In Other Words

Three Decades of a Joke That Just Won't Die

Egyptian humor goes where its politics cannot.

What would happen if you spent 30 years making fun of the same man? What if for the last decade, you had been mocking his imminent death -- and yet he continued to stay alive, making all your jokes about his immortality seem a bit too uncomfortably close to the truth?

Egyptians, notorious for their subversive political humor, are currently living through this scenario: Hosni Mubarak, their octogenarian president, is entering his fourth decade of rule, holding on to power and to life through sheer force of will. Egyptian jokers, who initially caricatured their uncharismatic leader as a greedy bumpkin, have spent the last 10 years nervously cracking wise about his tenacious grasp on the throne. Now, with the regime holding its breath as everyone waits for the ailing 82-year-old Mubarak to die, the economy suffering, and people feeling deeply pessimistic about the future, the humor is starting to feel a little old.

A friend of mine has a favorite one-liner he likes to tell: "What is the perfect day for Mubarak? A day when nothing happens." Egypt's status-quo-oriented president doesn't like change, but his Groundhog Day fantasy weighs heavily on Egyptians. Mubarak has survived assassination attempts and complicated surgery. After he spent most of the spring of 2010 convalescing, everyone in Cairo from taxi drivers to politicians to foreign spies was convinced it was a matter of weeks. And yet he recovered, apparently with every intention of running for a sixth term in September. Egypt's prolific jesters, with their long tradition of poking fun at the powerful, might be running out of material.

Making fun of oppressive authorities has been an essential part of Egyptian life since the pharaohs. One 4,600-year-old barb recorded on papyrus joked that the only way you could convince the king to fish would be to wrap naked girls in fishing nets. Under Roman rule, Egyptian advocates were banned from practicing law because of their habit of making wisecracks, which the dour Romans thought would undermine the seriousness of the courts. Even Ibn Khaldun, the great 14th-century Arab philosopher from Tunis, noted that Egyptians were an unusually mirthful and irreverent people. Egyptian actor Kamal al-Shinnawi, himself a master of comedy, once said, "The joke is the devastating weapon which the Egyptians used against the invaders and occupiers. It was the valiant guerrilla that penetrated the palaces of the rulers and the bastions of the tyrants, disrupting their repose and filling their heart with panic."

And there has been plenty of material over Egypt's last half-century, marked as it has been by a succession of military leaders with little care for democracy or human rights. While Egyptians may be virtually powerless to change their rulers, they do have extensive freedom to mock, unlike in nearby Syria, where a wisecrack can land you in prison. In Egypt's highly dense, hypersocial cities and villages, jokes are nearly universal icebreakers and conversation-starters, and the basic meta-joke, transcending rulers, ideology, and class barriers, almost always remains the same: Our leaders are idiots, our country's a mess, but at least we're in on the joke together.

Egypt's rulers before Mubarak, Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser and Nobel Peace Prize winner Anwar Sadat, were flamboyant characters, and the jokes told about them reflected their larger-than-life personas. The paranoid Nasser was said to have deployed his secret police to collect the jokes made up about him and his iron-fisted leadership, just as the KGB anxiously monitored the fabled kitchen-table anekdoty about its gerontocratic leadership to really understand what was happening in the latter days of the Soviet Union. Sadat, though best known in the West for making peace with neighboring Israel, was the butt of joke after joke about his corrupt government and attractive wife, Jehan.

When Mubarak came to power after Sadat's assassination, he was received with a mixture of relief and skepticism -- relief because he appeared to be a steadier hand than Sadat, who grew increasingly paranoid in the year before his death, and skepticism because Mubarak was the opposite of anything like the charismatic leadership that Sadat and Nasser embodied. Mubarak was also, at least early on, something of a joker himself. Not long into his reign, he quipped that he had never expected to be appointed vice president. "When I got the call from Sadat," he told an interviewer, "I thought he was going to make me the head of EgyptAir."

For decades many derided Mubarak as "La Vache Qui Rit" -- after the French processed cheese that appeared in Egypt in the 1970s along with the opening up of Egypt's markets -- because of his rural background and his bonhomie. The image that dominated Mubarak jokes during that period was that of an Egyptian archetype, the greedy and buffoonish peasant. One joke I remember well from the 1980s played off Mubarak's decision not to appoint a vice president after he ascended to the presidency: "When Nasser became president, he wanted a vice president stupider than himself to avoid a challenger, so he chose Sadat. When Sadat became president, he chose Mubarak for the same reason. But Mubarak has no vice president because there is no one in Egypt stupider than he is."

