics as well as the structures of power, especially when engaging scientifically with aspects that directly impinge on the political reality. In the case of these images, the actors and objects participating in the photograph or visual artwork are thus not limited to the “camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator” (Azoulay 2008: 21), but include the artist and the researcher as well. Seen in this way, Nermine Hammam invites us to look more closely at what really is happening, what is represented, in order to encode the referentiality of these images, and at how they might have been manipulated to serve political interests – and how we are related to these events and realities.

13 The short biographical note, included in the exhibition catalogue of Cairo Year One, explains her technique in the following way: “As an artist, she photographs the world and then alters the images she captures: her works are intricate composites of layered images and symbols, transformed through the prism of an aesthetic that combines digital manipulation and painting to form a rich and highly personal tapestry.” (Hammam 2012d: 46)


U NFOLDING (2012) One year later, in 2012, Nermine Hammam presented her new artwork, entitled Unfolding (2012). While the kind of humor found in Upekkha is devoid of dark or terrifying moments, the new series, making use of a similar technique of superimposing two heterogeneous spheres or orders, encompasses a sense of horror that turns the more light-hearted form of humor of the previous series into visual representations of the grotesque, the shocking and the frightening.14 In contrast to the calm expressions of serenity and boredom, the 2012 series mirrors the changing political situation in Egypt that has become more violent. In the course of 2012, the state attacked demonstrators, trying more brutally than before to put an end to the protests and revolutionary activities. Now, representatives of the military or the police are no longer portrayed as innocent, fragile and harmless actors, but as violent offenders, aggressing against civilians. The backdrops and sceneries of the pictures are taken from idyllic, peaceful 17 th and 18th century Japanese landscapes and motifs, which produces discord and dissonance in an even more bizarre way. Compared to the previous series however, the first effect on the viewer is a similar one, for the idyllic setting and the violence represented by the violent acting of the protagonists – civilian demonstrators and police forces – in the forefront only fuse too smoothly and harmoniously into one.15 Common to most images is the distance between the viewer and the protagonists acting in the picture. At first glance, the viewer sees a beautiful scene which is only slightly disturbed by the strange positions and gestures of the persons represented. At second sight, however, the viewer cannot help but recognize the violent act captured by the picture: now, the violence portrayed in the center of the picture is in stark contrast to the idyllic Japanese landscape. In order to more accurately grasp what is going on, the spectator is forced to look much more closely and more carefully, thus bridging the distance between image and spectator the art work has

14 Al-Qattan writes: “The Unfolding images mark the explosion of reality into violent tragedy, or, looked at differently, into failed revolution.” (Al-Qattan 2012: 5) 15 While Hammam had taken herself most of the photographs portrayed for Upekkha, most of the pictures of Unfolding are taken from digital public sources and shot by various Egyptian and international journalists and social media activists.


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constructed. No surprise then that one image (image 9) is called Myopia, suggesting that the viewer approach the image more closely in order to see: Figure 4: UNFOLDING Series by Nermine Hammam (2012)

Source: Hammam 2012a (Figure 9 of 20)16 ; with permission by the artist.

While large parts of the picture are filled with flowers and plants as well as birds flying agitatedly in the close, cloudy sky, the seemingly idyllic scenery is dominated by an ordinarily dressed woman seen from behind and surrounded by at least seven military police officers touching and dragging her towards them. Another man, dressed in civilian clothes is trying to hold her back, it seems, but the motivations and intentions of the protagonists are hard to discern, even when examined closely. In her densely written text on the series of images, Nermine Hammam states: Parodying the human urge ‘not to see’, I beatified these scenes of brutality, suspending images of unrestrained violence against unarmed civilians within aesthetically pleasing and highly stylized landscapes. In the foreground we see only the beauty of this utopian setting in all its blissful and ordered abundance. But peering through the undergrowth, we are unexpectedly confronted by horror. As though in a nightmare, we are diverted from the comfortable admiration of beauty, to become voyeurs of

16 “A six-fold paper screen painted in ink and color on a gold ground with a flower cart on a knoll beside a river. The basket on the cart is filled with spring flowers such as fuji (wisteria) and botan (peony), Japan Edo period 17th century.” (Hammam 2012c: 4)


boundless violence and sadism, the very act of viewing confirming our acquiescence and complicity. In this work I question our ability to blind ourselves to violence through distance and perspective. (Hammam 2012a)

Especially the last sentence allows us to interpret the title of image 9 as a critique of our tendency to avoid and repress visual stimuli that disturb our privacy or peace of mind. Adopting the assumption that watching images of horror constantly would produce ‘image fatigue’ (cp. Sontag 1977 167; Azoulay 2008: 11) among viewers, Hammam deploys beautification against the viewer’s ‘natural’ impulse to avoid discomfort and other negative feelings. As in the case of humor, beautification could be seen as inappropriate when linked to trauma and scenes of enacted violence. However, both beautification and humor can have a transformative force that might not go as far as serving therapeutic ends, but can unfold a (re-)humanizing, elevating or empowering effect on the viewer. Moreover, in enabling people to see and to continue seeing, scenes of violent injustice can be shared more easily. But beautification is not the sole element. The title also suggests that we cannot see the truth from afar and that we are shortsighted and need to develop our sensory instruments and capacities to see what is really going on, what will probably happen next and what meaning these ongoing acts and events have – not only for the lives of the people represented, but also for our own lives. Thus, the question raised is what exactly is unfolding in these Japanized shots of Egyptian reality, which more or less haunt the spectator through a violence that in some pictures is only alluded to. A second question of even more relevance in our context is to what extent we can detect some form of humor in these images? In creating a distance and clothing a supposedly violent act in a beautified, idyllic environment, the images parody the original beauty and décor of the Japanese landscapes by locating at its center an ongoing horror. This comes close to the original meaning of the word grotesque which originally designated the frilly ornamentation of human beings, plants and animals painted on ancient murals, discovered in 15th century Italy. After the Italian Renaissance, the word came to signify the representation of the monstrous and terrifying, but at the same time comical, presenting the frightening as ridiculous. Grotesque style is defined by combining components and spheres that are obviously incompatible. The playful element is reduced in order to expose the inconceivability of a world dominated by horror and fright.


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Nermine Hammam explains her choice to use the seemingly precious compositions on fine art rice paper in the following way: “Unexpectedly, however, it was in this irony, the parody, that I found the greatest form of respect for my subject. How could we represent nauseating violence without rendering it toothless, without giving birth to disposable, single-hit wonders? Was there a way of depicting violence without making pornography?” (Hammam 2012b) The form of representation created by Hammam is distinct from any other form that links trauma and humor, in some cases materializing as an expression of laughter as a reaction to shock.17 Here, the form of humor changes from calm satire or carnivalesque exuberance to a grotesque depiction of aestheticized violence, a dramatic spectacle seducing the viewer to feel pleasure by gazing at victims of state violence. The still photographs, it seems, call on us to succumb to the essential distortion of our world created by a capitalist authoritarian political order. One could also argue, however, that in these images from 2012, neither humorous nor aesthetic pleasure can be perceived. What is found instead is a very particular sense of fright and shock that – once we have realized the violence acted upon the persons represented in the picture – violates our mind and emotions. It becomes obvious what is being done to these Egyptian citizens who are being robbed of their citizenship. What Azoulay said on the Palestinian-Israeli context, can also hold true for the context of these images: “[T]he more I looked at them, the more I felt that they showed more than evidence of what was being done to the Palestinians.” (Azoulay 2008: 12) Yet, humor is still present on the para-visual level. While no viewer will laugh about the motifs seen in the pictures, titles like Myopia make use of a bitter form of irony: Image 13, for instance, is entitled Hitch hiking, displaying several young demonstrators in front of a driving tank. Hardly discernable, it seems that in front of the tank, a young man is being brutally dragged, with no hint that the tank might stop to save his life. Other ironic titles are Fauna (image 1) and Super gardens of tahrir (image 17), uncovering the immoral tendency to foreground aestheticized aspects while ignoring the brutality and violence going on. The camel’s flight (instead of the actual “Camel’s Fight” or even the historic “Battle of the Camel”) subverts the mythic meaning of a historic event in Islamic history, drawing

17 See e. g. the entry on “Humor and Trauma” in Figley 2012: 315-317.


on the ethical dimensions of the demand to save civilians’ lives 18; and Escalate (image 8) plays on the double meaning of both “deteriorate” and “rise”, suggesting the upcoming killing of the woman by prefiguring her entering paradise as a shahid[a]. Last but not least, Codes of my kin (image 4) takes up the assault against “the girl with the blue bra” who was attacked and undressed by the military police: Figure 5: UNFOLDING Series by Nermine Hammam (2012)

Source: Hammam 2012a (Figure 4 of 20)19 ; with permission by the artist.

In late 2011, female protesters fell increasingly victim to sexual violence and harassment, at times state-sponsored, in order to inhibit women’s commitment for the revolution. This event produced particularly widespread outrage because videos and pictures of the aggression against the female civilian circulated widely in global media. Originally a Reuters press photo (cf. Hafez 2014; Bihr 2017: 151) showing the attack against the female protester which happened in December 2011 in Hammam’s photograph, the

18 The “Battle of the Camel” is the name given to an historic battle fought by Zubair and Talha, with the support of Muhammad’s wife Aisha – sitting on a “camel” while observing the battle, hence its name – against Caliph Ali who reigned from 656 to 661. Ali tried to avoid bloodshed and argued against “blood revenge” (thaʾr). See the Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd edition. 19 “Six-fold paper screen painted in ink and color on a silver ground with kiku (chrysanthemum) and aki no nanakusa (The Seven Flowers of Autumn). Rimpa school Japan 19th century Meiji period.” (Hammam 2012c: 5)


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representatives of the state appear as fighters on a raid, busy with pulling their prey behind them. In an essay on Hammam’s website that contains more details about the individual photographed images, the following is written: “Egyptian army soldiers arrest a female protester during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo December 17, 2011. Soldiers beat demonstrators with batons in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Saturday in a second day of clashes that have killed nine people and wounded more than 300, marring the first free election most Egyptians can remember. Her image has become the latest icon of the revolution”. (Hammam 2012c: 5) While the images of Upekkha mainly function as parodies of a reality that does not (yet) infuse shock and terror into the viewers, Unfolding intensifies its shocking effects the very moment the viewer starts to see beyond the calm ornament and decoration. The title Unfolding therefore refers to the process and dynamics of visual reception which unfold only gradually, unveiling the ‘real’ reality of what is represented. After reception, the images of Upekkha fade from our memory; frozen in time, the still photographs of Unfolding capture moments of violence and inscribe them into our memory with much more intensity and force, impelling the one who saw and became witness to the violent acts represented to repress these scenes with much more effort – or to yield to the visual force and provide meaning both to its imagery and narrative.20 As a counter-iconography to those images of the ruler that stay “in our psyche as picture” (Hammam 2012d: 12), what stays in mind here are images of a brutal state machinery. The disastrous situation and condition we perceive calls out for immediate action, giving rise to what Azoulay (2012: 23) has called an “emergency claim” that, in 2019, is still relevant. Thus, these images are not mere images, but “create a film-like effect” (Hafez 2012: 52): they start to have a life of their own (Eigenleben); they “exist by themselves” (Berger 1980: 39), provoking our imagination of what happened beforehand and what might happen afterwards. By the act of manipulating the original, the photographs become all the more real; but as John Berger (ibid: 38) explained in regard to press photographs on the Vietnam war, the moment we continue our lives we realize that “the resumption of our lives appears to be a hopelessly inadequate response to what we have just seen”.

20 On the technique and process of creating these still photographs, see Hammam’s explanations in Hafez 2012: 54-55.


Since some of the actors represented in the second series might be identical with the first, the later series of artworks can also be read as a subsequent commentary on Upekkha. While it might indicate a change of perspective by the artist on the political situation in Egypt and her own previous works, it also questions the “equanimity” and, consequently, passiveness of those who became witnesses to this very recent past, us included. Nermine Hammam hints at these possible effects of having witnessed mediatized violence by referring to Susan Sontag’s writings on the Pain of Others (cf. Sontag 2003): The pain of others can become the subject of crisis, avoidance or repression, but more often than not it simply ends up generating an alarming form of fatigue. […] When they die on camera, their death is distorted in the endless loop of infotainment, and the spectacle of their pain grants their agony a perverse form of immortality. […] Images on repeat build our emotional immunity up, a shell that threatens to cut us off from our humanity. (Hammam 2012d: 26)

Aesthetics in art can thus only safeguard an ethical dimension when caring for the humanity of all individuals shown and represented – and only when one’s own implicatedness is reflected critically: “They remind us that perhaps we should set aside our antiquated notions of realism and photojournalistic accountability; that some forms of artful, artificial representation remain the only way to portray violence without sadistically violating the victims that we focus upon.” (ibid) To aestheticize these violent acts by re-framing and locating them in Japanese landscapes of beauty and décor is an attempt to create a certain degree of distance, a “breathing room” (Hammam, 2012d: 28-29; cf. Bihr 2017: 153) enabling us to see, or more exactly, to continue to see what is too quickly looked away from, repressed and ignored: Japanese screens allowed me to play around with these uneasy feelings, and also, perhaps, to understand my role in the industrial production of sudden shock then generalized indifference. The aesthetic distance they provided, that of Japanese good manners and taste, allowed me to gaze at the minute horrors of military rule without feeling robbed of my humanity. This wasn’t the political reality happening in my backyard; these scenes took place in a far-away land between medieval Japan and contemporary Egypt. A fictitious space close enough that I cared to look at it, and far


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enough that I didn’t have to be moved by it. In other words, I was just looking at art. (Hammam 2012d: 26)

The predicament that emerges when “regarding the pain of others” from the comfort zone of artistic reception remains, however, unresolved, due to our lack of political agency and freedom. The moment these images would produce an effect other than felt agony and emotional and cognitive arrestment, it would no longer be possible to “publish [them] with impunity” (Berger 1980: 40). Thus, the question emerging again and again is how we can break out of the “arrested moments” (ibid) Berger so lucidly spoke of. How we regain our political agency, not to restore a past, already lost and impossible to recover, but to end man-made suffering committed in the name of nations or other political entities or ideologies. A form of representation that keeps us at a certain distance to the past events we see in our present, allows us, at least, to reflect on a possible future and the kind of determination we need to create a form of contemporary politics in which every discussion and decision about an unjust past would require an immediate and resolute change of an unjust order and concrete unjust acts in the here and now. Without doubt, this calls for sobriety rather than humor.

C ONCLUSION While in Upekkha the soldiers and police officers are, to a certain degree, humanized by revealing their emotions and states of mind, Unfolding uncovers the dehumanizing effects of state violence on civilians. It is those who commit the violence, i.e. the representatives of the state that are out of place in settings of beauty and calmness, while the victims, despite being assaulted, degraded and ‘dishonored’ by state violence, are shown all the more in their humanness, which corresponds to the beauty of the scenery. The images of Unfolding can thus be read as political statements that situate beauty and humanity on the side of the people, trying to do justice to their commitment and struggle, showing a heroism without sentimentality, while the postcolonial state, out of place in the streets and squares, resorts “to the systematic application of pain” (Mbembe 2001: 103). By manipulating the scenes, by turning them into “placid surfaces” (Hammam 2012d: 28) that


mirror the authoritarian reactions to a struggle for freedom and justice, the obscenity and grotesque acts of the state are laid bare. Once more taking into consideration Nermine Hammam’s essay accompanying the images of Unfolding, one notes that the art works clearly address a western, Anglophone audience which is far from the places of the postcolonial regimes’ domination, “allowing us to live, comfortably removed, in a web of codes and signifiers – or simulacra – that pose as reality but is questionably devoid of the real” (Hammam 2012b). By acknowledging the fact that in modernity, the identity between appearance and reality is irrevocably broken apart, the local simulacra become a mere reflection of processes that can be observed on a global scale. The component that most radically discredits modernity is the fact that reality itself is highly grotesque, having eliminated all possibilities to access ‘real’ reality and to restore the intactness of the world. Whether the sole effect of seeing these images on us is to be vicariously traumatized and disempowered, or whether seeing these images helps us to live better with the ghosts and dead of the human past and present, and at the same time, to preserve our lifelines and vigor, is up to us.

R EFERENCES Azoulay, Ariella (2008): The Civil Contract of Photography, New York: Zone Books. Berger, John (1972): Ways of Seeing, New York: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books. Berger, John (1980): About Looking, New York: Vintage. Bihr, Judith (2017): Muster der Ambivalenz: Subversive Praktiken in der ägyptischen Kunst der Gegenwart, Bielefeld: transcript. Darwish, Mahmoud (2010): State of Siege (Halat Hisar). Trans. M. Akash and D. Moore, NY: Syracuse University Press. Eltorie, Aida et al. (2011): The Changing Room: Arab Reflections on Praxis and Times (exhibition catalogue), Toronto: Finding Projects Association. Figley, Charles R. (ed.) (2012): Encyclopedia of Trauma: An Interdisciplinary Guide, Los Angeles: Sage. Hafez, Khaled (2012): Egyptian Hyperreal Pop: The Rise of a Hybrid Vernacular, Saarbrücken: LAP.


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Hafez, Sabry (2011): “The Aesthetics of the Closed Horizon: The Transformation of the City and the Novel in Egypt since 1990”. In: Stephan Guth/Gail Ramsay (eds.), From New Values to New Aesthetics: Turning Points in Modern Arabic Literature, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp. 109-138. Hafez, Sherine (2014): “Bodies That Protest: The Girl in the Blue Bra, Sexuality and State Violence in Revolutionary Egypt”. In: Signs, Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40/1, pp. 20-28. Hammam, Nermine: Official Artist’s Website, (http://nerminehammam. com). Hammam, Nermine (2011a): Upekkha, ( kha.html). Hammam, Nermine (2011b): “Upekkha” (press release of an exhibition in Bamako), November 1 ( Hammam, Nermine (2012a): Unfolding, ( unfolding.html). Hammam, Nermine (2012b): “Unfolding” (PDF document 1 for download on the artist’s website), ( Hammam, Nermine (2012c): “Unfolding” (PDF document 2 for download on the artist’s website), ( Hammam, Nermine (2012d): Cairo Year One, published by the Mosaic Rooms in association with Rose Issa Projects, London (exhibition catalogue). Mbembe, Achille (2001): On the Postcolony, Oakland: University of California Press. Al-Qattan, Omar (2012): “Cairo Year one”. In: Hammam, Nermine: Cairo Year One, published by the Mosaic Rooms in association with Rose Issa Project, London, pp. 4-6. Sontag, Susan (1977): On Photography, New York: Penguin. Sontag, Susan (2003): Regarding the Pain of Others, London: Hamish Hamilton. Toukan, Hanan (2015): “Whatever Happened to Iltizām? Words in Arab Art after the Cold War”. In: Friederike Pannewick/Georges Khalil/Yvonne Albers (eds.), Commitment and Beyond: Reflections on/of the Political in Arabic Literature since the 1940s, Wiesbaden: Reichert, pp. 333-349. Wallace, Alan (1999): Boundless Heart: The Four Immeasurables, Ithaca: Lion.

A Festival of Resistance Poetic Documents of the Revolution L IZA F RANKE “Peacefulness does not mean surrender.”1

I NTRODUCTION The turn of the year 2010-2011 marks a special era in the history of the modern Middle East. Tunisia was the first of several Arab countries which experienced an uprising of its people that resulted in the downfall of the respective regime. Egypt followed this development with massive demonstrations that led to the overthrow of the then president Hosni Mubarak. What all of the political unrests in the region have in common is that they have been accompanied by visual, written and oral art: in the form of posters, slogans, poetry, music, graffiti or cartoons. Thus, through the deliberate use of language and/or illustration, sentiments are captured and expressed in a subjective way. In states with regimes that strictly limit the freedom of expression, political criticism can only be expressed implicitly (in subversive forms); in the case of Egypt, such utterances use colloquial Egyptian – thereby enabling every inhabitant regardless of class or level of education to understand the poetically expressed words of resistance. The use of the vernacular not only unites Egyptians throughout the country who identify by means of their language, but also addresses issues relevant to the


This slogan became prominent during the initial protests against Mubarak in early 2011. (cp. Ketchley 2014)


majority which is not part of the elite. Especially in Egypt, colloquial poetry has had a long history and has been a form of expression during other uprisings and protests, as well as in quotidian practice. It is therefore necessary to analyze this form of resistance within the wider socio-political context of Egypt.2 In this article, I will discuss zajal, so-called ‘colloquial Arabic poetry in strophic form’ (shiʿr al-ʿammiyya). The Egyptian poet Ahmed Fuad Nagm is a rather famous representative of this form of poetry. His use and interpretation of the vernacular are therefore examined. The source material consists of grey literature and flyers which were circulated during the first 18 days of the revolution in Egypt, as well as interviews which were conducted in Egypt with demonstrators who composed poetry anonymously during these initial three weeks.3 The analysis sheds light on the humorous content of this material, especially the message conveyed between the lines that is often in contrast to its literary meaning. How does humorous language impart subversive intentions? How are identities constructed, knowledge produced as social practice, and power structures negotiated as social capital, which, according to Pierre Bourdieu, represents a social network of relationships? (cp. Bourdieu 1985: 248)




While fusha (Standard Arabic) has been categorized especially since the end of the 19th century as the language of the elite or learned discourse accessible only to a few educated people (cp. Ibrahim 1986: 115-126) – the EgyptianArabic, al-ʿammiyya,4 is the opposite since it is the language which can be shared with everyone, regardless of regional, class or gender differences and


The present article is based on material collected and social dynamics observed throughout the years 2011-2012. Due to the limited scope of this article expanding research beyond this time frame cannot be included therein.


The material has been – unless noted otherwise – collected and translated by the author of this article.


Other Arabic dialects are also called al-ʿammiyya in their respective vernacular. Thus, in this paper, al-ʿammiyya is understood as Egyptian-Arabic.




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the level of education and literacy. In Egypt, colloquial poetry is also designated by the terms zajal (pl. azjal) or shiʿr al-ʿammiyya, as well as “poetry of the working class” or “the voice of the people”. According to another definition, it is folk poetry with the intention to reach the greatest possible mass of population, irrelevant if poor, rich, urban or rural, educated or illiterate (cp. Booth 1992: 421 referring to Peter Burke 5; cp. also Beinin 1994: 192-193). Modern zajal is most often a strophic form that usually follows rhymes, but can also be written in unrhymed form. Often “sung or recited in public gatherings, it also includes more ‘elevated’ types published in magazines and individual collections” (Scott-Meisami 2003: 819). Having as its core the criterion that it needs to be written in colloquial language, form and themes can vary. It is exactly this latitude which makes the genre so fascinating, since the stylistic freedom allows for playing with the lyrics and rhymes in a non-standardized way. Traditionally, zajal has served as an instrument of mass communication, conveying issues of political concern to the public. In Egypt, colloquial poetry tended to grow analogously to political developments. Since poetry was not only printed in newspapers and magazines but was also an oral tradition in the Arab world, the message of the poems could also be conveyed to illiterates and those who are not proficient in fusha. (cp. Moreh 1976: 44-81) This was the intention of the poets as well as of the publishers. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the focus of colloquial poetry was on the establishment of a politically sensitive majority of the population. In a counter-discourse, this majority should take a stand against the political elite and international ruling powers (i.e. the British) in order to prompt a new feeling of nationality. (cf. Fahmy 2011) The aftermaths of World War I were thus also highly perceptible in popular culture, with the latter often being the only arena for the others to publicly express their opinion, let alone to protest. In the 1930s and 1940s colloquial poets still turned towards sociopolitical issues, at that time focusing on the working class. Hence, its content targeted mainly the working class in order to make them experience solidarity, strengthen a shared identity and to provide them with a medium that gave voice to their demands.


Burke, Peter (1978): Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, London, p. 28, cited in Booth 1992: 421.


Since the 1950s the content has again become more political, though this time aiming mainly at the new national rulers and only partially at class differences. Nationalism became prominent in pan-Arab concepts and ideas in which Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt was a core figure. These concepts and ideas were discussed in poetic forms and thereby made available and accessible to a larger population. Colloquial poetry is thus a genre which includes an educational and informational task which goes beyond mainstream media: it reaches its audiences especially in rural areas. 6 In the 1960s, a group of young poets, including Salah Jahin, Sayyid Higab, Fuʾad Qaʿud, and ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Abnudi, called itself Jamaʿit Ibn ʿArus (after the Egyptian colloquial poet Ibn ʿArus who was born in 1780), and coined the term shiʿr al-ʿammiyya. (cp. Radwan 2012: 37) One of the purposes of their new poetry was “to satirize the elite, the political authorities, and even the literary establishment and its long cherished conventions. […] The language of their poetry was familiar, direct, and free of subtleties and ambiguities.” (Radwan 2012: 41) For the interpretation of zajal the historical context of its formation process is relevant, as are emotions, which are a vital part of writing and decoding the written word. This accords with the opinion of the celebrated Egyptian colloquial poet Ahmed Fuad Nagm (1929-2013), whose poems are known throughout Egypt (and even beyond): Nagm emphasized the “personal idea” of poetry, not only by addressing very essential and private concerns, but also by expecting his audience to understand his words individually. (cp. Hindi 1979: 50-51) He was probably the most famous Egyptian zajal poet who devoted himself throughout his entire career to societal concerns and class differences combined with political content. Together with the blind composer and singer Shaykh Imam ʿIsa (1918-1995), they became the performing duo known as Nagm-Imam: It was not just the message but rather the particular coherence of language, sound images, performance techniques, and contextual performance elements – enactment of the messages they were singing – that underlay the fast rise to fame and the political


I.e. remote areas, away from the vibrant, large, urban, economic and political centers – rural areas where orality and the colloquial dominate, as well as urban areas majorly inhabited by people with no to low income and hardly any education.




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efficacy of this amazing and unique pair of artists, neither of whom is likely to have achieved such a powerful voice on his own. (Booth 2007/2008: 2)

Thus, the atmosphere of the performance is also important, i.e. how the written word is being imparted to the audience. Although the Nagm-Imam duo has become silent due to the deaths of its protagonists – their words and music remain: other young artists have covered their works, especially during the first weeks of the January 25 revolution in Egypt. Even though the circumstances have changed over time and space, the initial meaning of the message conveyed through the works of Nagm-Imam has not changed and still prevails: In street demonstrations of a new millennium, those songs have been audible. The dynamic duo’s political and aesthetic force retains its aura and its communicative power, in a new form. As today’s young Arab singers return to the works of Nigm Imam, they locate an aesthetic home for their own collective struggles. (ibid: 24)

During the uprisings in 2011 and thereafter, the poets, al-zajalun, which served the revolutionary movement,7 addressed issues of significance for all demonstrators at Tahrir Square, easily recognizable by any Egyptian. Between the lines one can see the sadness and anxiety of the activists.

P OETRY IN THE ARAB S PRING : THE J ANUARY 25 R EVOLUTION (T HAWRAT 25 YANAYIR ) The popular uprising in Egypt developed in parallel with the culmination of feelings of resentment against the Mubarak-regime. These politically dynamic months were accompanied by the poetic use of colloquial Arabic. This confirms the view of the well-known Palestinian-American poet, Sharif Elmusa, who states:


On the topic of space and power, cf. Singerman 2011; on this aspect in Egyptian literature, cf. Naaman 2011: 1-36.


[T]he words that revolutionaries make are poetry, even if they are not meant to be. Language under authoritarian regimes rusts, turns dull, loses its edge and luster. Revolution restores to words their truthfulness, meaning, even magic. […] It is in itself an act, a performance.8 (Elmusa 2011)

Consequently, if words and utterances during tumultuous times are considered to be acts or performances (of e.g. resistance), they can also increase the sense of community and group integration in terms of identity construction and Sinnstiftung. (cp. Booth 1992: 419-440; cf. Bassiouney 2014: xvi, 416; Bassiouney 2012). In this context, the Arab Spring which spanned the Middle East, not only united the people of one country – during the protests, men and women, students, workers, intellectuals, poor and rich stood together – but also expanded solidarity to the region beyond its borders.9 In the following I will present two of the numerous poems produced during the demonstrations.10 They were written by participants in the uprising and can be considered to belong to the category of azjal. Many of the poems written in colloquial Arabic have been put to music and sung, thereby accessing the emotions of their audience and thus gaining incredible popularity due to the fact that the words had become even more memorable.


The Egyptian poet Amal Dunqul (1940-1983) used this form of language as a means of disguise also in his late poems, such as Prayer: Due to the fact that words are not free under strict regimes, abstraction was a possible solution – then and now applied in colloquial Egyptian for the larger audience.


Not only through joint agency, but also by means of joint language, i.e. Arabic and in this case particularly Egyptian-Arabic, thanks to a vivid film industry since the mid-20th century known throughout the Arab world.

10 The poems have been chosen by the author because they both address social and political issues in an obvious tone and through hidden metaphors.




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Table 1: ʿAli Baba and the 40 Thieves ʿAli Baba and the 40 Thieves For 30 years he has himself chosen as leader and with him, the country sank into the morass. And they turned out to be a gang – and they pretended to be notables towards the people. The state of the country is deteriorating; and stretches its hands towards other countries – and mews. All our weapons come from abroad, and Israel has put us in a vessel. They have sold Egypt for their own profit – nothing remains except her skin. They left its green land to be humiliated – Houses – factories – smoke Only a few acres remain: Now even they are privatized oh ye sons of the accursed. Listen, oh people, to the words: Execute the pharaoh and live in peace

‫علي بابا واألربعين حرامي‬ ‫ سنة عامل فيها زعيم‬٣٠ ‫والبلد معاه نزلت في الطين‬ ‫والتاريهم كانوا عصابة‬ ‫عاملين علی الشعب نقابة‬ ‫والبلد حالها بيسوء‬ ‫وتمد ايديها للدول‬ ‫وتموء‬ ‫سالحنا مله من برة‬ ‫واسرائيل حطتنا في جرة‬ ‫باعوا مصر لحسابهم كلها‬ ‫مفضلش غير جلدها‬ ‫سابوا األرض الخضرا تهان‬ ‫بيوت – مصانع – دخان‬ ‫مفضلش منها غير فدادين‬ ‫اهى خاصت‬ ‫ياوالد المالعيين‬ ‫اسمع ياشعب الكالم‬ ‫اشنق فرعون‬ ‫وعيش في سالم‬

Source: Unknown authorship. The author collected this poem during one of her research trips to Egypt, but it has also been digitally archived on the platform


The title of the first poem (figure 1) of unknown authorship is telling: Alluding to the well-known folk tale Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, it refers to President Mubarak and his ministers (cabinet), presenting Mubarak as a brigand and an excessively strong leader supported by puppets.11 The headline refers to the poet’s dissatisfaction with Egypt’s ruling elite, designated as robbers who stole from the country and its population. This is also the message of the first verse, namely that Mubarak illegitimately acted as president and that Egypt’s situation deteriorated throughout his 30-year long presidency. The misleadership of Mubarak and his ministers – called a “gang” – resulted in the misery of the country, which was now forced to beg for help from other countries and “mews” like a cat for support, instead of being independent and strong. The poet goes on to lament the dependence on foreign countries, because its own industry (such as the weapons industry) is weak or nonexistent. Israel controls Egypt (“Israel has put us in a vessel”), because the leadership has sold off the country and the profit is only for the ruling class.12 Egypt is nothing but an empty “skin”, and the fertile land has been exploited and ruined thanks to mismanagement. The few remaining agricultural areas have been privatized, a decision made by the descendants of the leadership who are here addressed as “sons of the accursed”. According to my reading, the reference to privatized agricultural land indicates that the author of the poem probably supports neo-Nasserist views. One can find in the poem an unlimited love for the country and its people, expressed both explicitly and implicitly. In the concluding verse, the poet calls upon his Egyptian audience and readership to listen to his advice: “Execute the pharaoh and live in peace”. Referring to Mubarak as a pharaoh, a recurrent trope since ancient times, intensifies the criticism expressed in the poem, since pharaohs are nowadays imagined to have been rigid rulers,

11 “While this phase was marked by ‘gallows’ humor, through which the people coped with their own weakness, the humor of the Square was clearly distinct. It was not a sign of weakness but of strength, as it broke a taboo to ridicule the leader – in public.” (Helmy/Frerichs 2013: 452) The sentence could also be read as “strong leader followed by his ruthless gang” – however, many of my interview partners clearly described this ‘gang’ as puppets in the hands of Mubarak. 12 This is a reference to the Camp David Accords 1978 and the subsequent signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel under the then President Anwar Sadat in 1979.




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sacrificing their land and their people for their own benefit in the here and now as well as in the afterlife, as the only possible option for a peaceful and prosperous life.13 The tone of the poem is depressing, given the current state of Egypt when Mubarak was still in power. He and his leadership/followers are blamed for the country’s deterioration, which is subsequently enumerated. They have showered the population with affecting lies, promising a vibrant future by means of their deceptive appearance, in their pose as honorable men. This deceit can only be overcome through a change of regime, an urgently needed change, given the rather miserable state of Egypt’s economy and agriculture. The author of the poem is convinced that Egypt can shine and rise to the level it had once attained (postcolonial and prior to the Mubarak-era) and become independent from foreign investment and political interference only if a political turn is realized. Hidden within the reference to privatized agricultural land, is the author’s own political preference, which is why he glorifies the time of Nasser (pre-Sadat and pre-Mubarak). He himself wishes for a socialist system to be the triumphant solution for the birth of a nation. Here he pertains to the social context he considers himself to be situated in – the growing gap between urban and rural areas, the division between the well off and those who have very limited or no financial possibilities. These monetary constraints are often reinforced by traditional patriarchal concepts that are part of most Egyptian societies. Mixed with political restrictions and

13 Pharaonic references are a common trope of local Egyptian nationalism: the pharaoh as metaphor for contemporary/current Egyptian politicians is a wellknown image; however, the connotation of the pharaoh as rigid and selfish ruler sacrificing people for his own needs is a modern one. Within ancient Egyptian tradition and propaganda, the king was usually depicted in a positive way. There is evidence in ancient Egyptian literary texts of immoral and unreasonable pharaohs and some archaeological evidence in the early dynastic period points to human sacrifices in connection with the burial of the king, but the image of the pharaoh as the evil ruler does not come out of this tradition. One might speculate this imaginary was influenced by the depiction of Egypt in the Old Testament, where Egypt is generally treated as the land of sin, idolatry, evil magic and unjust kings (e.g. in the episodes of the twelve plagues and the golden calf). (cp. Hoffmann/Quack 2007)


economic hardship the atmosphere of unfulfilled dreams is conveyed. 14 Explicitly and implicitly expressed in the poem is an unlimited love for the country in terms of land, territory and people. In combination the latter are said to be able to overcome the current political state and evoke an effective and sustainable change that is worth of and for Egypt. What is striking about this and the following poem (figure 2) is, as Richard Jaquemond points out in his study on satiric literature in Egypt, the link between humor and creativity. This link is also prevalent when it comes to resistance which is influenced by and emanates from society through humor and creativity precisely during oppressive circumstances: The oral nukta, satiric poetry, comedy as a main genre in both Egyptian cinematic and theatrical output, press caricature, are, along with adab sākhir, the main forms of expression of this culture of derision the Egyptian people usually associate with the need for tanfīs, that is, to vent one’s anger or frustration. (Jaquemond 2016: 356-357)

Thus humor can be a vehicle to transmit non-humorous feelings. Jaquemond in this sense links humor to despair. (cp. ibid: 366) Moreover, it can also be subversive or subversively intended. Out of difficult circumstances (that can be depressing and/or oppressive) creative, humorous and subversive voices can emerge that not only remain in the realm of orality but also enter the space of the written sphere, as has happened with poems. The hidden message in these cases has to be decoded by deciphering language codes – something that is easier if one is familiar with the respective codes (i.e. due to the same social and educational background). The intention of the message conveyed to the addressed audience is again important, as will be shown in the following example.

14 On the rural and agricultural situation in Egypt, cf. Fahmy 2011: 198-220.




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Table 2: Dreams of a Citizen Dreams of a Citizen The have messed up the position of the President of the Republic – we want it to be parliamentary. Like England, oh lords – Where the monarchy is truly noble. And we want the presidential palaces oh you fair ones – To become hotels that will make millions. And no parliamentarian, oh you best of men – shall serve for more than two terms. Our regime will be socialist – one that protects our dignity. Enough of capitalism, humiliation, suffering and unemployment. We want to get out of the GATT – China will turn you into a beggar. Where all of our prices are local – Don’t whisper to me and say ‘global’ Where all salaries are equal: They have a rooftop and a floor Why should one snatch a million – While another begs for a hundred?

