Argument

Mock Homs at Your Own Risk

The epicenter of Syria's revolt has long been the butt of jokes. But Homs may get the last laugh.

One day, the late Hafez al-Assad was going to visit Homs. His defense minister ordered the Honor Guard to fire 21 shots to welcome the Syrian president as he descended from the plane. A Homsi soldier asked him: "Sir, what if I succeed in killing him with the first shot -- shall we waste 20 more of them for nothing?"

In light of the increasingly bloody crackdown on Homs by President Bashar al-Assad, Hafez's son, that joke is no longer considered funny. The droll image of Syria's third-largest city is fading away as the Assad regime's assault, now in its 11th month, escalates. It is the slow death of an old reputation: For centuries, laughter has filled the cafés of Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama as Syrians exchanged jokes mocking the intelligence of the Homsis.

The typical jibe goes something like this: A Homsi approaches a man on the street. "Where is the other side of the road?" he asks. "There," answered the man, pointing at the other side. "For God's sake," said the Homsi. "When I was there they told me it is here!"

Why the Homsis? Perhaps they have become the butt of Syria's jokes because they are the country's eternal rebels. Throughout history, they have held a unique place in Syria's social and political fabric, prompting amazement, ridicule, and even anger from their neighbors. The Homsi jokes reflect the competing moral values, uncertain social boundaries, and competing power structures of Syrian society, whether in times of peace or war.

It all began two millennia ago. The inhabitants of the ancient city of Emesa, which would become Homs, were known for worshiping Elgabalus -- the God of the Sun -- as well as for keeping pagan traditions, such as the celebration of the "Day of the Fool," alive. On this day any form of bizarre behavior was tolerated, and soon the celebration has become a very popular event in the city. Although Homsis later converted en masse to Christianity and then Islam, celebrating the "Day of the Fool" remained a tradition until the middle of the 20th century, according to French scholar Jean-Yves Gillon.

But this strange holiday is not the only reason Homsis are treated as Syria's iconoclasts. In the 7th century, Homs was conquered by the Muslim army of the famous military commander Khalid ibn al-Walid. Soon, it became the first Syrian city with a significant Muslim population -- a fact that encouraged Caliph Umar, the second caliph following the death of Prophet Muhammad, to assign Homs as regional center. Inhabitants of other historical cities -- such as Hama, Palmyra, and Tartus -- envied their new overlords, as seen by the sharp increase in the number of poems denigrating Homsis.

In the conflicts between what would become the Umayyad dynasty and Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the Homsis sided with Ali, with many of them joining his forces in the Battle of Siffin in 657. After the defeat of Ali in 659, Homsis lost their privileged status and then, eight decades later, when one of the tribes in Homs revolted against the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, many of them were slaughtered, tortured, and mutilated.

Due to its strategic position, Homs often became a center of intrigue for several rebelling dynasties -- and the scornful narratives continued to flow. "I was walking in Homs and saw a flock of goats followed by a camel," the famous prose writer and poet al-Jahiz wrote in the 9th century. "I heard a man asking, ‘Is this camel from the family of the sheep?' ‘No,' replied the other. ‘It is an orphan so they adopted it.'"

The negative stereotypes about Homsis returned in force during the 11th century, when the Mirdasid dynasty recaptured the city and converted it to Shia Islam. Homsis very soon became victims of the polemical debates between Sunni and Shia clerics. The famous Sunni cleric Ibn al-Jawzi recorded many ironic narratives about the strange habits of Homsi religious officials and the supposed stupidity of their followers.

According to one anecdote, three Homsi religious students were discussing a hadith - a saying of Prophet Muhammad -- about the parts of the human body. "The nose is for smelling, the mouth is for eating, the tongue is for speaking," they concluded. "But what is the ear for?" As the hadith did not give the answer, they decided to ask their sheikh.  On their way to the sheikh's house, however, they saw a tailor patching a cloth. The tailor was cutting pieces of yarn and hanging them on his ear. "God has sent us the answer," the students concluded, and returned to the mosque.

Homs has long been a bastion of resistance -- first as a Muslim stronghold in the efforts to repel European invaders during the Crusades, and then as a base for Mamluk commanders' war against the Mongols. But such heroism did not rid Homsis of their age-old stigma. Rather, many linked Homsis' victories to their alleged simple-mindedness.

According to one anecdote, on the "Day of the Fool," the elders of Homs decided to open the city's gates to the enemy. The Mongols entered and found people wearing their clothes backwards and walking backwards on the streets. The Mongol leader thought the locals were sick, and immediately ordered a retreat to avoid the infection of his soldiers. The real history of Homs, however, does not show such a good sense of humor: After the fall of the Mamluks, the city was ravaged by Arab bedouin raids and began to decline.

Once incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century Homs regained its status as an economic center, becoming a hub for the trade of silk, olive oil and animals linking the northern and southern cities of the empire. Due to its booming economic activity and weaving industry, a British consul labeled Homs "the Manchester of Syria" in the late 19th century.

The city's golden years, however, came to an end with the demise of the Ottomans. Homs was incorporated into the state of Damascus during the French Mandate that followed World War I. Due to their city's declining economic importance, Homsis quickly joined the revolution against the French in 1925, with bandits in the region launching raids against French troops. One of the generals of the revolution, Mazhar al-Sibai, was also of Homsi origin.

By 1932, tensions had ebbed sufficiently that the French moved their military academy from Damascus to Homs, where it remained the sole military academy in Syria until 1967. Hafez al-Assad himself was a graduate of the academy -- but his years in the institute did not make him sentimental toward the city. The Alawite president stabilized his grip on power by cutting deals with the Sunni elite of Damascus and Aleppo -- leaving Homs's majority Sunni community in the lurch.

As a result, Homsis were again consigned to play the role of the fool in coffee-house jokes. During the 1973 war, a typical gag goes, a Homsi soldier was playing with a grenade. His fellow soldier warned him to watch out as it might explode. "Don't worry," replied the Homsi. "I've got other ones!"

Once again in its tumultuous history, Homs finds itself in the eye of the storm. As Bashar al-Assad's regime continues its horrifying assault on the city, gallows humor has become the order of the day. "Why do the Homsis rebel?" a pro-Assad voice asked on Twitter recently. "They are fed up with the Homsi jokes."

This time, however, nobody is laughing.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images

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