THE JOKES TURNED BITTER in the 1990s as Mubarak consolidated his power, started winning elections with more than 90 percent of the vote, and purged rivals in the military. One oft-retold story had Mubarak dispatching his political advisors to Washington to help with Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign after the U.S. president admires Mubarak's popularity. When the results come in, it is Mubarak who is elected president of the United States.

But Mubarak jokes really settled into their current groove in the early 2000s, when Mubarak entered his mid-70s and a nationwide deathwatch began. One joke imagines a deathbed scene, the ailing Mubarak lamenting, "What will the Egyptian people do without me?" His advisor tries to comfort him: "Mr. President, don't worry about the Egyptians. They are a resilient people who could survive by eating stones!" Mubarak pauses to consider this and then tells the advisor to grant his son Alaa a monopoly on the trade in stones.

In another deathbed scene, Azrael, the archangel of death, comes down to Mubarak and tells him he must say goodbye to the Egyptian people. "Why, where are they going?" he asks. Azrael is a common figure in such jokes, the most famous of which is a commentary on the increasingly brutal turn the Mubarak regime took in the 1990s:

God summons Azrael and tells him, "It's time to get Hosni Mubarak."

"Are you sure?" Azrael asks timidly.

God insists: "Yes, his time has come; go and bring me his soul."

So Azrael descends from heaven and heads straight for the presidential palace. Once there, he tries to walk in, but he is captured by State Security. They throw him in a cell, beat him up, and torture him. After several months, he is finally set free.

Back in heaven, God sees him all bruised and broken and asks, "What happened?"

"State Security beat me and tortured me," Azrael tells God. "They only just sent me back."

God goes pale and in a frightened voice says, "Did you tell them I sent you?'

It's not only God who is scared of Mubarak -- so is the devil. Other jokes have Mubarak shocking the devil with his ideas for tormenting the Egyptian people, or dying and being refused entry to both heaven and hell because he's viewed as an abomination by both God and Satan.

The Internet has opened new avenues for humor. One-line zingers that used to be circulated by text message are now exchanged on Twitter, while on Facebook fake identities and satirical fan pages have been established for the country's leading politicians. Widely circulated video mash-ups depict Mubarak and his entourage as the characters of a mafia movie or unlikely action heroes, including one spoofing a Star Wars poster with Mubarak standing in for the evil Emperor Palpatine.

But the bulk of today's jokes simply stress the tenacity with which Mubarak has held onto life and power. Hisham Kassem, a prominent publisher and liberal opposition figure, told me this recent joke:

Hosni Mubarak, Barack Obama, and Vladimir Putin are at a meeting together when suddenly God appears before them.

"I have come to tell you that the end of the world will be in two days," God says. "Tell your people."

So each leader goes back to his capital and prepares a television address.

In Washington, Obama says, "My fellow Americans, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I can confirm that God exists. The bad news is that he told me the world would end in two days."

In Moscow, Putin says, "People of Russia, I regret that I have to inform you of two pieces of bad news. First, God exists, which means everything our country has believed in for most of the last century was false. Second, the world is ending in two days."

In Cairo, Mubarak says, "O Egyptians, I come to you today with two pieces of excellent news! First, God and I have just held an important summit. Second, he told me I would be your president until the end of time."

Kassem quips that the Mubarak regime's main legacy may be an unparalleled abundance of derision about its leader. "Under Nasser, it was the elite whose property he had nationalized that told jokes about the president," he told me. "Under Sadat, it was the poor people left behind by economic liberalization who told the jokes. But under Mubarak, everyone is telling jokes."

Yet an increasing number of Egyptians no longer think their country's situation is all that funny, and they are turning the national talent for wit into a more aggressive weapon of political dissidence. The anti-Mubarak Kifaya movement has used humor most poignantly to protest the indignity of an entire country becoming a hand-me-down for the Mubarak family, as the leader presses on with plans to anoint his son Gamal as his heir. Other protesters complaining about the rising cost of living and stagnating salaries use cartoons to depict fat-cat politicians and tycoons pillaging the country. And since the beginning of 2010, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a potential presidential challenger, has become a symbol of the kind of dignified leadership the Egyptian opposition has sought for decades. Notably, he recently scolded Mubarak for an inappropriate joke about a ferry crash that killed more than 1,000 Egyptians in 2006.