‫أحالم مواطن‬ – ‫لخموا منصب رئيس الجمهورية‬ ‫عايزنها برلمانية‬ – ‫زى انجلترا يافندية‬ ‫الملكية فيها شرفية‬ – ‫وقصور الرناسة ياحلوين‬ ‫تبقى فنادق تجيب ماليين‬ – ‫وكل برلمانى يازين‬ ‫مايزيدش عن فترتين‬ – ‫ونظامنا اشتراكية‬ ‫كرامتنا فيها محمية‬ – ‫وكفاية رأسمالية‬ ‫ذل ومعانة وعواطلية‬ – ‫ونطلع برة الجات‬ ‫الصين هتخليك شحات‬ – ‫واسعارنا كلها محلية‬ ‫ماتسرنش وتقول عالمية‬ – ‫وكل المرتبات سواسية‬ ‫ليها سقف وفيها ارضية‬ – ‫ليه واحد يلهف مليون‬ ‫والتانى يشحت مية‬

Source: Unknown authorship. The author collected this poem during one of her research trips to Egypt, but it has also been digitally archived on the platform

The poem Ahlam muwatin (‘Dreams of a citizen’; figure 2) presents visions for the Egyptian nation, formulated by a “citizen”. It first accuses those in power of having misused the president’s role: “They have messed up the position of the president.” Using the we-form the unknown author stresses that his wishes are those of the larger Egyptian population. The author plainly describes what s/he considers worthy of change and what the shortcomings


of the present situation are. S/he directly criticizes and reproaches the regime. The described scenes are taken from the realm of politics, economics and everyday life. The state should turn into parliamentary rule “like England”, Parliamentarians’ terms ought to be limited and the ideal system should be socialist which is depicted as the only system that is able to protect “our dignity”. Capitalism is described as the utmost evil, responsible for the malady that the ruling elite has inflicted. The devastating economic system is blamed for the deteriorating state of the country, including the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which the author wants to quit. S/he advocates the return to a local order leading to equality in terms of wages and overcoming the gap between the rich and the poor. S/he terminates her/his verses with a rhetorical question, a question that raises doubts about the legitimacy of the current state, the current political system of inequality and exploitation: “Why should one snatch a million/While another begs for a hundred?” The atmosphere conveyed in this poem is euphoric, an atmosphere of departure: if something new is possible now, then it should be realized as presented in the poem. It is clearly identified what the manifold causes for the existing problems and shortcomings are. The language is flippant at the beginning with stylistic ornaments throughout the poem. Since the author uses keywords that are understandable for a majority, the audience can decipher the applied codes. In detail however, some verses are only plausible to those informed about foreign policy (i.e. England, GATT, the roles of China and Israel) and domestic policy (i.e. electoral system).




The initial weeks of the Arab Spring were characterized by euphoria and poetry was a means to convey the dreams of the population, who wished that a political restructuring would be the outcome of their emotional and physical commitment. (cp. Saad 2012: 64) Poetry can be composed in various forms and can express or address several sentiments, such as anger, hope, grief, satire or humor. Humor during the early revolutionary phase can be characterized by “the fact that it was more about life and death than about having a good laugh” (Helmy/Frerichs 2013: 455). This has been shown as




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well in the two poems, which have been analyzed for the present article. Humor in this context can function as a means for relief [b]y means of joking, humor gains an important social function to criticize depressing political circumstances in which state censorship can be overcome. Humor, in this manner, serves as a central factor of liberation, which leads to momentary relief from the depressing situation. (Tamer 2009: xii)

However, through humor and satire not only is criticism expressed, but meaning is bestowed on the group of protesters. It is a meaning that has formed and fostered a new (national) identity, namely that of the peaceful resisters, who exemplify the term sumud (‘not to surrender’), and who will occupy the Midan (Tahrir Square) until it is liberated. (cp. Mehrez 2012; Sowers/Toensing 2012) As Helmy and Frerichs (2013: 454) state, laughter is “cross-cultural”, and thus understandable for most people. Yet, the respective circumstances have to be considered, as these can vary according to time and space. What all those poems, written by participants in the protests during the Egyptian revolution but also by renowned poets, such as Ahmed Fuad Nagm, Abdul Rahman Youssef, ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Abnudi or Tamim al-Barghouti, have in common is that they lucidly address the leadership and that they identify those in power as responsible for the miserable situation of Egypt and its population. The rulers are held accountable for the deterioration in national politics regarding the unemployment rate, the increasing cost of living and foods, and the lack of freedom of speech and opinion. It is a clearly articulated demarcation between ‘them’ and ‘us’, expressing the difference not only in terms of space but also in terms of power and power structures. A new collective identity is being constructed in this precise process of dissociation from the other. They experience and celebrate a new identity by means of dissociation from the leadership and ruling class, which they express in their own new poetry. In many poems, this collective identity refers on the one hand to the aspect of the protesters, who unite at Tahrir Square, but also to an Egyptian identity, which encompasses the entire population and which has a nationalist focus. The land Egypt (as country, territory and homeland) is often imagined to be feminine. By means of the ancient metaphor Egypt as a woman, intimacy, respect and love for Egypt is symbolized, in order to refute the reproach that protesters cannot love Egypt.


Furthermore, it thwarts the claim that the protesters are foreign agents. Thus, a new nationalist feeling and understanding of nationalism is proclaimed through the vernacular poems. Other topics negotiated in the poems are, for example, international politics, such as Egypt’s position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the relations with America. Apart from politics and economy and the devastating situation most Egyptians live in, religion is another subject that is often referred to in the poems. This can be expressed directly in poems or more indirectly in the remembrance of the ‘martyrs’ who were killed during the demonstrations.15

C ONCLUDING R EMARKS : C OLLOQUIAL P OETRY AND I DENTITY C ONSTRUCTIONS The demands and the participants in the demonstrations against the Mubarak regime underwent transformations and became diverse. However, many protesters at the Tahrir Square had, for the first time, the feeling of belonging to a clearly defined nation. This is reflected in the poems that, thanks to the uprising, became well-known. The encompassing vernacular and the solidarity which prevailed at Tahrir Square strengthened the feeling of being ‘Egyptian’. Therefore, the production and reception of creative ‘revolutionary products’ such as poetry, slogans, posters, graffiti etc. has to be seen in the context of new identity constructions, the latter to be understood in the sense of Stuart Hall: Precisely because identities are constructed within, not outside, discourse, we need to understand them as produced in specific historical and institutional sites within specific discursive formations and practices [...]. Moreover, they emerge within the play of specific modalities of power, and thus […] identities are constructed through, not outside, difference. (Hall/du Gay 1996: 4)

15 Cp. Hasan Tilib’s (2011) collection of poetry The Revolution’s Testament and its Qur’an. It is prominent in this genre, and praises the tolerance of the protesters in terms of religious plurality at the beginning of the uprising. This atmosphere changed rapidly during the Muslim-Coptic clashes in the autumn of 2011.




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Humorous elements in colloquial poetry and other forms of cultural production allude to power and hierarchical structures in society. Humor can become a strategic tool to detect, ridicule and maybe even overcome these very structures. (cp. Anagondahalli/Khamis 2014: 1-5) As Anagondahalli/ Khamis put it: If the humor before the revolution served the identification function of bonding the teller and the receiver of the joke, the humor during the revolution was more aligned with the enforcement function which is aimed at social change [...], it was direct and confrontational. (ibid: 12)

Equally, the satire in the poems analyzed above functioned as a means of social criticism and a political weapon to overturn the existing power structures. In contrast to the poetry and songs of the early 20th century which were “not works of protest” and “were rarely prescriptive of solutions, nor did they usually advocate any particular action” (Danielson 2008: 50), this new poetry propagated concrete political measures and solutions. However, both “fostered Egyptians’ value of their own culture and society” (ibid). The feeling that a unique Egyptian identity was possible through the uprising is not new. It was already important in earlier struggles in the ʿUrabi revolution 1881 against corrupt royalty; the 1919 revolution which almost led to the withdrawal of the British military rulers; the 1952 revolution which was followed by 60 years of military regimes under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, and the 1977 bread riots demonstrating against the termination of state subsidies on basic foodstuffs. (cp. Colla 2011: 47-48) The experience that one was uniting in the streets with next-door neighbors – whom one had never talked to before – now standing up together against the regime, generated new forms of belonging and identity constructions. The genre of zajal was among the most important elements in strengthening a new sense of national belonging whose main slogan was Egypt for Egyptians. Ziad Fahmy emphasizes: It is about the dissemination of a nationalist ideology to the masses and how this ideology was translated and acted on in the streets and not about the intellectual debates surrounding the formation of Egyptian national identity. Not only were recorded colloquial music, azjāl, and the popular press the most effective tools for the dissemination of nationalist ideas to the majority of Egyptians, but they also provided


the necessary space for a nascent middle class to construct and maintain new, ‘modern’ [sic] identities. (Fahmy 2011: xii)

The themes that are touched upon or debated in detail in poetic form mostly reflect feelings of resentment and frustration. The authors of the poems thus become the voice of large parts of the population. Participation in the collective uprising happened on the one hand by means of physical presence at the centers of demonstration, such as Tahrir Square; on the other hand, it came about through symbolic solidarity with the protesters and emotional closeness. The slogans, songs and poems are not just a by-product and embellishment of the uprising; on the contrary, they are at the very heart of the revolution and a major unifying factor. Through their collective performance they become “a significant part of the action itself” (Colla 2011).

R EFERENCES Anagondahalli, Deepa/Khamis, Sahar (2014): “Mubarak Framed! Humor and Political Activism before and during the Egyptian Revolution.” In: Arab Media & Society 19, pp. 1-16. Bassiouney, Reem (2012): “Politicizing Identity: Code Choice and Stancetaking during the Egyptian Revolution.” In: Discourse & Society 23/2, pp. 107-126. Bassiouney, Reem (2014): Language and Identity in Modern Egypt, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Beinin, Joel (1994): “Writing Class: Workers and Modern Egyptian Colloquial Poetry (Zajal).” In: Poetics Today 15/2, pp. 191-215. Booth, Marilyn (1992): “Colloquial Arabic Poetry, Politics, and the Press in Modern Egypt.” In: International Journal of Middle East Studies 24/3, pp. 419-440. Booth, Marilyn (2007/2008): “Exploding into the Seventies: Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm, Shaykh Imam, and the Aesthetics of a New Youth Politics.” In: Cairo Papers in Social Science, Special Issue on “Thirty Years of Social and Political Protest in Egypt”, p. 2.




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Bourdieu, Pierre (1985): “The Forms of Capital.” In: John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, New York: Greenwood, pp. 241-258. Burke, Peter (1978): Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, London: Scolar Press. Colla, Elliott (2011): “The Poetry of Revolt.” In: Jadaliyya January 31, Danielson, Virginia (2008): ‘The Voice of Egypt’: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Elmusa, Sharif S. (2011): “Poetry of the Revolution.” In: Egypt Independent February 20, tion. Fahmy, Ziad (2011): Ordinary Egyptians, Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture, Stanford: Stanford University Press. Hall, Stuart/du Gay, Paul (eds.) (1996): Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage. Helmy, Mohamed/Frerichs, Sabine (2013): “Stripping the Boss: The Powerful Role of Humor in the Egyptian Revolution 2011.” In: Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science 47/4, pp. 450-481. Hindi, Khalil (1979): “Profile: Ahmed Fouad Negm.” In: Index in Censorship 8/2, pp. 50-51. Hoffmann, Friedhelm/Quack, Joachim F. (2007): Anthologie der Demotischen Literatur, Münster: LIT Verlag. Ibrahim, Muhammad H. (1986): “Standard and Prestige Language: A Problem in Arabic Sociolinguistics.” In: Anthropological Linguistics 28, pp. 115-126. Jaquemond, Richard (2016): “Satiric Literature and other ‘Popular’ Genres in Egypt Today.” In: Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 16, pp. 349-367. Ketchley, Neil (2014): “How Social Media Spreads Protest Tactics from Ukraine to Egypt.” In: The Washington Post February 14, https://www. dia-spreads-protest-tactics-from-ukraine-to-egypt/?utm_term=.a3c5f602 57e8. Mehrez, Samia (2012): Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.


Moreh, Shmuel (1976): Modern Arabic Poetry 1800-1970: The Development of its Forms and Themes under the Influence of Western Literature, Leiden: E.J. Brill. Naaman, Mara (2011): Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature: Portraits of Cairo, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Radwan, Noha M. (2012): Egyptian Colloquial Poetry in the Modern Arabic Canon: New Readings of Shi‘r Al-‘Ammiyya, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Saad, Reem (2012): “The Egyptian Revolution: A Triumph of Poetry.” In: American Ethnologist 39/1, pp. 63-66. Scott-Meisami, Julie/ Starkey, Paul (eds.) (2003): Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, London: Routledge. Singerman, Diane (ed.) (2011): Cairo Contested: Governance, Urban Space and Global Modernity, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press. Sowers, Jeannie/Toensing, Chris (eds.) (2012): The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt, London/New York: Verso. Tamer, Georges (ed.) (2009): Humor in der arabischen Kultur/Humor in Arabic Culture, Berlin/New York: De Gruyter. Tilib, Hasan (2011): Injil al-thawra wa-Qurʾanuha: Thulathiyya shiʿriyya, Cairo: Wizarat al-thaqafa, al-hayʾa al-misriyya al-ʿamma li-l-kitab.

Towards an Understanding of the Role of Political Satire in Sudan L ARISSA -D IANA F UHRMANN

I NTRODUCTION The use of new media and social networking platforms during the uprising in North Africa and the Middle East has been discussed intensely while little attention has been paid to the humor and political satire which accompanied and accelerated protests during the revolutions. Sudan has a specific relationship with cartoons and political satire. The cultural production of cartoons in Sudan started relatively late in the 1950s and since then has had to adapt to the different political environments in which they are contrived. During authoritative regimes, cartoonists resorted to self-censorship and communicated their political messages subversively or through symbolism circumventing censorship and prosecution. Those who didn’t obey the censorship rules suffered the consequences. However, in times of democratic leadership (1956-58, 1964-69 and 1985/86-89; cf. Collins 2008), artists took advantage of the increased political freedom and expressed their opinions openly in national newspapers and other publications. Social media and particularly online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have changed the rules of producing political satire and arts in general in terms of content, control and censorship by the government as well as public reception. In the following, the historic background and contemporary situation of the role that humor and satire play in cartoon art will be discussed and analyzed in the context of socio-political discourses in Sudan. So far, there are few academic publications on the issue; most sources for this article are


interviews that were conducted specifically for it as well as national and international newspaper articles on the topics.1 The research for this article was conducted in the beginning of 2017 under the military rule of former president Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. The writing process was finished in the same year and therefore Sudan’s third revolution which began in December 2018, triggering an artistic avalanche and toppling the 30-year dictatorship, was not taken into account.






When the news of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who set himself on fire in December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid went viral, it sparked a wave of protests all over the country. First via Twitter and soon after via Facebook, Tunisian activists communicated with their peers and documented the events with photos, videos, texts and illustrations. Al Jazeera and other channels took the visual material posted on social media channels and broadcasted them to a wider audience sitting in front of their TVs worldwide.2 In the following weeks, the world witnessed the protests of a technophile Arab generation which communicated, expressed themselves and motivated each other through street art and political satire (to name but a few tools), using online platform such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. The online coverage of the events in the different countries during the Arab Uprising, combined with a wave of artists and cyberactivists accompanying the events, were unprecedented. The revolutions were trending with hashtags, videos as well as cartoons on social media and were broadcasted in excerpts live on TV, keeping people informed and ‘entertained’ simultaneously. The activists broke the barriers of governmental censorship and started expressing their political opinions publicly. Egypt followed Tunisia and witnessed the formation of a civilian movement with activists who went out into the streets, while organizing their activities using online platforms. The government blocked access to those services only

1 2

For further reading on Sudan’s history cf. Holt/Daly (2000); cf. Collins (2008). The broadcasting of the material which spread on social media was a crucial step toward reaching an older demographic, closing the generational gap, and mobilizing a critical mass.






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temporarily but did not manage to break the momentum of the protests. Artists in the Arab World were not only documenting but also fueling protests with their satirical comics ridiculing the leaders of the Arab World. While the global media declared the uprisings to be the first civilian movements to overthrow military regimes in the region’s history, Sudanese intellectuals were staggered by the news. Former President Omar al-Bashir reacted to the regional shift stating: “We are the people of Intifadas and people know this. We are not imitators.” (Berridge 2015: 1) Sudan’s history of overthrowing dictatorial governments in 1964 and 1985 as well as the unstable socio-economic situation in 2011 seemed to be fertile ground for the people to take part in the regional shift and spark a third ‘intifada’. (cp. ibid: 10) But Sudan has been unable to repeat the past uprisings, despite the amplified effect of the internet used by Sudanese artists and activists which has globalized the protests. It seemed that the former Sudanese regime learned just as many lessons from 1964 and 1985 as its opponents did. (cp. ibid) When activist Ahmad al-Quraishi, a 20-year old student, was killed by police forces in 1964, it had a strong impact on society and triggered the protests that brought on the revolution. Parallels to the public reactions to the death of Bouazizi in Tunisia 2010 and Khalid Said in Egypt can be drawn. (cp. Kushkush 2012) The current political, social and economic situation in Khartoum differs drastically in comparison to the context in which the last two revolutions arose. According to Berridge (2015: 210) “[a]geing representatives of the educated elites who spearheaded previous revolutions sit drinking tea and lamenting the risk of toppling the regime when Khartoum is surrounded by armed gangs ‘with no national feeling’”. In the meantime, a young technophile generation is trying to engage in resistance movements and spark their own revolution. In Sudan, the Egyptian revolution in 2011 was discussed intensely in the context of activists’ use of social media. The number of internet users in Egypt has been climbing steadily from around 17 million in 2010 to an estimated 30 million internet users in 2016 (cp. Ministry of Communications


and Information Technology, Arab Republic of Egypt 2017)3, making it easier for Egyptian activists to connect and to reach an international audience during protests, while circumventing governmental censorship. (cp. Alhindi/ Talha 2012: 103) The widespread connectivity in the country and its direct impact are some of the reasons why the new media played a major role in the Egyptian revolution with activists able to reach a global audience in 2011. Similarly to Egypt, one third of Sudan’s population has internet access. In Sudan’s case there are around 10 million current users who are concentrated mainly in the urban center. (cp. National Communications Commission 2011) While the number of users has tripled in the last seven years in Sudan, recent price hikes at the end of 2016 from all network operators as well as online surveillance by the government have made it more difficult for the youth to communicate and upload (critical) content via social media. (cp. National Communications Comission 2016) In comparison to most countries in the region that recently went through a revolution, Sudan lacks a united opposition and/or a serious opponent challenging the regime. Alex de Waal, one of the leading political scientists analyzing Sudan’s complex situation, points out that today’s challenge is the involvement of the regional rebel groups. Compared to the past, those groups play a far greater role in the current opposition movement. Therefore, a revolution would result in substantial power struggles, and negotiating a peaceful transition like the one in 1964 would be difficult. (cp. de Waal 2013)






Cartoons in Sudan have a relatively young history, and literature on the topic is rare. Some cartoons from the past can be found in the National Recording Office which is part of the Ministry of Information and has archived a collection of private and governmental newspapers and magazines from the last century and is open for public research. Contemporary cartoons are archived in the social media. The cartoonist Nayer Talal Nayer, who left


The official Egyptian statistics, published by the government, can be found under “ICT Indicators in Brief” published online, in this case the issue from October 2017,






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Sudan to move to Tunisia in 2012, contextualizes and historicizes his work on his personal blog.4 During the occupation by the Ottoman Empire, cartoons started appearing in Sudan. During the colonial era under the British Egyptian condominium, the local newspapers such as Al-Fajr started printing English and Egyptian cartoons from magazines such as the British Punch and the Egyptian Sabah Al-Kheir. It was only in the 1940s that Sudanese artists picked up on the art of cartoons and started producing their own work. The first cartoonist in Sudan was Adam Eisa who printed his work in a magazine called Al-Sebyan around 1946. Artists such as the jazz musician and illustrator Sharhabeel Ahmed with his children’s comics about the character Amo Tango, and the political cartoonist Ezzaldin Osman followed in his footsteps in the 1950s. Ezzaldin Osman, who was born in 1933, became the most famous cartoonist in post-independence Sudan. He was exiled for around ten years to the UAE for publishing a cartoon ridiculing a minister in Gaafar Nimeiry’s government in the 1980s. Only after the government was overthrown in the revolution in 1986 did he return to Sudan to continue his work as a political cartoonist. Detention for political cartoonists as well as the confiscation of newspaper issues publishing critical work are part of the reality of journalists and cartoonists in Sudan until this day. Osman did not just document discourses and critical views on the government, he influenced his audience with his cartoons and created public opinion.5 Democratic systems placing value on freedom of expression alternated with authoritative regimes silencing free speech in post-independence Sudan. In the 1970s, cartoonists were widespread in the country, publishing in newspapers and magazines. (cp. Nayer 2012) The political shift in the 1980s brought an additional wave of cartoonists such as Moneim Hamza and Tariq Osman. The transition to a more democratic society at that point opened the doors for a wide range of artists who used their freedom of speech to comment on the political system and its leading figures such as Sadiq al-Mahdi, who became one of the most caricatured politicians in the history of the country, portrayed in the book The microphone of Mr. President which was published in 1988. (cp. ibid)




Interview with Nayer Talal Nayer, January 28, 2017.


The coup d’état of the National Islamic Front with the former President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 1989 changed not just the political sphere but also society as a whole. All established newspapers were closed down after the military government took power, so the former regime could install their own news agencies. At that point, a great number of journalists and cartoonists retired or left the country. Despite the dramatic change in the sociopolitical environment, cartoons survived and were continuously used to publicly discuss political and social matters. In 1994, Nabeed al Caricature, a newspaper specifically for cartoons was published and became the bestselling newspaper in the country. 6 Led by artist Moneim Hamza, who started with the wave of cartoonists in the 1980s, he established a unique forum for cartoonists. Amani Zain Alabdeen was the first female cartoonist to join the public sphere during this climax of comics in Sudan.7 Economic and political factors caused a decrease in the number of specialized newspapers in the following years and left an increasing number of cartoonists underpaid or jobless. Additionally, harsh censorship further decreased the number of critical cartoons in the newspapers. (cp. Nayer 2009) In 2009, founded by Hamid Atta and Hashim Karouri, the first Sudanese Society for Cartoons was established to bring cartoonists together and protect their labor laws as well as freedom of expression. The aesthetics and messages of the newspaper cartoonists are inspired by cartoon pioneers such as Ezzaldeen Osman, Omar Dafalla and Hashim Karouri. They address a specific older demographic of society. Their aesthetics are not necessarily appealing to the younger generation who has found their own styles and ways of artistic expression.8 Omar Dafalla, who started working as a cartoonist in the 1990s, transitioned to mainly publishing in online newspapers and social media while continuing to utilize the newspaper style cartoons. He is known to be very direct in his criticism and does not comply with governmental censorship. Therefore, he was not able to work for local publications, which provoked criticism by Sudanese intellectuals in the past. He covers a large range of topics and has one of the largest outputs of weekly cartoons.9 Wadd Abbou introduced a specific type


Interview with Nayer Talal Nayer, January 28, 2017.




Interview with Ahmad Mahmoud, former Girifna activist, January 24, 2017.


Interview with Nayer Talal Nayer, January 28, 2017.






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of cartoons by including selected comments from mostly anonymous users on social media, thereby making his work a voice of the Sudanese people. He includes the username of the comment’s author next to his signature to point out the common ownership and publishes his work online for people to react to it again. By choosing different voices from the public he uses his online platform to talk about a variety of topics from different perspectives. 10 In one of his cartoons, which was inspired by a person called Abu Mohamed, Wadd Abbou shows a man standing in front of a river containing crocodiles while a car with three men passing by. He lifts his arms and shouts: “Oh god, where do I go in between the crocodiles on the land and the crocodiles in the river.”11 Some Sudanese cartoonists have managed to adapt to the censorship and continue to publish in newspapers while still raising their voices and discussing critical issues. Their strategy is to use symbols and subversive messages to avoid being charged for criticizing the government. Among them is for example Nader Genie who has worked for a variety of newspapers since 1997.12 The cartoonist Nayer Talal Nayer describes on his blog the founding of the Sudan Cartoon Association and the recent influence of cartoons on Sudanese politics and society: I was surprised when I saw ministers and some high officials in the government sitting and speaking in our first constituent meeting, I didn’t even know who invited them. Two days after the meeting the government controlled the SCA, and the founding members were marginalized. (Royaards 2013)

He goes on to describe how members of the institution, which was founded for the purpose of protecting and elevating cartoonists became disillusioned faster than expected, and Nayer left the group in 2011 not long before moving to Tunisia: I faced many challenges during my time in the executive office of the Sudanese Cartoon Association, I did my best to do something good, but everything was

10 Interview with Nayer Talal Nayer, January 28, 2017. 11 See Wadd Abbou, “Crocodiles in the river and on the land”: https://www.alrakoba .net (Website is not available anymore). 12 Interview with Nayer Talal Nayer, January 28, 2017.


politicized and out of control. Finally, I chose to resign permanently in early 2011. Now the SCA is clinically dead. The current members don’t want to make any radical changes for themselves, or for Sudan.13

Those who dare to speak up and ridicule the authorities face harsh consequences. In 2015, during the government-led dialogue process, the daily newspaper al-Khartoum printed a cartoon by Hashim Karouri on their front page. “The caricature depicts the NCP [National Congress Party] in the form of a man struggling to reach the dialogue which was drawn in the form of a woman and saying ‘I love dialogues to death’.” (Sudan Tribune 2015) Consequently, the newspaper was confiscated. Hashim Karouri reacted by publicly explaining his action and demanding free speech. He said that “he meant to send a message […] that the ongoing dialogue is futile because it is fully controlled by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP)” and that “we don’t mean to offend anybody but we speak a language which can be understood by the ordinary citizens” (ibid). While the Sudanese constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of speech, this was never a real protection for political cartoonists, as seen in the example of Ezzaldeen Osman in the 1980s. Moreover, laws such as the 2010 National Security Forces Act have been added, which can be utilized to further reduce freedom of the press and impede the work of journalists and artists.14 Printed newspapers have lost their role in society as a critical medium informing the public about national and international issues independently of governmental influence. Therefore, the digital media open doors for those who want to express themselves freely.

P OLITICAL S ATIRE IN S UDAN IN THE C ONTEXT OF THE L ATEST U PRISINGS IN N ORTH AFRICA AND THE M IDDLE E AST Cartoonist Nayer Talal Nayer has worked in Khartoum for years and is a cofounder of the Sudanese Cartoon Association. He pointed out that he saw

13 Interview with Nayer Talal Nayer, January 28, 2017. 14 Ibid.






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“no effects of the Arab Spring on Sudanese reality, or at least [on] the Sudanese cartoonists.”15 Nagi Musa, a student activist and member of a grassroots movement called Girifna16 (‘We are fed-up’), said in the context of his political activism that he drew inspiration from the October Revolution 50 years ago rather than from the shifts in the region. (cp. Kushkush 2012) The pro-democracy, non-violent movement Girifna was founded in 2009 by a group of students who aimed at uniting the Sudanese people and the opposition parties to defeat the NCP in the general elections, which were held in 2010. The members used different methods to raise awareness and educate the public on the political situation in the pre-election phase, instructing them on how to overthrow the ruling elite. One of their tools used to attract a greater audience was humor. An earlier video of the group, which was uploaded on the Girifna TV YouTube-Account on April 7, 2010, symbolizes the goal that Girifna set for their activism: At first a man shows a T-Shirt with a print of former President al-Bashir, then a bar of soap with the symbol of the Girifna movement and finally the T-Shirt after washing which removed the print of the then president and turned the T-Shirt into a plain white one.17 Despite efforts on the grassroots level of society, the opposition decided to join the elections in 2010 and thereby legitimized them. The activists’ initiative and their protests were not as effective as anticipated and the result of the elections frustrated the initial hopes of the Girifna members. After the NCP won the election, police tried to dismantle the movement by arresting several members. Efforts to coerce some of them into spying on the movement failed. As a consequence of the interfering of the police, the initial strategies of the group had to be modified, and the movement was restructured. At present, the decentralized group has thousands of active members fighting for their cause despite serious threats and fears of detention.18 Coming from and reaching out to the young generation, Girifna members use online platforms such as their website, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Skype to communicate with each other and circulate information as well

15 Interview with Nayer Talal Nayer, January 28, 2017. 16 See 17 See the video of Girifna TV “Girifna Soap Ad”: 18 Interview with Ahmad Mahmoud, former Girifna activist, January 24, 2017.


as other material, thus evading autocratic censorship in public Radio, TV and newspapers. Different art forms including political satire such as the video example above are utilized to reach a broader audience, ridicule authorities and give the youth an ‘entertainment factor’ while being politically active. 19 Through poetry, educational and satirical videos, music, comics and graffiti filled with political content, the movement speaks a language that appeals to the youth. Girifna combines a variety of communication strategies to make contact with the public in addition to their online activities which only reach a specific demographic representing a minority in Sudan: flyers and leaflets are handed out at crowded bus stations, and in neighborhoods graffiti is sprayed with slogans, names and stencil portraits depicting activists who got arrested, killed or disappeared. A radio station (Radio Girifna) is operated and members engage in political debates during public gatherings. By utilizing a variety of communication methods, they attempt to close the generational gap that exists and possibly prevents the mobilization of a critical mass. Girifna alongside other organizations and individuals have found political satire to be a useful tool to engage more people in their work. Since humor in the context of political discourse can only be analyzed with a deeper understanding of the historical, social and religious context, it is difficult to define general terms, reasons and aims for its use. Tendencies can be observed, nonetheless, such as that “humor used in dictatorial states tends to be one-way, used more by the people to secretly ridicule leadership than by leadership for any purpose” (Anagondahalli/Khamis 2014: 3). Based on a description by ’t Hart in her analyses of humor in social protest, there are different strategies for its use: (a) the framing of the movement or the narrative that makes sense of the movement for those participating in it, (b) fostering a collective identity of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and (c) the need to counter negative emotions associated with protest movements and in harnessing the benefits of humor as a mood enhancer among participants of a social movement. (’t Hart 2007: 3)

Unlike most of the very active, highly politicized student movements, Girifna uses humor strategically to reach their audience and gain attention

19 Interview with Ahmad Mahmoud, former Girifna activist, January 24, 2017.






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for their cause online. In 2012, the movement, aiming to break down the barrier of fear, chose a topic each Friday, accompanied with a humorous undertone, to get people out in the streets to demonstrate against the current situation. The most successful and internationally recognized campaign was the licking your elbow campaign which started on June 29, 2012. This campaign became the most successful one and included all three strategies mentioned above: it framed the movement, fostered a collective identity and countered the frustrations of the public. In a speech in 2010, then President Bashir and in 2012 the former presidential assistant Nafi Ali Nafi used the Sudanese metaphor of ‘licking one’s elbow’ in their public speeches, declaring the activists’ attempts to overthrow the government to be impossible. (cp. Howden 2012; cf. Sudan Tribune 2010) Nafi said, “if anyone dares to hit the streets and attempt to remove the regime, the day they lick their elbows is the day they will topple the regime.” (Naib 2012) The protestors’ response was: “We will lick our elbows, Nafi, and yes, it is personal.” (ibid) One of Girifna’s posters includes a slogan as well as different visual elements which made it a success: •

• •

Amo Tango, which is a historic cartoon character, invented by the jazz musician and illustrator Sharhabeel Ahmed in the 1960s. Several generations associate him with positive memories from the country’s idealized past. The photo of a person successfully licking his elbow as the second visual element, which challenges the statements from al-Bashir and Nafi. A Sudanese proverb “We have set out and there’s no return” (talaʿna wa-ma fi rujuʿ) as the slogan for the campaign, which makes it easily accessible on a verbal level, and a provocative statement below which reads: “We teach Nafi to lick the elbow” (nuʿallim Nafiʿ lahis al-kuʿ). The choice of the orange background which is the signature color of the Girifna movement.


Figure 1: Lick your Elbow Campaign

Source: Hurriyatsudan, June 26, 2012,

Online campaigns were the way to mobilize the masses but when it came to protesting in the streets, the activists had to come up with certain strategies to succeed and protect themselves. Unlike the mass demonstrations at Tahrir Square, the Sudanese protesters split up into smaller groups during their protests. “By gathering in huge numbers in open spaces we become an easier target. So, we prefer small groups spread out all over the city; this creates confusion for the police and it exhausts their resources quicker.” (Naib 2012) While Sudan has previously witnessed sporadic protests against Mr. Bashir and the then ruling NCP, it is the first time that marches and public acts of defiance – collectively involving up to 20.000 people according to some estimates – have been sustained for more than a week. (cp. Howden 2012) Although protests were widespread, the government retained control. In September 2013, the next wave of civil unrest, sparked by the spiraling fuel prices, took place. The government fought back and around 200 protestors lost their lives, far more than during the 1964 and 1986 revolutions put together. Girifna keeps track of those who get detained, vanish or die during the protests, not uncommonly some of their members. To raise awareness of these events they visit the neighborhoods of the missing people and leave






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graffiti with their names and stencils of their faces on the walls. Furthermore, those graffiti are photographed and posted online to reach as many people as possible. The international media rarely picks up on the ongoing struggle of the activists, especially during the regional uprisings when other countries were in the spotlight. Through comics, the adaption of global internet memes and other forms of humor, a connection to global discourses is made. The ongoing use of humor and jokes about the regime is a relief for the younger generation and gives them a feeling of regaining energy and power over those who are oppressing them. Ridiculing an authoritative figure through jokes and cartoons is a powerful act and can be more useful in engaging a larger crowd than handing out political pamphlets.20

C IVIL D ISOBEDIENCE 2016: A D IGITAL R EVOLUTION ? A number of protests and strikes were launched in 2016. In November 2729, the so-called Civil Disobedience was proclaimed (cp. Sudan Tribune 2016). A continuation of the non-violent civil resistance was held from December 19-21. (cp. Reeves 2016) The peaceful protest was not initially organized by one specific organization or opposition party but emerged out of a variety of discussions on social media condemning the decision of the Sudanese government to cut subsidies on medicine. To avoid the violent backlash protestors experienced in 2013 and in other instances, the protest consisted of staying at home for three consecutive days to demonstrate political opposition and protest against the current government. Some of the groups which apparently started shifting to serious political discussions and planning actions first were secret Facebook groups of young women usually discussing beauty and fashion.21 In November, prices for medicine and other essential products tripled and were therefore no longer affordable for a majority of the population. Within a few days, informal discussions both onand offline morphed into a movement. The ongoing economic crises with reoccurring price hikes provoked by the government’s decision to cut subsidies for medicine, fuel and other products made medical treatment and

20 Interview with Ahmad Mahmoud, former Girifna Activist, January 24, 2017. 21 Ibid.


public transport unaffordable for a critical mass of people. The accrued frustration and anger of the majority of the population boosted the online activities and the hashtags #‫ _السوداني_المدني_العصيان‬and #SudanCivilDisobedience were trending on social media. Even the country’s activists were taken by surprise.22 At first people were merely urging the reinstatement of the subsidies but later voices were raised demanding the immediate removal of the current government. Several international news agencies such as Al Jazeera, BBC and the Huffington Post covered the protests and discussed the issue. Artists countrywide and in the diaspora immediately picked up on the topic and started producing comics, illustrating the critical role of the new media and the power of the people to overthrow the government through nonviolent resistance. Artists who until then had not been involved in political satire summoned up the courage to express their frustration online. Not only activists, but also citizens commented with Facebook posts and tweets on the particular atmosphere in the days before and during the Civil Disobedience. Conversations about the country’s political and economic situation were initiated not only in digital and private spaces but also at work and other public places. “People were hyped up by the atmosphere, and at that point no one was able to deny the power of social media any longer.” 23 Blue Nile TV and S24, two local TV Channels, mentioned the Civil Disobedience in their programs in an attempt to push the boundaries of governmental censorship, but in this way they provoked a shutdown by the former regime. Additionally, five newspapers were confiscated and closed down on November 30 for reporting on the topic. More than 40 protestors were detained and prosecuted for their political engagement during the strikes. (cp. Al Jazeera 2016) A range of oppositional parties as well as rebel groups announced their support for the demonstrations, which did not necessarily have positive effects on the growth of the movement. The foremost reason for its success was that it came from civil society and was not controlled by a certain institution. The traditional media channels such as radio, TV and newspapers failed in providing a forum to discuss political issues because of the restrictions imposed on them by the government. Social media platforms became a

22 Interview with Ahmad Mahmoud, former Girifna Activist, January 24, 2017. 23 Interview with Alaa Satir, illustrator and participant in civil disobedience, January 26, 2017.






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communication tool and outlet for political opinions evading the censorship. In comparison to the protests in 2011, the usage of mobile internet has more than tripled and has given people the chance to start movements online which then translate into tangible events.

