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The Culture of Humor and the Art of the Word

A skeleton walks into a bar and orders a beer and a mob! This cracks me up most of the time while most of my dim-witted companies don’t get the joke. On December 14, 2008, an Iraqi journalist startled attendees at a press conference at the prime minister’s palace in Baghdad, Iraq, by throwing a shoe at U.S. President George W. Bush. After the incident, Bush joked: “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10”. A few weeks later, on February 2, 2009, a student threw a shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as he was giving a speech at the University of Cambridge. The student was removed from the lecture hall, but Premier Wen was not amused: “this despicable behavior will do nothing to hold back the friendship of the Chinese and British people”. Two leaders, Western and Chinese, and two vastly different reactions to an unexpected insult, one humorous and one serious: the incidents highlight culturally different attitudes toward humor.

Humor varies from place to place. Arab humor may make Eritreans laugh most of the time, but English humor, more often than not, tends to leave most cold. I don’t know what our reaction would be to Japanese or Malay humor.

“What do you call a fake noodle?” asked a comedian of some sort.

“I have no idea.” retorted, the irritated man at the bar.

With a cheeky smile on his face the comedian replied, “AN IMPASTA!”

The man bursted out laughing and

Though dumb, the joke certainly is a clever word play. Humor can be used in different ways.

There is refinement in humor. The joke section in the Reader’s Digest is not for the simpleton. You need to be well-read and somehow conversant with American culture to get the joke and giggle like a crazy person. Some people simply laugh at the jokes and if you ask them what made them laugh they are afraid to explain. They simply laughed because they had to. It is a humor section after all.

The British love playing around with language. This includes puns, innuendos, irony and wordplay. They find satire delightful, and their humour can range from ridiculously silly to darkly cynical. Over-the-top sincerity does not sit well with this audience.

While irony and sarcasm work well in England, it is less appropriate across the channel. Countries like Switzerland, Germany or the Netherlands prefer clear, direct, and to-the-point jokes rather than convoluted double entendres.
Italians enjoy pratfalls and physical humour, as well as puns and irony. Don’t be afraid to go exuberantly over-the-top with your delivery, using plenty of hand gestures. Speak as if you were using exclamation points!

Eritreans tend to laugh more at foolish incidents or anecdotes. It has to be simple and culture oriented. But here also one can discern between city and village jokes. The former are mostly copies from western jokes books or films, the latter are deeply rooted in the surrounding customs and traditions.

For example, to a peasant the story of the mirror would solicit more laughter than the histrionics of Charlie Chaplin.

I once told you of a village man who one day upon a visit to the city had humorously tried to shake hands with his own image reflected in a mirror. For the old man had never seen his own image before. Jokes like that would bring about uncontrollable laughter to villagers.

In our culture, one is supposed to laugh at jokes or funny incidents told by the elderly. Not doing so is a breach of propriety. Most of the time, the jokes are stale and do not relate to the young generations. But you laugh just the s a m e , using the wrong facial muscles. At least, the respect is in its place.

Have you heard this one? It made many an Eritrean double up with laughter in the past. It is about the peasant who went to town and imitating the city dwellers, strolled into a restaurant and asked for the menu of the day. If there was one dish the peasant could not stand, it was pumpkin stew (dubba), for he ate it all his life and he hated it from the depth of his heart.
“Potato, Shiro, hamli, quanta, silsi, zucchini,” shouted the waiter.

Foreign to his ear, the peasant asked what the last one was.

“ZUUUCCHINI!” reaffirmed the waiter sounding out the letters.

“Okay, bring me ZUUUCHINI and make it fast,” drooled the peasant.

When the zucchini stew was brought to our friend from the country side, he took one morsel, rolled his eyes and murmured to himself:

“You dirty old pumpkin; I knew that once in town you would change your name…”

Some jokes have to do with modern technology, like this one: Keshi (Pastor) Tesfasilasie lived alone in a small village in the 1950’s. One day his son who happened to live in the UK sent him a radio, which was a rarity in Eritrea at the time.

Keshi Tesfasilasie was beyond himself with joy and exhilaration.

“How’s the radio, Keshi Tesfasilasie?” asked a neighbor one day.

“What can I say, the entire world wants to talk to me telling me this and that, one in English, another in Arabic, still another in Hindi, and I tell them, will you please stop talking to me at the same time!”

Keshi Tesfasilasie had problems tuning his radio.

And when his wife, who suffered from motion sickness, boarded an air-plane to go to visit her son, it is said that she asked the hostess to allow her to sit with the copilot as she always sat in front when she traveled to Keren.

Although most of the time dirty jokes, which are funnier than decent jokes, are frowned upon by people of good breed, they are usually told in funeral parlors by people who come to console the bereaved. In a society where sex and all that is related to it, is taboo, dirty jokes serve as a sort of emotional release. The girl, who had been crying her eyes out the day before for the loss of a loved one, is now shedding tears caused by excessive laughter. If the loved one was a decent person, he would be turning in his grave.

As to sick jokes, they neither exist in our culture nor are they welcome by the majority of our society. These are jokes about the poor, the dead, the ailing and the underprivileged of this world. And they are jokes made at their cost. They are cruel jokes.

There is one that I know which is remotely related to sick jokes, and which is commonly told without raising eyebrows. It is about a certain man who went to a funeral of his friend’s dearest mother and was told to deliver a speech, a sort of a funeral oration, like a eulogy.

He stood up and went on to praise the deceased mother for her wisdom and generosity.

“This very day we have lost a dear woman, for Kedes (name chosen for expediency measures) was not only mother to Tekle (complete fictitious name), but the mother of us all here gathered today to pay our last respects.”
The mourners were all amazed by his speech and congratulated him for his presence of mind. But the worst was yet to come.

It so happened that the same person had just lost his dear wife. Again a funeral procession. Wailing. Burial. Speech again. The same friend was asked to deliver the speech as he did it superbly before.

“You can do it,” encouraged his friends, “you have done it last time.” “Plus you are good with words.”

When the officiating Priest rebuked the wailing women to stop, the friend stepped forward:

“Dear mourners,” went on, the over confident friend,

“This day we have lost a dear Woman, Almaz (fictitious name) was not only the wife of Tekle, but the wife of all who are mourning at this very moment……”

The mourners were flabbergasted by his speech and felt, starting from the husband, like punching him in the nose.

Humor is the best medicine, and this biblical statement antedates the Readers Digest. The combatants have used it to good use during the 30-year armed struggle for liberation. Most of the time they laughed at the enemy, and sometimes at themselves.

This writer remembers being told by his uncle the following field joke: A teacher was one day giving math lessons to his students under a tree. Thinking he was being savvy and witty by putting Ethiopian soldiers into an equation, he asked his rather smart little students, how many coffee cups would be left if Ethiopian soldiers invading a house took five coffee cups from an old lady who had fourteen in her cupboard.

The answer to the quiz given by one of his students was not nine but simply zero. How come? There were fourteen coffee cups and the Ethiopian soldiers took only four cups, wondered the teacher. The answer was again simple: When Ethiopian soldiers barge into a house, they take everything away.

The comedian is once again back to crack another wordplay……

“What do you call an alligator that is wearing a vest?” asks the idiot.

“Logically speaking an alligator never wears any clothing let alone a vest but go ahead make my day.” says a woman in glasses.

“An Investigator!”

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