But even if Egypt's democrats fail to prevent the inheritance of the presidency, they will certainly keep making fun of Mubarak's son Gamal. One epic satire comes in the form of a popular blog called Ezba Abu Gamal ("The Village of Gamal's Father"). The blog is a collection of entries, usually from the perspective of Abu Gamal, mayor of a small village. He is constantly being nagged by his wife to promote his son, about whom he has misgivings; he doesn't understand all this talk about reform and laptops and so on. It is a biting portrait for those initiated into the details of Egyptian politics. Mubarak's "cunning peasant" persona re-emerges and Gamal is depicted as a wet-behind-the-ears incompetent manipulated by his friends, while countless ministers and security chiefs make appearances as craven village officials. Were it publishable in Egypt, it would make a hilarious book.

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In Other Words

Meet the Persident

In surreal Russia, fake presidential tweets are much more relevant than the real ones.

In his off-hours, a seemingly dutiful government servant in Czar Nicholas I's Ministry of Finance would pass the time jotting down little aphorisms. Some were obscure in meaning: "Not every general is stout by nature." Or, "If you have a fountain, plug it up. Let the fountain too have a rest." Others mocked the state for which the official, a heavy-browed and dimple-chinned man named Kozma Prutkov, worked. "Our land is rich; there is just no order in it," he wrote of Russia under Nicholas, a reactionary authoritarian who personally censored the poet Aleksandr Pushkin and whose education minister came up with the dubious motto of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality." Prutkov's very existence -- a doltish, maudlin bureaucrat in a state overflowing with them -- was itself an admonition to the regime.

Prutkov, however, did not actually exist. His verses and indelible image were the invention of writer Aleksey Tolstoy and his cousins, the Zhemchuzhnikov brothers, who published his short witticisms in the thick literary journals so popular at the time.

It's hard not to think of Prutkov when scrolling through the short, sharp parodies on KermlinRussia, the wildly popular new Twitter account lampooning President Dmitry Medvedev and his anodyne official news feed at KremlinRussia. KermlinRussia's persona -- that of a solipsistic, foolish child-president -- seems an apt echo of the earlier satirist's bumbling scribbles. When I asked the anonymous author of the Twitter parody whether he was a latter-day Prutkov, he responded with characteristic bite: "More like a lie detector."

As of this writing, KermlinRussia has more than 50,000 followers and is adding a thousand or more each week. Its tweets, like Prutkov's acerbic little commentaries, pack the kind of sharp nuance for which Twitter is so well-suited, weaving together current events, history, literary allusions, and a very Russian sense of the absurd, all in 140 characters or less. It has been a successful formula. Not only is KermlinRussia the third-most popular Twitter account on the Russian-language Internet, it has among its followers the cream of the Moscow chattering classes and 40 percent of the real Medvedev's followers. All this has transpired over less than half a year, while readers remain happily unaware of the author's true identity, a tightly guarded secret.

When I asked KermlinRussia's author for an interview, the "Persident of Ruissia" agreed to grant one but only via Skype, through an account created just for the interview -- security fit for any world leader. The Persident dialed in first.

"Hello?" she said.

It's interesting, I noted out loud, that a country as patriarchal as Ruissia should have a female persident.

"Yes, it's unexpected, isn't it?" the Persident said, and released an airy, tinkling laugh.

"There's a male voice, too!" chirped a young man. "There's an author and a co-author," he added.

The author and co-author -- let's call them Masha and Sasha -- are young ("between 20 and 30," as they like to say) professionals, both of whom studied at St. Petersburg State University, an honor they share with Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and author Ayn Rand.* There, the two studied journalism (Masha) and economics (Sasha), and they now work as a copywriter (Masha) and financial analyst (Sasha).

Sasha's idea for a parody Twitter feed came about when Medvedev visited Silicon Valley last June and, to much fanfare, started his official Twitter account.