C ONCLUSION The people of Sudan have lived in various political environments over the course of the last 60 years where military coups, democratic elections and revolutions have alternated. The effects of the uprisings in the region on Sudan seemed marginal. While the revolutions in 1964 and 1985 appeared to be of a stronger inspiration for defeating the current government and their policies, the artists who have documented and discussed socio-political issues in recent decades with political satire and comics have learned strategies to circumvent governmental censorship; if they failed to apply those strategies, they were detained or forced to leave, like Ezzaldeen Osman who returned once the government had changed again. The new generation, the millennials, of whom many grew up abroad, have no interest in traditional media such as radio, TV and the newspapers which used to be the voice of the nation. The young middle class in the urban center is connected to a global community via their mobile phones. Over the last six years, the number of internet users in Sudan has tripled. For this demographic, social media has become the main channel for communication and a non-violent tool to resist political oppression, circumvent governmental censorship and express frustration and anger. Artists who are not willing to obey the rules of the government in newspapers publish their work on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Activists realized the potential of using comics, memes and videos online to reach a broader audience and motivate youths to join in the protests and take action. Humor is an important part of social interaction in the Sudanese society and artists started publishing comics in newspapers from the 1950s increasingly discussing social, economic and political issues. Scarce resources and little payment reduced the number of political cartoonists while the governmental censorship restricted freedom of speech and artistic expression. Mobile internet, which rapidly connects Sudanese people to the global network, changed the way cartoonists worked and created space for a new wave of artists taking control over political


discourses. In the coming years, with the growing number of internet users not just in the urban center but also in the periphery, the role of artists documenting and accelerating civil unrest will become more central and might enable the Sudanese community to catch the attention of an international audience.

R EFERENCES Alhindi, Waheed A./Talha, Muhammad (2012): “The Role of Modern Technology in the Arab Spring.” In: Archives Des Sciences 65/8, pp. 101-112. Al Jazeera (2016): “Will Civil Disobedience Work in Sudan?” In: Al Jazeera News November 30, /2016/11/civil-disobedience-work-sudan-161130180708687.html. Anagondahalli, Deepa/Khamis, Sahar (2014): “Mubarak Framed! Humor and Political Activism before and during the Egyptian Revolution.” In: Arab Media & Society 19, pp. 1-16. Berridge, W.J. (2015): Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: The ‘Khartoum Springs’ of 1964 and 1985 (A Modern History of Politics and Violence), London: Bloomsbury Academic. Collins, Robert O. (2008): A History of Modern Sudan, Cambridge University Press. De Waal, Alexander (2013): “Making Sense of the Protests in Khartoum.” In: African Arguments October 16, /16/making-sense-of-the-protests-in-khartoum-by-alex-de-waal/. ’t Hart, Marjolein (2007): “Humour and Social Protest: An Introduction.” In: International Review of Social History 52 (Supplement 15), pp. 1-20. Holt, Peter M./Daly, Martin W. (2000): History of the Sudan: From the Coming of Islam to the Present Day, Harlow: Pearson. Howden, Daniel (2012): “Has the Arab Spring now Spread to Sudan?” In: Independent June 27, has-the-arab-spring-now-spread-to-sudan-7893586.html. Kushkush, Ismael (2012): “In New Protests, Echoes of an Uprising that Shook Sudan.” In: The New York Times February 23, http:// tion-that-rocked-sudan-circa-1964.html.






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Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Arab Republic of Egypt (2017): ICT Indicators in Brief, Monthly Issue October 2017, En_ICT_Indicators_in_brief_October_2017.pdf. Naib, Fatma (2012): “Sudan Protesters Aim to ‘Elbow out’ Bashir.” In: Al Jazeera June 28, 201262884619549472.html. National Communications Comission (2011): Quality of Service Report 2011, National Communications Comission (2016): Quality of Service Report 2016, Nayer, Nayer Talal (2009): “History and Present-day of Sudan Cartoon by Talal Nayer.” In: Nayer April 24, tory-and-present-day-of-sudan.html. Nayer, Nayer Talal (2012): “Politician Creates Art or Cartoonist Plays Politics?” In: Sudan for All: Sudanese Society for Research on Arts and Humanities, January 6, 6221&sid. Reeves, Eric (2016): “‘Sudanese Disobedience Day’ (December 19): The International Community Must Warn Khartoum not to Use Excessive Force in Response.” In: The World Post December 13, b_13605130.html. Royaards, Tjeerd (2013): “There is No Future for Art in Sudan.” In: Cartoon Movement September 30, there-is-no-future-for-art-in-sudan.html. Sudan Tribune (2010): “‘Lick your Elbow’ Sudanese President Tells Opposition, Reiterates Move towards Islamic Law.” In: Sudan Tribune December 28, -president,37431. Sudan Tribune (2015): “Sudanese Security Confiscates Copies of a Newspaper over Cartoon.” In: Sudan Tribune September 21, http://www. Sudan Tribune (2016): “Sudan’s Civil Disobedience Begins amid Varying Popular Response.” In: Sudan Tribune November 28, http://www.sudan

Part III: Syria, Palestine, Kuwait, Lebanon

“Candies from Eastern Ghouta” Dark Humor in Visualizing the Syrian Conflict S ABINE D AMIR -G EILSDORF

“We have never seen such horror: crimes against humanity by Syrian security forces” was the title of a report by Human Rights Watch, published in June 2011, three months after the protests against the Syrian regime broke out in Darʿa. Based on interviews with victims and witnesses, the report describes, in addition to the detention and torture of 15 children accused of painting graffiti slogans calling for the government’s downfall, systematic killings, beatings, and detention of people seeking medical care. According to their estimates, security forces had already killed in these three months more than 400 people in the Darʿa governorate alone and almost 900 across Syria. (cp. Human Rights Watch 2011) At that time, neither the authors of this report, nor the Syrian opposition or anyone else had expected that the situation would become continually worse. Due to manifold reasons, accurate figures of people killed or injured in war zones are impossible to obtain and to verify. (cp. Hunt 2010: 551) However, in the first five years alone, according to the UN (which later stopped estimates) an estimated 400.000 Syrians have been killed and numerous have been wounded or mutilated. (cp. United Nations Radio 2016) The intervention and involvement of external state actors such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Qatar, Turkey, the USA and many others, each with their particular interests, as well as numerous non-state actors such as warlords and transnational Jihadist groups have increasingly torn the country


apart and spread sectarian division.1 The war in Syria has given rise to the biggest refugee population since World War II: Of Syria’s formerly around 23 million inhabitants, some 6.5 million have become internally displaced and an estimated further 6.5 million have fled the country. (cp. UNHCR 2018; UNHCR 2017a; UNHCR 2017b; UNHCR 2016) Most of them have found refuge in neighboring countries of the MENA-region; about a further million have fled to Europe. This means that in the course of the conflict, more than every second inhabitant has been either internally displaced or has fled the country. Large-scale destruction of infrastructure has resulted in many parts of the country in limited access to water, electricity, medical care and food, and countless families have been torn apart. Around two million Syrian children do not attend school (cp. No lost generation 2016; UNICEF 2018) and many have been forced to work illegally. Thus, one could argue, from the very beginning of the peaceful protests, which started in 2011, there was nothing at all to laugh at and no place for humor as a tool for political resistance and as a means of expression. Yet, in particular in the first two years of the uprising, satire, irony, grotesquerie and other forms of humor were often used to criticize, to express opinions and to visualize the events. They appeared in manifold creative forms of peaceful resistance which mushroomed in Syria in the form of video clips and mashups, songs, cartoons, protest banners like the posters from Kafranbel,2 films, graffiti, and theater. They were usually disseminated through social media such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs and YouTube. 3 This paper explores some of the manifold genres and forms in which Syrian oppositional individuals and groups expressed their criticism of the regime by means of political humor, focusing on the time between 2011 and 2013. From the many examples I chose four thematic subjects for this article: 1) mocking the president and breaking with the personality cult of the


Cp. for example Amnesty International 2016; Amnesty International 2015a; Care 2015; Human Rights Watch 2015; Human Rights Watch 2017; United Nations Security Council 2017; Violations Documentation Center in Syria 2017.


For more details on the banners of Kafranbel, which became famous throughout the entire country and beyond see the introduction of Damir-Geilsdorf/Milich in this volume.


Many of them are archived in the website of the project The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution. See


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president; 2) subversion of governmental rhetoric by means of inversion and mash-ups; 3) exposing suffering in everyday life; 4) criticism of the international community.4



For decades in Syria portraits of the president, formerly Hafez al-Assad, and later Bashar al-Assad, have been seen everywhere in public places – in shops, restaurants, in and on public buildings and on car windows. Like in other autocratic Arab countries, they have functioned as a constant visual reminder of the omnipresence of the ruler, or as Lina Khatib (cp. 2013: 10) argues, an “established mechanism of control”. Portraits of the president ensured that there was only one opinion that could be outwardly expressed – that which was aligned to government policy. With Bashar al-Assad the cult with the president’s portrait took on a new image which was still crucial to the control mechanism of the regime. While Hafiz al-Assad was usually presented as the leader of a revolution, war hero, or father of the nation, Bashar al-Assad was shown to be a man of the people, enjoying popular support and was often pictured with his wife and children as a loving family man, playing, riding bicycles, and picnicking with them.5 (cp. Magout 2012: 6; Sacranie 2013: 136-140) At the same time, his image was habitually conflated with the map or flag of Syria to indicate that they are inseparable from each other, as if “Bashar is Syria” and “Syria is Bashar” (Magout 2012: 6).6 The regime was always keen to not allow criticism to go beyond certain limits and explicit criticism of the president or the Baath party was taboo. (see Wedeen


It has to be noted that the examples, which are presented in the following, are firstly selective and secondly do not reveal the feelings, reactions and interpretations of Syrian recipients in and outside of the country. The latter is not within the scope of this volume and demands empirical research on reception, which is still a desideratum in studies on (political) humor.


His wife, British-born Asma al-Assad, with her flamboyant and fashionable lifestyle constituted an important element in these ‘marketing’ campaigns. (cp. Magout 2012: 6, 11)


The same applies to his father, Hafez al-Assad. (Cp. Perthes 1995: 13)


2015: 88) Being above and beyond matters of humor and ridicule, neither Hafez nor Bashar al-Assad appeared in newspaper cartoons, not even in a positive way. (see Perthes 1995: 13, 169-170; Kedar 2005: 16) In August 2011, some months after the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzad7 had portrayed Bashar al-Assad in a satirical manner, which circulated via social media, masked gunmen probably from a militia group loyal to the regime assaulted the cartoonist and broke both of his hands. (cp. Amnesty International 2015b) Among his cartoons which had broken a taboo were one which shows Bashar al-Assad on the arm of a broken chair and another where he stands with a suitcase on a roadside trying to flee the country and thumbing a lift from the ousted Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi who passes by rapidly in a Jeep with a dust cloud behind him.8 Farzad was wellknown in Syria because of his cartoons in the Syrian newspapers al-Thawra and al-Tashrin in the 1970s and the satirical periodical al-Doumari (‘The Lamplighter’), which he published during the so-called ‘Damascus Spring’9 from 2001 until it was shut down in 2003.10 He also published in international press such as the Kuwaiti al-Watan and the French Le Monde, had several international exhibitions and received in 2002 the Prince Clause award for his drawings. As he explained 2007 in an interview, he avoided depicting recognizable individuals and drew general characters:


For examples of Ali Farzat’s caricatures see his Website and his Facebook Page Some commented political cartoons can be found in the article of Stelfox 2013b.

8 9

See this cartoon online for example at The term Damascus Spring relates to a short period of more political opening, after Bashar al-Assad took power in June 2000, but which was quickly followed by the harsh crack-down on opponents and reformers transgressing the red lines of the regime. For more details see Schmidt (2006) and al-Azm (2011: 225), in whose opinion the public discussions and critical documents issued by the Movement for the Restoration of Civil Society in Syria represent the “‘theoretical introduction’ and initial peaceful ‘dress rehearsal’ for the later explosion of slogans, demands, complaints, appeals, aspirations, and sacrifices that arose during the Arab intifadas of 2010-2011”.

10 For details on al-Doumari and Farzat’s turn from a celebrated national artist into a target of the regime see De Feyter 2011.


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To avoid trouble and reach the people, I started using specific characters with clearly identifiable traits. The character with torn clothes, hunger-stricken, with a long beard, is the miserable Arab citizen. As for the Arab official; he’s the one wearing sunglasses, gold jewelry, fancy clothes, smoking a cigar, with a heavy build. The intelligence agent is the one with a gun dangling from his clothes and whose eyes dart every which way. This is the formula that I came up with to trick the censors. (Abdallah 2007)

At the same time, his strategy of using characters and symbols was also a means to reach a wider audience. The criticism expressed in his cartoons such as his drawing The General which shows a highly-decorated, fat general handing out military decorations instead of food to the poor citizens, applies to different countries and resulted in a ban of his drawings in Iraq, Jordan and Libya. (cp. Nasir 2008) “When I draw a dictator, a hundred dictators think that I’m criticizing and making fun of them. Similarly, the corrupt feel targeted when I draw cartoons depicting corruption”, Farzat once explained. (Abdallah 2007) From his point of view drawings without comments can address a reader more effectively than words: “The reader might forget the words, but he will never forget an image that drew his attention and made an impression upon his visual memory.” (ibid) However, Farzat wasn’t attacked by the Syrian regime until he started to depict the president, a decision which he explained as follows: […] I wanted to help break the barrier of fear in the hearts of the people. I considered this to be my duty, as well. So I put on my website, ‘We have to break the barrier of fear that is 50 years old,’ and I drew first Prime Minister Adel Safar; then (the wealthy businessman and cousin of Bashar) Rami Makhlouf; recognisable figures from the security apparatus and finally the president. It was a decision that took a lot of guts, but I felt it was time. No one could take their corruption anymore. Admittedly, it was nearly suicidal to draw someone who is considered a god-like figure for the regime and the Ba’ath party. (Nafas Art Magazine 2012)

He also commented: “If I am not prepared to take risks I have no right to call myself an artist. If there is no mission or message to my work I might as well be a painter and decorator.” (Stelfox 2013b) Other Syrian cartoonists and artists, as well as numerous citizens without any professional background in fine arts who conveyed their criticism of the regime in nonviolent creative forms had less luck than Farzat who now lives


in Kuwait. Akram Raslan for instance, a Syrian artist who was also famous for his political cartoons, was arrested in 2012, and in 2015 it was confirmed that he had been killed, probably in a prison hospital after torture.11 (cp. Kohn 2015) Ibrahim Qashoush, a Syrian firefighter, mocked Bashar al-Assad’s inability to pronounce the letter “s” when he wrote the song Yalla irhal ya Bashar (‘Come on, Leave, Bashar’) which became an anthem of the 2011 Syrian uprising: “Go, Bashar…May you and the Baath party be destroyed…Go and fix your pronunciation of the letters!” (see Della Ratta 2012a) Some months later, in July 2011, his body was found in a river with his vocal cords cut out and signs of brutal torture. However, in contrast to former decades in Syria, in which cultural production was closely connected to the Assad regime, although several artists and intellectuals pushed the limits of censorship, the uprising gave birth to numerous grassroots creative manifestations. (cp. Nachawati 2014) Across the internet – the 2007 ban blocking Facebook and YouTube was lifted in February 2011 – manifold creative forms of user-generated content mushroomed, using social media to subvert the hegemonic discourse of the regime. Besides in photos and videos, which covered the events of the revolution and served as counter-narratives to the regime’s propaganda, creative defiance to the regime appeared in many forms of artistic expression such as graffiti, songs of resistance in various genres ranging from classical notes over hip-hop to heavy metal, documentaries, video-clips, comic strips, political posters or remixed memes. (see ibid; Cooke 2017) Many people broke the taboo of mocking the president. After an e-mail correspondence between Bashar al-Assad and his wife was leaked to the public, in which his wife called him batta (‘duck’), demonstrators decorated their placards with yellow bath ducks. (see Shabab Kurd 2012; Tamimi 2012; Camps-Febrer 2012: 57) Various people produced digital posters or mash-up videos portraying Assad as a duck and circulated them in the social media.12

11 When it became confirmed that Raslan was dead, Our Syria published a satirical journal named Akram Raslan to which sixteen cartoonists and one journalist, mostly from Syria but also from Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt, contributed. (See Souriatnapress 2015) 12 See for example “Hadil wa-Bashar al-Assad al-batta wa-l-wazza” (2012), “Ughniyat al-batta Bashar al-Assad” (2012), “Batta batta, shifnaha Bashar” (2012), “Bashar al-batta, al-nasr al-mantuf” (2012).


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At the same time, other digital posters were created and spread in various social media which depicted Bashar al-Assad for example as a prostitute, a donkey, a dog, a baby in diapers, a devil or showed his face printed on toilet paper. While such insults formerly would never have been used against the president, the now derision and ridicule of the once untouchable symbol of state power showed the breaking of fear-barriers as well as a break with the past and served as a kind of liberation. (see Della Ratta 2012a) As Hannah Arendt (1970: 45) convincingly argued, authority requires “respect for the person or the office”, thus its greatest enemy is “contempt and the surest way to undermine it is laughter”. The Syrian artist Rafat Alzakout commented on grassroots creative manifestations in March 2014: In Syria, there are at the moment more and more forms of art, continually and every day. You can see a kind of explosion of art since the beginning of the revolution. […] There is always something new. Before, people were always afraid like in all dictatorships. We have lived in fear for 40 years. The secret service was everywhere and you couldn’t do anything without a permission. […] When I was a child, my exercise books had all the same color with the picture of Assad, first that of Hafiz al-Assad, later that of Bashar al-Assad. In this oppressive regime was no opportunity to express yourself, there was not even the hope to do so. Before the revolution, I could not even imagine to say something against the regime or to do something political. Now I can talk about the president. He was like God. It was forbidden to talk about him, a taboo. Now we make videos on him as Beeshu, we make satire on him. 13

Alzakout (born in 1977), who graduated in 2003 from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus in theater acting, and who has worked as an actor and film director,14 started in 2011 under the pseudonym Jamil al-Abyad with a group of other anonymous artists the collaboration Massasit Mati, named after the straw used to drink the herbal tea mati. Under his direction they

13 Interview with Rafat Alzakout, March 26, 2014, Cologne. 14 Among his recent works are for example the documentary Home (2015) which was shown at several international film festivals and won two prizes in Marseille and the direction of the theatre plays Your love is fire (2017) and Ya kebir: you are the dictator (2017). After his immigration to Lebanon he has lived since November 2015 in Berlin.


produced between 2011 and 2012 the satiric finger puppet theatre Top Goon: Diary of a Little Dictator as short films disseminated between 2012 and 2014 on YouTube15 and Facebook to lampoon the unfolding events in Syria. 16 All episodes are spoken in colloquial Syrian dialect and subtitled in English to reach a wider audience. Bashar al-Assad is caricaturized by the puppet Beeshu who has a very long neck and speaks with a strong lisp, referring to his actual speech impediment and long neck. He is depicted as child-like, often cries out of fear and proclaims in the opening of the episodes: “I am not crazy, I am not crazy”. While this shows the “reversal of the powerful and powerless” (Sacranie 2013: 143), in all episodes of Massasit Mati, the cruelty of the president becomes obvious. In an episode entitled Who wants to kill a million, for instance, he competes in a game show against the toppled former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Gaddafi in cruelty. (cp. Massasit Mati 2011) In other episodes he performs as Dracula sucking the blood of activist puppets, as the angel of death or as a president who is even rejected by Satan for being too cruel. (see Sacranie 2013: 142) In 2015, Massasit Mati produced a new serial of five new episodes with new puppets, entitled Top Goon Reloaded: Intimate Diaries of Evil.17 The puppets in this new serial represent different kinds of aged dictators, inspired by real persons but are not exactly them such as the puppet Fire who resembles Putin and another puppet who depicts a central American dictator. They gather in retirement in a European country and while taking care of not being caught, they look for punishment without pain and ways to ease their conscience. The producers intended to show the similarities of worldwide dictatorships and to hint at art and culture as a means to “preserve the very nature of human being”, as one of them explained in an interview (Dawson 2015): “[…] we like to laugh and enjoy things, we need that to exist. The irony and the sarcasm that the Syrians retain even today with everything that is happening is quite astonishing. It shows us their strength and their determination to not just see themselves as victims.” (ibid) The last episode Hamlet addresses the ethical question of armed resistance. A puppet, portraying an oppositional citizen (but at the same time resembling Obama), walks into a room, and regards the faces of persons on

15 See the YouTube Channel “Massasit Mati”, 16 In 2012 and 2013 the artists also had live performances in Syria. 17 See the YouTube Channel “Massasit Mati”,


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the wall which have been killed in Syria. A voice – obviously his inner voice – whispers to him: This is the Dictator. And this is you. You and the Dictator are locked in a room alone together. He is wearing his pyjamas doing his morning exercises. You have a sharp knife in your hand. Images of the victims of massacres adorn the wall, massacres by that idiot in front of you. But you believe in Sufism and karma, you’ve recently started practicing yoga in your spare time. […] Kill him? Or talk to him? Or maybe provoke him until he attacks you, for the pretext that you killed him in self-defence? (Massasit Mati 2015)

Against the background of the ongoing atrocities and bloodshed, since 2011, many user-generated contents in oppositional social media (from persons with an educational background in fine arts as well as from people without it) have depicted al-Assad in various genres as a bloodthirsty vampire or somebody bathing in the blood of the people. The artist Yahia Alselo (with the artist name Silo)18 for example drew him in June 2011 in front of a crowd of Shabiha (armed militia who support the regime) while teaching them a lesson on how to kill (figure 1). Beside al-Assad, there is a kind of white board with the heading Akadimiyat al-shabiha (‘Militia’s Academy’) and a male child dripping blood fixed on it. In his hand he holds another bloodsoaked female child and demonstrates to his audience, the militia, how to torture.

18 For more of his artworks see


Figure 1: Militia’s Academy by Yahia Alselo

Source: Alselo 2011, with permission by the artist

Similarly, the Syrian cartoonist Mwafaq Katt drew al-Assad 2016 proudly presenting the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (cp. Katt 2016) – referring to the government’s usage of chemical weapons against its citizens – and in another caricature from 2017 al-Assad in a prison cell in his bed with a yellow plastic duck and Adolf Hitler’s My Struggle. (cp. ibid 2017) Such examples of ‘black humor’, ‘dark humor’ or ‘gallows humor’ which address serious and terrible subjects are of course controversial. “Located between the funny and terrible, or scary, a mixture of horror and laughter” (Hietalahti 2016: 28) or as Winston (1972: 273) has described “simultaneously frightening or threatening and farcical or amusing”, dark humor is close to grotesque humor. Both stem from the simultaneous perception of both the comic and the “disgusting and frightening aspects, thus one’s perception of the comic is countered and balanced of something incompatible of this” (Thompson 1972: 54). It causes laughter “that dies in the throat and becomes a grimace” (ibid: 56), but can also be rejected as not humorous at all or can leave the audience uncertain if this is something to laugh at or if this is too serious. However, dark humor with its tendency towards the dystopian can be a means with which “a person seeks to ward off emotional


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shock or distress” (ibid: 53) or a “refusal to be overwhelmed by the absurdities and hopelessness” (Colletta 2003: 6). Thus, it can be a copingstrategy, but also a means of psychological and political resistance. (cp. Tholas-Disset/Ritzenhoff 2015: 22) Likewise, studies of survivors of extreme adversity such as the brutal conditions of concentration camps indicate that joking about extreme hardship endured can be an important means of maintaining group cohesion and morale, preserve a sense of mastery and self-respect thereby enabling individuals to survive in seemingly hopeless circumstances. (see Martin 2007: 16, 287; cf. Frankl 1984: 63; Henmann 2001) Therefore, Üngör/Verkerke (2015: 83) argue that genocide humor as an emotional mechanism of coping to reduce pain does not trivialize genocide, but dispels it by distancing oneself.

S UBVERTING G OVERNMENTAL R HETORIC : I NVERSION , R EMIXING AND N EW M EMES Several kinds of Syrian humorous artistic expression draw on inversions of governmental rhetoric or spoof them by means of user-generated re-mixing. One example of this is the ‘raised hands’ campaign, a billboard series of ads which the Syrian government launched a few weeks after the beginning of the uprising. To restore order and to prevent people from or warn them against protesting, the campaign showed raised hands with different slogans such as: “Whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law” or “Whether girl or boy, I am with the law”. (see Della Ratta 2012a; 2012b) While these ads in a kind of “Orwellian atmosphere, a sort of ‘Big Brother’ watching citizens” (Della Ratta/Valeriani 2012) were seen almost everywhere in public, numerous other posters appeared in cyberspace, created by Syrians who parodied the official rhetoric by re-mixing. They turned the initial message on its head by attaching other slogans such as “I am free” to the raised hands. The Facebook page of the collective Kulluna Jarathim (‘We are all Germs’)19 from Homs (active until October 2013) mocked the official narrative of labelling protestors as germs. They presented Bashar al-Assad as Doctor Dettol (the name of a disinfectant widely used in Syria) and also alluded to this governmental raised-hands campaign by depicting Syrian

19 See the Facebook page “Kulluna Jarathim”.


citizens as germs “whether bacterial or viral”. (Della Ratta 2012a) As Della Ratta and Valeriani (2012) argue, these examples of re-manipulated remixing of the original governmental message became a re-produced, shared and spread meme and a “conversation where different kinds of Syrians are managing to speak to each other, without the mediation – and the surveillance – of the authority”. It carried the idea of active citizenship and public expression among different political, religious and ethnic groups of Syrian society, manifested in reversed slogans of the raised hands such as “whether opposition or regime, you are still my brother. And the country is important for us”. (ibid) Satire can support breaking down the “totalitarianism of official narratives” by subverting their meanings and the once-unchallenged submission to their symbols and plots. (Camps-Febrer 2012: 46) WikiSham, a group of Syrian activists, ridiculed the regime between 2011 and 2013 through the satirical series of animated cartoons Qasr al-Shaʿb (‘People’s Palace’) produced in colloquial Syrian dialect. Its main characters are Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher who is the second most powerful man in Syria, his cousin Rami Makhlouf who is a very influential businessman, his political and media advisor Buthayna Shaaban, Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khomeini. Many episodes refer to the current regime’s narratives. The 11th episode (see Wikisham 2012), entitled Majlis al-Shaʿb (‘The Parliament’), for instance refers to Bashar al-Assad’s speech in the Syrian parliament on April 30, 2011. It was his first speech after the beginning of the uprising and widely reported in media. The TV coverage of the event showed that the members of the parliament gave al-Assad – as usual – a rousing standing ovation upon his arrival. They clapped their hands enthusiastically during his speech, repeatedly cheered all together the customary flattering slogans such as Allah, Suriya, Bashar wa-bas (‘God, Syria, Bashar, and that’s enough’), Qaʾiduna ila l-abad (‘Our leader forever’), Bi-ruh, bi-damm, nafdik, ya Bashar (‘With our souls and our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Bashar’) and some MPs interrupted the speech with further praises for the president.20 For a non-Syrian who is not used to such a cult of a president and

20 Cf. al-Assad’s speech at “Kalimat al-raʾis Bashar al-Assad” (part 1), http://; “Khitab Bashar al-Assad fi majlis al-shaʿb baʿd ahdath Suriya 2” (part 2),; and “Khitab Bashar al-Assad fi majlis al-shaʿb baʿd ahdath Suriya 3” (part 3),


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a “culture of surveillance” permeating society (Sacranie 2013: 138), the whole scenario seems grotesque – even without the simultaneous background of the regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protests. WikiSham mocks the actual applause of the parliament in this cartoon by exaggerating it and adding carnevalesque elements, thus exposing the whole scenario as a fabricated show and the allegedly genuine loyalty as a mere performance. At the beginning of the episode, a man with a cue card prepares for the speech of Bashar al-Assad by turning on a tape recorder, which plays the voices of a crowd, cheering the above-mentioned slogans. Bashar al-Assad is sitting behind the speaker’s lectern of the parliament with a sign over him, which reads Iran fi ʿuyunina wa-antum fi sujunina (‘Iran is in our heart and you are in our prisons’). He listens to the hailing masses of the tape recorder and waves benevolently to the audience with a flattered smile. Immediately after he starts to speak, the man with the cue clap – who functions as a kind of film director – shows the members of the parliament a sign with the instruction to applaud, later other signs call for interruptions to praise the president or to chant. The audience follows all of these instructions – except for once, when the film director holds his sign mistakenly upside down. It was not only the collective WikiSham, who creatively ridiculed this speech and the parliament’s reaction. Many user-generated videos mushroomed in social media, which recombined the cheering and praise of members of parliament shown in actual videos of the event into new mash-ups.21 Stringed together, they revealed the ridiculous aspects and the absurdity even more clearly. In particular the comment of one MP was shared several times. He stood up during Assad’s speech and shouted that the Arab nation would be too small for Assad and that he should lead the whole world. (see Zizo Blal 2011) Mash-ups which included his words became a kind of new meme shared by members of the opposition and when the respective MP died in 2018, his statement was often reiterated in the coverage of his death. (see for example Enab Baladi 2018; Akhbar Qasiyun 2018) WikiSham also integrates his words in its cartoon The Parliament, but let him add at the end of his statement “You should go to Mars”. This can be understood twofold either as a satirical exaggeration of his flattery by adding the universe to the

21 For details on mash-up videos and supercuts and its effects see Voigts 2015: 90-91; Häkkinen/Leppänen 2015.


president’s area of influence or as an (accidentally) uttered wish that al-Assad should disappear to Mars. The cartoon mixes animated drawing with re-combined original words from Assad’s speech and adding new ones. It underlines for example the malice of the government by combining Assad’s comments on the difficulty of lifting the decade-old state of emergency (one of the demands of protestors) with his claim, that fathers often do not know how they should treat their children, but that the state does – as has been seen in the case of Hamza Ali al-Khatib. The latter was a 13-year old boy from Darʿa, who was detained in April 2011 during a protest, died in prison from torture 22 and became one of the symbols of the revolution. In the last sequence of the cartoon’s episode, members of parliament, equipped with multi-colored cheerleading pom poms, dance and sing in praise of praise Assad. They chant meaningless flattering slogans such as “Collect for us the flowers from the garden of honey” (ijmaʿ la-na azhar rawdat al-ʿasal) to which Assad responds: “I would prefer that you say: ‘Collect for us the cows in the parliament’” – presenting him again as disrespecting the people.




A number of humorous artistic works address suffering, misery and grief in everyday life during the ongoing violence. In 2012, a group of artists created the Facebook group titled Comic4 Syria (active until December 2016). It archived and disseminated various comic strips and cartoons. As narratives “comprised of a complex mixture of image and text wherein both image and text coexist and cohere to tell a story” (Hill 2017: 2), the comics archived on the website tell stories of what happened inside Syria. One of the contributors, Wassim al-Marzouki who now lives in Doha, explained in an interview the function of comics and cartoons as follows: “It’s a simple tool to tell a story. It can capture and insinuate more meaning than simple words. People can cry or laugh […]. But what’s more important is that people don’t feel alone – their pain is shared.” (Mawad 2015) With this explanation he

22 His family received his dead body in May 2011 and distributed photos of his numerous injuries, brand marks, broken bones, gunshot wounds and mutilated genitals.


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also alludes to another crucial point of dark humor in artistic expressions of the events in Syria: The disruption, disgust and shock it causes may convey a message more easily than written or spoken explanations. Many of the cartoonists published their work on Comic4 Syria for safety reasons anonymously. Unsigned is for instance the comic stripe Hafi (‘Barefoot’, figure 2). Figure 2: “Barefoot” by Comic4 Syria

Source: “Hafi”, June 24, 2012

The 12 images in which the story unfolds start with someone informing a mother that the police have arrested her son. On this occasion he delivers her the pair of slippers which her son had lost during his detainment. These images depict a much feared and well-known situation for many Syrians. Since 2011 tens of thousands of Syrians have gone ‘missing in detention’, leaving family members and friends without any confirmation regarding their fate or whereabouts, although the families know that the majority has probably died from torture.23 According to local monitors cited in a Human

23 See the thousands of photographs, which the military defector code-named Caesar smuggled out of Syria in 2013 and which proved widespread torture in Syria’s


Rights Watch Report from 2017, at least 12.679 Syrians died in custody between March 2011 and June 2016; other reports estimate the number of deaths in governmental prisons even higher with at least 17.723 between March 2011 and December 2015 alone. (cp. Amnesty International 2017: 12) Against this background, it is absurd that the mother in the comic seems to be primarily concerned that her son was taken barefoot. Carrying her son’s slippers, she asks around at several state security locations if her son is there, in order to bring him his shoes. Of course, she is always sent away, once with the remark “Are you mad?”. Five months later, she still walks around with the slippers, asking for her son: “I need to give him the slippers. My baby is barefoot, the poor thing”. Finally, she learns from a released detainee that her son was tortured to death and she gives him, who is also without shoes, her son’s slippers. The comic illustrates the desperation of the mother as well as the horrendous realities of detainees and their families and friends by drawing on absurdities. Both the mother’s concern that her son is barefoot and her naïve attempts to walk into detention centers and other locations although signs warn people to go no further, are obviously unreasonable and inappropriate. At the same time, it is exactly the distorted perception of the mother which sheds light on her helplessness in this terrible situation. Her naïve and friendly questions to security forces and to an official whom she addresses with the common Arabic polite form “My brother” or “My son”, as if she doesn’t fear any danger from them for her son, makes even one of them speechless. He only responds: “I don’t know what to say.” Many cartoons of Syrian artists address destruction and bombing, torture, displacement, looting and pillaging by armed forces, 24 horrendous price increases, shortages of food and other harsh living conditions under siege. The unsigned 13-episode comic serial Abu Mus al-Madsus, named after the

governmental detention facilities. (Human Rights Watch 2015) However, in summer 2018, the Syrian regime started to inform about persons who have died in state custody and many families learned that their relatives had already died years ago. In some towns the names of the deceased were posted; in other cases families received documents that attest to their relatives’ deaths or were informed by security officers. This change in policies is probably due to the fact that the regime is now confident about winning the war and remaining in power. (See Hubbard/Karam 2018) 24 See for example Katt (2018).


