A few weeks ago, a Twitter conversation sparked by the influx of memes about electricity cuts led one user to quote writer Gilbert Sinoué’s statement, “The Egyptian is born with a papyrus in his heart written on it in gold letters: sarcasm is the savior from despair”. Another user responded suggesting that this very sarcasm might be the reason behind their suffering.
The latter perspective is not commonly discussed in Egypt, as Egyptians take great pride in their unique sense of humor.
Regardless of the subjectivity of humor, many would agree that Egyptians have a special way with it. In fact, they are renowned among the Arabs as awlād al-nukta (Sons of the Jokes) for “their ability to laugh [even] in the face of adversity,” as Cristina Dozio highlights in her 2021 book exploring the intricacies of Egyptian humor and how its influence extends beyond borders.
This reputation for humor is so pervasive that in discussions about general Egyptian stereotypes on platforms like Reddit, humor is consistently mentioned as a defining characteristic of Egyptians.
Throughout Egyptian history, humor and satire have emerged as potent tools for political and social criticism, wielding the power to challenge authority, highlight critical societal issues, and offer dissenting voices a platform. Even preceding 2011, which triggered a surge of Facebook satire, a noteworthy display of satire could be observed in political cartoons. Published in many prominent newspapers, they were regarded as a relatively safe way to satirize state authority.
In her article “The power of nonsense: humor in Egypt’s counter/revolution,” anthropologist Jessica Winegar explores how humor has become an alternate space for dissidents to express their frustrations and concerns, all while mitigating the fear of persecution, both before the events of 2011 and in their aftermath.
Laughing Away Adversity: Hindering Real Solutions?
Humor’s influence does not end there. It has woven itself into the fabric of Egyptian thinking, becoming an essential and dominant element of social interaction and evaluation of societal events. As Zeinab El-Gundy puts it in her article for Ahram Online about jokes regarding the current economic crisis, Egyptians like to “laugh the pain away.”
A reddit exchange between a tourist and two Egyptians encapsulates this sentiment perfectly: “Tourist Opinion: it feels you guys never get depressed and [always] find something good in bad times,” to which the Egyptian responds, “Nah, we just like to mask our depression with humor.” Another chiming in, “No, we’re all depressed; we just learned how to laugh it off as a coping mechanism.”
In the vast literature regarding theories of humor and laughter, one key theory that consistently emerges and can explain this phenomenon is relief theory. The theory suggests that laughter acts as a release valve for relieving physiological tension, allowing distressed individuals to unwind and relieve suppressed desires.
Indeed, humor has a way of exposing suppressed desires and easing tension, but what if merely laughing them away is not enough? The question lingers: could an excess of humor, lacking a specific purpose, hinder people from addressing issues effectively?
“We should by no means stifle the creativity and wit of those who excel at humor, but we sometimes forget that joking about societal issues is not an actual solution,” Egyptian literature professor Ali Abd Rabbo tells Egyptian Streets, elaborating on the dilemma between embracing humor and recognizing the need for tangible action.
“There’s a need to go beyond laughter and take real action to address these problems, or at least to not forget that they are problems,” he adds.
Affiliative Humor: Connecting Through Collective Jokes
Humor in Egypt serves a multitude of functions beyond simply laughing pain away.
In his exploration of humor typology in international business, Professor Morris Kalliny highlights how affiliative humor plays a crucial role in collectivistic cultures like Egypt, where the emphasis lies in belonging to a community. According to Kalliny, affiliative humor helps individuals gain status associated with group membership, differing from the individualistic approach seen in the US where self-enhancing humor prevails.
Collective jokes, such as the widely known afashat (movie one-liners), flourish in Egypt, connecting people through shared laughter and cultural references. Not being well-versed in these collective jokes could mean missing out on a significant social currency.
This affiliative humor aspect seamlessly weaves its way into numerous facets of Egyptian society. Take, for instance, Iten Nafie, an Egyptian business student, who humorously declares in a conversation with Egyptian Streets, “I will only marry someone who knows his way around with afashat.” Such is the charm of collective jokes that they become a measure of compatibility even in personal relationships.
Humor vs. Professionalism: Navigating the Workplace Line
Meanwhile, in the professional realm, Menna Lallo, an Operations & Projects Manager, highlights the undeniable influence of humor in the Egyptian workplace, explaining that “a day with no humor in the office is commonly categorized as a dull heavy day.”
“A new joiner with a good sense of humor blends with the team much faster than someone who lacks a sense of humor,” she remarks. Yet taken to the extreme, humor in the workplace can overshadow professionalism. “Sometimes mistakes are eased up by jokes and this is unacceptable,” explains Lallo.
“It’s always the person with a good sense of humor [who] has a better chance,” a reddit user points out. As per the user’s perception of the Egyptian professional sphere, humor takes precedence over other traits like punctuality, for instance, and having a good sense of humor can open doors with one’s boss and colleagues, irrespective of one’s competence.
“Some jokes in certain situations, made by unprofessional individuals, can be interpreted as racism or bullying towards others,” says Adham El Domor, an Egyptian business consulting manager employed at a multinational company in Riyadh, during an interview with Egyptian Streets.
Based on his experience, he strongly advises against such behavior and sometimes even instructs his subordinates to refrain from making jokes to prevent conflicts or misunderstandings. However, El Domor still acknowledges the positive impact of humor in “balancing the daily work stress.”
Finding the Balance
Humor, deeply ingrained in Egyptian culture and seeping into every aspect of life, resembles a double-edged sword. On one hand, it bestows Egyptians a well-deserved reputation as a witty and funny people, offering solace during trying times and functioning as a powerful tool for social commentary.
However, this prevailing humor inadvertently diverts attention away from crucial social issues, obscured by the abundance of jokes. In workplace settings, the line between humor’s capacity for entertainment and lack of professionalism can blur.
To navigate these complexities, both individuals and society must embark on a journey of introspection and nurture self-awareness, understanding when humor enriches society and fosters bonds and when it might hinder genuine progress or undermine the essence of professionalism.
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