At the time, Sasha was already in what he called "a protesting mood." He hated that the division between business and government in Russia had become so negligible that even though he worked for a private company, his job amounted to ratifying public corruption. He hated the lack of professionalism, the lack of logic, the slapdash, emotional decision-making, the fact that Kremlin connections outweigh results. He hated that "all our politics are centered on thousands of people guessing about what kind of relationship Putin and Medvedev have."

"Basically, this is the system that's formed here, and I find it deeply repulsive," Sasha told me in our Skype call, his ebullience fading to despair.

Sasha's first tweet came on June 25, two days after Medvedev's first tweet (with a typo, for ambience) from Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. At first, Sasha just retweeted the president's bland messages. Then his writing skills -- and years of barely repressed grievances -- kicked in.

"I don't understand all this talk of hours-long traffic jams," he tweeted as the bizarro president, jabbing at the epic standstills created when the roads into the Russian capital are closed off to make way for functionaries zooming in from the ritzy outer suburbs in their speeding Mercedes: A trip from Rublevka, the Russian Beverly Hills, easily takes an hour or more for commoners. "Personally, I always get to the Kremlin from Rublevka in 10-15 minutes." On the corruption and wildly growing bill for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi: "In order to save 327 bn. rubles, the decision has been made to move the venue for the Olympic games from Sochi to Vancouver, where everything is already ready." On the graft that accompanied the Kremlin bailout in 2008 and 2009: "It's important not to allow a second wave of the economic crisis as the stabilization fund has already been looted." On the lack of elections of governors: "Today the elections of the governors of Karelia and Chuvashia were held in my office." When a controversial law giving the internal security service known as the FSB significantly wider reach was being discussed: "The amendments to the FSB law will give the special services powers necessary for guarding the country's most valuable possession -- the country's citizens."

One of Sasha's great gifts as a tweeter is his ability to deftly link the seemingly unrelated -- all in service of underscoring the absurdity of Russian political life. When a list surfaced of the plum businesses headed by bureaucrats' children, he connected it to the government's campaign to spark an entrepreneurial culture: "Governors need to have more children so that the country will have more successful young entrepreneurs," he wrote. Commenting on the battle against corruption that seems to have only made corruption worse, he managed a jibe at the falsehoods of state television too: "Everyone who observes what's happening in the country on television will note that corruption is decreasing." When the second trial of already jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrapped up with observers expecting the inevitable additional lengthy sentence, KermlinRussia invoked the widely held notion that Putin will take back the presidency in 2012. "When Khodorkovsky finishes his second term, Putin will be finishing up his second second term."

Over the summer, Sasha convinced his good friend Masha to join. With Masha on board, the tweets became richer, more layered. "The second dissident" -- i.e., Masha -- "has a very fine sense of language," Sasha told me. "Approximately 70 percent of the tweets with the complex humor? Those aren't mine." Masha has a background in Soviet film and a head full of obscure quotes, giving some of her contributions bonus-points-level opacity. When Dmitry Zelenin, governor of the Tver region, found a worm in his salad at a Kremlin reception and got in trouble for tweeting a photo of it, Masha wrote: "Eisenstein got an Oscar for his worms. What's Zelenin angling for?" No one got it. "In the film Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein, the plot turns on the part where the sailors are served maggoty meat and they're forced to eat it," Masha explained to me. "And of course it turns into a mutiny, and the rest we know from history books."

Both Sasha and Masha have a propensity, like many young Russians, to speak in the floridly vague, precisely obfuscatory language of the ruling class. They've learned to speak like the bureaucrats who control their lives. In conversation, as well as on the KermlinRussia feed, their indirection and polysyllabic jumbles sound just like the officious ballast of the actual president, until the tweet suddenly disintegrates into a Gogolian absurdity. Consider these persidential tweets: "For a number of categories of citizens, drunkenness or intoxication at the time of the committing of the crime will be a mitigating circumstance. Similarly, the mitigation of punishment will require the provision of a document, according to which the citizen committing the crime was already a fuckwit." There just isn't that much KermlinRussia needs to do to make Russian reality funny.

IN A COUNTRY WHERE the presented reality usually smacks a bit of hallucination or, at best, a joke, and where the political system has almost always been closed, opaque, and absurd, satire has long played a key role. "Irony is a classic phenomenon of a totalitarian culture and a closed society," observed Irina Prokhorova, a scholar of culture and the elder sister of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Glancing sarcasm and mockery reached their peak in the late days of the Soviet Union, when few believed in a system that was stagflating itself out of existence. This was the period of the famous anekdoty: short, canned jokes that played with the drab reality of Soviet life, the absurdity of the country's leadership, the tectonic separation between words and meaning. (For example: What is happiness? Living in a socialist country that is building communism and striving for a bright and happy future. What is unhappiness? Having such happiness.) Anekdoty were also a means of analysis, of sharing knowledge that was unavailable in official media. The jokes were told for hours at the famous Soviet kitchen tables, the cramped linoleum corners into which civil society had been pushed.

After the Soviet Union's collapse and the brief flowering of journalistic liberty that followed, anekdoty became more mainstream and gradually less relevant. Real satire was making its way into the media. Writer Viktor Shenderovich became a star for his TV program Kukly, which used puppets of the country's politicians and businessmen to deliver potent, hilarious political comedy -- a Daily Show for post-Soviet Russia. But that didn't last long. At the top of Putin's agenda when he came to power in 2000 was regaining control over television. He didn't like his portrayal on Shenderovich's show, so he took over the channel that aired it and quickly snuffed the program.

Putin's clampdown created a vacuum: There was no longer real space for making sense of the changes happening so rapidly in the country. Eventually, the Internet filled most of that blank spot, but in the absence of real political discourse, the anekdoty started creeping back. "The tradition is being revived because civil society is feeling increasingly squeezed," Prokhorova said. "And this is the tried-and-true societal reaction: irony, mockery. It's not as bad as in the Soviet Union, but the elements are there and they're recognizable."

This time, however, anekdoty have morphed into digital-era equivalents like KermlinRussia, allowed to exist for its tens of thousands of followers, a minuscule nothing in a country of 140 million. "Satire will never go away," Shenderovich told me. "It'll always find a way out like water finds a hole. The question is, will it be on the margins, like on the Internet … or will it be on prime time, like Jon Stewart?"

The authors of KermlinRussia do not see themselves as an outgrowth of the tradition of anekdoty -- it is "a dead genre," according to Sasha -- but there is one powerful link between the two: Both forms of satire are necessarily anonymous. No one knew who wrote the anekdoty before they were launched into the perfume-bottle atomizer of Soviet society. They just circulated. "I would have really liked to know the names of the people who wrote them," Shenderovich said. "But of course I was not the only one who wanted to know their identities, which is why they were anonymous."

This is also why the two halves of the Ruissian Persidency -- like the anekdoty authors before them and the men behind Kozma Prutkov before that -- prefer to remain nameless. Until our interview, KermlinRussia had talked to the media only by chat service, and only in character. Exposure, they say, could well cost them their jobs. It would also spoil the whole carefully constructed image of the parallel tweets of the Russian president, slightly warped at the edges. Said Masha, using a particularly Russian turn of phrase, "Why reveal information if you can not reveal it?"

But Masha's is a larger point that speaks to the reason why KermlinRussia has resonated so deeply in the Russian blogosphere: It plays on the image of Medvedev as a cheerful, gadget-happy man warming the seat for the grimmer proto-czar Putin -- a fake leader no one, including many in the government hierarchy, much believes in. Medvedev is already viewed as a parody; KermlinRussia is almost a form of wish fulfillment. "What people really want is for Medvedev himself to be writing it," Masha explained. "People still have this hope that our president is actually a witty, discerning, thinking person. Everyone's constantly writing to us that KermlinRussia is just his alter ego, that these are his real thoughts, and that what he writes in the official Twitter is just PR."

As for the president himself, Masha and Sasha are "100 percent certain" that he reads their tweets. The presidential press service told me that everyone in the administration knows of KermlinRussia's existence, but would not comment on whether Medvedev himself actually reads it. When pressed, they stonewalled: "We were stumped by your query," they said.

Two weeks later came a strange riposte: The president was leaving his KremlinRussia account. Instead, he was starting a new Twitter feed that no one would confuse with Kermlin: MedvedevRussia. He took all 122,000 of his Kremlin followers with him. "Goodbye to everyone who is now with @MedvedevRussia," Kermlin tweeted when the news broke. "Hello to everyone who never confused the two accounts to begin with."

 

*This sentence has been updated to reflect an editorial error. Joseph Brodsky did not attend St. Petersburg State University. We regret the mistake.

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