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main character Abu Mus who is depicted as a naïve Syrian citizen, narrates several episodes of daily life under siege. It was published on the website Comic4 Syria with texts in colloquial Syrian dialect. In episode eight of 2012, entitled TNT (figure 3), Abu Mus’ wife tells him that they have run out of oil for heating. He leaves the house with a canister to get more oil. Walking through the dark city, he says to himself: “It seems as if I can’t return without bringing the oil”. Suddenly, he comes across a military restricted area in which he discovers barrels stacked upon each other in a corner. On each barrel is written “provided for the people”. Pleased with what he has found he takes a barrel and says to himself “God cares for us!”, “Free oil on the way, why do the people complain and are such grumblers?” Having returned to his wife, he searches for the tap, but then the whole barrel explodes with a boom, which makes his wife ask: “Did you bring us a barrel of TNT, you idiot?” The message is clear: Naïve Abu Mus could not expect that the regime would provide the people with TNT instead of oil in order to attack them. Figure 3: “TNT” by Comic4 Syria

Source: “TNT”, October 30, 2012


Episode 13 with the title al-Qaʾid al-Khalid (2013), which means ‘The Eternal Leader’, addresses corruption at checkpoints. When Abu Mus passes a checkpoint in his car, he is stopped by a policeman, who demands his passport and doubts his place of origin. Aiming his gun at Abu Mus, the policeman informs him: “If I find a picture of the eternal leader with you, than I’m going to pardon you.” Abu Mus answers: “Oh, the eternal ruler is in my heart, I just don’t have a picture of him with me”. The policeman responds “Give me your wallet! Maybe a picture of the internal ruler is hidden in it”. He takes out of it a 1000 Syrian pound banknote with the picture of Hafez al-Assad. He says: “Here, there is a picture of the eternal ruler with you. I’ll take it and pardon you”, but Abu Mus takes out another banknote of less value, only 500 Pounds with the picture of Zenobia25 and asks the policeman: “Isn’t the picture of Zenobia also fine with you?” The serial stopped in 2013, but in 2014 all episodes of the serial were uploaded once more on the Facebook page of Comic4 Syria into an album. At the top of it, a comment is posted which reflects on the appropriateness of laughing and humor and stems most probably from the administrator(s) of the Facebook page: Do you remember, Abu Mus? Do you remember, when you were laughing and raising your voice? Now you are depressed, like we all are. Therefore, no more had been heard from you. It doesn’t matter, Abu Mus. Now, it’s the time of silence. Live out your depression, because afterwards it is going upwards. For sure it will go upwards, only that you know that it doesn’t matter, Abu Mus. Let us remember why. And where the problem was, that you learn and we all learn from the episodes of Abu Mus al-Madsus that have been published. You were and we were. Otherwise, there will not come the day and we won’t return laughing until now. Before one has to be silent, fearing the security reports, accuses of betrayal and cutting off heads. (“Abu Mus al-Madsus” 2014)

However, since 2013, although there are much fewer humorous forms of political criticism and illustrations of daily life, there are still quite a lot. Many use sarcastic or even macabre elements. The Syrian artist Moustafa Jacoub for example, a former student of engineering, created in 2018 a

25 Zenobia was a queen of the Palmyrene Empire (based in current Syria) in the third century.


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sarcastic digital poster which parodies attempts of the regime to force citizens in besieged areas to pretend to support the government. It comments on a video disseminated by oppositional forces which shows a member of the Syrian parliament standing on the back of a truck loaded with drinking water and forcing the residents of Ghouta to chant for Bashar al-Assad in return for bottles of water. Jacoub’s poster shows an official announcement, stamped and signed by Bashar al-Assad with the title Price List of Some Food Commodities for Syrian Citizens. The announcement lists several essential food items, which are lacking in besieged areas, for the price of chanting diverse pro-government slogans: Small water bottle: Chant ‘Long live Bashar al-Assad’ three times; Big water bottle: Chant ‘Oh Bashar, we sacrifice ourselves to you’ three times; Box of children milk: Chant ‘Down with Saudi Arabia’ four times; Bag of bread: Chant ‘Down with the Americans’ one time. (Jacoub 2018a)

Jacoub describes the goals of his work as an attempt “to make people FEEL the story of what is happening” and “to make the stories hit the heart and bring connection and emotion”.26 He accomplishes this also by using macabre elements like in his digital poster Candies from Eastern Ghouta (figure 4).27 What seems to be at first glance candies on a red paper plate are actually corpses, wrapped in partially bloody shrouds, tied at the heads and feet. With their different lengths, they indicate dead bodies of both adults and children – referring to the massacre in Eastern Ghouta and the killing of probably more than one thousand persons in massive air and ground-based strikes of the Syrian government and its allies. (see OCHA 2018)

26 Cf. Jacoub, Mustafa (n.d.) at 27 For more of his artworks cf. and https://


Figure 4: “Candies from Eastern Ghouta” by Moustafa Jacoub

Source: Jacoub (2018b); with permission by the artist






Numerous humorous artistic works criticize the lack of action by the UN and international conferences on Syria. At the Facebook page of Comic4 Syria for example, in 2012 an anonymous caricature (see “Majlis al-amn” 2012) was uploaded which shows the members of the UN security council sitting around a table with an hourglass, filled with Syrian citizens whose blood is dripping into the lower glass bulb. While one of the council’s members says in this meeting: “There is still time for intervention. There are still many people in Syria”, another one responds “So let us just issue a condemnation and dissolve the meeting.” The digital poster Idana (‘Condemnation’) of 2013 by Samer Mohammad depicts a plane with the lettering al-Mujtamaʿ al-duwali (‘International community’), which is throwing bombs on people – obviously Syrians – who are stretching their arms upwards. The bombs consist of word-images through the reiterated word idana (‘condemnation’)


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– referring to the numerous (useless) condemnations of the Syrian air strikes without action from the international community. (see Mohammad 2013) Other caricatures present condemnation even more directly as feigned, such as that drawn by an anonymous artist, uploaded in Comic4 Syria in May 2013. It is entitled Khatt ahmar (‘Red Line’) and shows Obama and Assad. (see “Khatt ahmar”). Obama is sitting on a vehicle (with a flag of the USA and one of Israel), drawing a big and straight red line. This red line is much different from the many smaller and odd red lines on his right, which he obviously drew before and which sometimes look more like sinuous lines. Debris of war in the background of each of these smaller and hesitantly drawn red lines indicate why and how they were drawn in the first place. However, while Obama is now drawing a ‘real’ red line with the professional equipment of the vehicle, he moans to Assad who is running to him across the former red lines from a place with war debris, carrying a knife dripping with blood in his hands and leaving bloody footprints behind him: “What’s up with you? Don’t you understand? The red paint is empty. Now we are forced to use blood for drawing new red lines.” Assad responds: “Don’t ever worry! I will keep providing you with blood, so that you won’t be interrupted.” Other caricatures address for instance how different stakeholders divide Syria among themselves in order to protect their interests and secure their profits. An example for this is the caricature by Mahmoud al-Bahra which depicts the Russian Putin sawing a tree trunk personifying Syria, while the Iranian Rohani stretches his hands towards the fallen tree discs which carry the names of cities in Syria.28 A comic panel by the same artist entitled “A visual report about the civil war factions in Syria” implies the inappropriateness of labelling the ongoing violence in Syria a civil war, as has been established in international news coverage (figure 5).

28 See the caricature at the Facebook page of the artist,


Figure 5: “A Visual Report about the Civil War Factions in Syria” by Mahmoud al-Bahra

Source: al-Bahra 2018; with permission by the artist

The panel shows seven groups of armed persons with different nationalities who are all fighting in Syria and explain their respective motivations: ‘We came from Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon to protect the sacred shrines in Syria’; ‘We are fighters from Afghanistan who came to help the Iranians in their war in Syria’; ‘Our American forces are here to fight Daesh and to protect America’s interests in the region’; ‘We, the Russians, do not interfere into the Syrian war, but only protecting a president who was deserted by his army’; ‘Our Turkish forces do not interfere into the war and only protect our borders from the PKK’.


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In the last picture, a newscaster explains to a TV-audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, this was a visual report on the civil war factions in Syria”, while a subtitle reads “Prices of oil are rising again”.

C ONCLUSION Soon after the beginning of protests against the Syrian regime in 2011, manifold creative forms of resistance mushroomed online and offline, using political humor to express their opposition to the government, to unmask governmental rhetoric or to visualize the events. Not only trained artists, but also citizens with no professional artistic background used creative means such as banners and mash-up videos to break fear-barriers and to mock the president, a formerly untouchable symbol of state power, or to subvert the hegemonic governmental discourse through parodic and satirical deconstruction. As has been shown in this article, newly founded artistic collectives such as Comic4 Syria, Kulluna Jarathim and Massasit Mati as well as user-generated satirical responses to governmental narratives like the raised-hand campaign or Assad’s speech in the Parliament 2011, have become a new forum for citizens to exchange and disseminate their positions in public space. At the same time, political humor which puts forward groups of “we” and the “others” can also have contributed to group-cohesion. While some authors argue that political humor can release tension but also stabilize the status quo because it is a substitute for political action (cp. e.g. Swart 2009: 899), in particular in the first years of the Syrian protests, political humor was an effective means to break down fear-barriers, to breach the culture of self-censorship and to subvert once-unchallenged official narratives and symbols of power. Now, in the ninth year of the ongoing violence, vis à vis the military and armed confrontations which have become the most determinant scenarios, the importance of political humor has dwindled (see Camps-Febrer 2012), but it still exists in manifold genres.29 Often it takes the form of dark humor and uses sarcastic or macabre elements. With its effects of disruption, distortion, shock and consternation it can expose hegemonic official narratives (of the Syrian government or

29 See for instance the ongoing archive at the Website “The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution”,


other involved actors as in the example of Mahmoud al-Bahras’ comic on the factions of the ‘civil war’) or can illustrate the population’s extreme hardship in a way that – as Wassim al-Marzouki from Comic4 Syria has underlined in an above cited interview – “can capture and insinuate more meaning than simple words”.30 This applies for instance to the digital poster Candies from Eastern Ghouta by Moustafa Jacoub. According to the comment of one of the producers of Massasit Mati, cited above, political humor also in its dark versions can be also a means to maintain dignity, to protest against victimization and to “preserve the very nature of human being”.31 Similarly, Üngör/Verkerke summarize in their study on humor during and after genocide: There is a popular tendency to consider victims of genocide to be passive, and survivors as victimized for the rest of their life. However, the fact that people joked about the hardships, their oppressors and themselves, demonstrates that victims are not that passive at all. They were fundamentally aware of what was going on, commented on it with jokes and coped with it through humour. This testifies to the resilience of the survivors. After their victimization, humour could still function as a coping, cohesive and critical mechanism. Cracking jokes when living circumstances are dire was a way of maintaining human dignity. (Üngör/Verkerke 2015: 97)

This obviously also applies to Syrians’ humorous political expressions. Wedeen (2019: xi-xii) summarizes in her book Authoritarian Apprehensions which is based on extensive fieldwork in Syria: “[T]he lesson of Syrian activists comedians is that it is possible and perhaps imperative to find the humor in situations that are unbearable and yet must be borne. Like good scholarship, their challenge to the battering capriciousness of authoritarian violence demands both proximity to the object and a creative separation from it.” Yet, what is perceived as ‘good humor’ differs in general “from person to person, and from moment to moment” (Kuipers 2015: 1) and relates to individual senses of humor. This applies even more to forms of dark humor. Whether it is considered humorous or tasteless and absolutely inappropriate

30 See the citation of the interview (Mawad 2015) above in the section Dark Humor in Illustrations of Everyday Life. 31 See above his citation in the interview with Dawson 2015 in the section Ridiculing the cult with the president’s portrait.


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is strongly connected to individuals’ biographical backgrounds and experiences as well as their social, political, cultural environments. Therefore, it is not possible to make a definitive statement as to the effects of forms of dark humor on oppositional Syrians inside and outside the country with their diverging personal experiences.

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Hunt, Nigel (2010): “Health Consequences of War and Political Violence.” In: George Fink (ed.), Stress of War, Conflict and Disaster, San Diego, CA: Academic Press, pp. 548-558. Jacoub, Moustafa (2018b): “Candies from Eastern Ghouta”, February 24, 2018, set=pb.100004980551494.-2207520000.1569792059.&type=3&theater. Jacoub, Moustafa (2018a): “Laʾiha bi-asʿar baʿdh al-silaʿ al-ghazaʾiyya li-lmuwatin al-Suri”, March 25, 8573/price-list-of-some-food-commodities-for-syrian-citizens/. Katt, Mwafaq (2016): “Jaʾizat Nubul li-l-kimiyaʾ”, October 10, https:// Katt, Mwafaq (2017): “My Struggle”, May 21, https://creativememory. org/en/archives/162732/my-struggle/. Katt, Mwafaq (2018): “The Nation’s Army”, May 24, https://creative Kedar, Mordechai (2005): Assad in Search for Legitimacy: Message & Rhetoric in the Syrian Press under Hafiz and Bashar, Brighton: Sussex University Press. Khatib, Lina (2013): Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle, London: I. B. Tauris. “Khatt ahmar”, May 6, 2013 ( tos/a.265821056855049/369685659801921/?type=3&theater). Kohn, Asher (2015): “Drawn in Blood”, November 20, http://roadsandking Kuipers, Giselinde (2015): Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke, Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gryther. Kulluna Jarathim: Facebook-Page, sk=wall. Magout, Mohammad (2012): Cultural Dynamics in the Syrian Uprising. Conference Paper, Change and Continuity in the Middle East, The London School of Economics and Political Science, London, June 11, p. 16, “Majlis al-amn”, October 1, 2012 ( photos/a.265821056855049/286316598138828/?type=3&theater). Martin, Rod. A. (2007): The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach, London/Ontario: Elsevier University Press.


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Massasit Mati (2011): “Top Goon: Episode 2, Who Wants to Kill a Million?”, November 27, vssz0. Massasit Mati (2015): “Top Goon Reloaded: Episode 5, Hamlet”, May 26, Mawad, Dalal (2015): “Cartoonists capture angst of Syrian Conflict.” In: Al Jazeera November 29, 11/20121128131125332715.html. Mohammad, Samer (2013): “Condemnation”, December 28, https://creative onal-community-en&fwp_date_created=%2C2013-12-31. Nachawati, Leila (2014): “Syria and the Emergence of Grassroot Artistic Production.” In: Open Democracy September 22, https://www.opende ce-of-grassroots-artistic-production. Nafas Art Magazine (2012): “Ali Ferzat: In His Own Words”, July 2012, Nasir, Najam (2008): “Rusum mahzura ʿarabiyyan fi maʿradh al-fannan ʿAli Farzat.” In: Al Jazeera March 27, No lost Generation (2016): “No lost Generation Update, January – June 2016”, July 2016, tion-2016-update/. OCHA (2018): “Syria Crisis: East Ghouta, Situation Report No. 4 (1 February – 13 March 2018)”, March 13, syrian-arab-republic/syria-east-ghouta-situation-report-no-4-1-february13-march-2018-enar. Perthes, Volker (1995): The Political Economy of Syria under Assad, London/New York: I.B. Tauris. “al-Qaʾid al-khalid”, June 16, 2013, Syria/photos/a.265821056855049/384249485012205/?type=3&theater. Sacranie, Nour K. (2013): “Image Politics and the Art of Resistance in Syria.” In: State Crime Journal 2/2, pp. 135-148. Schmidt, Søren (2006): The Missed Opportunity of Economic Reform in Syria.” In: Mediterranean Politics 11/1, pp. 91-97. Shabab Kurd (2012): “Muzaharat ‘al-batt’ fi Suriya”, March 25, https://bit. ly/2wQvsaf.


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If a Duck is Drawn in the Desert, Does Anybody See It? Humor, Art and Infrastructures of Palestinian Statehood 1 C HRISOULA L IONIS “… [P]erhaps even if nothing else today has any future, our laughter may yet have a future.” FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE 1886

I NTRODUCTION Reflecting upon his time in prison in the Negev as an ‘administrative detainee’ during the First Intifada, Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani recounts his surprise at a friend and fellow prisoner’s request for a drawing. Accustomed to being asked by other prisoners for nationalist signifiers such as keffiyehs (headdress for men), horses, flags, and maps of historical Palestine, Hourani was taken aback by his friend’s insistence that he draw for him, of all things, a duck. (cp. Hourani 2007: 448) On the surface of things – and if we are to accept incongruity theory’s premise for laughter as coming as a result of expecting one outcome and receiving another – this anecdote generates humor as a consequence of a perceived incongruity


This article has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No.799087.


between the context (a prison in the desert), the status of the friend making the request (a Palestinian prisoner), and the innocent, almost childlike, subject of a duck. Perhaps more significantly however, Hourani’s anecdote points to a more significant issue that strikes at the very heart of Palestinian cultural production – the burden of proof. The perception that the merit of a work is measured by its usefulness, is arguably a burden long-shouldered by artists operating across diverse zones of conflict. In the field of contemporary art, the ‘post-revolution’ period has seen a shift toward a situation where, as writer and curator Omar Kholeif notes, Arab artists or curators are expected to engage with the social and political events that impact upon their ‘local’ context, irrespective of whether they live there or not. (cp. Kholeif 2014: 214) However, as is evident from Hourani’s anecdote, it is clear that in the case of Palestine this pressure predates the surge of international interest in art from the Arab world post 2011, and is a weight applied both ‘internally’ and by the international art circuit. Against this backdrop, there has been what is perhaps a surprising turn toward the use of humor in contemporary Palestinian art as a means through which to temper both this aforementioned burden of proof, as well as the political, cultural and social impact of the failed ‘peace process’ and the continual denial of a Palestinian sovereign state. Providing a conceptual framework of humor in contemporary art built around the key terms of burden of proof, anticipatory aesthetics, over-identification, and futurity, this chapter aims to shed light on the ways in which contemporary Palestinian art offers a space through which to enact infrastructures of Palestinian statehood, and in turn mediate understandings of Palestine’s past, present and future.




To understand what underwrites the expectation that Palestinian art is measured by its usefulness or its ability to provide proof, it is useful to begin by considering an assertion made by renowned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard in his film Notre Musique (2004). In the film, the director walks into a classroom and proceeds to explain to a group of students that in 1948 (with the foundation of Israel) when they “walked out of the water, the Jews became the stuff of fiction, the Palestinians became a documentary” (Notre




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Musique 2004). Here Godard reinforces what philosopher Jacques Rancière describes as a distribution of genre, where the world is divided between those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with images. Elucidating this distribution of genre, Rancière explains that Palestinians have been confined to a position where they are in effect locked out of a position of play, meaning that they “can only offer the bodies of their victims to the gaze of news cameras or to the compassionate gaze at their suffering” (Kelsey/Fulvia 2007: 263). This distribution of genre, where Palestinian cultural production is measured against its usefulness in encouraging and recording Palestinian trauma, collective identity and struggle, is a key aspect of Palestinian art over the last seven decades. From the time of the foundation of Israel and the occupation of historical Palestine (an event described in the Arab world as the Nakba, the ‘Catastrophe’), art has been placed into a position of verifying Palestinian history and validating collective identity. Although art is implicated in this process across all nation building projects, this continual process holds particular valence in the case of Palestine. This is not only because land continues to be occupied, but also because Palestinians face systematic attempts at the material erasure of their culture and history. This is clear for example in the Israeli coopting of Palestinian folk traditions and food culture, in decades long attempts at “memoricide” (Benvenisti 2002), but also Zionist political slogans – the most notorious of which is former prime minister Golda Meir’s claim that Palestinians did not exist. (cp. Said 1984: 31) This has pushed Palestinians into a position where, as Edward Said explained, there seems to be a belief that the moment the Palestinian story ceases to be narrated, the whole thing will just disappear. (cp. Said 1994: xviii) The genealogy of this narration, although beginning in nationalist discourse (namely in the 1930s Arab Revolts and after the Balfour Declaration) that preceded the Nakba, was coalesced across several key historical moments in the years since 1948: namely the Battle of Karameh (1968), the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (1982), and the Oslo Accords (1993). Elsewhere I have elaborated on the impact of these moments that I describe as ‘critical junctions’ in history as they are each events that reshaped understandings of Palestinian collective identity, and in turn directly impacted upon cultural production. Of these junctions, it is the events of the Nakba and the Battle of Karameh that can be argued to underscore lingering


perceptions of Palestinians as falling within two dichotomous groups – those of the suffering refugee, or the political militant. (cp. Lionis 2016: 20-47) Displacing 80 per cent of the Arab population of historical Palestine, the Nakba created a situation where the defining and unifying experience of Palestinians across all social strata was that of refugeedom. Creating a sense that their collective identity was now a tabula rasa, Palestinians were faced with what historian Rashid Khalidi poignantly describes as an “existential test” of whether they could remain together as a unified people. (cp. Khalidi 2006: 135) Responding to this tabula rasa, the generation of the Nakba developed an iconography of collective identity – or Palestinianess – centered on a nostalgic view of both land and life in historical Palestine, and representation of the traumatic experience of exile that consisted primarily of popular folk metaphors including peasantry, olive trees, citrus fruits, and the woman as an embodiment of the landscape. In the cultural production of the following generation, known as jil al-thawra (‘generation of the revolution’) we witness a conscious move away from iconography based on refugeedom, towards one based on militancy. An event that signals a shift where Palestinians of all social orders began to take part in national politics and resistance (something that can be described as Palestinianism), the Battle of Karameh ushered in a period marked by an iconography centered on revolutionary motifs that include the figure of the freedom fighter, the keffiyeh, and the flag. (cp. Lionis 2015: 73-76) Considered together, the junctions of the Nakba and Karameh established an iconography of Palestinianess and Palestianism that continues to dominate vernacular and ‘demotic’ forms (e.g. political posters, graffiti) of cultural production, something that is evidenced for example in Khaled Hourani’s anecdote at the opening of this chapter. In contrast to the distinct lack of humor found in the iconography that followed the Nakba and Karameh, the final junction of the Oslo Accords (the official start of the so-called ‘peace process’), saw a distinct shift toward laughter in cultural output. Hinged on the abandonment of all other previous resolutions, the Declaration of Principles (commonly referred to as the Oslo Accords) have far from established an end to the conflict, and placed Palestinians in what is arguably the worst period in their history. A set of agreements rather than binding resolutions, the Accords (first in 1993 and later in 1995) failed to address Israeli settlements, Palestinian land confiscation and the Right of Return. Further still, responsible for the division of Palestinian land into




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areas A, B and C, the Oslo Accords in effect laid the groundwork for the Bantustanism that currently prevails in the Territories. (cp. Abourahme 2009: 503) Put simply, the ‘temporary’ measures agreed upon as a means of establishing a Palestinian state, have gone from the original agreement of a few years to the better part of three decades. Oslo provided a framework with which Palestinian statehood could be relegated into a status of perpetual becoming. In terms of cultural production and infrastructure, this sense of sovereign in-betweeness is a concern that can be found at the center of museological and large-scale art events in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as in the diaspora. Over the last decade there has been much activity and debate centered on the establishment of ‘national’ cultural centers and collections that foreshadow the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. Notable examples of this include the Qalandiya International (QI), the Palestine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, The Decolonising Architecture and Art Residency (DAAR), The International Academy of Art Palestine, the Contemporary Art Museum Palestine (CAMP) Project at the Van Abbe Museum, and perhaps most significantly the recently opened Palestinian Museum located on the outskirts of Ramallah in Birzeit 2016. The significance of these projects is that they maintain an emphasis on exile as central to national Palestinian culture. In so doing, they explicitly acknowledge the limbo of Palestinian statehood. Further to this, and more central to our concerns here however, is that these projects in effect perform the cultural functions typically assigned to the state.

ANTICIPATORY AESTHETICS This turn in Palestinian cultural and museological practice is perceptively described by anthropologist Chiara De Cesari (2012) as a form of “anticipatory representation”. Where these aforementioned organizations and institutions attempt to anticipate or even fulfill the cultural functions of a future Palestinian state, contemporary art practice arguably also operates within this framework of “anticipatory representation” but does so with a notable difference: namely the pronounced use of humor. Thus, if we are to build upon De Cesari’s notion, we might say that in fact there is a form of anticipatory aesthetics in contemporary Palestinian art, that harnesses


strategies of humor (namely mimicry and parody) to enact the cultural infrastructure of a not yet actualized Palestinian state. Anticipatory aesthetics is perhaps most clearly evident in the work of Jerusalem born artist Khalil Rabah, who for over two decades has worked upon the ambitious project The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind. Begun in 1995 and conceived as a nomadic museum, the project focuses upon the collection and classification of artefacts representative of Palestine’s natural environment. Parodying museological conventions, natural history displays, and the role of museums in the formation of knowledge, the collection of artefacts in Rabah’s museum include lumps of coal, meteorites, and other natural specimens that are in fact fabricated by the artist out of olive wood. Presented as though they are real objects, these artefacts also tour to established real partner organizations and museums around the world. The result of this is that Rabah’s work, although officially an ongoing art project, infiltrates the domain of museum authenticity through collaboration with international institutions such as the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens (EMST) and local organizations such as the Riwaq Centre for Archaeological Preservation in Palestine. Hovering in the space between fiction and authenticity, The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind has its own social media pages, website, and a newsletter.2 Listing both real supporters (such as e-flux or the Liverpool Biennale), alongside utterly unbelievable and fictional sponsors such as the United States of Palestine Airlines, the Museum offers a humorous yet piercing critique of the role of art, and indeed of the museum, in the face of continuing exile, occupation, and the increasing neoliberal push in Palestine. This is an ethos made clear in the Museum’s Mission Statement presented on its website that claims that it is “[f]our centuries behind the times” and “as unpatriotic as it is inefficient” whilst also claiming that “[t]he Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind is cubist in its impossibility, it [sic] is occupied, exiled at home, and everywhere abroad” (Rabah 2016).


For more information on the museum see its website: www.thepalestinianmuse; its Facebook page: thepalestinianmuseumofnaturalhistoryandhumankind; and its Instagram account:




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The emphasis is also evident in one of the most well-known works from Rabah’s project, the 3rd Annual Wall Zone Auction. A farcical event staged at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah, this performance involved paid actors that auctioned objects representative of Israeli occupation as a means of raising money for a (fictional) state museum. A performance documented in a two-channel video work, the auction involved the sale of materials and objects from the area surrounding the Wall with audiences bidding to buy objects ranging from stones, olive branches to a mesh fence. The absurd auction is presented as a real event designed to raise funds to support the Museum’s ‘permanent’ collection while functioning as an expose of the consequences of the Wall. Though initially appearing to be an empowering humorous gesture, considered more deeply, the work might in fact be understood as a melancholic reflection on Palestinian oppression and the fraught politics of the institutional representation of Palestinian history and presence in the Holy Land. This comes because the auction work presents a perverse situation where Palestinian cultural infrastructure literally relies on finances drawn from materializations of the Israeli occupation in order to survive. Implicit in Rabah’s approach is a critique of neoliberal features of the Palestinian state building project which, following the Oslo Accords, has given rise to a situation where the ideals of the 1970s and 1980s liberation movement have been replaced by a strive toward ‘economic peace’. Scholar and curator Yezid Anani expands upon this issue by explaining that by embracing economic liberalization, the Palestinian Authority has effectively restricted all political, economic and cultural institutions in such a way so as to mitigate resistance against the Israeli colonial project. Rabah’s 3rd Annual Wall Zone Auction addresses this issue, whilst at the same time offering a subtle critique of the international art world’s dominant emphasis upon materializations and iconographies of the occupation. This is particularly important given that, as Yezid Anani argues, the emphasis on political tourism and visual symbols of Israeli violence by artists and curators effectively nurtures a view of Palestinians as collectively helpless beneath the infrastructure of Israeli coloniality. (cp. Anani/Toukan 2014: 220-222) The investigation of both these issues – the cultural infrastructure that has emerged following Oslo and the dominant tropes that frame Palestine in the contemporary art world – emerge from the two fundamental questions that underwrite the Palestinian Museum of National History and Humankind


more broadly: namely, what and where is Palestine? And, what is the relevance of Palestinian art? This emphasis was acute in the latest iteration of the work presented as part of the New Sites for the Museum Departments or Four Places to Visit Heaven exhibition at Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut in 2018. This exhibition saw the project divided into four sections that each correspond to Departments within the Palestinian Museum of National History and Humankind, with each Department engaged in a particular aspect of Palestinian natural history (i.e. anthropology, geology, botany and astronomy). Particularly representative of Rabah’s emblematic use of humor alongside pathos, was the Department entitled The Earth and Solar System Department which housed The Lowest Point on Earth Memorial Park. Drawing a double entendre that references both the geography of Palestine (namely the Dead Sea as the lowest point on Earth), and perhaps the lowest point in Palestinian history – the Nakba – the Department focuses on a critical evaluation of icons of Palestinian collective identity and cultural output. The Earth and Solar System Department effectively considers the ongoing potency, and indeed impotence, of the iconography of Palestinianess and Palestinianism. This is achieved by drawing together deconstructed icons of Palestinian revolutionary identity (or Palestinianism) including Tattoo (1996), an unraveled keffiyeh drained of color and enclosed in a glass vitrine, and Untitled (2017), a sarcophagus containing three neon lights, each a Hebrew letter spelling out ‘PLO’. Where the works centered on Palestinianism focus on demotic forms of nationalism, the Department also focuses directly on the art historical iconography of Palestinianess. This is taken up in the work Untitled, All is Well (2017) that reinvents Sliman Mansour’s iconic painting Camel of Hardships (Jamal al-Mohamel; 1973).3 Perhaps the most widely recognized and reproduced image in Palestinian art history, Mansour’s work captures a refugee leaving Palestine with a sack containing the city of Jerusalem – an image that is now understood as iconic for its ability to capture the weight of the refugee experience, the central importance of Jerusalem, and ongoing exile. By removing Jerusalem from his reevaluation of Camel of Hardships, Rabah in effect creates a monument


For more information on the artist, see




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to absence that reflects a contemporary Palestinianess as being defined from a total divorce from the geographical landscape of historical Palestine. Elsewhere in Rabah’s project the artist provides an astute evaluation of another central trope in Palestinian art history and collective identity – that of the anthropomorphic landscape. In the Botanical Department Rabah provides at once a critique of the dominance of anthropomorphic art historical tropes (for example the landscape as woman or nurturing mother), alongside a self-conscious critique of his own art practice. This can be seen in Rabah’s work United States of Palestine which presents a fabricated newspaper that recounts how the artist visited Geneva in 1995 to present grafted olive trees to the UN as ‘ambassadors for peace’, only to return 12 years later to find them missing. Documenting the artist’s plans to sue the UN, the Canton of Geneva, and the Swiss Government for their failure to ensure the trees receive ‘naturalization and equal treatment’, the work blends fact and fiction to stretch the anthropomorphic trope to its limits, revealing its limitations on the one hand, but also its ongoing relevance today in the face of continued denial of the Palestinian Right of Return, and the refugee crisis more broadly. At the heart of the humor in this work, is thus not only a critique of infrastructures of Israeli colonial violence but also a parody of the cultural apparatus of a sovereign Palestinian state. By presenting a parody of a state museum that still manages to operate as one, Rabah’s work acknowledges the current political impossibility of a Palestinian state infrastructure while simultaneously disavowing this political reality. It is precisely this collision between avowal and disavowal that forms not only the crux of humor in the work, but also can be argued to form the heart of laughter more broadly. This is best explained by philosopher Alenka Zupančič, who points out that humor involves a strange coincidence of realism (it is supposed to be more realistic and down-to-earth than, say, tragedy) and utter unrealism (defying all human and natural laws, and getting away with things that one would never get away with in ‘real life’ [sic]). (Zupančič 2008: 217)

Whereas the anticipatory aesthetics in Rabah’s work involves a collision of the real and the unreal centered on infrastructures of statehood that deal with the past (namely the natural history of Palestine), the work of artist Khaled


Jarrar generates humor through the strategies of over-identification that challenge Palestinian and Israeli state infrastructure in the post-Oslo present.

O VER -I DENTIFICATION Khaled Jarrar’s The State of Palestine hovers in the space between mockery and sincere reflection upon state apparatuses and the materializations of their power. Operating with a relatively simple concept, the work involved the artist stamping participants’ passports with a seal labelled “State of Palestine” as a means of welcoming them to Palestine. Beginning in Ramallah in January 2011 and ending in Oslo (the city associated with the now failing ‘peace process’) in September 2012, the project mimics visa and entrance stamps used for certifying entry into sovereign nation states (figure 1). Although brazen, Jarrar’s action is not technically illegal as similar stamps are used in tourist sites such as Checkpoint Charlie, Machu Picchu, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In spite of the legality of the stamp, the subversive threat of Jarrar’s work might be anticipated by those of us who have ever travelled through Israeli border control. Indeed, perhaps not surprisingly several of the work’s participants had their passports photographed and queried by Israeli security, others faced interrogation, and at least one Israeli passport with the stamp has been canceled. Figure 1: The State of Palestine (2011-2012)

Source: by Khaled Jarrar; with permission by the artist




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In spite of the pronounced impact upon individuals subject to Israeli customs, the project involved participants from around the world. It did this by travelling with the artist when he left his then home base of Ramallah to visit countries including Jordan, Serbia, Italy, France, and Germany. Reflecting both on restrictions and permitted travel passages afforded to Jarrar, the work thus ultimately rendered the ‘state’ of Palestine as a mobile one. As a result of this the work sharply creates a spatial and temporal transnational Palestinian state, serving to collapse the gap between the personal restrictions on mobility impacting upon Jarrar and the collective experience of exile and dispossession. In so doing the work calls to mind the particularly poignant statement from the Palestinian Declaration of Independence: that “the state of Palestine is wherever Palestinians may be” (Khalidi 1990: 33). The passport stamp is however not the only way that The State of Palestine mediates forms of Palestinian nationalism centered upon symbolic materializations of statehood. While in its initial form the work focused upon passport stamps, in later iterations the project took the form of postage stamps printed in Germany. Labelled both with the words “State of Palestine” and “Palestine”, these stamps are printed with signifiers including the sunbird and in later editions the red anemone flower and have circulated internationally both as stand-alone artworks but also as functional stamps on letters and postcards. Where the customs stamp iteration of the work clearly presents a subversion of materializations of the state power, Jarrar’s postage stamps offer a more nuanced commentary of Palestinian state building. Postage stamps hold a long history in the Palestine revolutionary movement, representing a material manifestation of delayed statehood which basically resulted from the failure of the Oslo Accords. For the ‘generation of the revolution’ (jil al-thawra), commemorative stamps were released by various political factions including Fatah and the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) as a means of building national consciousness. (cp. Zelkovitz 2017: 202) In more recent years however, the issue of stamps and their connection to Palestinian statehood was an issue directly addressed in negotiations for the Oslo Accords resulting in the agreement that the Palestinian Authority was banned from using the term “Palestine” on postage paraphernalia. With this in mind, Jarrar’s State of Palestine can be understood as functioning on the one hand as an effective transnational signifier of statehood, and on the other as a parody of


infrastructures of sovereignty, thus generating levity through what is described as over-identification. The strategy of over-identification involves performances that mimic normative forms of discourse to the point where it becomes difficult to discern whether it is political ridicule or support. (cp. Mole 2013: 289) This strategy can be traced across the work of several key Palestinian contemporary artists. A keen example of this comes in Khaled Hourani’s work Kadima (2007). This conceptual work saw the artist translate the manifesto of right-wing Israeli political party Kadima from Hebrew into Arabic, whilst also replacing the words ‘Palestine’ and ‘Palestinians’ with ‘Israel’ and ‘Israelis’. Subsequently publishing the text in the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam as if it were though the manifesto of the new Forward Palestinian political party, Hourani generated considerable interest in this new fabricated party, leading to contact enquiries for further information by both the public and the press. Whilst the strategy of over-identification generated humor as a result of ‘hoodwinking’ al-Ayyam readers, it also offered a searing critique of dominant political discourse in Israel/Palestine, revealing the interdependence of Israeli and Palestinian nationalist rhetoric and ideology on one another. A central feature of these interdependent Palestinian and Israeli nationalist ideologies is the issue of temporality. In both theoretical and concrete political terms, time is equally at the core of Palestinian resistance and Israeli domination. The clearest manifestation of this comes in Palestinian assertions of indigeneity and Israeli insistence upon a ‘timeless’ Jewish connection to the Holy Land, the difference here of course being that a continued denial of the Right of Return means that Palestinians find themselves caught in a temporal chasm following the Nakba. Existence therefore operates in a space between a homeland that once was, and one that is framed as perpetually in the making, creating a situation that sociologist Rosemary Sayigh explains as having robbed Palestinians of the ability to “live” time. (cp. Jamal 2016: 371) Sayigh is not alone in this observation, for as political scientist Amal Jamal makes clear, prominent Palestinian thinkers (including Mourid Barghouti and Edward Said) have each explained that “permanent temporariness” is a state that characterizes Palestinian life. Jamal (ibid: 371) also rightly suggests that this temporal impact of ongoing exile and dispossession underscores national poet of Palestine Mahmoud Darwish’s question “are you what you were, or what you are now?”.




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Importantly however, if we are to extend Darwish’s critique of Palestinian collective identity and cultural production’s emphasis upon life before the occupation of historical Palestine, his inquiry might also ask ‘who will you be in the future?’.

F UTURITY Where the works of Khalil Rabah and Khaled Jarrar employ humor as a means through which to enact infrastructures of statehood that deal with the past and the post-Oslo present (thus circulating powerful post-colonial counter-histories), contemporary Palestinian art is also shaped by a look toward the future. This turn toward “Arab-Futurism” generates what can be described as “counterfuturisms” that investigate geopolitical conditions of the present by presenting disjunctive visions of the future. (cp. Parikka 2017: 41) In contemporary Palestinian art, this practice is characterized by the use of the aesthetics of science fiction that provide Palestine with exactly the thing that it is systematically denied: a future. Whilst there are several young artists that draw upon these aesthetics (some examples being Wafa Hourani and Nour Abed), the most notable artist working in this field is Larissa Sansour. Over the last two decades Sansour’s practice has been characterized by the use of aesthetic strategies and tropes of science fiction to investigate the themes of exile and dispossession, iconographies of contested history, and temporalities of occupation. Whilst the artist’s representations of Palestinian futurity are often particularly bleak, within her œuvre one also traces the employment of humor that manages to be simultaneously empowering as well as heartbreaking. Important to our considerations here however, is the way that this humor serves to both subvert hegemonic narratives of the past and of the present, whilst alerting us to a future reality where the state of exception that justifies the arrested development of a sovereign Palestinian state becomes a permanent reality. This is particularly clear in her work Nation Estate (2012). Featuring the artist as protagonist in the work (alongside cameos from her siblings), the ten-minute video component of Nation Estate4 presents a


For the video, see


future where Palestinian dispossession and Israeli military control have been accelerated, and “Palestine” is represented as a giant skyscraper placed on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Calling upon iconographies of Palestinianess (including amongst others the olive tree, and the woman as embodiment of Palestine), the work depicts the artist travelling through the skyscraper of the Palestinian “nation estate” that resembles part airport, part government building (or perhaps theme park and virtual projection), all the while she is surrounded by the ‘real’ Jerusalem. With cities and landmarks each taking a separate floor connected by an elevator that operates as a conduit between spaces in “Palestine”, the work draws a tongue-in-cheek reference and comparison between public housing estates and Palestinian refugee camps, where the reality of multiple generations of refugees has created a density of habitation that necessitates architecture that builds upwards rather than outwards. The audience is lent a sense of the scale of accelerated dispossession through Nation Estate’s appropriation of the now highly politicized and heavily reproduced 1936 Visit Palestine poster that was produced as a means of encouraging the migration and support of Jews prior to the foundation of Israel (figure 2). Where the original poster (published by the Tourist Development Association of Palestine) depicts an idealized Jerusalem with lush greenery and Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark – the Dome of the Rock – in Sansour’s poster, the Dome of the Rock has been replaced with the Nation Estate skyscraper and the words “visit Palestine” removed in favor of the darkly humorous “Nation Estate: Living the High Life”.




