Bīstoon | You'd Have to Be Russian
by HOUMAN HAROUNI
19 Sep 2012 22:44
My friend Ezra Fox and I are sitting on the roof deck of my apartment in Rome. Fox is a writer, visiting me from Boston. For the last couple of hours, we have been working silently on our laptops. A nice, warm, Saturday afternoon, punctuated with the loud voices of the neighbors and the occasional mosquito bite.
My mobile vibrates on the table, its tiny screen flashing on to show me that I have a text message from an Iranian friend who lives in Italy.
The message is in Farsi, spelled out in English letters. Just a sentence. I read it and give out a chuckle.
"What?" Fox looks up.
"It's a joke," I answer, pocketing the phone. I'm hoping he will let it go.
I nod in affirmative, concentrating on my laptop screen. Fox knows about the great, unpaid industry of text-messaged jokes in Iran. I have told him about it. I know he has a feeling for all communal endeavors that lack leadership, sponsorship, and a stated philosophy. He is an American individualist who has a borderline spiritual passion for community.
"Go on then," he says.
"It won't be funny in English, Fox."
"All the better." He leans back, crossing his arms. The rickety chair groans under him.
I want to tell him that the joke requires a lot of background information to make sense. A part of me wants to avoid translating a joke I have to explain. But another part of me is eager to share. That must be why I laughed out loud to begin with. Fox is being curious for his own reasons, but he is also acknowledging his interest in hearing more about something he already knows will be untranslatable. You come across that too rarely to let it go.
So, the joke:
New York is a terrible place: always traffic, always martial law, always Ramazan.
We go on looking at each other after I tell it. Fox pushes up his lower lip. Experience tells him that an explanation will follow. And it does.
The joke is hot off the ethereal press, composed of millions of unknown individuals, that produces and distributes thousands of such jokes every year to fit every political occasion in Iran. A month ago, this joke would have made no sense. A year from now, it will not mean much. But right now, it's the quickest commentary on a certain feeling in Tehran.
Ramazan, the month of fasting, ended almost four weeks ago. Ramazan in Tehran is not the festive stretch of days it is in most Arab countries. It is a somber occasion. No music, no weddings, no public cheer. It's harder and more harshly enforced if it coincides -- as it has for the last few years -- with summer heat.
This year, Ramazan segued into the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. The government shut down the capital for a week. There were roadblocks everywhere. For a week, Tehran was under unofficial martial law.
New York is a terrible place. Not Tehran, but New York. It's a reference to the state television programs about the difficulty of life everywhere other than Iran.
"OK," says Fox. "I get it."
If the joke fell on its face on the first telling, my explanation definitely murdered the poor thing.
"Yes," I say, "but you'd have to be Iranian to enjoy it."
And then, suddenly, I remember an exception. "Or you'd have to be Russian."
By "Russian," I meant ex-Soviet.
I lived the last two of my late teenage years among the ex-Soviet community of Los Angeles. The crowd I was shuffled in with were historians, theater people, and academics -- most in their mid-50s. What brought me into their good graces, other than my early proclivity for Russian literature and vodka, was my willingness to exchange their old Soviet jokes with my new Iranian ones. This required me to learn a lot about Soviet history. Once, my friends raised their cups in unison and drank a toast to the "irrigation of Uzbekistan"; then they all turned to look at me, grinning. When I asked for an explanation, our host Svetlana, a middle-aged, heavy-set woman, walked to her shelves, came back with a book, and slammed it down on the table in front of me. It was titled The Interrelationship between Irrigation, Drainage, and the Environment in the Aral Sea Basin. I took it home with me. On other occasions, I had to give my own share of lectures on Iranian politics.
What was the source of enjoyment in that exchange of jokes? To speak broadly, the Soviet emigrés and I enjoyed recognizing the similarities between our respective situations. The jokes we liked were invariably political. Sometimes we would even discover that our nations told the very same joke, with only the proper nouns changed.
For example, take the joke about the competition between the MI6, the CIA, and the KGB to find a certain white rabbit in a dense forest. The MI6 goes in. They place informants in every nook and cranny, conduct three months of exhaustive research, and decide the rabbit doesn't exist. The CIA then bribes every plant and animal in the forest, builds countless observation posts, and after months of useless activity, burns down half the forest with napalm. The KGB goes in, walks out in an hour with a badly beaten bear who is weeping, "Please! Don't beat me comrade! I'm the rabbit! I'm the rabbit!"
My money's on the Soviets for having made that one up. But it has also been told in Iran, with some differences, for the last 40 years.
Looking for exact similarities, however, can become boring after a while. What really interested us was discovering instances where the other nation had found a new, unexpected way of expressing a problem -- a new sensitive spot in the old, familiar body politic, where you could stick a pin.
Both these terms of enjoyment, I think, have something to do with what separates a political joke from other jokes -- and also with why political jokes are such a lesser part of American social life.
If I have a hard time translating Iranian jokes into English, it's not just a matter of background and vocabulary. It's also a matter of different ideas about what makes a joke funny.
The common American and, coincidentally, Iranian joke employs a moment of surprise for effect. Surprise is a delivery mechanism -- what it delivers is an absurdity. The absurdity is necessary to the joke, the surprise is not. (In Kurdish or British humor, for example, a joke may often be funny for how at home it makes you feel within an absurdity. It does not try to catch you off guard.)
The content of this absurdity changes from package to package. Sometimes it's a universal sort of folly, belonging more or less to everyone's experience:
A man walks into a bar; the barman says...
