Wednesday, October 10, 2007
What Makes Pakistanis Laugh?
The celebrated Pakistani author investigates.
[Text by Bina Shah; picture by Steve Eveans]
Bina Shah, a Wellesley and Harvard alumna, is a noted Karachi based author, journalist, editor, and blogger. She has published two novels and two collections of short stories. She lives in Karachi.
There’s a movie that came out a couple of years ago, called “Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World”. Albert Brooks plays a somewhat unsuccessful comedian who’s hired by the US State Department for a fact-finding mission to India and Pakistan to find out what makes Muslims laugh, because by finding out what Muslims find funny, the United States will be able to win over hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Joseph Nye probably never thought of this twist to his theory of soft power, but it certainly makes for an interesting premise.
Sadly, the hapless Brooks tells his jokes in India, but they fall completely flat, and he never gets the laughs he’s hoping for. However, when he crosses the border in a highly secret night-time mission, he’s taken blindfolded to a group of jihadis gathered around a fire, and when he tells his jokes to them through an interpreter, they fall down laughing, which made me fall down laughing only because the scene was so silly albeit in an endearing way. You wouldn’t normally think of freedom fighters as having a sense of humor, and especially one that they share with a Jewish comedian from Los Angeles, but hey, this is Hollywood! (and any time Hollywood makes us look better than Indians, Pakistanis are going to laugh – but so are Indians. Sad fact.)
Brooks may not have been able to find out what makes Muslims laugh, but the movie does give rise to an interesting question: What is it that makes Pakistanis laugh?
1. Anything the Government Does
I posed the question “What makes Pakistanis laugh?” on Facebook and a Pakistani journalist friend of mine shot back with a quick answer: “Seeing the country blossom and progress under dedicated and true governance”, which made me laugh so hard that my pet budgies let out an alarmed burst of machine-gun squawks at the sight of me falling off my chair.
Similar responses from other people included: “The National Reconciliation Ordinance”, “Ministers getting their faces spray-painted by lawyers”, and “Pakistan importing wheat from India”. Someone told me that what makes them laugh is the regular reappearance of a fresh crop of hair on politicians that are patently bald. One person laughed and laughed at the idea that Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed would become the next President of Pakistan. Then, when he found out that Benazir Bhutto just might be our next Prime Minister, he cried inconsolably for three days.
The end result of all Pakistanis finding their government and its representatives so hilarious is that they no longer want to obey even the slightest sign of authority, so nobody stops at traffic lights anymore; they rush through the red lights with joy in their hearts and glee on their faces. Then they have fatal accidents, which nobody finds funny.
This is a word from German that translates into “pleasure taken from someone else's misfortune”. Unfortunately, the Pakistanis I polled listed this as the second most likely thing to make them laugh. “The misery of others is what makes us laugh,” said one young Pakistani, “like when two urchins start fighting over a few coins, everyone gathers around them and laughs like hyenas”.
Other tragedies which make Pakistanis laugh: an accident which involves a truck driver who somehow manages to get his truck swimming in the middle of a lake/sandwiched up a lamppost/ flying off a bridge, and is photographed sitting at the scene with his head in his hands and a “Why me” look on his face; the photograph of the cart that’s so heavy that the donkey pulling it has been lifted three feet into the air; and anytime a big society wedding is followed by a scandalous divorce.
We’re not mad enough to laugh at death, natural disaster, or terminal illness. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we share this aspect of our national sense of humor with Hitler, as Albert Speer wrote in Inside the Third Reich. Don’t worry: there are enough Pakistanis who think Hitler was right to try and massacre the Jews who will find this fact incredibly funny.
3. When Bad Things Happen to Indians
This is an extension of schadenfreude, but compounded by when the misery involves the nation we love to hate, India. There are dedicated Pakistanis who scan the newspapers and Internet for any sign of trouble or problems in our neighboring country, and then use the slightest snippets to wax hysterical on the superiority of Pakistan to India. “Look! Ha ha ha! In India you worship elephants and marry your daughters to dogs! Ha ha ha!” There are endless variations of this: rats found having signs of bubonic plague in India? Rajiv Gandhi assassinated? Apu made a permanent character on the Simpsons? Hilarious!
When Indian politicians are found guilty of corruption, we laugh. When a Bollywood actor or actress stars in a Western movie that flops at the box office, we laugh even harder. And when the Indian cricket team loses a match, we can hardly contain our merriment. I personally know IT folk who laughed until they cried when it was announced that the United States was cutting back on H1B visas because it meant that Indians who were making a living in Silicon Valley might have to give up their high paying jobs.
Of course, the real reason we’re laughing so hard is to drown out the sound of one billion Indians jeering at us across the border, twenty four hours a day. This was never more true than when India beat Pakistan in the Twenty20 World Cup final last month.
But seriously, who didn’t enjoy a little snicker when Shilpa Shetty was arrested for being kissed by Richard Gere?
4. You Just Wouldn’t Understand Unless You’re a Pakistani
Numerous items fall into this category: Punjabi and Pashto films, Begum Nawazish Ali’s jokes, Memon jokes, Sardarji jokes, drunkenness, women wearing Western dress, transvestites, toupees, bombs going off in Western countries, Anwar Maqsood… the list goes on. These are things that nobody else in the world finds funny, but Pakistanis manage to derive a lot of amusement out of all of them. Perhaps it’s because Pakistanis possess a different funny gene than other people, but whatever it is, it guarantees a sense of humor that is unique to the nation.
In conclusion, I can safely say that what makes Pakistanis laugh is a combination of whatever is surreal, farcical, comedo-tragic, and self-deprecating. This is a reflection of the nation we live in. You see, living in Pakistani is a bit like living inside a Salvador Dali painting with red skies and clocks melting off tree branches. Either you go insane, or you laugh at it and shrug it off with a bravado that would win you the Victoria Cross in any other country. And always remember that nugget of wisdom that comes from some other country that doesn’t think it’s funny when people get electrocuted from flying kites: laugh and the whole world laughs with you. Or at you. Or something like that.