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Figure 2: Nation Estate (2012), paper print

Source: Larissa Sansour; with permission by the artist

Although the image is a haunting representation of ongoing dispossession, it is through the elevator in Nation Estate – a space rendered as analogous to Palestinian state infrastructure – that the work also provides a clearly humorous commentary on the ‘NGO-ization’ and neoliberal transformations in Palestine post-Oslo. (cp. Haddad 2017) This ironic humor can be seen for example in destinations demarcated in the skyscraper (“Energy & Sanitation”, “Suq”, “Aid & Development”, “Government HQ”, “Vertical Urban Planning”) and the advertisements found in the elevator that include a sushi restaurant boasting romantic views named the “Gaza shore”, and a reminder to visitors that the “general water supply is provided by Norwegian Fjords”. The humor generated by these advertisements comes through their ability to create a temporal ‘snap’ that collapses the space between the past, present and future. To understand how it achieves this temporal snap it is useful to consider Simon Critchley’s (2002: 7) analysis of humor and temporality, where the philosopher explains that laughter is produced by “[…] the disjunction between duration and the instant, where we experience with renewed intensity both the slow passing of time and its sheer evanescence”. Creating


a temporal disjunction that operates by fusing experiences of the past and present into projections of the future, Sansour’s work relies on a familiarity with pop cultural references and aesthetic motifs of science fiction bumping up against iconographies of Palestinian nationalism and collective identity. On the surface of things her work generates humor through a perceived incongruity between the aesthetics of science fiction and problematic preconceptions of Palestinian cultural production that center on craft and folkloric traditions. Yet what is significant here is the way in which Sansour’s work utilizes humor as a means of validating collective identity and connection to place, thus returning us to what Critchley (ibid: 68) would describe as our “ethos” and “ethnos”.




The humor in contemporary Palestinian cultural production therefore facilitates a reinforcement of collective identity. Where international art audiences might appreciate the universal humor presented in works (i.e. slapstick, incongruity), as art audiences, our laughter or indeed silence, at specific humorous cues is what reflects our participation in what Critchley (2002: 68) describes as the “secret code” of humor. This “secret code” is akin to a litmus test of our identities, where our laughter is contingent on our familiarity with signifiers of collective identity and history forged through iconographies of Palestinianess and Palestinianism. Importantly however, humor is one of the few strategies artists have at their disposal for obfuscating the voyeuristic gaze of international art audiences that have become so pronounced in recent years that artist Emily Jacir has gone so far as to say that Ramallah is now filled with “art missionaries.” (cp. Mannes-Abbott, 2012: 148). These “missionaries” are, as Yezid Anani argues, interested in reinforcing a reductionist view of a diverse experience, ultimately framing Palestinians as victims helpless against the might of Israel. (cp. Anani/Toukan 2014: 222) To use the analogy presented by Khaled Hourani’s anecdote at the opening of this chapter, this international art circuit is not interested in Palestinian artists drawing ducks. Beyond a fixation on Palestinian suffering, in the years following the 2011 Arab uprisings, there remains an ever-present framing of visual culture from the Middle East as being legitimized through the symbolism of conflict.




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Writer Anthony Downey (2014: 17) expands on the ideology that underpins this framing by explaining that it is part of a rubric that is “redolent of colonial ambitions to prescribe the culture of the Middle East to a set of problems that revolve around atavistic conflict and extremist ideology”. This is where the spontaneity of laughter is incredibly important. Responsible for the view that laughter exists outside of ideology, the spontaneity of laughter reveals not only our understanding of “secret codes” of humor, but also, perhaps more importantly, our ideological position. Laughter thus has the capacity of calling into question the gaze with which we look upon art from sites of conflict, thus demarcating the limits of solidarity and intercultural dialogue. Considered alongside one another, the works of Sansour, Jarrar and Rabah indicate the potential of humor as a tool of political opacity that evades voyeuristic gazes at suffering, whilst simultaneously reaffirming a connection to place and collective identity for a population facing continual dispossession and attempts at ethnic cleansing. Where the Oslo Accords created a situation where the Palestinian state is manifested symbolically, these works make the state appear materially, whilst also aiding in the understanding of sovereignty and its relationship to temporality. The enactments of infrastructures of statehood that take place in these works thus challenge us to rethink one of the most defining conflicts of our time. This is important because there is considerable danger to be found in the fact that the occupation of Palestine is increasingly framed and accepted as a permanent state of exception. We have a responsibility to fracture this understanding through any means necessary. Here we might return to the argument of Friedrich Nietzsche (1886) presented at the outset of this chapter, namely that “perhaps even if nothing else today has any future, our laughter may yet have a future.” Considered alongside the shift toward humor we see across Palestinian visual culture, Nietzsche’s comment makes a vital point, that it is not only our tears or rage that will break through the perceived political impasse that faces Palestine. It might in fact be the least likely candidate – our laughter – that signals a path to futurity.


R EFERENCES Abourahme, Nasser (2009): “The Bantustan Sublime: Reframing the Colonial in Ramallah.” In: City 13/4, pp. 499-509. Anani, Yezid/Toukan, Hanan (2014): “On Delusion, Art and Urban Desires in Palestine Today: An Interview with Yazid Anani.” In: The Arab Studies Journal 22/1, pp. 208-229. Benvenisti, Meron (2002): Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, Berkeley: University of California Press. Critchley, Simon (2002): On Humour, New York: Routledge. De Cesari, Chiara (2012): “Anticipatory Representation: Building the Palestinian Nation(-State) through Artistic Performance.” In: Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 12/1, pp. 82-100. Downey, Anthony (2014): “Introduction.” In: Anthony Downey (ed.), Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East, London: I.B. Tauris, pp. 13-29. Haddad, Toufic (2017): Palestine Ltd., Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory, London: I.B. Tauris. Hourani, Khaled (2007): “Draw Me a Duck.” In: Third Text 3/4, pp. 445-448. Jamal, Amal (2016): “Conflict Theory, Temporality, and Transformative Temporariness: Lessons from Israel and Palestine.” In: Constellations 23/3, pp. 365-377. Kelsey, John/Carnevale, Fulvia (2007): “Art of the Possible: An Interview with Jacques Rancière.” In: Artforum 45/7, pp. 256-268. Khalidi, Rashid (1990): “The Resolutions of the 19th Palestine National Council.” In: Journal of Palestine Studies 19/2, pp. 29-42. Khalidi, Rashid (2006): The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, Boston: Beacon Press. Kholeif, Omar (2014): “Re-Examining the Social Impulse: Politics, Media and Art after the Arab Uprisings.” In: Anthony Downey (ed.), Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East, London: I.B. Tauris, pp. 214-224. Lionis, Chrisoula (2015): “Peasant, Revolutionary, Celebrity: The Subversion of Popular Iconography in Contemporary Palestinian Art.” In: Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5, pp. 69-84. Lionis, Chrisoula (2016): Laughter in Occupied Palestine: Comedy and Identity in Art and Film, London: I.B. Tauris.




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Mannes-Abbott, Guy (2012): In Ramallah Running, London: Black Dog Publishing. Mole, Noelle J. (2013): “Trusted Puppets, Tarnished Politicians: Humor and Cynicism in Berlusconi’s Italy.” In: American Ethnologist 40/2, pp. 288-299. Nietzsche, Friedrich (2000 [1886]): “Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Basic Philosophy of the Future.” In: Walter Kaufmann (trans.), Basic Writings of Nietzsche, New York/Toronto: Random House, pp. 179-435. Notre Musique (2004): Switzerland/France, R: Jean-Luc Godard. Parikka, Jussi (2017): “Middle East and other Futurisms: Imaginary Temporalities in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture.” In: Culture, Theory and Critique 59/1, pp. 40-58. Rabah, Khalil (2016): “Statement.” In: The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, http://www.thepalestinianmuseumofnatural Said, Edward (1984): “Permission to Narrate.” In: Journal of Palestine Studies 13/3, pp. 27-48. Said, Edward (1994): The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994, New York: Pantheon Books. Zelkovitz, Ido (2017): “The Battle over Sovereignty: Stamps, Post, and the Creation of a New Palestinian Socio-Political Order, 1994-2000.” In: The Journal of the Middle East and Africa 8/2, pp. 197-210. Zupančič, Alenka (2008): The Odd One In: On Comedy, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Dealing with Politics in Palestine The Zan al-ʾAn Comics Project in Ramallah A NNA G ABAI

I NTRODUCTION In Edward Said’s introduction to the 2001 edition of the graphic novel Palestine by the multi-award winning Maltese-American journalist Joe Sacco,1 Said relates an interesting personal experience with comics. He remembers how comics caused a small revolution in his imagination, as he discovered in his adolescence the American superheroes and their adventures. For Said, who went to a British school and came from a family in which education had priority, comics offered an opportunity for escape and rebellion. Many years later, when his son brought home the work of Joe Sacco, the Palestinian scholar experienced comics in a very different way. (cp. Said 2001) Joe Sacco makes drawings in black and white about his own adventures in Palestine. Moreover, he gives a face and a voice to the Near-East conflict, its history and its protagonists. His style, also known as graphic journalism, is a result of the development and establishment of alternative comics. These comics began to appear in the 1960s and are characterized by a non-standardized aesthetic and a strong relation to everyday life. Anxieties, obsessions and the comic authors’ experiences, as well as their political views, are a part of their work.


For more information on Secco, cf. Chuan-Yao 2007 and on his graphic novel Palestine, cf. Scherr 2013.


From the beginning of the history of ‘mainstream’ comics, there has been an intricate relationship between comics and politics: politics has been the theme of comics, e.g. Captain America fighting in World War II.2 In the modern history of the Arab states, comics too have been a means of politics, used in processes of nation-building and nationalist propaganda, but also as part of Arab (bourgeois) popular culture. (cp. Douglas/Malti-Douglas 1994; Packard 2014; Ghaibeh 2014) Albeit not in a homogeneous way throughout the entire Arab world, each step of the evolution of comics has been absorbed by the MENA countries. The Arab readership has had access to national productions as well as to foreign magazines and comic books. Algeria, Lebanon and Egypt have been and still are the focal points of comic production in the Arab world. These countries have a network of authors and publishers that reaches not only the Arab world, but also Europe. Furthermore, important cultural events for comics are taking place in these countries. Internet and social media play a major role in the evolution of the medium in the region and its dissemination worldwide.3 Right now, there are comic magazines, reading-apps and fandom websites all over the Arabic-speaking countries. In this article, I will analyze the forms and functions of humor in a number of Palestinian comics on the Israel-Palestine conflict, in particular the monthly comic series Zan al-ʾAn by Zan Studio in Ramallah. When talking about Palestine and cartoons, the first association that most people have is with Naji al-ʿAli and his famous character Handala. (cp. Mandell 1987) Handala is a small boy, featured with his back turned, hands folded, barefoot and wearing patched trousers. Naji al-ʿAli turned Palestine into a beautiful and sad female character. These two iconic characters (Palestine as a woman and her child Handala) represent the Nakba and its consequences, and have become prevalent symbols in the iconography of the Middle-East conflict.


For more information on Captain America, cf. Stevens 2015.


Another interesting cross-cultural phenomenon is the spreading of Manga (the Japanese comic style) all over the world, including the Arab countries. In Algeria, there is a publishing house, Z-Link, which is dedicated exclusively to Manga. The younger generation of artists who grew up drawing Japanese comics have been influenced by animated films but also by the fact that on the internet, Manga fans upload a lot of stories and also translate them.


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Newspaper readers are mostly acquainted with editorial cartoons: Normally, illustrations and editorial cartoons are used as a direct visualization to comment on the news. They usually employ only a single panel and share some graphic elements with comics, such as speech balloons and captions. Cartoons frequently work with symbols that are recognizable by the readers. Some of these symbols can be shared by different visual cultures (i.e. the dove stands for peace), while others are understandable only if one knows the cultural context to which these symbols are related. Comics are structurally more complex than illustrations and cartoons. According to Thierry Groensteen (2007: 5), “[…] the comics panel is fragmentary and caught in a system of proliferation; it never makes up the totality of the utterance but can and must be understood as a component in a larger apparatus”. Comics can be described as a system, as Groensteen defines it: At the end of the day what makes comics a language that cannot be confused with any other is, on the one hand, the simultaneous mobilization of the entirety of codes (visual and discursive) that constitute it, and, at the same time, the fact that none of these codes probably belongs purely to it, consequently specifying themselves when they apply to particular ‘subjects of expression’ [sic], which is the drawing. […] Comics are therefore an original combination of a (or two, with writing) subject(s) of expression, and of a collection of codes. This is the reason that it can only be described in the terms of a system. […] In short, the codes weave themselves inside a comics image in a specific fashion, which places the image in a narrative chain where the links are spread across space, in a situation of compresence. The Québecois Yeves Lacroix summed up the specificity of the medium very ably in speaking of “the soul of comics, its fundamental immobility, simultaneity and panopticism compels its units, otherwise known as the serial status” [sic]. (ibid: 6-7)

If we look at editorial cartoons and comics in terms of the content, cartoons can be perceived as more dense: they contain a lot of references in a single panel, whereas comics develop the story over the course of different panels. Benoît Peeters refers to the comic panel as an image ‘in disequilibrium’, inserted between that which precedes it and that which follows it, but no less between its desire for autonomy and its inscription in the story […] comics rest, in each instant, on a tension between the story and the picture. The


story that, while including the image within a continuity, stretches to allow us to glide over it. And the isolated picture that allows us to fix upon it. (Peeters 1991: 20)

These definitions apply to the medium of comics and all its genres. The two comics from the Zan al-ʾAn series by the Palestinian collective Zan Studio, analyzed in the following, are very close to a political caricature or an editorial cartoon. They are short comics, they focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a central theme and they use irony as a stylistic device. Political humor can work through four mechanisms: 1) Incongruity: “Incongruent situations cause people to experience mirth as a result of the shift between their working framework (the situation presented in front of them) and their long term memory […] Incongruities can be achieved in two ways […] First, incongruities will occur if the audience does not expect the punch line until it is delivered, and being caught off guard, finds the message funny. Second, there might be semantic or linguistic mismatches within a message, and therefore the rhetoric of the joke could be perceived as inconsistent;” 2) Superiority: “Superiority refers to situations in which people experience humour through feelings of dominance or by feeling above those at whom they laugh. […] Two elements, then, must be present when this type of humour is utilized. First, the receiver must view the target of the joke in a negative manner. Second, enjoyment of the joke depends on the act of comparison;” 3) Anxiety reduction: “The anxiety reduction dimension is tied to socially awkward or tense situations. When people are placed in stressful situations, they often use humour to cope, or to reduce tension;” 4) Social connectedness: “People can use humour to connect with others […] and to attain social goals […]. In fact, acting as a social lubricant might be one of the most common uses of humour […]. Sharing a particular sense of humour with a particular group helps people integrate socially […]. But even in a heterogeneous group, humour can narrow the gap between people by allowing them to laugh together and feel friendlier with one another […].” (Holbert et al. 2013: 552-553)

In cartoons and comics, political humor is generated through the relationship between images and text, be it an allegory, stereotype or caricature. 4 In both


The material can be found on the website of Cartooning for Peace: http://www.


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arts, irony is not only achieved through a contrary use of words, but is reinforced through a contrast of words and images. The two stories from Zan al-ʾAn presented here show that in a comic, humor can be found in a single panel, as in a caricature, but mainly finds its way into the development of the plot, each panel leading to the pun (usually contained in the last panel).




Based on the observations of Catherine Michel from 2013 there have been about 150 comics that deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. (cp. Michel 2013) Some of them, written in the 2010s by authors living in the region such as Samir Harb, show a new awareness of using comics as a medium for narrating the struggle of the Palestinians and for reaching the public outside the region. However, most of the comics set in Israel and Palestine are written by European and North-American authors. The most popular ones that address the West Bank are those by Joe Sacco (Palestine 1994 and Footnotes in Gaza 2009), Guy Delisle (Chroniques de Jérusalem 2011) and Maximilien Le Roy (Faire Le Mur 2010). As graphic novels,5 they cover topics such as the evolution of the political situation in Palestine and the West Bank after the second Intifada and the building of the wall. Another case is the graphic novel Baddawi (2015) by Lebanese-Palestinian writer Leila Abdelrazaq who tells the story of her father growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp inside Lebanon. As she explains in an interview, she perceives the literary aesthetic


These works are called graphic novels. This term is seen as more suitable than comic, because the word comic etymologically hints at something funny or humorous, which is not normally the central concern of these books. The first author to introduce this new name for comics was Will Eisner in 1978. He understood that by naming a comic book graphic novel, it would be more suitable for intellectuals and make it easier for librarians to present his work to a sophisticated public. Indeed, his intuition serves even now. In this sense, it is possible that the Jordanian project and Budrus choose to have graphic novel in their title to give a more serious and adult touch to the stories. (cp. Schikowski 2014: 171-195)


narration of Palestinian histories that inscribes Palestinian existence across borders as an essential act of resistance. (cp. Herwees 2015) Some of these comics make claims derived from the rights to nationhood and human rights, criticizing their violation and the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians. More rarely, they (re)tell instances of violence that were committed by Palestinians. During my research, I have observed that there is generally very little humor in all these different comics. Some of the artists use a graphic style which may at first be reminiscent of funny stories (more like a caricature or a cute drawing), but the text conveys a serious or sad story. Joe Sacco mentions in his introduction to the German edition of his graphic novel Palestine that he was criticized when the first chapters of his book were published, because his style was not considered serious enough. According to Sacco, this critique was based on his style of drawing at that time which he therefore changed to make it better suit the serious topics of his story. (cp. Sacco 2011: 2) Faire le Mur (‘Making the Wall’, 2010) by Maximilien le Roy is a story told from the point of view of le Roy’s friend Mahmoud Abu Srour, a 22-year-old Palestinian in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, who finds relief by drawing. It is characterized by a realistic drawing style and a text that blends poetics and the politics of resistance. In the comic, Mahmoud is drawn smiling and laughing together with his family. He has to risk climbing over the Israeli wall in order to win the heart of a French woman whom he met. (cp. Bouarrouj 2015) An activist comic on the second Intifada is Torture Blanche (White Torture, 2004) by Philippe Squarzoni. The author tells the stories of several young internationals by merging their experiences, struggles and discussions with authentic journalistic reports and photographs. If a comic is autobiographical, as is the case with Chroniques de Jérusalem (‘Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City’, 2016 [2011]) by Guy Delisle, we can find self-irony in the way the author represents him- or herself in the text (in speech balloons or captions), or in the relation between image and text. Guy Delisle tells of the year that he and his family lived in the West Bank. The reader follows the author through his everyday life as a ‘stay-at-home dad’. Pretty soon, he is confronted with the impact of the conflict between Israel and Palestine and tries to understand his new country. Delisle’s book is divided into short episodes which feature him as a protagonist. His drawing style is minimalistic, and when the stories are told


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in the first person, the texts convey the author’s ironic and sarcastic point of view. It seems that he uses this form of humor in order to maintain a neutral attitude towards his new reality and to understand both sides in the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. Through the other characters, the reader gets a glimpse of the plurality of parties involved in the conflict. In one of the episodes, he visits Zan Studio in Ramallah. (cp. Delisle 2011: 264-266) In this episode he recalls some of the jokes made by one of the members of Zan Studio. In the first one Guy Delisle asks whether his Palestinian colleague speaks some Hebrew. He affirms this by saying: “ID, please”, “open the car trunk”, “keep moving”. Then, he labels the situation Delisle has put him in with his comment “Check point Hebrew”, laughing at his own words. The second question Delisle asks him is whether he has ever met an Israeli. Again, the answer is yes, he met an Israeli guy in Jericho whom he asked whether he had ever been in Ramallah. The Israeli man told him that he had been in Ramallah, namely in a tank (which means that this happened in a maneuver during his military service). After this story, the Palestinian artist again laughs at his own words. The third joke comes while the Palestinian artist is looking at some sketches by Guy Delisle. One of them shows how a Palestinian cemetery is built near the Israeli separation wall with a watchtower in the background: “They control us even when we are dead. They want to be sure that we don’t resurrect”. In this panel no one is laughing, but the Palestinian artist is smiling and a small caption (the voice of the narrator) explains “Palestinian humor”. Guy Delisle is not making fun of the conflict, he is drawing and writing down the jokes of his Palestinian colleague, the only one laughing aloud at them. These jokes are dark, ironic and illustrate how humor is used to cope with stress. The comic alter-ego of Delisle is not shown laughing; only in the last panel is he smiling. And this is the panel where the caption “Palestinian humor” is written, as if he is allowing himself to appreciate the humor of his colleague and giving his readers the same opportunity. In 2012, a group of artists based in Amman, some of them of Palestinian origin, drew a collection of short episodes dealing with the conflict between Palestine, Israel and the Palestinian diaspora. The stories in these comics belong to different genres: American comics, Manga, independent comics,


comic strips, etc. and have never been published in book form.6 Similar to an anthology, the plurality of styles reveals the authors’ familiarity with the world of comics. Moreover, there were two educational comic projects: one comic was published in 2013 by the US-American NGO Just Vision about the nonviolent resistance of the town of Budrus.7 Budrus: the graphic novel (2013) tells of the struggle of Budrus through the story of one of its protagonists, the 15-year-old girl Iltezam Morrar. The comic was distributed to Palestinian youth and included in the curriculum by the Ministry of Education of the Northern West Bank. The second project called Palestine through graphics was organized in 2013 by the Sharek Youth Forum (Ramallah) in several towns of the West Bank. This project offered two-day workshops to boys and girls, in which they learned storytelling and drawing in order to put their own stories on paper. The stories have not been published, but it is possible to get some impressions via Electronic Intifada and Facebook.8 Taking on the role of an author helps the children to develop a critical view towards the images they see every day. It helps them to become more aware of the decisions that an author makes when drawing a comic, taking a picture or filming a scene. The recognition of comics as a tool for education is a new development all over the world and the comic workshop format is particularly appreciated. Indeed, visual literacy is becoming increasingly necessary. In contrast to these productions, the comics of Samir Harb, an artist based in Palestine, are characterized by a surrealistic mood. The stories were first self-published by the author and then published in the Italian magazine Internazionale in 2008.9 Except for some stories from Palestine: the graphic novel10, the authors mainly draw their comics in black and white. Most probably this can be traced back to the aesthetic influence of Naji al-ʿAli and Joe Sacco which still prevails, a tendency that is particularly evident in


Some of the stories can be recalled on Facebook under the name Palestine: the graphic novel, see


See The comic is based on


Cp. Meador 2013; see


See Samir Harb in CoPYLefT:

a previously produced documentary film.

10 Cp. Palestine: the graphic novel on Facebook:


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Budrus and Samir Harb’s comics. Moreover, to draw in black and white facilitates the printing of the comic, making the final product cheaper.

Z AN AL -ʾA N The comic strip series Zan al-ʾAn is the most well-established comic project in Palestine. Zan al-ʾAn are two-page comic strips that are published monthly by Zan Studio in the magazine Filistin Ashabab. The name Zan al-ʾAn means ‘Now at Zan’, where ‘Zan’ is Zan Studio, a collective of friends who work in the art field as graphic and web designers. Some of the members of the collective now live and work abroad. Artist and member Amer Shomali is based in Ramallah, and, besides doing the comics of Zan al-ʾAn, he works as a visual artist on different projects, such as the Palestine Poster Project Archive, and as an animator for the movie The Wanted 18, which is about the first Intifada. In the case of Zan al-ʾAn, the stories are between three and six panels long. They are without titles and feature a disclaimer at the bottom of the last panel, stating that the stories are true and took place in Zan Studio, and that any similarity to real people is unintended. Sometimes the jokes continue in the disclaimer. The stories take place in the office of Zan Studio in Ramallah, often depicting two members of the collective who are talking to each other. Often there is a computer in the room, near which you can see people playing cards, drinking coffee or sitting around. This creates the atmosphere of a coffee break and informal conversation. Moreover, the characters of the stories are not virtuous figures, giving lessons on good behavior, but average people living a normal life, making it easy for their readers to relate to them. The stories are written in Palestinian Arabic, including some slang and common expressions. As Amer Shomali, one of the artists in the collective explains, the stories in Zan al-ʾAn are based on informal conversations he has had or heard, collected and written down. When he is developing an idea, he sends it to his friends and they critique it until the final dialogue is reached. Amer then


composes the comic (dialogue, images and frames) and sends it to the magazine.11 The Zan al-ʾAn comics are produced digitally by copying and pasting the figures onto the background. For every character, various expressions are used throughout the stories (such as a man standing, a man sitting, a man laughing, a man moving his hands, and so on). Even though the comics are not particularly sophisticated, they demonstrate the authors’ skill in choosing the essential elements for the stories and the humoristic punch line. Figure 1: “Ice Cream” by Amer Shomali (Zan al-ʾAn)

Source: Zan Studio, June 15, 2011,; with permission by the artist

11 Interview with Amer Shomali, March 24, 2012.


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One of the comic strips (figure 1) is a story about the simple fact of a man eating ice cream. A man is shown drinking coffee and feeling disappointed that his colleague is eating ice cream that was made in Israel. He is concerned that his colleague is not supporting the boycott of products made in Israel. Humor starts in the second panel, where the man eating the ice cream raises his finger, knits his eyebrows and starts contradicting his friend by telling him: “What?! Israel?! What are you talking about?! Shame on you! Are you telling me that this is Israeli! It was made in Nathania!” He begins to argue about the fact that Nathania, the place where the ice cream was produced, was the former Palestinian village Umm Khalid and that since Palestine stretches from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, the ice cream is Palestinian. In the end, he is the one accusing his colleague of recognizing the state of Israel, which is deplorable from his point of view. In this joke, we find two references to the conflict with Israel, namely boycotting Israeli products and remembering historic Palestine, but also a reference to the intrusion of the conflict into everyday life and the political relevance of a simple decision like eating a certain kind of ice cream. The man eating the ice cream is put under a lot of pressure by his colleague and feels guilty. The accusations are rooted in complicated political issues, even though it is an everyday life situation. To evade this problem, he employs a lot of rhetorical arguments that allow him to put himself back in line with the ethics of Palestinian resistance. This shows in a humorous way how each of the two makes clever use of the rhetoric of loyalty to the Palestinian cause in a way that suits his interest best, legitimizing self-oriented behavior with moral arguments. This rhetoric is enhanced comically through the representation of his gestures and mimicry. In another story (figure 2), two other characters discuss the economy of the state. A man with a baseball cap is sitting relaxed on a chair, as another man (representing Amer Shomali) is questioning the state budget, particularly the very small amount of money invested in agriculture. In his opinion, agriculture should play a more central role in local politics, so that the land is used properly and nobody has to suffer from hunger. This could ensure more nutrition for the population, enabling them to be less dependent on foreign countries.


Figure 2: “1%-40%” by Amer Shomali (Zan al-ʾAn)

Source: Zan Studio, May 13, 2013,; with permission by the artist

The strip continues with a play on the word ‘security’ (ʾamn) which is used for both ‘food security’ (ʾamn ghidhaʾi) and ‘military security’ (amn ‘askari). The man with the cap explains to Amer Shomali that he has heard that 40 per cent of the budget is invested in security. While Shomali complains that the money is invested in military security instead of food security, the other man argues that this does not matter, since security remains in the streets. The punch line is in the last panel: “So would you take a soldier and eat him?!” The pun is reinforced by the depiction of the character laughing out loud, which contrasts with his very serious expression in all of the five previous panels and also by the disclaimer finishing with the line “Ask Chef Ramzi or Mariam Nour for the recipe” (the first being a prominent chef de cuisine, the latter a famous Lebanese macrobiotics expert). The discrepancy between ideology and everyday life is also evident in the sentences used by the two men: the man with the jacket is very well informed, talks a lot and has serious questions that cannot be solved in a coffee break. His colleague, in contrast, expresses the voice of the street: he


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has heard something else and has not checked whether or not it is true. He confuses the uses of the term security, and in the end says, “at least there will be security on the streets.” This is a form of humor based on incongruence: the misunderstanding of some words paves the way for this funny story.




Though Palestine was not the central stage of the Arab Uprisings of 2011, it has been in a constant state of uprising due to the Arab-Israeli conflict that has been going on for more than 60 years. At the beginning, the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring were welcomed by the Palestinians at large because the events brought hope to the population that they might participate in politics on a different level. (cp. Bailey 2011; General Union of Palestine Students 2011) According to Nicola Pratt who analyzed the consequences of the Arab Springs between 2011 and 2013 on both Israeli and Palestinian sides, a surge of non-violent groups in Palestine called for a new wave of resistance with the aim of reuniting diasporic citizens with the revolutionary Arab youth. (cp. Pratt 2013: 9-40) The Israeli government in turn looked at the upheavals with concern and prepared itself for an aggressive defense of its own borders and territories. The Zan al-ʾAn comics are different from the comics that are engaged in the representation of the Arab-Israeli conflict because they are humorous most of the time. Because of the collective process behind their production and the fact that they were published in a Palestinian magazine, they appear to me as a form of humor that connects the community members, especially the younger generation. Whereas foreign authors are allowed to use humor only when it is directed at themselves, the Palestinian authors draw out the humorous side of their lives. The humor of Zan al-ʾAn is sarcastic, cynical, ironic and absurd, playing with the discord between ideological narratives and the blank reality of everyday life. From a graphical point of view, the characters of Zan al-ʾAn are drawn in a style reminiscent of cartoons, with big heads and small bodies, giving the impression that the comic is not to be taken too seriously, because Zan Studio does not take itself too seriously. Normally, comics and graphic novels dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict are drawn in black and white and in a more realistic style, whereas Zan al-ʾAn is quite colorful. The artist


Amer Shomali sees himself primarily as an activist: he uses the short stories of Zan al-ʾAn as an additional venue to discuss Palestine, the struggles of Palestinians, and to foster a critical awareness in the reader. Since the comic strips are published monthly, they normally refer to topics that last longer in the news and are part of the discourse of everyday life. In the comics, we find criticism of Israel and the occupation, as well as of Palestinian politics. In summary, humor in Zan al-ʾAn serves three functions: 1. Releasing tension, 2. Coping with the difficulties of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the domestic political problems of everyday life, 3. Creating a critical dialogue, avoiding outdated rhetoric. The jokes proposed by Zan al-ʾAn are situated within Palestinian society and require some knowledge of the context in order to be understood. At the same time, thanks to their short comic format, they are able to develop a short story that leads the reader through a critical line of reasoning. With this narrative approach, the reader can follow a complex chain of arguments and thereby understand the complexities of the subjects addressed. The reader is confronted with these issues, and is urged to reflect upon his or her own opinion.

R EFERENCES Bailey, Pam (2011): “Palestinians Call for Unity Protest on 15 March.” In: The Electronic Intifada February 28, tent/palestinians-call-unity-protest-15-march/9249. Bouarrouj, Khelil (2015): “Comics in the Palestinian Narrative.” In: Palestine Square July 29, /07/29/the-role-of-comics-in-palestinian-storytelling/. Chuan-Yao, Ling (2007): “Author Profile: Joe Sacco.” In: World Literature Today 81/2, pp. 40-41. Delisle, Guy (2016 [2011]): Chroniques de Jérusalem (Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City), Paris: Éditions Delcourt.


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Douglas, Allen/Malti-Douglas, Fedwa (1994): Arabic Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. General Union of Palestine Students (2011): “Palestinian Students Claim Right ‘to Participate in Shaping of our Destiny’.” In: The Electronic Intifada January 27, dents-claim-right-participate-shaping-our-destiny/1095. Ghaibeh, Lina (2014): “Propaganda in Comics in the Arab World.” In: The Media and Digital Literacy Academy of Beirut (American University of Beirut) August 15, Groensteen, Thierry (2007): The System of Comics, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Herwees, Tasbeeh (2015): “The Graphic Novel ‘Baddawi’ Looks Back at Life in a Palestinian Refugee Camp.” In: Vice December 5, https://www. Holbert, R. Lance et al. (2013): “Affinity for Political Humor: An Assessment of Internal Factor Structure, Reliability, and Validity.” In: Humor 26/4, pp. 551-572. Le Roy, Maximilien (2010): Faire le Mur, Paris: Casterman. Mandell, Joan (1987): “Naji al-‘Ali Remembered.” In: MERIP Middle East Report 149, pp. 26-27. Meador, Daryl (2013): “Graphic Novels Tell Stories of Palestinian Youths Arrested on Spurious Grounds.” In: The Electronic Intifada May 6, ian-youths-arrested-spurious-grounds/12319. Michel, Chantal Catherine (2013): “Panels for Peace: Contributions of Israeli and Palestinian Comics to Peace-Building.” In: Quest: Issues in Contemporary Jewish History 5, Packard, Stephan (2014): “Wie können Comics politisch sein?” In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (APuZ), pp. 33-34, 189528/wie-koennen-comics-politisch-sein?p=all. Peeters, Benoît (1991): Case, planche, récit: Comment lire une bande dessinée, Tournai: Casterman. Pratt, Nicola (2013): “The ‘Arab Spring’ and the Israel-Palestine Conflict: Settler Colonialism and Resistance in the Midst of Geopolitical Upheavals.” In: Ortadoğu Etütleri 5/1, pp. 9-40. Sacco, Joe (2001): Palestine, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books.


Sacco, Joe (2009): Footnotes in Gaza, London: Jonathan Cape. Sacco, Joe (2011): Palästina (Süddeutsche Zeitung Bibliothek – Graphic Novels, 5), Munich: Süddt. Zeitung GmbH. Scherr, Rebecca (2013): “Shaking Hands with Other People’s Pain: Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine’.” In: Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 46/1, pp. 19-36. Schikowski, Klaus (2014): Der Comic: Geschichte, Stile, Künstler, Stuttgart: Reclam. Stevens, Richard (2015): Television and Popular Culture, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Press.

From Kuwait’s Margins to Tolaytila’s Mainstream Sheno Ya3ni Challenging Social Positioning through Dystopian Satire F ATEMA H UBAIL

I NTRODUCTION In 2011, a Kuwaiti group of comedians launched Sheno Ya3ni, or “so what” in colloquial Arabic, as a YouTube channel that presented a series of sketches reflecting social issues experienced by the Kuwaiti social fabric in specific, but represented shared cultural benchmarks that extend to khaleeji1 societies in general. (cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012a) The skits are set in a fictional “Great Republic of Tolaytila (Toledo)”, a city-state with cupcakes as its main currency. The use of cupcakes and the name of the city-state may suggest that Tolaytila is a welcoming space, one that engages the same culture that the ancient city of Toledo once did.2 However, Tolaytila, in most episodes is introduced with a serene silence, happy-looking citizens, and an active public and private sphere. Yet, the events of each episode position Tolaytila as a dystopian state – one with a façade of serenity, peace, and freedom of speech, but in reality, a world of social restrictions, gendered and cultural


Countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council are often identified as the Khaleej meaning the Gulf. Actions or specific identifiers pertaining to the region are often addressed as khaleeji which loosely translates to ‘gulfian’.


Toledo is known as a “City of Three Cultures”.


subjectivities, and an “all-seeing” state that controls, monitors, and disciplines its citizens. Although cupcakes are the national currency, punishment is meted out by transforming deviant citizens into shish tawuks or shawarmas.3 (cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2018) Sheno Ya3ni emerged amongst other khaleeji-centric and MENA-wide satirical groups, who utilize the digital space as a space for political humor to surface. Sheno Ya3ni, like their regional counterparts, are speaking from their nation’s margins, using the digital space as a means of reaching the mainstream. Using Jacques Rancière’s dissensus framework, this research explores the ways in which Sheno Ya3ni creatively (re)negotiate the boundaries of their social positionings as Kuwaiti citizens, and khaleejis through dystopian satire. Their work constructs specific public and private spaces, as a duality, in their fictional-land of Tolaytila. Their construction of space is integral to our understanding of the narratives that they introduce within their videos, and how these narratives emerge within these spaces. The spaces in the works of Sheno Ya3ni are policing spaces; they confine the citizens of Tolaytila to specific gendered and cultural subjectivities, further requiring the citizens to behave in a specific manner. The use of space to frame identities is made possible by the group’s use of aesthetics within their videos. By doing so, the group is using their videos as a means of challenging the binary of tradition versus modernity. This binary emerges through other plays on dualities such as – Sunni and Shiite, customs and new trends, religiosity and science, heterosexuality and homosexuality, sexual activity and virginity, among others. The literature on satire in Kuwait, and by extension the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is in a nascent state. Thus, by researching Sheno Ya3ni, and shedding light on the major themes emerging through their videos, this research further contributes to the existing literature on satire in the GCC, and the MENA. Additionally, as the group are not speaking to a Kuwaiti-centric audience, they are utilizing their videos as a means of transcending the limits of Kuwaiti society, to further expose, critique, and challenge the overwhelming regional culture shared by khaleeji societies. The play on dualities is not aimed at fossilizing the social fabric to fit in with these dualities, but is an attempt to break away from these


Shish tawuks are grilled chicken skewers and shawarma is sliced meat, vegetables, tahihi and garlic sauce wrapped in pita bread.


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dualities to carve a new space for new subjectivities – whether social, political, gendered or cultural – to emerge.

S HENO Y A 3 NI ’ S E MERGENCE IN 2011: A S ATIRICAL U RGENCY OR AN O VERDUE C RITIQUE ? The group emerging in 2011 was not unprecedented, or the result of a vacuum. Rather, they are a part of a larger trend of groups and individuals who resorted to the digital space as a means of critiquing social, political and cultural issues through humor, satire and parodies. In Bahrain, Baharna Drama4 emerged in 2011 with various “video clips filmed and then posted on the video-sharing site YouTube by a group of anonymous, balaclavawearing activists” (Jones 2017: 146). The themes invoked by Baharna Drama reflected elements of the 2011 uprising such as, “Bahrain’s collusion with Saudi Arabia, a long-time ally who sent over a thousand troops into Bahrain in 2011 to help quell the pro-democracy protests” (ibid). In Saudi, Telfaz 11 also resorted to YouTube as a space for not only critiquing Saudi political narratives, but also subverting the overwhelming religious and cultural barricades they operate from within. The group relies on musical parodies such as their famous “No Woman, No Drive” a spin-off of Bob Marley’s famous “No Woman, No Cry”. (cp. Fageeh et al. 2013) The group explained the significance of launching in 2011: The word ‘Telfaz’ is the Arabic equivalent of the word ‘television,’ and the number 11 in Telfaz11 is an homage to the year 2011, the year where great changes have occurred in the Middle East region; changes that have affected not only the way the world looks at Arabs, but also the way Arabs look at themselves. (“Telfaz11: The Subversive Commentary of the Comedic in Saudi Arabia”)

In Egypt, activists and comedians found solace in YouTube as a space to challenge authority and redraw lines of taboos that manifest socially. Besides


Baharna refers to the Arab Shi’ite population of Bahrain, those who have occupied the land prior to the nation’s independence from the British.


Bassem Yousef’s leading role in Egyptian satire 5, JoeTube6 also played a significant role in 2011, with his YouTube videos “criticizing the military while breaking down its myth of impeccability” (Elsayed 2016: 5106). Political humor in the Middle East is not new. However, the reliance on satire in particular, and art in general, as a means for many groups in states that experienced the Arab Uprisings enabled them to “covertly navigate between social and political spaces while asserting their generational identity, seeking to both control and subvert a situation where they had limited control” (ibid: 5115). Satire, in this context, is a ‘new’ and important tool of critiquing state and hegemonic authority. Additionally, Dina Matar argues that events that are “transformative” in nature, such as revolts, “demand transformative intellectual responses, brave new ways of thinking and interrogation, creativity and creation” (Matar/Harb 2013: 2). Sheno Ya3ni’s channel was founded during the Arab Spring with their first video being published on the 26th of January, 2012 – a year after people took to the streets across the MENA. The group’s use of satire, aesthetic production, and content emerges from within the trend of art forms functioning as cultural production and forms of resistance during the Arab Uprisings. Thus, it is important to consider the work of this group in the context of larger art forms that have emerged as means and tools of resistance by communities. Based in Kuwait, many of their early videos mirrored the political crisis that surfaced in Kuwait from 2011 onwards. In 2011, youth groups protested in Kuwait calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, who was allegedly bribing progovernmental MPs. (cp. “Arab Uprising: Country By Country – Kuwait” 2013) By February 2012, Nasser al-Sabah was replaced and parliament was temporarily dissolved. The following months witnessed growing opposition both from the people towards the MPs and among the MPs, boycotting of elections, and a growing schism in Kuwait’s political scene. (cp. ibid) Similarly, Sheno Ya3ni’s earlier videos demonstrated various representations of candidates running for parliament which satirically showed how these representatives are running for parliament to satisfy their best interests. (cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012b; ibid 2012c; ibid 2012d; ibid 2012e; ibid 2012f)


Cp. Albernameg:


Cp. Joe Tube:


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Kuwait experienced a series of events that provoked state-led responses, which presented a ripe opportunity for satire to emerge. In February 2011, stateless Arabs staged a demonstration in Kuwait demanding citizenship, leading to dozens of arrests. (cp. “Kuwait’s Stateless Rally for Rights” 2011) The demonstrations continued in March, and were halted by authorities for the rest of the year. In early 2012, the Ministry of Interior officially stated that it would not allow any further demonstrations “regardless of their nature or aims” (Agence France-Presse 2012). An Amnesty International Report declared the beginning of an overt “clampdown on freedom of expression in Kuwait since 2011” (Amnesty International 2015b), followed by a series of confrontations between authorities and protesters in the following years. In 2014, Kuwait adopted “an iron fist policy and a decisive and firm confrontation with whatever could undermine the state, its institutions and constitution” mainly in the form of censorship and the active clampdown on dissent (Amnesty International 2015a; cp. ibid 2015b). Social conditions that define the limits of citizenry and rights, presented ripe grounds for satire and other forms of art to emerge outside active street protests. Unlike the other states that experienced severe governmental clampdowns during the Arab Uprisings, the Kuwaiti social conditions did not call for the same satirical urgency that Bahrain needed with Baharna Drama, or Egypt with El-Barnameg and JoeTube; rather, the emergence of satire in the case of Kuwait is long overdue. The topics raised by Sheno Ya3ni are ones that target the entirety of the social fabric, from institutions, to corruption, capitalism, consumerism, faulty elections, radicalism, subjugated sexualities, gendered stereotypes and even migration. The topics raised by Sheno Ya3ni are not unique to 2011, but are integral components that make up the socio-cultural fabric of Kuwait. For several countries, the Arab Uprisings represented a clear rupture in social and political relations, which pushed many of these groups to target authority within their satirical content. The targeting of authority is present in the works of Sheno Ya3ni, but their work is not limited to subverting the powers of the Kuwaiti authorities. Rather, the issues they address are pertinent to most Gulf States, by focusing on the hegemonic power of culture more than that of the state. Despite this shift in focus, Sheno Ya3ni’s work may be seen as different from ‘revolutionary’ cultural production; however, it is not entirely separate from it. Salih and Richter-Devroe (2014: 15) depict the Gramscian construction of hegemony as “the role of the state and other


authorities or institutions in forging norms, beliefs, and practices to promote cultural hegemony without the need for overt coercion […]”. In their exploration of hegemony, we see the state and the culture working hand-inhand, where state authority ‘forges’ specific cultural expectations that are depicted or perceived as culture. In the case of Sheno Ya3ni, their art dissents and functions as a form of cultural production that aims at subverting the normalizing and ‘forging’ power of state authority, and an attempt to disrupt our understanding of culture (and its hegemonic power) as a whole. Their work dissents “from and unmasks hegemonic cultures in contexts of authoritarianism, censorship, occupation, and violence” (ibid 2014: 15), but also expands their critique to unmask the sanitization of social identities that attempt to retain, protect and fuel cultural hegemony within Kuwait – and the GCC by extension. This is where the cultural production of groups emerged within and after the period of the Arab uprisings, where their works became a form of expression with the potential to disrupt not only stateauthoritative narratives and practices, but also the “cultural regimes of knowledge” (ibid: 16). Sheno Ya3ni’s framing and creation of a dystopian space, and the use of what I call “dystopian satire” functions as a means of subverting the everyday disciplining powers – the cultural hegemonic powers that confine citizens to specific social and cultural expectations, and that further demarcate the limits that individuals are subjected to as citizens. Their dystopian satire defies what is deemed as normative through their construction of space, their portrayal of identities, and their use of aesthetics, as we will see in later sections.




Through the construction of a dystopian space, Sheno Ya3ni’s content functions as a form of dissensus. Jacques Rancière’s notion of dissensus considers the role that art and aesthetics play in the construction of “community identities”. (cp. Salih/Richter-Devroe 2014: 17) Dissensus, according to Rancière (2015: 77), “is not a conflict of interests, opinions, or values; it is a division inserted in ‘common sense’: a dispute over what is given and about the frame within which we see something as given”. Rancière (ibid: 44) positions “the essence of the political” in the notion of dissensus where art disrupts the senses and can dissent and perform the


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political in the most radical ways. By using dissensus to approach Sheno Ya3ni’s videos, I deconstruct how the group performs resistance through using the online space to produce satire and fiction, and to what extent that resistance remains challenged and limited by the state authorities they belong to. The use of the online space makes their resistance public, permanent, and visible. It allows them to present narratives that can be rewatched and reexperiened by their audience. Rancière (1999: 58) characterizes “the modern configuration of politics” as “aesthetic in principle”. Here, aesthetics functions as an analytical tool to help explain political events. (cp. Virmani 2015) The notion of politics as aesthetics is derived from Rancière’s (2015: 44) discussion on the “shared distribution of the sensible”. The shared distribution of the sensible expresses politics as disruptive to the functions of space and time. Through aesthetics, this disruption further translates into a disruption in the senses and the experience of the viewer. The disruptive nature of politics allows for a redefinition of visibility, specifically that of who can socially appear, what can and cannot be seen, what is permitted to be heard and said, and ultimately what can be felt. In this very case, politics as aesthetics determines how we experience and make sense of the political fracturing of time and space, that we see taking place as a result of uprisings and revolutions. This notion of a shared distribution of the sensible also functions as a veil that hides what should not be visible or experienced. The conception of dissensus is a political and aesthetic process that ruptures and challenges the status quo through subjectivization. It paves the way for the redistribution of power to make the less visible visible in new ways, and the unthinkable thinkable. The conception of politics according to Rancière is not derived from the formal authoritative institutions, such as governments or what Michel Foucault (1980) calls the regimes of “judicial power”; rather “the police” define the frame of politics. (cp. Rancière 2011: 3) It is not the physical clampdowns and forms of repression that enable the police’s exercise of power, but rather the way in which the police order carves up, divides and fragments the social and sensible, which he calls the “partage du sensible” (Rancière 2004). The police is not a state-led arrangement, but rather a means of regulating “who can speak, make decisions, perform certain functions and define what is possible” (Davidson/Iveson 2018: 29). These means of regulation emerge as facts and lived norms, the way in which disciplinary power functions according to Foucault (1991). Successful engagement in


politics, according to Salih and Richter-Devroe (2014) surfaces when the police order is challenged and disrupted, further introducing a vacuum in which new political agents can generate, engage and define new political subjectivities. In this case, dissensus creates new forms of political subjectivities and allows for the creation of new spaces, ripe for political activity as Rancière et al. (2001) argues in Ten Theses on Politics. Thus, if political activity cannot take place on the streets, which as we saw in the case of Kuwait resulted in a clampdown, along with the other states that suppressed dissent, in this case dissensus offers new spaces for individuals to engage and challenge political discourse. This is what we see taking place with Sheno Ya3ni’s resort to the digital space to engage in political discourse through satirical means. Although Rancière’s focus is on political subjectivization, this research considers the gendered and cultural subjectivization in the group’s work to explore how bodies and identities are politicized, policed, and aesthetically represented through Sheno Ya3ni’s use of satire.

O N S ATIRE Amber Day (2011: 4) and Marc Owen Jones (2017: 138) point out that “uninterrogated discourse[s]” attract the works of satirists and comedians as a means of questioning and “poking holes” in authoritarian regimes. The digital space has provided new avenues for satirists to interrogate, question, and poke holes in authoritarian regimes, in new and creative ways. Satire, as Jones (2017: 137) highlights, is an important tool of social critique, one which is academically prevalent in Western literature. In his studies, he states that existing works on satires related to authoritarian regimes are limited, and that the scholarly work on satire in the Middle East remains “undernourished” (ibid).7 He argues that satire in Bahrain paved the way for activists to confront the state and undermine the existing hegemonic narrative. In addition, he views satire as an essential but limited tool in creating powerful counter-narratives. Alsahi (2017) also considers satire in the case of Noon Alniswa, a feminist satirical group based in Saudi. In her


Jones also explains that focus on satire is not new in the Middle East. See Hill (2013), Allday (2015), and Shehata (1992).


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analysis she argues that “satire represents a micro-strategy of resistance towards the local impositions of patriarchal order” (ibid: 12). Although her focus is on feminist satire, her approach considers the ‘subtle’ forms of resistance that qualify as ‘indirect rebellions and subversions’ which satire best exemplifies. Satire as Jones and Alsahi imply is disruptive in nature. Jones’s (2013) work on surveillance in Bahrain is also pertinent to this study. He defines surveillance as the “process by which organizations and governments observe individuals or groups of individuals” (ibid: 74). In the case of Sheno Ya3ni, surveillance appears in two forms: first, within the videos as a social critique of authority, and second, offline in the form of censorship. Here, as Jones (ibid) suggests, the cyberspace shifted from heterotopias to ‘controlled spaces’. This shift is a reaction to threats to the “hegemonic order” and a way to reify “political and social loyalties” (ibid: 73). The loyalties expressed and experienced in this case are the socially and politically accepted narratives and expectations of Kuwaiti citizens specifically, and more broadly, khaleeji citizens. Alsahi (2017: 12) views YouTube as “an alternative space of cultural production and expression, and a site of articulating counter hegemonic discourses” which function as “counterpublic spaces”. These spaces present an opportunity for those who have been traditionally excluded to engage in hegemonic discourses. (ibid) Jones (2017: 137) emphasizes that “new technologies have allowed for a shift in the presentation of satire…old consumers or audiences are becoming ‘producers and distributors’ of new creative content and cultural products” (cf. Shifman 2012). The digital space in this case carves a space for satire to emerge publicly, despite the offline restrictive censorship laws and means of repressing dissent. In the case of Sheno Ya3ni, the digital space is an ideal medium to not only ‘interrogate’ taboos and profanities, but simultaneously visualize, perform, criticize and deconstruct them. Satire in this case functions as a form of publicity, which Nancy Fraser (2007: 7) argues “is supposed to discredit views that cannot withstand critical scrutiny and to assure the legitimacy of those that do. Thus, it matters who participates and on what terms”. The public sphere in this very case functions “as a vehicle for marshaling public opinion as a political force” (ibid). These spaces, whether publicly online or offline, are important in shaping the way art is produced, performed and disseminated, and more critically, the art form is also a byproduct of the timeframe it is produced in.


M ETHODOLOGY This research relies heavily on identifying the emerging themes in Sheno Ya3ni’s videos in light of existing events and theories. Through a content and discourse analysis, the study addresses narratives presented in the videos, and a minor reference to comments/statements representing opinions geared towards the content presented in the videos. By narratives, I focus on what the comedians say in the videos, the embodied performances, visual representations, and messages behind specific videos. Discourse here is meant to encompass actions, body language, spoken language and silence throughout the performance of the actors within these videos. My focus on deconstructing discourse is a means to approach discourse in the way Foucault does, as “ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them” (Weedon 1997: 108). An analysis of the discourse allows us to consider not only how knowledge is produced, but what power relations are manifest in these relations. In this case, discourses “are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the ‘nature’ of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern”. (ibid) Additionally as Diamond and Quinby (1988: 185) aptly point out, discourse functions as “a form of power that circulates in the social field and can attach to strategies of domination as well as those of resistance”. My focus on narratives allows me to see how Sheno Ya3ni create and control their own definitions and understandings of themselves as members of the Kuwaiti and larger khaleeji social fabric, and how they engage with these social realities in a public space. I view the group’s YouTube channel (and other social media platforms) as a discursive space that blurs the distinction between online/offline public spaces, making the fictional content represented on the group’s channel a reflection of social realities (exaggerated as a means of critiquing these realities). Sheno Ya3ni published 55 videos on their YouTube channel, starting from January 21, 2012 to their latest video published on April 26, 2019; each video deals with a specific phenomenon. (cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012a) After watching all videos, I decided to focus mainly on seven videos that best show the comedians engaging aesthetics, space, and identity through their characterizations, narratives, and events taking place in the fictional land of Tolaytila. Throughout this


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research, these categories are examined through the lens of Rancière’s dissensus to deconstruct how the group perform offline resistance through online satire and fiction, and to what extent that resistance remains challenged and limited by the state authorities they belong to.

F INDING D YSTOPIA IN S HENO Y A 3 NI ’ S S ATIRE & THE C ONSTRUCTION OF T OLAYTILA ’ S S PACE To map the dystopia introduced in Sheno Ya3ni’s videos, it is important for us to deconstruct the utopia they primarily attempted to build. The group posted a video showcasing a documentary of the history of Tolaytila entitled, al-Film al-wathaʾiqi safahat min tarikh Tolaytila (‘The Documentary Film of Pages from Tolaytila’s History’; cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012l). It begins with positioning Tolaytila on a fictional map, and then traces its development over history. It shows how Tolaytila was once a desert that was ultimately saved by Orientalists, specifically by “the hands of the ‘Orientalist’, Lord Elton John”. The character of Elton John a white English man who is an openly gay singer, ostentatious in his outfits and public image, is meant to allude to and further mock the British presence in the Gulf, their role in nationstatecraft, oil politics, and political/economic liberalization policies. By depicting how these individuals are being saved by the Orientalist Lord Elton John, Sheno Ya3ni are simultaneously mocking Gulf states and societies’ reception of the British presence, and how they are blindly following colonial rulings. This is akin to Charles Belgrave’s presence, the British advisor to the Sheikhs in Bahrain, who was criticized by Charles Geoffrey Prior, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, who stated: “[Belgrave] and the other Bahrain officials have had things their own way for so long without any supervision, inspection, or control, that they have become a society of self-satisfied Czars” (Allday 2014). In this scenario, Sheno Ya3ni are commenting on the blurred lines existing between the local authorities and the British presence, where the British presence is deemed as not only necessary, but also rather integral to the development of the state. This is further evident through Omar Dahi’s statement: “[…] the Gulf countries were integrated into the world capitalist system through incorporation into the British colonial empire” (Dahi 2012). The Orientalists, according to this short skit helped Tolaytila discover its rich resources in cupcakes, which


inevitably led the state to be the leading exporter of cupcakes. The cupcakes even ended up being on the state’s bills. The documentary continues to show the rich production of cupcakes and the happy looking citizens and growing economy that makes Tolaytila the state that it is today. In Mukas8 al-tawasul (‘The Communication Tax Collector’; cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2018), Sheno Ya3ni furthered this narrative of a rich state, and introduced a man observing a billboard advertisement from a telecommunication company, TolayCall, that offers “Free Cash” (Kash ib-balash) while driving. The advertisement for “Free Cash” pops up as a notification on his phone, and also on his radio. This video introduces the feeling of impossibly attractive opportunities for the citizens of Tolaytila. In another video, al-Wathaʾiqi min hayat al-shuʿub (‘The Documentary from the Lives of the People’; cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012j), we hear an English narrator who seems to tell the story of young kids in Tolaytila in the same narrative format as National Geographic documentaries on creatures of the wild. By framing this video as a documentary, the group attempts to distance the audience from the video they will be watching. This video showcased the lives of playful kids on the streets of Tolaytila, however, the kids do not appear to be described as children, but as young playful animals. Collectively, these videos frame Tolaytila as a rich state with endless opportunities, always looking after its citizens, with happy children and safe streets – ultimately a blissful, happy, and utopian (albeit fictional) place. However, throughout the videos, we see the aesthetics shifting the meanings ascribed to utopian sentiments to expose dystopian realities. Tolaytila’s historical documentary situates the blissful and opportunity-filled space within a specific government-led, politically sanitized narrative. The images and content are carefully chosen to showcase a productive space – workers producing cupcakes, and glorifying the stamping of a cupcake symbol on the national currency. It also situates success and development as a product of Orientalist intervention, by speaking about the orientalist’s – Lord Elton John’s – role in discovering the country’s riches.


Mukas, according to is a term originating from the pre-Islamic al-Jahiliya period, referring to a tax-collector (often referred to as Mukas) who collects tax in the form of al-makas, and is often referred to as sahib al-makas or the owner/designated collector of taxes. (cp. “Taʿrif wa maʿna makas fi qamus ar-raʾid”)


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In Mukas al-tawasul, Sheno Ya3ni relied on affective aesthetics, which are aesthetics that function as a means of imbuing the viewer with specific feelings and sentiments – in this case these sentiments are utopian and positive in nature. It showcased the advertisement for “Free Cash” as a visible sign. The sign is also omnipresent, as we see the actor looking around him and only seeing these advertisements glaring back at him, on a hot summer day, on an almost-abandoned street. The “Free Cash” sign is imposed on the actor, it follows him wherever he goes, and it forces him to fix his gaze to it, as a means of engaging his interest. The aesthetics chosen in this video are affective in nature, they aim at fueling desire and fixation. What we later see in the video is that the man is subtly coerced into subscribing to the “Free Cash” service, which requires him to pay and eventually to sign up for a monthly subscription to “breathing air”. The man is coerced into subscribing to these services, only to have his payments declined. The TolayCall representative concludes the scene by subjecting the customer to a “Shish Kebab” punishment in return for his inability to comply with the organization’s requirements/payments. The aesthetics used in this video range from the unsettlingly happy employee at TolayCall who is pitching the services, to the man coerced into subscribing to these services. We see the man’s decision to subscribe is not only because of the “Free Cash” pitch, but also the various subtle advertisements that showed him the endless opportunities that come with this service, such as, being able “to get a new woman”. Here, the aesthetics emerge in the form of the employee’s expressions, the man’s actions, the background music, the fear in the customer’s eyes, and the punishing look on the employee’s visage. The use of aesthetics in this manner all suggest that rewards or privileges, such as “Free Cash”, come with consequences or punishments. The aesthetics portray this space as a locus of dualities of capitalism/privilege and poverty/disenfranchisement, the corporate and the individual, and the rewards and the punishment collide. The aesthetics in this video allowed Sheno Ya3ni to experiment with space as representative of larger issues, but also with disciplining and policing attributes. Out on the street, the man has a choice, but is simultaneously pushed to fixate on the advertisements. Within the corporation, and by signing a contract, the man no longer has a choice or the agency to make a choice – either in the service or the agency to determine what happens to his body. The corporate space is expressed as not only a controlling one, but also a policing and punishing


one. The importance and centralized role of corporate spaces is not an anomaly in the Gulf states, as Adam Hanieh (2011: 16) argues: “[the] global economy is part of the actual essence of the Gulf itself – the development of the global ‘appears’ through the development of the Gulf” and in this case, the development of the global manifests through corporate spaces. This global importance ascribed to corporate spaces further empowers the space to redefine the social. In this case, the corporate space formulates ridiculous rules such as “subscribing to breathing”, and punishes the person over rules and regulations that he was not aware of, nor made aware of, in the first place. The global nature of corporate spaces and state-sanctioned authority grants these entities the power to control subjects, and determine their livelihoods. The aesthetics in this video present new questions and topics to critique, specifically those pertaining to the imposition of corporate cultures on the everyday lives of citizens. Additionally, the aesthetic portrayal of dualities presents a ripe opportunity for the questioning of these dualities. In regard to the sociological study on growing up in Tolaytila, we are led to believe that this video will explain the making of Tolaytila’s social fabric. Similarly, the documentary on the lives of the people also leads the audience to believe that this video will be informative, engaging and catered to a wider audience. However, the topic that merited a “documentary in the lives of the people” was pedophilia. Although we were led to believe that we would be observing a positive video, it covered how children are unsafe on the streets due to the presence of pedophiles that prey on children’s innocence. The group used the “innocence of the children”, the playing with marbles and the subtle interactions between kids, to shatter the reality of safety and security on Tolaytila’s streets. The kids appear to be innocent playful animals. In the documentary, and the narrator proceeds to explain the pedophile chasing the kids in his “suburban” across the streets of Tolaytila, speaking of the actor as if he is a wild predator hunting his prey. The discourse in this video does not match the aesthetics utilized to frame the space and the characters. By using the genre of documentary, the group attempts to ascribe credibility and truth to the phenomenon that the viewer is watching, and simultaneously plays on the absurdity and seriousness of the issue by positioning the pedophile as a wild predator, and the children as the innocent playful animals that are being preyed on. The reassuring voice of the narrator, aims to target the naiveté of both the person watching the video, and also the kids within these videos. However, it is through the subtle expressions of fear, preying,


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and the gazes that we are led to question this naiveté. The space in this video is portrayed as unsafe, yet perpetuates the naiveté that the kids embodied. In these videos, space enables confrontation, dissent and expression. It allowed Sheno Ya3ni to raise taboo issues pertaining to children’s safety, the saving of a nation by Orientalists, and the confining prisons of corporate institutions. Spatiality, here, is a means of defining the physical and topographical limits to which specific key functions and expectations of a society or a polity can be exercised. (cp. Davidson/Iveson 2018; Dikeç 2005) In the video with TolayCall, the corporate space limits the expression of individuality. On the streets, the space determines the extent to which innocence can be sustained. In this case, Sheno Ya3ni attempted to reformulate and redefine what spaces mean. Streets are unsafe because they lead to the loss of innocence. The corporate world is unsafe because it leads to the loss of choice and agency. Sheno Ya3ni here engaged with sociopolitics by showing the “dark sides” of these spaces, and also challenged, if not exposed what spaces are formulated to be by the state itself – as seemingly safe and welcoming. Additionally, their use of aesthetics functioned as a means of challenging these controlling spaces. In this case, the spaces function as policing institutions. The house of the pedophile polices the child, and forces the loss of the child’s innocence. (cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012i) The corporate space polices the customers, maneuvering them into purchasing everything that should be freely accessible, like agency, choice, and the ability to breathe air. Sheno Ya3ni, through these videos engage in political action, which is “always a matter of knowing who is qualified to say what a particular place is and what is done in it” (Rancière 2003: 201).




Sheno Ya3ni’s creation of a dystopian space determines what identities and subjectivities are visible and what should remain hidden. In the case of the evil corporate and the pedophile, Sheno Ya3ni’s use of aesthetics, and making these subjectivities visible, inherently encourage their audience to believe that it is safe to challenge these subjectivities, and also that it is important to make them visible. To understand the impact of space on representation, I define the public space as any space that requires the character to abide by their social gendered identity – a man performing


masculinity, while a woman performs her femininity within social limits. These spaces include the majlis,9 streets, diwaniyyas,10 and institutional spaces. I consider the majlis as a public space despite the fact that it exists within the household of individuals because within the majlis, and throughout the videos, characters are expected to perform their socially acceptable gendered identities. If these identities are not performed in line with social expectations, the character ends up losing status, credibility, and is consequently socially excluded. In regard to private spaces, I consider the characters’ houses and rooms. I regard these specific spaces as private because they are spaces that permit the characters to express hidden behaviors, or behaviors and characteristics that are intimate, and are only expected to be performed within the household. These include sexual relations, sexuality, and vulnerability. Space for Rancière becomes a means of challenging police order and the institutions that perpetuate the social expectations. By engaging sociopolitics through the framing of space, artists allow for the collusion “of two worlds into one” (Rancière 2015: 37). One world directed by police order demarcates the space and dictates what meanings, truths, and realities can be experienced. This is mainly the hidden narratives that are forced to remain hidden – like corporates are evil and pedophiles exist. The other world challenges these experiences through the distribution of the sensible – where we see politics as aesthetics emerging. This is primarily where Sheno Ya3ni’s work comes in, where we see them merging the hidden narratives of the first


The majlis, according to Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, “[…] is the traditional community salon that shaikhs and tribal chiefs regularly hold to meet with other members of society, both prominent individuals and ordinary citizens. These gatherings are considered an opportunity to air grievances, discuss public demands, highlight issues of importance to the community and reflect popular sentiment regarding various matters.” He adds, “Majlises absorb the tension in society; they are where the fabric of Gulf communities are formed. Majlises also allow what begin as minor issues to be exposed and dealt with before they escalate into major challenges. It would be a huge mistake for us to ignore this important institution that we have inherited from our ancestors.” Although he doesn’t explicitly mention this in his article, the majlis is a very gendered space. It is meant to be occupied and attended by males. (Al-Qassemi 2011).

10 In Kuwait, diwaniyya (pl., diwaniyyas) is synonymous to the majlis.


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world with aesthetics and bold narratives that attempt to bring these experiences to the surface and also critique them. Spaces are important. The reformulation of sociopolitics through the construction of space and the use of aesthetics, would not necessarily erase the spaces that are controlled by the police order; rather it redefines the meanings of these spaces and renegotiates the presence of “the people, the workers, and the citizens” (ibid) within them. Sheno Ya3ni extend the use of aesthetics to explore gendered identities that are defined and controlled by the duality of the public and private space. Their videos frame specific gendered representations to the spatial context in which the video is set. For example, within public spaces the comedians perform skits that deal with how specific identities and representations are performed, become visible, and even received in public, while on the other hand, skits set within private spaces prompt specific representations expected to be hidden from the public eye. This section explores the variations in public and private visibilities to showcase how Sheno Ya3ni use aesthetics and space to critique specific gendered subjectivities. Additionally, the spaces, in this case, police bodies to perform these specific gendered subjectivities.




Frances Hasso (2018) traces masculinity across the MENA and defines it as a product of a socially produced dichotomy – masculinity and femininity, which constitute “the body as capital over which one has degrees of agency/non-agency, extending Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that cultural capital and distinction are ultimately embodied [... and that] bodies [are] central to masculine affects and struggles on quotidian, aesthetic, sovereign, disciplinary, and governmental scales” (ibid; cp. Bourdieu 1986). Additionally Hasso (ibid) explores the notion of masculine identities as “lived and experienced heterogeneously,” in which “Arab and Muslim masculinities are often ahistorically naturalized on the basis of biological, psychological or racial/cultural differences. They are essentialized as if they were permanently rooted, homogeneous, and static in shaping masculine affects and embodiments”. Thus, the notion of hypermasculinity further embodies the


exercise of patriarchy by “ordinary men” often framed as “a religiously sanctioned state duty” (ibid; al-Rasheed 2013). The notion of hypermasculinity emerges in the majlis, and is prevalent mainly in two videos (although the characters reference the majlis and diwaniyya frequently throughout the remainder of the videos). These videos are entitled: Tatalluʿat al-waʿi al-jamʿi (‘The Aspirations of Collective Awareness’; cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012g) and Aʿraf makbuta (‘Confined/ Hidden Norms’; cp. ibid 2012h). In The Aspirations of Collective Awareness, the skit opens with three characters in a majlis appearing to be “chilling”. The characters are watching a TV program showing a gastric bypass surgery. The emergence of a show on obesity in the background is a commentary that Sheno Ya3ni subtly included in the video to criticize obesity rates in the GCC, growing decadence with the expansion of luxury and the food industry, followed by a sense of hedonism expressed through indulgence in food. The silence in the majlis is overwhelming, with the exception of the character (who is later named as Tignash) who appears to be fiddling with his misbah11 and is speaking softly to a girl on the phone. He whispers to her asking: “What are you wearing?” and she responds hesitantly and in a soft voice saying: “Pajamas”. While the man is flirting with the girl, another character is eavesdropping. As this space is a majlis, the character eavesdropping is reacting with confusion at the man flirting, as the act of flirting by a man seems to denote that he is not performing his masculinity; instead, he is speaking in a soft voice, and is acting on his sexuality – an identity that is expected to be performed only in private. This scene also extends to comment on flirtation and sexuality as intimate actions that should not be performed publicly. Noticing that his “masculinity” is threatened,12 he ends the phone call, and adjusts his tone to sound more masculine. The character’s hesitation to continue the call signifies the limits to which sexuality and love can be expressed socially, and specifically within an all-male setting. The character flirting has to compensate for acting on his sexuality by subsequently hypermasculinizing his behavior, and further performing it.

11 Misbah refers to a Muslim rosary. 12 Subjected to growing interest by the other characters and the subtle gasps and widened eyes fixated at him.


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The scene continues with a “godfather”-like character entering the majlis. He raises his hand in an authoritative manner and roars, followed by the visual representation of sound waves hitting the characters sitting within the majlis. The sound waves are meant to reposition the characters and “show them their place”, as the godfather-like character is meant to represent the most masculine figure within that space, and by extension the sole voice of authority. This godfather-like character is big, wears black, and has a rough and ‘masculine’ voice. He does not listen but expects to be heard and followed. He controls the space. Figure 1: Man in the top-left flirting with girlfriend. Man in top-right gazing, eavesdropping in confusion. Bottom images are of the godfather-like character expressing his authority.

Source: Sheno Ya3ni 2012g

This representation continues as we see the godfather-like character using hand gestures signaling to another character to serve tea to those in the majlis. The silent gestures and visual cues all pinpoint the godfather-like character as an authority figure. The scene proceeds with Tignash13 watching the show, and referring back to the godfather-like character saying, “Ya al-Tayeb (Gentleman) […] You look like you could use one”, a statement that is intended to make fun of the godfather-like character’s obesity in reference to

13 Tignash is a fictional name, made up by the group, with no significant roots to Arabic (khaleeji) names.


the gastric bypass procedure shown on TV – serving as a commentary on obesity. The scene transforms into an insult battle between both and concludes with the godfather-like figure physically destroying Tignash with insults, as we see Tignash’s body turning blue, suggesting that he was suffocated by the amount of insults he received. (cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012g) This particular video constructs masculinity through having a manly, bassy, deep, harsh, and authoritative voice, being able to insult, being able to retaliate to an insult, and also defining one’s status. In the case of the godfather-like character, he represents a hypermasculine image of authority, one that should not be challenged, one that controls and regulates, and should ultimately be respected. His character cannot be questioned, and when he is questioned, it results in the other character’s physical and mental subjugation. The scene ends with the men in the room robotically applauding the godfather-like figure, further reifying his image as the masculine voice and representation of authority. (cp. ibid) The meeting in the majlis functions as a space that controls the identities that the characters are expected to perform. The man speaking to his girlfriend, flirting with her, and expressing sentiments in his soft tone is expected to disrupt the cohesion of that space, and specifically the performance of masculinity. The intervention, and the policing of the godfather-like figure, and subsequently the other men in the space, further positions the vulnerability of the flirting man at the center of our attention. The vulnerability leads us to see where power is controlled and by whom. The godfather-like figure polices through exercising his authority which is scenically depicted as powerful visible waves. This aims to not only mask the vulnerability of the man while questioning his masculinity in the majlis, but also to reestablish order within the space – order is expected to be fullfunctioning, while the space requires masculinity to be consistently exercised and maintained. What Sheno Ya3ni do in this video through the chosen aesthetics and the play on dualities – making visible the sensible, and exaggerating its wrongful position within that space – is a means for them to engage and challenge the policing masculinity and reconfigure “who can speak, make decisions, perform certain functions and define what is possible” (Davidson/Iveson, 2018: 29). In Aʿraf makbuta (‘Confined/Hidden Norms’), the scene opens with men gathered in a majlis in what seems to be a wedding. The groom is being greeted and congratulated along with his father and the father of the bride.


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The scene abruptly shifts to three groups of men, each staring intently, with desire at the groom. One man is seen scratching his chin. The scene positions all men as threats to one another. Within the majlis, a photographer appears and asks the groom to come to the center to take a picture. The father of the groom pats him on the shoulder telling him it is okay, suggesting that this is his rite of passage. The cameraman gathers the other groups of men to take the picture with the groom. Hesitantly, the groom comes to the center to take the picture and puts a hand on his buttocks as a shield. The scene proceeds to show the groom feeling threatened, and a man puts a finger on his lips to “shush” him. The scene continues with rapid and consistent smacking and groping of the groom’s buttocks, each man slapping the groom’s buttocks with a smirk, while we see glimpses of his discomfort. One of the attendee’s eyes roll to the back suggesting that he is masturbating or getting pleasure from the groping and perhaps even reaching a point of ejaculation. (cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012h) There isn’t much evidence available to quantify the frequency of these experiences. However, the scene is not a foreign occurrence in weddings in khaleeji settings. This undiscussed and unreported phenomenon is often called “finger fucking” or “fingering” which refers to grooms being harassed, molested, or touched inappropriately on their wedding day by other men attending the wedding. It is a phenomenon that people know of but do not speak or write about. The scene suggests that the groom can only become a man and a husband if he undergoes and experiences these “hidden norms” which take the forms of harassment, and “fingering”. (cp. ibid) Figure 2: Men groping the groom (on the left), while other men gaze at him with desire (on the right).