A thief comes to Mullah Nasruddin's home...
Sometimes the absurdity can be made of materials belonging to another world, one neighboring our own, a world that is risible to begin with:
A horse walks into a bar...
Jokes can also belong to this world, but direct their absurdity at an "other":
A blonde walks into a bar...
A Turkish guy gets a call from home...
All racist jokes belong to this last category. They remove the absurdity from the speaker and listener and place it elsewhere. (In some instances, the absurdity of these jokes is claimed by the larger population as its own, rather than as the by-product of a racial identity.)
The common misconception about political jokes is that they, too, are about an "other" -- that they turn politicians into a separate entity and point out their absurdity. The idea is partially correct, but only from an outsider's perspective. Political jokes reveal the absurdity of a people's own situation. They do take poke at the halo of power, but what they reveal is the insanity of living in a world ruled by such folly.
A person comes to a post office and complains, "These new stamps with Comrade Lenin's picture don't stick..." The clerk answers, "Comrade, you are probably spitting on the wrong side."
I tell Ezra Fox this joke and we both laugh. We laugh mostly because we find the idea of spitting on an untouchable symbol of power satisfying, and because we are touched by the clerk's calm in recognizing this private act of dissent. We are standing outside the situation.
But those who lived under the Soviet regime were within the world of the joke. The Soviet listener is the man who comes into the post office: he is frustrated to the point of insanity, because he can't even send a letter without promoting the regime. At the same time, the Soviet listener is also the post-office clerk. In the joke about the KGB looking for a rabbit in a forest, he is the bear. That is why every time the joke is adopted by a different nation, it changes to fit the new situation. During the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles, for example, it was picked up by the Black community -- only now the competition involved the CIA, the FBI, and the LAPD.
Even a political joke with no characters operates in the same way. Gandhi's reply to British reporters who asked him what were his thoughts regarding Western civilization ("I think it would be a good idea," he said) has a very specific sense for a people beaten over the head, for a century, with the idea of a "superior Western culture." Only this joke has a double audience. It is Fox who suggests it to me in the first place, and the joke addresses him as an insider, too -- as someone who knows the history of colonization and does not buy that Western civilization is all it's advertised to be. Gandhi, so goes the story, said those words just as he was disembarking a ship in England. He placed it between two worlds.
For people living in societies where political tensions are relatively low -- e.g., the United States -- it could seem that constant self-parody would eventually lead to depression. For those within oppressive situations, however, the accumulated impact of jokes is just the opposite. Every time a joke points out the absurdity of one's situation, it is also signaling that one is not alone, that someone else has seen the problem in a similar way. Every political joke, when delivered to its intended audience, is a statement of solidarity. The recipient first laughs, then smiles bitterly, then smiles.
It would seem I am suggesting that only nondemocratic nations have political humor, and that their humor is always the same and they can always relate to each other on this basis. Political humor is universal, because no form of government has managed to eliminate oppression, but it is not uniform. First of all, the intensity of its role is directly proportional to at least two factors: the level of political discontent among the populace, and the strength of a publicly held moral reservoir. Without a moral reservoir, satire has no point of reference -- it cannot make any meaningful contrasts.
But recognition, and not morality, is the ultimate origin of a joke. In looking at what is recognized in jokes, we can understand the similarities and differences between them.
What is absurd is out of place; it is driven from a place, rejected. A joke is delivered to the listener, but it also has a return address -- the space out of which it came. This space is not directly present in the joke, but the joke speaks of it, like a stranger speaking about his home.
A staunch conservative, a moderate, and a liberal walk into a bar. The bartender says: "Hello, Mr. Romney!"
The joke's material is Mitt Romney's political dilly-dallying. Its intended audience is U.S. citizens in 2012. But its return address is a (imaginary?) place in America where politicians have actual ideologies and where ideologies are about real things.
If Iranian and Soviet political humor are similar, it is because they both rise out of postrevolutionary societies. Their return addresses are in abutting neighborhoods. Revolutionary governments use the rhetoric of revolution, no matter where they lead people, to justify power. Lots of talk about ideals, side by side with lots of hard, bitter, and silent reality. When a joke makes fun of this rhetoric, or makes fun of government institutions, it often allows the mind to trace back a path to the real, betrayed promises that birthed the slogans.
"I know where you come from," the joke says both to the powerful and to the powerless. "If you get me, you are no fool."
A political joke is not so much an act of resistance, as has been suggested, as it is a declaration of one's informed innocence. It is a vindication.
It's one of our deeper human endeavors, this recognizing of the return address of a joke. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh used to deliver lectures on spirituality composed of little more than a series of off-color jokes. Later on, he would publish serious, subtle, and meticulous commentaries on those same lectures. "If you can laugh," he used to say, oversimplifying a rather complicated thing, "you are able to love." Therefore all jokes, he would add, bringing in the complexity, "are to me forms of prayer."
Across our table and laptops, our arms crossed, Ezra Fox and I look at each other quite seriously. Neither of us is Russian. In our different ways, we have each "gotten" the same joke. We have both done some of the hard work for it, in our different ways. We are now getting ready to laugh.
Credit: Both cartoons by Ahmad Arabani as featured in Gol Agha magazine. In top cartoon woman says to Gorbachev: "The things you've been saying, a few years ago my son said a hundredth of them, and they executed him; my husband said a thousandth of them, they sent him to Siberia; my son-in-law just thought about them, they sent him to prison for 15 years; now they want to arrest me because I was a member of the Communist Party!"
Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau