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from the October 2019 issue

Warning: Arabic Humor, Makes Frequent Stops

In the winter of 2003, I was on a first-ever visit to Beirut. I’d come from Cairo, where I was living, and was a bit stunned by the cold. So it happened that I found myself in a shop, trying to buy a heavy sweater. I don’t remember what I said to the proprietor, although I’m sure I must’ve spoken in a heavy Egyptian Arabic. In my memory, he raised a finger and pointed at me, laughing: “Adel Emam!”

Although I’m approximately the same height as the Egyptian comic actor, I’m fairly certain I look nothing like the man, who was in his sixties at the time. But hearing an Egyptian accent coming out of the mouth of a hapless American sweater-buyer must have signaled something to this Lebanese shopkeeper. Namely: a funny bit was about to happen.

This anecdote—me asking for a sweater, the shopkeeper shouting “Adel Emam!”—probably isn’t as funny to you as it was to the friends who immediately knew Adel Emam, pictured the actor’s broad face, and knew why the shopkeeper would call out such a thing. By the time I’ve explained the joke, it’s already lost its essential element: surprise.

Humor has that paradoxical quality of being absolutely universal (or even more so, as chimpanzees also apparently appreciate a good joke) while also being deeply embedded in linguistic wordplay and sociocultural zeitgeist. This is a constant challenge in translating. In a talk at the American University in Cairo in 2010, acclaimed translator Jonathan Wright said that he removed a Viagra joke from his translation of Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi because he couldn’t find a way to make it funny in English. “I couldn’t see a way to convey the pun on the two aspects of wuquuf, stopping and standing. [The joke] referred to a warning on the packet that read: wuquuf mutakarrir [makes frequent stops], the warning they put on the back of buses."

Wright is hardly the only one. M. M. Tawfik wrote, in his essay “Self-Translation: Faithful Rendition or Rewriting?” that while translating his novel Murder in the Tower of Happiness, one character’s jokes gave him no end of headaches. “I was faced with the decision of whether to replace them with completely different jokes in English, or to delete them entirely.  . . . Had the original text not been my own, each of these decisions would have probably been excruciating.”

Heba Salem and Kantaro Taira give an example of just such an excruciating-to-translate joke in their essay “Al-Thawra al-daHika” (The Laughing Revolution). For background: in the popular Egyptian film Ga'ana al-Bayan al-Tali (We Have the Following News), Muhammad Heneidi disguises himself as a prostitute who confuses the “b” and “p” sounds, a common class marker. One punchline in the movie is “Byeeee, mopailat ba’a,” or, “Bye, let’s stay in touch via our ‘mopile’ phones.” When Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, one of the many jokes floating around was “Mubarak, mopailat ba’a.” Not only is this a lot to digest in order to appreciate a rather thin joke, but so much has happened since February 2011, it’s hard to find Mubarak’s departure from office funny.

In Ahdaf Soueif’s 1992 novel In the Eye of the Sun, a much-quoted passage has Asya put in a tape of Sheikh Imam singing lyrics from “Nixon Baba” by colloquial and sometimes-satirical poet Ahmed Fouad Negm: “Sharraft ya Nixon Baba, / Ya bta’ el-Watergate—”

At this point, a character named Lisa, noticing both “Nixon” and “Watergate,” interrupts to ask what the poem is about. Asya gives a translation of the first seven words that runs to more than two hundred and fifty, explaining each of the terms, phrases, and their histories in turn, and touching on grammar, rhythm, and register. As with the Mubarak joke, such detailed explanation tends to wring whatever humor there is from the original. All this is to say that humor can feel impossible to translate beyond its cultural context, and yet the Lebanese shopkeeper definitely found Egyptian cinema hilarious. Sometimes it’s up to the listener to throw ourselves into a joke.

To that end, we’ve chosen pieces from a diverse range of Arabic humors, both salty and sweet, starting with the classic humor of Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200), who’s known for poking fun at scribes, schoolmasters, misers, and general human foolishness, and ending with contemporary Arabic-language humor that still wrings a laugh from mocking power, pride, and other human foibles.

In this month’s issue, we include Ahmed Fouad Negm’s “Important Announcement,” translated here by the ambitious Elliott Colla. Both poet and folk hero, Negm (1929–2013) had a decades-long partnership with the talented musician Sheikh Imam, who would compose music to which Negm’s poetry was set.

As in Negm’s work, politics is often a space for humor in Arabic, in part because it’s shared cultural territory, and also because there’s an enjoyable frisson to punching up at political figures, historical moments, and sacred cows. Muhammed Mustajab’s “Blood in Flames,” translated by Robin Moger, was published around the same time as “Nixon Baba” and reads as a satire of self-important mid-twentieth-century Gamal Abdel Nasser–era nationalism. Mustajab (1938–2005), born in upper Egypt and with little formal education, became a rare master at satirizing both countryside and city.

In her satiric story “Run, George!” Libyan novelist and short-story writer Najwa Bin Shatwan—here translated by Sawad Hussain—builds on both Libya’s colonial history and its contemporary civil war in a tragicomic meeting between the living and the dead. “Run, George!” is the opening story in Bin Shatwan’s 2019 collection An Ongoing Coincidence, which moves from the absurd to the absurder, borrowing from the news and folktales, inhabiting the minds of humans, animals, and, naturally, the dead.

In Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal’s short play The Colonel’s Wedding, translated by Katherine Hennessy, military men come under satiric—and actual—fire. While there are Yemeni specificities that may not come across exactly as al-Ahdal likely intended, it’s still funny, as most any of us can understand why opportunism, betrayal, and a T-72 tank make a humorous mix. Al-Ahdal is a novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, but it is his theatrical work—as here and, for instance, A Crime on Restaurant Street—where al-Ahdal is at full comic throttle, satirizing all segments of society, as when the bank teller says: “What you need to understand is that truth is directly connected to our wallets. And since your wallet is empty, and mine is full, that means the truth isn’t in your wallet. It’s in mine.”

Popular Lebanese-Egyptian writer Sahar Mandour is known for portraying relationships, Beirut, and the (sometimes ridiculous) social expectations that limn our lives and our understanding of self. I’ll Draw a Star on Vienna’s Forehead (2007),  from which our selection "Vienna" is taken, was her first novel. Through its cheerfully self-invented narrator, it examines the ways in which we try to reshape ourselves for others.

Nearly all of the comedy in this issue sits on the razor’s edge between funny and tragic.. Perhaps we are at a particularly funny-tragic moment in human history, or perhaps that is simply our human condition. But comedy need not be so close to misery. One of my favorite (wordless) jokes is from September 2010, when the stakes in Egypt seemed much lower than they did a few months later. Ahdaf Soueif might give you eight hundred words of context, but I’ll just leave it here:



© 2019 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.

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