Source: Sheno Ya3ni 2012h


The scene shifts to the father of the groom being comforted by the father of the bride who says: “Calm down, Abu Zain, it’s a shida14 and it will pass.” The father of the groom looks at the father of the bride and states: “You’re happy as well? Aren’t you the father of the bride? Isn’t your daughter today going to be…” further leading the father of the bride to cover his mouth in fear of what would be said next. This final dialogue suggests that the bride will inevitably be “fucked” on her wedding night. The abrupt gesture by the father of the bride, implied that by his daughter being “fucked”, she is also performing her “rite of passage”. The silence, the gasping, and the implications here are clearly pointing to a woman’s loss of virginity; however, the silencing, the speaking on behalf of the women, and the social shame ascribed to the loss of a woman’s virginity, further suggest that the loss of virginity also functions as a hidden norm – it is something that should not be spoken of nor publicly commented on. The “hidden norms” in this scene are directly related to the sexualization of a man and guide his transition into manhood by emasculating him. The groom is expected to be vulnerable to the strange touches of the other men, and his family is also expected to accept it as the groom’s “rite of passage”. What was surprising within this video was that the final scene equated the harassment of the groom with the bride’s wedding night. This further suggests that the groom enters into manhood by being touched, while the bride enters into womanhood and is seen as a wife and potentially a mother by losing her virginity, or in this case by engaging in sexual relations. This scene can also be read as a comment on women, their bodies, and their virginity as vessels of the man’s, the family’s, the community’s, and the nation’s honor. Deniz Kandiyoti (1998: 6) argues that Middle Eastern states, leaders, and reformers “imagine their communities as modern” through women. Suad Joseph (1999: 5) asserts that, “[t]he bodies and behaviors of women have become critical frames for weaving together unified national tapestries for people who are highly diverse – explosively divided by ‘national,’ religious, ethnic, tribal, linguistic, regional, and class differences”. Although women were spoken of in this video and are notably absent or invisible in these scenes, they are simultaneously made visible within these spaces, as their virginity is in need of being protected.

14 Shida is colloquial for ‘a moment’.


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This scene also diverts from emasculation as expressed through the experiencing and visibility of the harassment, to subjecting the emasculated man to “penetration”. Through “fingering” as a way of penetrating the groom, the group utilizes this space and these gestures as a means of confronting the Kuwaiti and to an extent the khaleeji marriage structure. This specific custom is a means of emasculating a man; however, it is also a homoerotic act, with men subjecting the groom to their penetrative fingers. The reluctance of the groom is not only a reluctance in terms of enduring this “hidden custom” but also a reluctance to share his body, his personal space, and his private space (the setting being a home) with the collective social. The action of penetration through “fingering”, is symbolic of the importance ascribed to penetration in marriage. The father of the groom and the father of the bride’s dialogue suggests that marriage is reduced and diluted to merely the basic act of penetration, and that through penetration both a bride and groom can legitimize their marriage. This video produces commentaries on both masculinities within social settings, but also critiques the way in which the veneer of the wedding is ceremonialized through the act of penetration – the symbolic penetration and emasculation of the groom, in order for the groom to penetrate and ignite the transition of his virginal bride into a woman, a wife, and potentially a mother. This video showcased policing in a different manner. Within this video we see the policing taking place by the men that feel like they have the authority to control another man’s “rite of passage”. Policing is also taking place by the space itself that paves the way for such “hidden customs” to be made visible and performed. We also see an invisible policing institution that controls both the groom, the bride, and their families – the marriage institution. In this case, the marriage institution makes specific social customs visible, while hiding others. It disciplines the groom by subjecting him to harassment, and qualifying the violation of his body as a “rite of passage”. In this case we see Rancière’s conception of socially policing norms manifesting through the symbolic meanings behind harassment, marriage, and bodies. These confining norms are policing in nature, and they emerge with masculinity, harassment, marriage, the union of families, and the mentioning of women. With regards to hypermasculinity, Sheno Ya3ni did not only represent hypermasculinity through characters but also perform it through different characteristics and actions. The construction of hypermasculinity in these


videos suggests that men are expected to vocalize and consistently express their masculinity as a means of social inclusion. Expressing masculinity manifests in the form of specific actions, such as speaking in a rough voice, yelling, insulting, harassing, being predatorial, being sexual, and accepting the visible masculinities of other men. By performing these masculinities through YouTube videos, and by extension the digital public space, Sheno Ya3ni are bringing hidden truths about masculine culture existing in khaleeji settings to the surface. Here, the social position of men in the offline space is targeted, questioned, and critiqued. These hidden forms and expression of masculinities can potentially be seen through the lens of expressing hidden sexual desires and perceptions. It emasculates the khaleeji man who is expected to consistently and constantly express his manhood. Masculinity here is fluid and vulnerable. These actions are not perceived as homoerotic but are seen as hidden customs and norms. By positioning these actions as customs and norms, Sheno Ya3ni are further ascribing a bigger social value to these actions. By visually representing them, they are making invisible customs and practices visible. They are also ridiculing the public and private divide by blurring it, and sometimes inverting the binary.




The themes ascribed to women, namely sexuality and vulnerability, emerge within videos that demonstrate so-called private settings. There is a recurrent representation of females or the referencing of females throughout Sheno Ya3ni’s videos. This research considers the following videos, entitled Birr al-walda (‘Loyalty to the Mother’; cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2013) and Min al-zaman al-jamil 1 (‘From the Glorious Times Pt. 1’; cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012k). In the video Loyalty to the Mother, the scene opens up with a character being called to a government agent’s desk. The man is asked some routine questions by the government agent, to which he responds. They exchange laughs and some stories. The government agent then asks: “What is the name of your mother?” The man appears to be shocked and does not seem to know how to respond. He asks: “What?” The government agent responds saying: “The name of your mother!” The man fumbles and in confusion asks why his mother’s name is necessary to finalize this transaction. The scene develops with the government agent repetitively asking the man to share his


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mother’s name. The man begins to look around the room in confusion, and we begin to see other men gazing intently at him, whispering to themselves. He sees the men in the room appearing to masturbate, while the man is being asked to share his mother’s name. The government agent appears to also be masturbating to the question of the man’s mother’s name. When the man finally shares his mother’s name, “Souad”, the men in the room appear to all collectively ejaculate to the act of saying his mother’s name. The name Souad is screamed by one character, and they all appear to have sexually culminated to it. The scene concludes with the man recognizing that he was hallucinating and rapidly deciding to leave the room. The man after him seems to share the same concern and hesitates to approach the government agent. (cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2013) Figure 3: Man threatened by surrounding men and hesitating to say his mother’s name.

Source: Sheno Ya3ni 2013

This scene takes place in a public setting. Yet, the act of saying a mother’s name is represented to be shameful in the public space, and appears to belong solely to the private sphere. Only a son can know his mother’s name. Sheno Ya3ni represent the mother’s name as shameful and sexual. The video description states: “A mother is a teacher, and a woman is corrupting… They have the stick even if they appear to you as good options.” This statement suggests that a person’s mother may be seen as a woman to others. A mother is only a mother to her son, and Sheno Ya3ni’s video suggests that mothers


continue to occupy the roles of women and are not exempt from sexualization. This video’s sexualization of a mother’s name is attempting to desexualize mothers’ names and by extension remove the shame ascribed to it, in addition to showing the absurdity of the mother’s name being subjected to sexualization. It questions the social pressures attached to limiting women and their representations in the private sphere, and also the reduction of their roles to just mothers and sisters. By emphasizing the importance of hiding a mother’s name, they are doing the opposite and attempting to normalize it and bring it to the surface. This video engages with aesthetics in a unique manner. Masturbation, and the ideas, images, and in this case names that men masturbate to, are all acts expected to be done in private, which should be silenced, and should remain invisible. Yet the imagination of the man, seeing every man around him simultaneously masturbate to the idea of his mother’s name further disrupts the senses. The monotonous masturbation, the making visible of a private action, a seemingly unspoken action, along with the shared thought of the sexualization of the mother fracture the space in which this video takes place. The video here positions the sexualization of a mother’s name as in need of veiling and protecting, and failing to do so, at least in the lead actor’s actions, further dilutes his masculinity. The question is not necessarily whether the private action is masculine or not, but rather the resulting sentiments and reaction that the lead actor experiences with the public fixation, growing interest, and desire of the men in his imaginaire for him to disclose his mother’s name. The video pushes the private to surface in the public, but only in the mind of the man. The sexualization of the mother’s name lifts the veil on taboos concerning hiding the mother’s name, on masturbation, and on sexualization. It simultaneously targets invisible powers that control the visibility of these actions – mainly cultural norms and customs. In this case, cultural norms control the space. Cultural expectations and constructions of what qualifies as a taboo further control and police this space, to retain the invisibility of these actions. But Sheno Ya3ni confronting not only the viewer but also the hegemonic culture in this manner functions as a form of dissensus, where this new space allowed for the group to bring hidden topics to the surface, and instrumentalize the didactic nature of satire to question these perceived invisibilities. The video From the Glorious Time Pt. 1 is a commentary on the masking of rape as sex, a phenomenon emerging in movies, in contemporary


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marriages, and a thought propagated by porn watched by many in the region. For example, al-Anoud al-Sharekh, a Kuwaiti activist, launched a campaign to abolish law 153 of the penal code that exonerates men who catch their female kin in an act of adultery from any criminal actions. (cp. “Abolish Article 153” 2019) Rape-marriage laws continue to exist across the MENA, while marital rape continues to be seen as merely ‘sex’ or a ‘man’s right over his wife’. (cp. Kheetan 2017) The scene in this video opens to a theatre setting and a movie critic narrating what will be seen throughout the video. The film discussed by the narrator is about a man and a woman lying on the floor of a living room. The woman is played by a man, and is shown with smudged lipstick. The man is wearing a suit with his tie untied. Both appear to be high on drugs. The narrator states that in this film the director played all of his theatrical strengths both visually and in sound. The scene proceeds to show the characters taking turns slapping one another. In a final round of slapping, the woman holds the man’s face and he seems to enjoy the caressing until she points at the man and laughs. The man angrily kicks her, gets on top of her, and begins to have sex with her (at least as suggested by the narrator). In fact, this scene attempts to reduce rape to sex. The woman tells the man to stop multiple times until she pushes him off of her. In that state she says: “Allah! Allah! Like that! Stop!” She asks the man to stop in a soft voice suggesting that she enjoyed the sex. She stands up and proceeds to look for the man’s wallet. At this point, the narrator states that in the 1970s and 1980s, movies in Arab Cinema were filled with these scenes, which he says is not necessarily an extreme nor an accurate representation of what actually happens. The woman takes money out of the wallet and stands up to leave. The man asks: “How much did you take?” She responds: “1 Pound!” He tells her to take more, as the woman walks away. (cp. Sheno Ya3ni 2012k)


Figure 4: Man gets on top of a woman and proceeds to rape her.

Source: Sheno Ya3ni 2012k

This video is meant to mirror the reality of women expressed through Arabic movies. Although the movie is narrated in the Egyptian dialect, Sheno Ya3ni’s representation of this movie targets the fact that Egyptian movies are not only popular across the GCC, but also have shaped specific attitudes towards communities and individuals. In this scene we see the man deciding to rape the woman as a way to express his authority and his power over her. The woman’s soft voice is meant to reduce the extremity and violent nature of rape and suggest that in these circumstances, she asked to be raped. In the scene, the woman is showing skin, wearing makeup, taking drugs, and is alone with a man. This short film attempts to mask rape as sex. Taking money from the man after sex also suggests that she occupies the position of a prostitute, where her body is not hers, but is a commodity that can be sold. The masking of rape as sex is prevalent in Egyptian movies and represents women as sexual beings rather than accurately depicting them as victims of rape. All elements in the scene suggest that the woman is depicted as “giving off” these cues or signs, and cannot possibly be a victim of rape. The group, by depicting rape in this manner, distances itself from these representations in popular culture, by making the action, the space, and the interaction visible to the viewer. In these representations, the group attempts to disrupt reality through specific depictions and representations. For example, in khaleeji TV shows, sex is implied and never explicitly shown or discussed. It belongs to the


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private space. Yet, in this video, the group showed the act of sex and rape and attempted to make a spectacle out of it. In the case of how women are represented, the depiction of a woman being assaulted or choosing to be sexual are also representations that are not discussed in reality. Thus, by reinforcing that femininity and sexuality are private identities, the group use the videos as a platform for making these identities public, by visually performing them, and satirically critiquing them. The video’s title references glorious times, but again this is satire: the group critique the normalization and glorification of sexual and gendered violence as depicted in movies in the past expressing social issues within limits. The title further depicts sarcasm associated with the glorification of these movies as it positions the sexualization and violence that women experience as the primary visual elements of the video. Additionally, this video was published in 2012, a year after Egyptians protested in Tahrir. Reports on violence against women suggested that women were sexualized and that protesting women deserved the rape they experienced. (cp. Amnesty International 2013) Thus, Sheno Ya3ni’s videos invoke themes that engage realities experienced by oppressed individuals who consistently experience social and regime authority.

S HENO Y A 3 NI ’ S R ESISTANCE : B ETWEEN THE S TATE AND C ULTURE Emerging within the period of the Arab Uprisings, the group challenged existing social limits and restrictions, disrupted realities and engaged with experiences that are often sidelined or kept hidden from the public eye. The group’s biographical information on YouTube and across all social media channels reads: “It is time for the traditional media drowning in perfection, standing at the farthest point from reality, to be destroyed… Prepare for the shock”.15 Sheno Ya3ni’s skits engage in social issues ranging from: gendered stereotypes, shame attached to mothers’ names, subjugated sexualities, rising capitalism and consumerism, faulty elections, radicalism, racism, and other topics which gauge existing social limits and constraints. Most of their videos begin with a disclaimer warning users about the offensive nature of the content, and end with a member of the group giving a one-sentence critique

15 Quoted from the group’s Twitter account:


they expect to receive from viewers. In an interview, the group discussed the use of satire as a means to bring people to “reflect on their reality and realize it,” further urging viewers to “not be afraid of facing our reality and our mistakes” (Fakih 2018). Sheno Ya3ni use YouTube videos as a platform to engage in discussions of “social faults” that are not discussed in public. (cp. ibid) Their work is akin to Ives Gonzalez-Quijano’s (2013) conception of creativity through the uprisings which he claims “represent the prelude to a new phase in the cultural history of the modern Arab world, a phase that might enable new players to extend artistic propositions to new audiences, bypassing the mediation of ‘learned elites’”. In this case, Sheno Ya3ni, speaking from the margins are targeting new audiences, ones that might be able to identify with the themes emerging in the group’s videos. Ali Khaled (2011) suggests that the Arab Spring introduced a “rich crop of culture” that put the “fear of God into oppressive regimes”. He references how there were attempts to ban Arabian Nights in Egypt for obscenity. (cp. ibid) In the case of Sheno Ya3ni, their content was banned between 2014 and 2016. Several of the group’s members were jailed as their content presented messages that were not in line with the state norms. But, to what extent did their dystopian satire effectively challenge, question, and transgress social boundaries? Through the use of space, the representations of identity, and the emerging gendered subjectivities, we see Sheno Ya3ni engaging in a form of dissensus that attempts to target the main hegemonic structures which dictate spaces and cultural expectations of identity and gender. Unlike the other groups that emerged within the Arab Uprisings, such as Baharna Drama or JoeTube, the group is less concerned with state authority and is more concerned with cultural authority. Their work, through this dystopian satire, attempts to subvert cultural hegemony, and the policing that it imposes on individuals within the state of Kuwait. By using specific khaleeji identifiers, such as dress, dialect, and common social expectations, their videos aim to subvert the overall cultural hegemony that delineates the social space into the public and private. This necessitates the visibility of masculinity and the invisibility of femininity, and the performance not only of heteronormativity through the veneer of the wedding, but also homoeroticism through “fingering”, while subverting sexuality. In this case, the cultural hegemony is not limited to Kuwait, but resonates with other khaleeji (GCC) states – Bahrain, Saudi, Oman, and the UAE.


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Throughout their videos, Sheno Ya3ni addressed khaleeji markers with the use of dualities – Sunni and Shi’ite, masculine and feminine, public and private, citizen and expat, corporate and public, capitalism and poverty, predatory and innocent. The spaces that make up the social fabric, whether homes, majlises, offices, institutions, streets, and even the imagination are all topics of discussion and critique by Sheno Ya3ni. Ultimately, their work seeks to target the paternalistic and authoritative role that the culture plays in shaping and policing spaces, determining identities and confining gender. By considering the social, this group is engaging in daily forms of resistance which Lisa Weeden (2015: 8) believes may grow into largescale “challenges to the political order”. Charles Tripp asserts that novels, plays, poems, films, the visual arts, as well as forms of expression that go beyond such conventions, cannot be dismissed as ‘merely’ cultural, of little relevance to the kinds of resistance seen in the streets of a country undergoing violent upheaval (Tripp 2013: 6).

By engaging with the social, and questioning its policing powers and authority, Sheno Ya3ni are utilizing satire to challenge the authoritarian public and cultural space. Sheno Ya3ni, from the margins, are forcing us to question these dualities, and attempting to reduce disparities by speaking from the margins to the mainstream. This is what Nancy Fraser (2007) labels as “political voice”. Through satire aiming to target cultural hegemony, Sheno Ya3ni are simultaneously participating in a public debate on what the social should constitute, and ultimately how the space should be reconfigured to make the invisible visible, the unheard heard, and the unspoken spoken. Their dystopian satire presented ways in which the social expresses utopian sentiments, but the merging of real phenomena and satire, positions the public space – the social – at the spotlight of critical scrutiny and mockery. Although Efharis Mascha (2008: 70) notes that satire “is a discourse counterposed to the dominant one but not one that can constitute a revolutionary project that is able to sustain itself without the existence of the dominant discourse”, Sheno Ya3ni’s work thrives with the existence of the dominant discourse. The dominant discourse perpetuated by the cultural hegemony that the group is targeting “offer[s] a challenge to the hierarchy of the very ‘sites’ of discourse, a hierarchy based in social relations of dominance” as Linda Hutcheon (1994: 30) states. Although they are speaking from the margins to


the mainstream, their work functions as a means of reengaging the collective social, and bringing down the social barriers of culture and expectations, as a means of establishing a safe space for the viewers to bond over these skits, and also question their existence within their communities. Power in their videos is symbolic in nature, and culture functions as power that weaves narratives, thus diluting the ability of an individual to reclaim their agency. However, the questioning of such powers repositions agency within the hands of the viewers in the mainstream. What this group effectively did was reclaim their rights to critique and express from the authorities, and challenge the limits they experience in their physical public space through YouTube. Tripp (2012) suggests that in 2011 and 2012 ordinary citizens confronted security forces on a massive scale, reclaiming the streets through political dissent. In the case of Sheno Ya3ni, their online performances all function as forms of dissent that make their art political, effectively disrupting reality by confronting it. By utilizing satire as a tool, and visibly portraying social taboos, the group has reclaimed their rights to speak up from the margins and speak to the mainstream through the digital space. Thus, the digital space not only functions as an extension of the public space – but a space that allows them to freely represent the faults of society and social restrictions without experiencing the physical limits or constraints imposed on them through active public protests. Sheno Ya3ni’s presence on YouTube, and their public representations of social limits, faults, and taboos has made their work threatening and dangerous. It is the public nature of these videos that qualifies them as effective forms of dissent, and YouTube as an effective site for dissent.

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Shifman, Limor (2012): “An Anatomy of a YouTube Meme.” In: New Media & Society 14/2, pp. 187-203. “Taʿrif wa maʿna makas fi qamus ar-raʾid”, accessed July 1, 2019 ( A7%D8%B3/?c=%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A6%D 8%AF). “Telfaz11: The Subversive Commentary of the Comedic in Saudi Arabia”, accessed June 20, 2019 ( Tripp, Charles (2012): “Art of the Uprisings in the Middle East.” In: Brown J. World Aff. 19, p. 185. Tripp, Charles (2013): The power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Virmani, Arundhati (ed.) (2015): Political Aesthetics: Culture, Critique and the Everyday, New York: Routledge. Wedeen, Lisa (2015): Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Weedon, Chris (1997): Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, Oxford: Blackwell.

A Critique of Religious Sectarianism through Satire A Case Study of Lebanese Rap F ERNANDA F ISCHIONE

I NTRODUCTION Lebanon has experienced many collectively significant events during the past six years (2012-2018: popular peaceful protests in the wake of the socalled Arab Spring, with people demanding the end of sectarianism and the disarmament of Hezbollah; a major political anomaly such as the lack of a President of the Republic from 2011 to 2016; a massive increase in population due to the arrival of more than a million Syrian refugees; the spillover of the Syrian war at the borders and in the outskirts of Tripoli; the interference of Hezbollah fighters in Syria, and so on). The last years have been not only a complex period in the history of modern Lebanon, but also an unprecedentedly creative one in the history of Levantine rap. If Lebanon remained to some extent excluded from the turmoil which has been shaking the region since 2011, it nonetheless witnessed a number of significant events, around which many forms of cultural resistance revolved. The controversial links between music and social change have been widely explored and problematized by scholarly literature, yet in the case of Arab rap they are still in need of an analysis unprejudiced by the influence of the press-based enthusiastic narrative which came to the fore during the so-called Arab Spring. In such challenging times, though, the Lebanese rap scene seems to have gained huge strength and popularity: a new awareness towards language and cultural issues emerged, a number of Syrian rappers


who fled to Beirut reinvigorated the local landscape, and a quite large shilla (‘group’ or ‘gang’) of rappers and their listeners gathered on the frontline during the protests called by the ‘You stink’ (talʿat rihatkum) Campaign in summer 2015.1 This is a quite unusual phenomenon that requires further analysis but nonetheless gives an idea of the grassroots credibility gained in the past years by these underground artists. While no direct link has been proven to exist between rap and revolution – despite the romanticized bond between popular music and resistance claimed by some scholars and the press – nonetheless, the rappers who are going to be analyzed here are attempting to construct a counter-narrative appealing to the local youth and oriented toward counterbalancing the narrative of official politics. In their case, rap functions as an efficient rhetorical tool capable of capturing the audience while pursuing educational purposes in order to break political, social and religious taboos, and to induce the listeners to rethink some key issues confronting the society they live in. This paper aims at offering an overview of the employment of religious texts and topics in today’s Lebanese rap lyrics, focusing in particular on the social dimension of the irony and sarcasm they display. The time span considered here extends from 2010 to 2015. First of all, it is opportune to note that conducting a textual analysis of texts which have not been conceived to be read, but to be part of a musical performance with its rhythmical base, its flow and its samples, is certainly a critical operation, since it necessarily leads to neglecting aspects related to music and performance2. Many scholars3 have wondered whether or not it is legitimate to extrapolate lyrics from their context and treat them as pieces of poetry, concluding in most cases that such an operation is possible, on condition that we agree that poetry has a wide range of definitions which may vary according to time, language and culture. Poetry, indeed, continues to


‘You stink’ was a grassroots protest campaign launched in Lebanon in July 2015 which resulted in a series of rallies against the misrule of the country. The protests were initially triggered by a waste-disposal crisis that originated from the shutdown of the Naameh landfill, which exposed the incapability of the Lebanese government to prevent garbage from piling up in the streets of Beirut.


For a focus on performative practices and effects in Arabic hip hop, tarab included, see El Zein 2016: 106-135.


See among them Caplan 2014; Bradley 2009.


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maintain a deep connection to its oral roots, which is precisely what makes rap’s affinity with poetry undeniable. This appears perfectly clear when dealing with Arabic rap in its intertextual relation to religion, which is unexpectedly rich and closely recalls some features of adab literature, such as the moralizing attitude, the use of irony to denounce corrupted mores and the manipulation of the religious quotation in order to achieve a different level of signification. (cp. Malti-Douglas 1997)




Intertextuality in rap is not restricted to the lyrics level; it involves different practices and spheres of discourse. (cp. Androutsopoulos 2009: 44) The interaction with other texts – whatever their nature and genre are – is intrinsically part of hip hop practices, regardless of their subgenre, and involves all kinds of texts: from old songs to cinema dialogues, from book quotations to other rap tracks. Some scholars explain this feature with the essentially competitive nature of rap, “[s]ince rapping derives from battle rhyming, emcees, regardless of the thematic content of their songs, are inherently engaging the competition” (Diallo 2015: 43). In addition, allusions to what could be regarded as a common “encyclopedia” (Eco 2002: 129) shared by the rapper and his audience serve the purpose of strengthening the family-like links established inside a hip hop community. Finally, the pleasure felt by the listener in discovering the hypotext that lies behind a quotation or an allusion certainly plays a role. The more rap culture progresses in a given sociocultural system, the more references to other texts become synthetic and easily graspable by the recipient: rap develops then an “internalized discourse” (Wang, quoted in Diallo 2015: 47), paralleling what premodern poetry used to be with its essential imitatio/æmulatio character. In a broader perspective, we can certainly speak of “transtextuality” (Genette 1997: 2) in rap, due to the variety of forms of textual interaction that can be detected: from parody to pastiche, many of the “transtextual” forms classified by Gérard Genette in his classic work Palimpsestes (1982) can be found in a number of rap tracks. Indeed, in rap more than in any other genre, poetic creation does not spring out of a vacuum, but is deeply rooted


in reality, be it a social, political and geographical reality, or a purely textual one, showing once more that everything is a text, not only the verbal ones. (cp. Derrida 1967: 227) For example, as we will highlight below, an intertextual hip hop practice par excellence is sampling, which is used either in order to add layers of meaning to the lyrics, or as a Bakhtinian polyphonic device, as a rhythmic enhancer, or even all these things together. It is precisely the intertextual dimension of rap as a music genre that ensures the constant presence of irony or sarcasm in almost each track. There are very few examples of tracks in which irony does not appear at all, no matter what subject is treated. As highlighted by Russell Potter, the practice of Signifyin(g), which Gates4 demonstrates compellingly lies at the heart of much vernacular African-American language and art, is a theorized practice which is fundamentally ironic, fundamentally postmodern. Signifyin(g), briefly put, is both the trope of pastiche and a pastiche of tropes. (Potter 1995: 18)

In the words of Potter (and Gates before him), the stress is put on pastiche and – more broadly – on intertextual practices as a fundamental feature of rap and other arts of Afro-American origin. Hip hop exploits irony at all levels – not only in the lyrics, but as “an ironic way of seeing”, a Socratic tension to “call into question the ‘givenness’ of a social-cultural situation” (Jenkins 2015: 129) which can be acknowledged in all the typical hip hop practices, namely breakdance, MCing, deejaying and graffiti. Rap is only one part of this much wider spectrum, and – in turn – lyrics are only a part of rap. Religion has largely been taken into account in rap as a genre. According to a pioneering work on rap poetry, “to tell one’s faith is not properly original in the USA. This country, which cannot be understood if its protestant roots are forgotten even for a single moment, is impenetrable by atheism.” (Lapassade/Rousselot 1990: 80) Nonetheless, what can be very approximatively defined as “religion-related features” in rap are today as


According to Henry Louis Gates, “signifyin(g)” is a fundamental practice of AfroAmerican verbal arts: “Signifyin(g) is a trope in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (the master tropes), and also hyperbole, litotes, and metalepsis […]. To this list we could easily add aporia, chiasmus, and catechresis, all of which are used in the ritual of Signifyin(g).” (Gates 1988: 52)


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varied as the places and languages to which rap spread out, and consequently follow the tastes, skills and individual cultures of the individual performers. Within the process of diffusion and subsequent localization, rap has progressively loosened the bonds with its Afro-American origins, and has proven to be a highly adaptive and flexible genre, probably because of its deep analogies with oral poetry and with a kind of storytelling revived by the television and the new media. (cf. McLuhan 1962; Ong 1982) This “glocalization” process (Robertson) – as it is often called – has progressively led to an appropriation of hip hop culture, which in the Arabic-speaking countries has resulted in an increasingly larger recourse to the local language.5 Together with the birth of an Islamic rap in Arabic6, with its educational and preaching purposes7, the increase in the use of Arabic in rap has led to the incorporation of cultural and literary features that had been excluded in written English or French. Even ‘secular’ rap refers to Islamic or other religious texts and symbols, regardless of the personal faith of the author, since “[in Arab society] the question of the literary heritage has essentially been one of religion” (Adonis, quoted in Mersal 2016: 3). However, when religious materials are inserted into adab, “from a world of authority, they enter a world of play” (Malti-Douglas 1997: 52).


The Arab world is characterized by the presence of a diglossia that constantly imposes the choice between roughly two language varieties on the speaker/writer: the ʿammiyya (vernacular, current language) and the fusha (‘eloquent’, literary language), two antipodes between which a number of intermediate shades can be found, according to many sociolinguistic factors (the provenience of the speakers, their level of education, the purpose and context of communication, etc.). In rap, the choice between one variety and another mainly depends on the sensitivity and cultural background of the rapper, on the kind of listeners he wants to address, and on the topic of the single tracks.


Islamic rap is not, of course, an Arabian-only phenomenon, but a transnational one. For a focus on the topic, see Alim 2005: 264-274.


Pam Nilan notices an overlap between Islamic anashid (sg. nashid; see footnote 17) and rap, claiming that “rap, with roots in Africa, is related to the tradition of (Koranic) recitation, like nasheed. For example, Mos Def, a successful US Muslim hip hop artist, maintains that ‘both rapping and reciting have didactic possibilities due to their similar rhythmic qualities’.” (Nilan 2017: 139)


Islam-related intertextuality has always existed in Arabic poetry up to the present day, as many studies on this subject show: The link between religion and Arabic literature is strongest and most evident in modern Arabic poetry. I am not concerned here with poetry of the al-adab al-islāmī type, but with secular Arabic poetry. This poetry is deeply imbued with religious language, religious symbols, and religious imagery. The reason is not only that Arabic is the language of the Qurʾān. Equally important, modern Arabic poetry often presents itself as secularized prophecy. The poet-prophet is and has always been a powerful poetic persona in Arabic literature. (Wild 2015: 546)

Such a juxtaposition with the persona of the prophet is inherent to the figure of the rapper as well, just like the use of allusions to the religious heritage with the purpose of deconstructing and resignifying issues and figures of the Arab-Islamic heritage. In this way, religion is not unquestioningly employed to portray identity, but deconstructed to obtain the jigsaw pieces needed to build a new, original one. One of the most outstanding examples of such a constructive reuse of the Arab-Islamic literary heritage is the presence of Sufi registers in rap, and in particular in the work of the Lebanese El Rass, one of the most appreciated rappers in the present Beiruti scene. The great popularity of this genre nowadays, both in poetry and in pop culture, has become commonplace, but what is new in artists like El Rass is the attempt to use Sufi poetry to convey a social message, and not only for the sake of pleasant vocal lines or music. In a track entitled ʿIshq/Islamology (‘Love8/Islamology’; 2012), mystic verses are mingled with completely secular ones, in an estranging twist originating in the continuous juxtaposition of ethereal poetic images and mundane miseries, like in the following lines:


This is only a rough translation of the word ʿishq, which originally belongs to the semantic sphere of passionate love and desire, but has been borrowed by Sufi poetry to define the kind of overwhelming love linking the mystic to God.


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Table 1: ʿIshq/Islamology (El Rass/Munma 2016) ʿIshq/Islamology The bells of our churches are dumb The adhan of our mosques is deaf They glorify a Lord hidden in the jaws of a vampire


‫أجراس كنائسنا بكماء‬ ‫آذان مساجدنا صماء‬ َّ ‫تمجد ربا مختبئا في فكي مصاص‬ ‫دماء‬ ‫يمعن قهرا بالفقراء‬

Who persecutes the poor And crushes the dreams of the wise9

‫ويسحق أحالم الحكماء‬

The track is a long manifesto against the exploitation of religion to justify inequality and social injustice, studded with powerful verses with an eschatological content: Neither happiness nor sadness, neither burden nor weight nor fire scare me, neither greed nor Eden […]. I do not care about my departure: what does the world mean? What does the shroud mean? […] I am kneaded with death, so how shall my pain scare me? If I had been terrorized by Gabriel and the power in his wings, You would not have presented me with my Pen. (ibid)

In these verses, it seems that it is the Prophet Muhammad himself speaking, referring to the night in which the Sura of the Pen was revealed to him in order to warn Meccans that he was not a madman as they had been thinking.10 However, once more in contrast with the Quranic text, here the rapper speaks, to cite Foucault […], in the language of the madman. This waywardness also entrenches Sufism in the discourse of dissent […]. The effort ‘loads all signs with a


The translations of lyrics from Arabic here and elsewhere are by the author.

10 “By the pen! By all they write! Your Lord’s grace does not make you [Prophet] a madman: you will have a never-ending reward – truly you have a strong character – and soon you will see, as will they, which of you is afflicted with madness.” (Quran 68: 1-6) Here and elsewhere, the English translation of Quran is by Muhammad A.S. Abdel Haleem (cp. Abdel Haleem 2005).


resemblance that ultimately erases them,’ as Michel Foucault speaks of the language of the madman in relation to poetry, for both occupy a ‘marginal position’ where ‘words unceasingly renew the power of strangeness and the strength of their contestation’. (al-Musawi 2006: 262)

At the end of the track, in fact, the rapper-prophet says: “From above the pulpit of my madness I have declared you all infidels”, adding that he will not refrain from his “intoxicated religion”, his terms being clearly borrowed from the Sufi vocabulary of mental excess and inebriation.




The relation between religion and rap can be observed in the intertextual recalls and in the content of the tracks which explicitly address the topic, as we have shown above. Besides that, and generally speaking, the formal features of this music genre lay the foundations for an even more fruitful comparison: rap rhymes, indeed, are delivered in a psalmodic vocal fashion which closely recalls that of the religious sermon. In this regard, it is interesting to mention an article written by the rapper El Rass himself, known as Mazin al-Sayyid. The article, titled Rap and the Quranic text between revolutionary legacy and protest (cp. al-Sayyid 2016) and published by the online music magazine Maʿazif, deals with the relation between rap and the Quranic lingual heritage. Although such a juxtaposition may seem bizarre, since rap and the Quran are apparently incomparable and culturally far from each other, al-Sayyid explains that the trend undertaken by Arab rap makes the term Arab more important than the term rap, due not to a given ideological definition of Arabness (ʿuruba), but to the uniqueness of the meeting between the umbrella of rap and an audience speaking and listening in Arabic. (ibid)

The perspective adopted by al-Sayyid is original if compared with the scholarly literature on the subject, which mostly deals with rap/religion crossing paths from a sociological point of view11: by positioning the core of

11 For a partial list of such studies, see Miller 2013: 182 (notes pp. 25-27).


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the matter in the language, al-Sayyid highlights the necessity for rap to conduct a language revolution capable of challenging the dominant system. Hence the rapper uses his most effective tool, i.e. his “bars”, to break “hegemony at all levels: from the world economy system, to the shaykh or the priest of the neighbourhood, […] from the monopolistic retailer to the dishonest artist who gives the people ‘aural drugs’ to make them addicted”12. In order to tear up the stifling net which encompasses the language, dulling the collective consciousness, Arab rap needs to “entirely reappropriate Islamic textual legacy, which has been itself turned into a monopoly by the dominant narrative” (ibid). According to al-Sayyid, the activity of the rapper is very similar to that of the prophet: just like any poet or singer, the rapper delivers his message in public attempting to influence his audience, but what makes him similar to a prophet is the use of rhythm, the declamatory delivering style and “the tendency to ignore the traditional literary taboo towards the ego” (ibid). The same idea is expressed by the French scholar Christian Béthune, who defines rap as a sort of “scansion oratoire” (Béthune, quoted in Vicherat 2001: 75), in which it is not hard to detect the presence of “a very ancestral, Odyssean aspect, resting on foundational texts, including religious ones” (Verhegen, quoted in ibid). This reappropriation of the Quranic language is explicitly stated in many tracks by El Rass, as for instance his track Diraʿ akhtabut (‘The tentacle of the octopus’; 2014), a fictional track in which one of the characters says to the mayor – who represents power and corruption – “I should respect you since you are old/ But I am thinking of mocking you in the language of the Noble Quran”. A second song is Kashghara (2014), which is allegedly titled after the Saudi Arabian poet and journalist Hamza Kashghari. Accused of insulting Islam after publishing three statements on his Twitter account on the occasion of the annual celebrations for the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (al-mawlid al-nabawi) in 2012, Kashghari wished to seek asylum in New Zealand, but was arrested at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and extradited back to Saudi Arabia, where he was jailed until October 2013. In his tweets, Kashghari addressed the Prophet Muhammad directly and wrote:

12 El Rass, video interview by Medrar TV. The video is currently unavailable online.


On the day of your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, which has so inspired me, but also that I do not like halos of divinity, so I will not pray for you. […] I will not prostrate myself in front of you, nor kiss your hand, I will greet you as an equal […].13

Building on the style and content of these tweets, El Rass in his track addresses the Prophet as if writing him a letter, which is understood from the reiterated statement “I am writing you” (aktub ilayk). The purpose of this message is clear: “I am writing you not to write a requiem to Islam”. The track opens with a vocal sample of a Tunisian hadra14, and ends its message with the following verses: Table 2: Kashghara (El Rass/Munma 2014b) Kashghara I belong to your lineage by language and struggle against the oppressor I belong to your lineage in my attempt to unify the worlds I belong to your lineage as I look at the hearts, and not at the skin color, neither at the illusions of immortality, nor at the thickening fetters I belong to your lineage, relatively I am to my people like you were to your people In the spirit, not in the letter In order to follow the inherited wisdom And not to worship the myth

‫كشغرة‬ ‫نَ َسبي إليك في لغة وخروج على‬ ‫الظالم‬ ‫نَ َسبي إليك في امتحان توحيد‬ ‫العوالم‬ ‫نَ َسبي إليك في النظر إلى القلوب‬ ‫ال ألوان الجلود وأوهام الخلود‬ ‫وإغالظ القلود‬ ‫ نسبي أكون في قومي‬،‫نَ َسبي إليك‬ ‫كما أنت في قومك‬ ،‫بالمعنى ال بالصورة‬ ‫أن أحتذي بالحكمة المأثورة‬ ‫ال أن أعبد األسطورة‬

This passage shows how the rapper places himself in the lineage of the Prophet, but in a critical way. Going beyond mere criticism and deconstructionism, the author employs a lofty literary language (the song is in an elegant

13 Translation taken from unsigned online article, see France 24: 2016. 14 A hadra is the name given by Sufi confraternities to the collective dhikr sessions.


