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.