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.'"