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fusha, full of classic echoes) readapting it to a new content, forcing the listener to reconsider “his relation to the collective and the relation of his present with his cultural legacy” (al-Sayyid 2016). El Rass explains the mission of his art as pointing out the necessity of giving a new content to worn-out figures, in order to revive them and prevent their teachings from falling into the trap of literalism and extremism: I am not a believer in the common sense of the word, but still I can write a track like Kashghara, which contains a noble view of Muhammad. I know that this figure is always present in my mind, both in my conscious and my unconscious, so, instead of insisting on a dialectic operation like: ‘even though I oppose the Prophet, I actually keep on being his slave’ – ‘He is an idol even if you kick him/ There are many kinds of ropes, but the important is that he gets tied15.’ I do not want to do this, I want to revive the character my way. So, I keep the shell of Muhammad, but I fill it the way I want. The point is: how can we go on if we have not reached yet an understanding on what we have left behind? Everyone must have a chance to break down the idols. This is a mission, and according to me there is still much to do.16

The attempt to historicize prominent religious figures and observe them from a new angle is at the core of some other tracks by El Rass: besides the Prophet Muhammad, for example, the persona of Husayn ibn ʿAli undergoes a radical reconsideration in the track Fi hadrat al-Husayn (‘In the presence of al-Husayn’; 2013). The track opens with a line from a qasida (long poem) written by the Imam al-Shafiʿi (767-819) and sung here in the guise of a sampled nashid17: “When my heart hardened and my ways narrowed/ I made my hope in your mercy a ladder”. The first line of the lyrics consists of a famous Shi’i slogan referring to Husayn’s ignominious defeat and martyrdom at the hands of the Omayyad Caliph Yazid ibn Muʿawiya in the battle of Karbalaʾ (680 AD): “Every day is ʿAshuraʾ, every land Karbalaʾ”.

15 Quotation from El Rass’ own song Sanam wara sanam (‘Idol after idol’; 2014). 16 Interview with El Rass, March 2015. 17 A nashid is an a cappella song with religious content, originating in the prohibition of instrumental music contained in some ahadith, according to some Islamic scholars. Percussions are admitted though, and often accompany such chants.


In order to explicate the idea underlying the whole text, El Rass adds: “Every oppressed is Husayn, every oppressor Yazid.” Table 3: In the presence of al-Husayn (El Rass 2016) In presence of al-Husayn Oppressors are in the same number of slaves, like the ways to deity Who knows what could have happened if Husayn had won? Would he have made a massacre? All oppressed are righteous until they build a cemetery

‫في حضرة الحسين‬ ‫ كالطريق لإلله‬،‫مظالم بأعداد العباد‬ ‫ترى ما كان جرى لو الحسين‬ ‫انتصر؟‬ ‫هل كان صاغ المجزرة؟‬ ‫كل مظلوم محق حتى تشاد المقبرة‬

The track closes with a verse from a Shi’i latmiyya18 sung by the rapper himself: “Lord of the Two Universes19, sit and look at Husayn/ On the ground, weakened, crying and lowering his glance”. Such a rereading of Husayn seems twofold: during the so-called Arab spring, in fact, Husayn was seen in parallel with the present-day revolutionaries in a number of popular songs and poems. Among them, the poem Inni raʾayt al-yawm (‘I saw today’; 2012) by Mustafa Ibrahim, in which the persona of Husayn is imagined fighting in Muhammad Mahmud Street in 2011 Cairo20. Moreover, in Lebanese rap, Husayn is cited by the duo Touffar (made up of Naserdayn and Jaʿfar), in the track Min al-awwal (‘From the beginning’; 2012), referring to the 2011 Lebanese protests: “State TV robs the country like the State itself/ They never fail in finding an

18 A latmiyya is a chant belonging to the Shi’i tradition and revolving around the praise and lamentation to Husayn. 19 Sayyid al-Kawnayn is a classic epithet referring to the Prophet Muhammad following his ascension to heaven (miʿraj). 20 It is interesting to note that the work of Mustafa Ibrahim became popular thanks to his own readings on Soundcloud, before the publishing of his collection al-Manifistu (Cairo 2014). For more details and an insight about Husayn in the works of the Egyptian poet Amal Dunqul, see Schielke 2016: 122-148.


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adjective to describe us:/ spies and plotters, Zionists and rats/ A presenter says that it is the martyr who killed Husayn”. At the same time, though, in the current Lebanese political landscape, the persona of Husayn is often exploited by Hezbollah to justify its calls for jihad in support of Syrian Baathist forces and its involvement in the fights beside the Syrian government. El Rass intends to warn the Lebanese youth targeted by the propaganda of Hezbollah, echoing the famous Quranic verse “the tooth and the eye who rule never lose them”21. By referencing this verse, he creates an effective allegation against the interventionism of ideologues and preachers who encourage the youth to fight in the name of religion, while they never abandon their safe pulpits to do the same. It is interesting to note that this warning does not come by way of a slogan, but in a tricky, mind-blowing fashion: the lyrics of the song seem to be rejecting the simplistic slogan mentioned at the start while reconsidering the ideological basis on which it rests.

T HE M ASKS OF R ELIGION : C RITICIZING S ECTARIANISM AND S OCIAL C ONFORMISM Lebanese rappers display a peculiar interest in the issue of sectarianism, which has been tearing the country apart even long after the end of the disruptive Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Sectarianism in Lebanon has a long history, and seems to have been one of the cornerstones of the political life of the Levantine country since before the foundation of the modern nation state. As Ussama Makdisi puts it, Sectarianism was not the failure or corruption of nationalism or the nation-state in the Third World; rather, if one were to look at it with hindsight, it was Lebanese nationalism’s specific precursor, a formulation of new public political identities which

21 This line echoes Quran 5: 45: “In the Torah We prescribed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, an equal wound for a wound: if anyone forgoes this out of charity, it will serve as atonement for his bad deeds. Those who do not judge according to what God has revealed are doing grave wrong”.


eventually came to find their fullest expression, as well as their deepest contradiction, in the Lebanese state […]. (Makdisi 2000: 166)

The topic is treated by a number of tracks and through impressively varying styles. An example is Schizophrénia/Infisam al-shakhsiyya (‘Schizophrénia’; 2010) by Rayess Bek, a Lebanese rapper and audio-visual performer who has been active in the Lebanese hip hop scene since the 1990s, and who currently runs his artistic projects between Lebanon and France. This track was released before Beirut witnessed a new wave of conscious rap22 between 2011 and 2012, and the lyrics are partly in French and partly in Arabic, a characteristic typical of the style of Rayess Bek 23 and many other Lebanese performers, mainly belonging to the early stages of the movement. The author uses light irony to depict sectarianism, resorting to metaphors while recalling the story of his life: They say that in Lebanon religions get married, but I must not have been invited to the wedding/ I have always seen them fighting since I was fifteen/ Thus we were all born innocent/ Ask my mother: I was not born with a knife between my teeth. (Rayess Bek 2010)

Rayess Bek goes on to sum up the long years spent abroad with his family, the feeling of being constantly out of place, “not really from here and not really from elsewhere”, incapable of being integrated into “this complex and

22 In hip hop studies, the label of conscious rap commonly refers to a subgenre of rap music engaged with social criticism and political themes. Going beyond the strictly thematic shade of this expression, Adam Krims suggests the use of jazz/bohemian rap, which encompasses also the musical aspects of a track and not only the semantic ones. (cp. Krims 2000: 68) 23 Rayess Bek explains the reasons for his use of French in the documentary 961 Underground: The Rise of Lebanese Hip-Hop (cp. DJ Lethal Skillz 2016), where he states that censorship and the need to circumvent it, in order to reach the widest audience possible, made him resort to French. In the song we analyze here, though, we can find a less discursive explanation of this choice. However, this argument is naïve and definitely not convincing, since authorities in Lebanon in charge of censorship do understand French well enough.


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complexed society” (ibid). Therefore, the ghurba (‘exile’, ‘estrangement’) added another level of fragmentation to the personality of the narrator, who sees his life as if divided in two: “In the East playing the European who speaks a flawless French/ In the West son of the bled and proud of being an Arab/ By doing the chameleon between the two extremes/ I think I became schizophrenic” (ibid). After returning to Lebanon at the end of the civil war, this schizophrénia is once more enforced by a “formal interdiction of being secular”, since an official denominational identity has been dictated to all the Lebanese citizens since the stipulation of the National Pact in 1943. (cp. Traboulsi 2007: 119-121) The second part of the song, in Arabic, deepens the theme of the sectarian violence witnessed by the narrator in his country even after the end of the conflict: Table 4: Schizophrénia/Infisam al-shakhsiyya (Rayess Bek 2010) Schizophrénia They used to carry a 9 mm gun, I used to carry a book When I came back from Paris I was an innocent boy Everything had changed, I left my suppositions on the way We used to stay in West Beirut, I used to study in East Beirut I didn’t know what sectarianism means […] When I was abroad I didn’t know what Lebanon means I wasn’t aware of the lack of respect between religions Even at school there were political parties

‫انفصام الشخصية‬ ‫کانا يحملو تسعة ميلي وأنا أحمل كتاب‬ ‫رجعت من باريس كنت ولد بريء‬ ‫ تركت فروضي‬.‫تغير كل شيء‬ ‫عَالطريق‬ ‫قعدنا بالغربية و كنت أدرس بالشرقية‬ […] ‫ما كنت أعرف شو معنى الطائفية‬ ‫بالضياع ما كنت أعرف شو معناته لبنان‬ ‫ما أستوعب قلة اإلحترام بين األديان‬ ‫حتى في الصف كانت فيه أحزاب‬


At the end of the track, the narrator pessimistically admits: “I am twentynine and I cannot distinguish right from wrong/ I do not know any longer if I have understood something about this country.” Another track by Rayess Bek in which sectarianism is the main subject is Intikhabet 09 (‘Elections 09’; 2009), a very ironic, spoken word piece. However, in this case the rapper suggests a smart solution to the problem: I do think that civil marriage is the only solution for this country, because if we get married to each other, maybe we will end up understanding each other, and maybe… maybe we will even get to love each other! This way my son – or my daughter, or whatever it will be – will say ‘I am Lebanese’, and not ‘I am Shi’i, I am Sunni, I am Catholic, I am Maronite’. […] unfortunately religion today, in Lebanon and abroad, is propaganda. Factions (tawaʾif) have enlarged and increased, they stand in the elections, and who has the more children wins the elections. […] For in fact, you have chosen your confession by yourself, as though they didn’t force it upon you, as though they didn’t make you swallow the religion in your baby bottle. Not at all! What are you saying?! (Rayess Bek 2009)

In a track titled Libnan 2 (‘Lebanon is two’; 2014), El Rass and Naserdayn al Touffar, a rapper from Baalbek, address the opportunism on which such sectarianism is essentially based, far from being a matter of religious belonging: Table 5: Lebanon is two (El Rass/al Touffar/Munma 2014) Lebanon is two My neighbor asks me where my prince is, in Dahiye [southern suburb] or in the beer? On what basis do you belong to the country? The town, the faction, the plate or the glass? Do your arms come from Bandar Sultan or from Bandar ʿAbbas?

٢ ‫لبنان‬ ‫جاري بالبناية عم يسألني وين‬ ‫أميري؟ بالضاحية أو بالبيرة؟‬ ‫انتماءك للبلد أصال عأي أساس؟‬ ‫المدينة وال الطائفة وال الطبقة‬ ‫وال الكاس؟‬ ‫سالحك من بندر سلطان أو‬ ‫بندر عباس؟‬

The rappers here target their criticism at people who look for their ‘boss’ in the Southern periphery of Beirut (al-dahya al-janubiyya) – notoriously, a


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stronghold of Hezbollah – giving political support to those who provide them with material benefits (namely, the plate and the glass in the song), and seeking privilege by aligning with Saudi Arabia – Bandar bin Sultan is the name of a Saudi prince – or Iran, defined as “Bandar ʿAbbas” by synecdoche. The title of the song is itself a witty pun playing with the form of the word Libnan, which apparently ends up with the same suffix as the dual nouns, -an. So, Lebanon is dual and contradictory in its very name, as we can see in this couplet taken from the song: Table 6: Lebanon is two (El Rass/al Touffar/Munma 2014)

٢ ‫لبنان‬

Lebanon is two Lebanon is two things: connections and secret service Add two more things: brothels and drugs

‫لبنان اثنين معلومات ومخابرات‬ ‫وزيد اثنين دعارة ومخدرات‬

In the same track there is a sharp metaphorical description of the Lebanese flag: Table 7: Lebanon is two (El Rass/al Touffar/Munma 2014) Lebanon is two I have something to say about the Lebanese flag

٢ ‫لبنان‬ ‫ركبت معي السردة عالعلم بلبنان‬

White, it is clear, means cocaine

‫ابيض مفهومة هاي بتعني كوكايين‬

Green is a mix of dollars and oil

‫اخضر خلط الدوالر بالبنزين‬

The red above is wine on the table of the elders The red underneath is the blood of believers

‫احمر الفوق يعني نبيد عموايد مشايخ‬ ‫واللي تحت دم مؤمنين‬

The same irreverent attitude springs out from the track Burkan Bayrut (‘Volcano of Beirut’; 2012) by El Rass, in which the rapper mocks the untouchable personality of Rafiq al-Hariri by referring to the most sensitive


detail about him, namely his assassination. The rapper’s manner is, of course, cynical and aims at shocking the listener, but nonetheless he pursues this effect in a formally flawless fashion: Table 8: Volcano of Beirut (El Rass/Munma 2012) Volcano of Beirut If his time hadn’t been over and his lease hadn’t expired Al-Hariri wouldn’t have been blown up and wouldn’t have become ‘al-Hariri’ airport

‫بركان بيروت‬ ‫لو ما كان خلص دوره وانتهى عقد‬ ‫اإليجار‬ ‫كان الحريري ما طار وما صار‬ ‫مطار الحريري‬

When El Rass raps “kan al-Hariri ma tar wa ma sar matar al-Hariri” (‘al-Hariri wouldn’t have been blown up and wouldn’t have become ‘al-Hariri’ airport’) he uses a complex figure of speech made up of alliteration, chiasmus, paronomasia (“ma tar” [‘wouldn’t have been blown up’] / “ma sar” [‘wouldn’t have become’] / “matar” [‘airport’], and the figura etymologica “ma tar/matar”), proving once again that what produces a funny effect in rap is not only the content of punchlines, but above all the use of the language and the figures of speech. The more complex they are, the more the listener is induced to rethink them, to disassemble them in order to reach the full understanding of their complexity and to gain the maximum intellectual pleasure. A few verses later, the rapper also desecrates another inviolable element of Lebanese socio-politics, namely the martyrs, questioning the common misconceptions about who is supposed to be considered as such: the victim of an unjust military repression or that of sectarianism, exploited to gain new followers to the factions?


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Table 9: Volcano of Beirut (El Rass/Munma 2012) Volcano of Beirut

‫بركان بيروت‬

Who is the martyr?

‫مين الشهيد؟‬

The one who died as martyr under [military] boots of a revolution of slaves? Or the one who died turning into an advertising campaign Aimed at increasing the enlistment shares of the factions?

‫اللي مات تحت صبابيط ثورة عبيد‬ ‫شهيد؟‬ ‫اللي مات فتحول على حملة إعالنات‬ ‫هدفها ترفع الطايفة معدالت التجنيد؟‬

As one can expect, hypocrisy and double standards are some of the favorite targets of rappers, who tend to use them in order to highlight their own authenticity in a contrastive way. For example, in the track Bayrut khanaʾitna (‘Beirut has suffocated us’; 2014), Naserdayn al Touffar laughs at a certain “ʿAli who is sick of God but still has a sword hanging from his neck24/ He majored and found a job as a drunkard, he’s waiting for a chance to leave”. Naserdayn sings about duplicity and sectarianism also in Baraʾa (‘Innocence’; 2014), a track fully focused on the contradictions of a society apparently imbued with religious piety, yet hypocritical and formalistic. The rapper, fulfilling his didactic function25, tries to subvert the dominant conformist model by proposing an alternative one, according to which the criteria to judge who deserves either heaven or hell are inverted:

24 Reference to the Shi’i habit of wearing a toy model of dhu al-fiqar, the legendary double-bladed sword of ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, after whom the character mocked in the song is named. 25 For a highlight of the didactic function of rap, see Krims 2000: 69; and Gates 1988: 75-88. For a specific hint about the educational function of rap in an Islamic context, see Halila 2008: 35-42.


Table 10: Innocence (Naserdayn al Touffar 2014)


Innocence You are wrong if you think that hell comes after death I’ve known hell since the day I took my first breath The first thing I said was ‘I want’, the second one ‘As you wish’ […] Heaven, bro, doesn’t come from up-and-down fitness exercises26 Heaven is a smile on the face of a poor holding a can of Efes27 in his hand Hell to him who, when his daughter was hungry, bowed down and prayed Heaven to him who stole food from the governor and fed it to her Whenever beggars come to your car, raise the volume, raise your window glass And then go write on Facebook ‘God help the poor’

‫إنت مغلط إذا مفكر أنه جهنم بعد‬ ‫الموت‬ ‫أني عرفت جهنم أول يوم خدت نفس‬ ‫ تاني كلمة‬،“‫أول كلمة قلتها ”بدي‬ […]“‫”اللي بدكن اياه‬ ‫الجنة يا ابن عمي ما بتجي من رياضة‬ ‫قوم وقعدة‬ ‫الجنة بسمة بوج فقير بإيده تنكة إيفيس‬ ‫جهنم للي لما جاعت بنته ركع وصلى‬ ‫الجنة للي سرق أكل حاكم وطعمها‬ ‫كل ما اجو الشحادين عالسيارة علي‬ ‫الصوت علي إزازك‬ “‫واكتب عالفيسبوك ”هللا للفقير‬

As it often happens in rap, the author of the track does not focus on one topic only, but encompasses several sub-themes which in some way are connected to the main one: after a few verses, indeed, the criticism of religious conformism turns into a mere pretext to denounce social injustice in its many faces. Therefore, the listener finds in the song an incredibly high number of references to the recent history of the area, in a realistic fashion, which is a distinctive feature of the style of Naserdayn. The text is studded with

26 Here the text ironically refers to the rakaʿat, units of prescribed movements in Islamic prayer, which include prostration and standing. 27 Efes is a Turkish beer brand.


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geographic names28, each of which evokes a particular context of iniquity: Yarmuk29, Darʿa30, Jabal Muhsin31, Qana32, ʿArsal33 and many others. The song continues with an explicit condemnation of the Saudi Wahhabi fitna (‘turmoil’), and the rapper invites Muslims to change the qibla (direction of Islamic prayer) from Mecca to somewhere else:

28 For a comprehensive analysis of the issue of space and place in rap, see Forman 2002; and Fischione 2016. 29 Reference to the siege of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, in the outskirts of Damascus: in July 2013 the camp was besieged by the Syrian loyalist army, and in April 2015 it was occupied by IS forces, still in power while the present essay was being written (October 2016). Thousands of people have fled the camp, and residents have been exposed to starvation, prevented from accessing “medical care and other basic services”, and subjected to “repeated air strikes, artillery shelling and other attacks”. (Amnesty International 2016) 30 Darʿa is the Syrian town in which the most massive protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad were held in March 2011, and the first town to witness a harsh repression of the peaceful demonstrations of civilians. (cp. Trombetta 2014: 368) 31 Jabal Muhsin is a district of Tripoli in Northern Lebanon, the main battleground of the Syrian war spillover in Lebanon. Since June 2011, armed clashes between fighters from the Sunni quarter of Bab al-Tabbana and the Alawite quarter of Jabal Muhsin have been taking place in the area, causing a high number of casualties. 32 Qana is a village in Southern Lebanon. Israelis perpetrated two massacres of civilians in the small center: the first one in 1996, during the Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah, and the second one in 2006, during the second LebanonIsrael war. 33 ʿArsal is a Lebanese town in the Bekaa Valley. Like Jabal Muhsin, it was involved in the Syrian war spillover in Lebanon: attacked more than once by various Syrian factions of fighters, in August 2014 it was invaded by IS. The battle between the Islamists and the Lebanese Armed Forces lasted five days, leaving several dead and wounded on the battleground, both military and civilians.


Table 11: Innocence (Naserdayn al Touffar 2016) Innocence God has neither parties nor Salafist wings God is innocent of all religion in which women have no rights When you pray to your Lord, don’t orient yourself towards the Kaʿba God is sick of Saudis, in front of them he wears a bulletproof vest

‫براءة‬ ‫هللا ما فيه عنده حزب وال تيار سلفي‬ ‫هللا بريء من كل دين حق المرأة َمنه‬ ‫فيه‬ ‫لما تصلي للرب ال تتوجه صوب‬ ‫الكعبة‬ ‫هللا عاف آل سعود بوجهن البس‬ ‫َجعبة‬

The same theme appears in another track, Silni (‘Pray for me’; 2015) by alAsli, which is named after an Islamic nashid, Silni fa-qad ʿazza l-nasir (‘pray for me, since my support has grown weak’), sampled at the beginning of the song. The track is devoted to a great extent to a harsh criticism of the Syrian regime, which is so incompetent that “it fails even in sticking it up the ass of nationalist school pupils wearing youth uniforms during military exercise classes” (ibid), though there is an attempt to establish a link between Syrian and Palestinian history, in order to convey the idea that both Syria and Palestine have become paradigmatic at a pan-Arab level. Table 12: Pray for me (al-Asli 2016) Pray for me A jihadi said ‘Allahu akbar’ and justified his actions with the pretext that he was protecting a religion revealed by God God can’t protect it by himself, that’s why he gave him the responsibility of defending religion Adam’s apple is Satan’s crap, not a test from the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful Recite the Sura of the Fig

‫صلني‬ ‫ فعله برر‬،‫وجهادي كبر‬ ‫بحماية دين هللا نزله‬ ‫ لهيك حمله‬،‫هللا مش قادر يحميه‬ ‫مسؤولية حماية الدين‬ ‫وتفاحة آدم هي رجس شيطان رجيم‬ ‫مو اختبار رحمن رحيم‬ ‫رتل سورة التين‬


Ask yourself how they occupied this ‘safe city’ Ignore that millions of people perform the Pilgrimage to Mecca And throw your stone towards the West Bank If you want to stone Satan, go stone him in Palestine

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‫تسائل كيف احتلو هالبلد األمين‬ ‫تجاهل حاج مالين بمكة‬ ‫إرجم حجارك صوب الضفة‬ ‫لترجم الشيطان روح رجمه بفلسطين‬

Here, the reference to the Palestinian cause is apparently stereotypical 34, at least as far as its content is concerned: the occupied Palestinian territories are seen as a sacred land betrayed by the alleged ‘Custodians’ of the holy sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina, and Israel is clearly depicted as the devil. Nevertheless, the stylistic guise in which these commonplaces are shaped is quite witty and tries to establish a link between Quranic text, Islamic Pilgrimage practices and current historic events, influencing the mindset of the listener with a flash-reference to the Quranic Sura of the Fig (cp. Quran 95). The “safe town” (al-balad al-amin) mentioned here refers to Mecca, but this short hint is actually employed to introduce the fil rouge which runs through the three most important sacred places not only to Islam, but also to Judaism and Christendom: Palestine – and in particular the Mount of Olives next to the Old City of Jerusalem, the Mount Sinai and Mecca. The Sura, indeed, reads: “By the fig, by the olive, by Mount Sinai, by this safe town. We created man in the finest state then reduce him to the lowest of the low, except those who believe and do good deeds – they will have an unfailing reward.” (ibid: 1-7) Al-Asli also alludes to the stoning of the Devil (rami al-jamrat), one of the rituals performed during the Hajj Pilgrimage: after moving from Mecca to the town of Mina, the pilgrims reenact the episode in which Abraham stoned the Devil who had tempted him.

34 For an insight into the clichéd presence of the Palestinian cause in Tunisian post-revolutionary rap, see Halila 2015: 229.


C ONCLUSIONS As highlighted above, religion-related topics are strongly present in Levantine rap, both in a lighthearted and serious fashion. It has been shown how the use of satiric, sarcastic and ironic tones is not strictly limited to the more playful subgenres of rap35 – which the present paper has excluded from analysis – but they actually appear in conscious rap tracks too. If we stick to the traditional definition of irony as antiphrasis (namely, saying the opposite of what one means)36 we will find that this figure of speech is copiously used in rap, and codified as one of its distinctive characteristics, although it takes different directions and has different explanations depending on the rap subgenres. Since examples of the so-called conscious rap alone have been provided above, only a partial conclusion can be drawn here, but it can be safely stated that irony is strictly linked to the critical attitude of the rappers in treating morally and socially significant issues, such as the religious ones exemplified in this paper. Moreover, far from being solely a matter of rhetoric and deconstruction, humorous features are signals of the moral and political beliefs of the rapper, and they consequently perform a sort of prescriptive function, which is furthermore embodied by the persona of the rapper-prophet. It is such a figure that occupies the public soundscape and tries to influence the listeners in order to raise awareness about sensitive issues concerning the civil society he and his public live in. As shown by the number of lyrics excerpts quoted above, the ‘heteroglossic’ or multi-lingual Lebanese rap scene displays a great variety of styles in terms of lyrics, which is firstly reflected by the choice of the language: from urban varieties of Lebanese colloquial to the local Baalbeki vernacular, from French to fusha, Lebanese rappers use a wide range of linguistic tools in order to produce effects on the listeners. Each rapper has a different hallmark which makes him distinguishable to his audience: for

35 Krims (2000: 75) includes them in the broad label of party rap, which contains those tracks that “focus semantically on celebration, pleasure, and humor”. 36 This classical definition of irony was proposed by the Roman rhetorician Quintilian (1st century AD) and has enjoyed a large popularity over the centuries, before being contested in favor of more communicative and cooperative views. For an overview on the theories of irony over the centuries, see Colebrook 2004; Hutcheon 1994: 59 ff.


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example, while El Rass attempts to introduce in his discourse some elements which do not usually pertain to Arabic rap (such as turath, Sufism and fusha), performers such as Naserdayn and al-Asli adopt a more canonical (yet linguistically and culturally readapted) ‘keep-it-real’ attitude. Nevertheless, all of them pursue the effectiveness of the message above everything, and each single rhetorical feature they employ – irony, puns, rhymes, alliterations and so on – is aimed to enhance performativity: the rapper-prophet – to put it with Austin – tries to “do [sic] things with words” (Austin 1962: cover)37, he does not simply use them to describe the world. One of the goals local rappers wish to attain is to bring awareness to the people and not to be comfortably restrained to the close circles of hip hop heads: it is precisely in this mission that lies the political significance of rap in today’s Lebanon. With its linguistic playfulness, its humorous stylistic devices and elements and its textual links to the most widespread and popular discourse ever, namely the religious one, rap gains a materiality and a grasp on reality that once again demonstrate how powerful the spoken word can be in order to establish a counter-narrative.

R EFERENCES Abdel Haleem, Muhammad A. S. (2005): The Qur’an: A New Translation, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Alim, H. Samy (2005): “A New Research Agenda: Exploring the Transglobal Hip Hop ‘Umma’.” In: Miriam Cooke/Bruce B. Lawrence (eds.), Muslim Networks: From Hajj to Hip Hop, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 264-274. Amnesty International (2016): “Amnesty International Report 2015/2016: The State of the World’s Human Rights”, October 8, https://www. Androutsopoulos, Jannis (2009): “Language and the Three Spheres of Hip Hop.” In: H. Samy Alim/Awad Ibrahim/Alastair Pennycook (eds.), Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language, New York: Routledge, pp. 43-62.

37 This expression is borrowed from the title of John Langshaw Austin’s pivotal book How to Do Things with Words (1962), posthumously published.


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Boulay, Sébastien is an anthropologist, Assistant professor at the Paris Descartes University (Faculté des sciences humaines et sociales de la Sorbonne) and research fellow at the Population & Development Center (UMR 196 CEPED). He has been conducting fieldwork surveys since 1999 in Mauritania, since 2011 in Western Sahara. His current research is about the role played by artists, artistic productions (especially satirical, humorous and elegiac) and new medias in the political struggles taking place today in Mauritania and Western Sahara. He co-founded in 2016 the International Academic Observatory on Western Sahara ( and is currently the co-editor of /L’Ouest saharien/, a multidisciplinary journal in humanities. Dahmi, Mohamed holds a PhD in political science (2007) from the Faculty of Legal, Economic and Social Sciences of Casablanca. He resides in Smara, Western Sahara. He regularly collaborates, as an independent anthropologist specialized on Western Sahara, with international researchers in human and social sciences. Damir-Geilsdorf, Sabine is a professor for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cologne. She obtained her PhD in Islamic Studies from the Unversity of Gießen with a thesis on the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) and received her postdoctoral qualification degree (Habilitation) from the University of Bonn with a study on Palestinian narratives of the Arab-Israeli war 1948. Her main research interests include transformations of religious concepts in Muslim societies, Islamism, (forced) migration, Salafism in Germany, and popular culture in Middle Eastern societies. She has carried out field research in various countries of the Middle East. Among her recent publication are a co-edited volume (Bonded Labour. Global and


Comparative Perspectives (18th-21st Century) Bielefeld: transcript 2016) as well as several articles on the kafala-system in the GCC countries, Syrian forced migration and Salafism in Germany. Fischione, Fernanda has a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Arabic Literature from Sapienza University of Rome. Her PhD research dealt with the work of the Jordanian novelist and critic Ghalib Halasa, with a major focus on space and place theories in contemporary literary criticism. She is currently investigating the nexus between nation building and the novel in Jordan. She carried out a three-year side research about post-2011 Arab rap and pop music, and she is also an Arabic-to-Italian literary translator. Franke, Liza is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working on individual religiosity in Alexandria within the ERC project “Private Pieties: Mundane Islam and New Forms of Muslim Religiosity: Impact on Contemporary Social and Political Dynamics” at the Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Goettingen. She received her PhD in Arabic Studies in 2011 from the University of Leipzig. She graduated from the University of Bayreuth and the School of Oriental and African Studies (London). She taught at the Universities of Leipzig, Cologne and Goettingen as assistant professor. She has also worked as Middle East Expert for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Bonn. She carried out extensive field research throughout the Middle East. Fuhrmann, Larissa-Diana has a BA and an MA in African and Islamic Studies from the University of Cologne and was a visiting student at Khartoum University during her undergraduate years. Between 2013 and 2017, she worked as the cultural coordinator at Goethe-Institut Sudan. In late 2017, Fuhrmann registered as a PhD candidate at Johannes GutenbergUniversity in Mainz in the field of artivism while continuing to independently work as a curator and cultural manager. She recently published an art book about Sudanese history with Sudanese political cartoonist Khalid Wad Albaih called “Sudan Retold” featuring drawings and texts by 31 artists showing the relationship between history, art and literature. Gabai, Anna studied at the Universities of Venice and Berlin Arabic, Hebrew and Adults Education. She is working on comics from the Arab


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world since 2006. She curated different exhibitions and events on the ninth art in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Her fields of work are literacy, visual studies and intercultural communication. Heerbaart, Fabian M.A. graduated from the University of Cologne in African Studies, Islamic Studies and Cultural Anthropology. He has worked as a research fellow for the University of Cologne, Institute of Oriental Studies and has conducted fieldwork in Egypt and India. He also worked as a scientific assistant for the GSSC Cologne (Global South Studies Centre) and as a freelancer for the WDR 5 radio. He organized a number of conferences around the uprisings in the Arab world (e.g. on “Creative Resistance and Political Humour” or “UnderstandingTrauma in Conflicts”), held several talks about the role of art and humor within the work of younger Egyptian artists and initiated and curated the exhibition“Spaces – Perception, Reflection, Intervention” (2015-2017). From 2018-2019 he was a lecturer at the State University of Malang (Indonesia) for the Robert Bosch foundation. Currently, he is finishing his PhD on narratives and discourses within the independent art scene in Cairo. Hubail, Fatema Fatema Hubail graduated from Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) in 2015 with a BSFS in International Politics. In Georgetown, she helped develop a financial literacy curriculum for migrant workers. With her research, Fatema wrote her honor’s thesis on whether NGOs are effective in changing labor practices in Qatar. Fatema then pursued an MA in Women, Society and Development (WSD) studies at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU). In HBKU, she supported the faculty with research and teaching. For her MA thesis, Fatema explored how the unified family law in Bahrain places women at the intersection of sect, kin, and gender expectations, further legally and socially disenfranchising them. Her thesis won the CHSS best thesis award in the program. Her ongoing research deals with legal codification, family laws, dystopian satire, gender violence, and dissent. She is currently a teaching assistant and research assistant at GU-Q. Lionis, Chrisoula is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester, where she is working on the project Laughing in an Emergency: Humour,


Cultural Resilience and Contemporary Art. Lionis has published widely in the fields of cultural politics and visual culture and is the author of Laughter in Occupied Palestine: Comedy and Identity in Art and Film (I.B. Tauris, 2016). Mannone, Nathanael holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from SOAS, University of London (2017). Mannone’s research analyzes music, cinema, and quotidian humour in North Africa with an emphasis on how artists navigate the structures of censorship and patronage. Specifically, his research examines state attempts to manipulate the fields of cultural production in order to mitigate perceived threats of artistic dissent, as well as how artists may challenge and/or support those efforts. Finally, Mannone’s research (re)situates the quotidian, informal forms of cultural expression as integral components within the referential matrices of a citizenry in revolt. Mannone received his MA in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo (2012) while enjoying the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship. He is currently a researching consultant, a mentor at Jusoor, and an Advisor to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Tunisia in the UK House of Commons. Milich, Stephan is a lecturer in Modern Arabic Literature and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies (University of Cologne). His research interests include contemporary Arabic literature, culture & ideology, representations and concepts of exile and trauma in Arabic culture, and psychology/psychotherapy in the Arab countries. His publications include a book on Mahmoud Darwish’s late poetry (Fremd meinem Namen und Fremd meiner Zeit: Identität und Exil in der Dichtung von Mahmud Darwisch, 2005) and on Palestinian and Iraqi exile poetry (“Poetik der Fremdheit”, Wiesbaden: Reichert 2009). He has co-edited two volumes: “Conflicting Narratives: War, trauma and memory in Modern Iraqi Culture”, Wiesbaden: Reichert: 2012, and “Representations and Visions of Homeland in Arabic Literature”, Hildesheim: Olms, 2016, as well as a special issue on “Trauma: Social Realities and Cultural Texts” ( sue/view/229). Besides his research on notions of trauma in contemporary Arabic literature with a special interest in trauma politics, he translates Arabic poetry into German.

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