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Wisecracks as revolts

/ 05:10 AM August 30, 2011

“Telling jokes against ‘Big Brother’ are tiny revolutions,” George Orwell wrote. From bitter experience, Filipinos know what this author of the anti-dictatorship novel “1984” meant. Pogo and Togo poked fun, on stage, at Japanese occupiers, prompting the Kempetai to crack down. Recall the man taken ill in front of Imelda Marcos’ Film Center? As he pukes, a passerby furtively whispers: “Pare, I share your opinion.”

Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi fled, as did Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Tunisia’s Ben Ali. Tripoli newscasts show piled-up corpses, wrecked hospitals, idled luxury airliners, ostentatious homes, plus a maze of underground escape tunnels.

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But did history repeat itself? Are Libyan jokes as barbed as those cracked elsewhere in the jerky course of the “Arab Spring”? “Students of humor know that the most piquant political jokes are found wherever totalitarian dictatorships flourish,” University of California (Berkeley) Prof. Alan Dundes notes.

As the psychotic “Cultural Revolution” wound down, Chinese students would yell: “Down with the Gang of Four”—while holding up five fingers. The fifth referred to Mao Zedong. On return from the Vatican conclave that elected Pope John Paul II, the late Jaime Cardinal Sin told Leonardo Perez of the stamp pad Commission on Elections: “Leonie, if you oversaw the Conclave, I’d have been elected Pope.”

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Political jokes, however, tend to wither when People Power wins back free speech. In Poland, gags dried up after the Solidarnosc movement ushered in freedom. Democratic countries “can’t compete with jokes” about Hitler, Stalin, or, say, Ferdinand Marcos, Dundes adds.

Libya’s top comedian Milood Amroni is undergoing that experience today. For 35 years, he poked fun, ever so carefully, at Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, a Reuters feature notes. An earlier Amroni skit portrays two military trainees being bullied by an officer. He says to the other: “This is good practice for the day when we’re bullied by the top commander.” Everybody got the underhanded message. Libya’s top military honcho was Gadhafi.

Like the Philippines after People Power I, Libya’s newspapers and stations are suddenly free to speak. “We’ve never been in this sort of situation, to talk openly about politics, to make jokes about politicians,” marveled Amroni. “Before, we’d just give hints about politics and people would react and feel happy. Now they’re more critical. It’s difficult to make them laugh about politics because they’re joking themselves. Political jokes were a weapon to fight with and now we don’t need it. But maybe later.”

Cyberspace made it impossible for Gadhafi’s regime to clamp total censorship. Referring to “Guide of the First of September Great Revolution’s” rambling two to three-hour addresses, a Libyan tweet, for example, reads: “If the rebels don’t surrender, we’ll replay the whole speech.” Before New York shut down for Hurricane “Irene,” David Letterman cracked: “Gadhafi said his people ‘love him.’ I think that’s what he said. It was hard to hear over the rebel gunfire.”

Indeed, “an old Arab adage has it that the worst misfortune is the one that makes you laugh,” an Australian Broadcasting feature from Sydney notes. “Nowhere is that truer than in Libya where Gadhafi’s outlandish antics are causing howls on the Internet.” Facebook carries mocking slogans: “Don’t knock my madness, it’s all I have.” The list goes on.

In less than a year, three revolutions have wracked the Arab world: Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. Three revolts are now working their way through Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Young people drive these uprisings. They share vocabulary as well as tactics, New York Times points out. “Irhal,” or “scram” leap-frogged from Egypt to Yemen and Bahrain, “where protesters made it plural. Not only must the king go, but his family as well.”

Will Syria be the next to crumble? Even Damascus’ closest ally, Iran, has recoiled from over 2,000 demonstrators killed. There, a joke runs this way: A minister goes to the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad after a national election: “I have excellent news, Mr. President! You won 98.6 percent of the vote in the election! Less than 2 percent of the people dissented! What more could you possibly want?” Assad: “Their names.”

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It is from Burma, however, where some of the most pointed jokes against paranoid dictators emerged. U Par Par Lay goes to India to have his toothache treated. “Don’t you have dentists in Myanmar?” the New Delhi dentist wonders. “Oh, yes, we do, doctor,” the Burmese replies. “But at home, we’re not allowed to open our mouths.”

Par is, in fact, the Moustache Brothers’ No. 1. With Lu Zaw, Moustache Brother No. 3, Par was jailed for six years for anti-government jokes. London’s Telegraph calls the three brothers “arguably the bravest stand-up comics in the world today.”

“Jokes are acts of defiance the world over,” write Steven Lukes (of Balliol College at Oxford) and Hebrew University’s Itzhak Galnoor in their book: “No Laughing Matter.” “The time to worry is when the jokes stop.” A joke about Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the cardinal is apt.

“Say President Arroyo is a saint in your Sunday sermon and Catholic charities get this P5 million check,” an aide says. “Deal,” the cardinal replies. As GMA sits in the front pew, the cardinal rips into every scandal, from Hello Garci, ZTE broadband scam, Maguindanao massacre to Pagcor’s P1.3-billion coffee bill. Then came the P5-million clincher: “Compared to Mike Arroyo, President Gloria is a saint.”

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Email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Big Brother, Cultural Revolution, George Orwell, political jokes, protesters
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