Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What Makes Pakistanis Laugh?

Smiling Pakistani

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.

2. Schadenfreude

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.


Anonymous said...

I don't know who said it, but it's true: laughter has no foreign accent. I would love to come to Pakistan to tell you a few Newfie jokes...but maybe you would have to be a Canadian to understand them?

This was such a great post. I am now putting you on my blogroll under my category: great writing.
- ian in hamburg

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful article! But why no mention of Genral Sahab?Pervez Musharraf is the biggest laughing stock of our nation.

Anonymous said...

We don't rejoice when bad things happen to India. Those who say Indians are more developed are wrong. If Paksitan is an imperfect dictatorship, then India is an imperfect democracy. Look at teh hundreds of people killed in nxal violenece there. But that doesnt mean we should not address problems inside our country.

Anonymous said...

Zamsher, I like your comment - "If Paksitan is an imperfect dictatorship, then India is an imperfect democracy. Look at teh hundreds of people killed in nxal violenece there." I wonder whether one is better than the other. But perhaps what I think mostly is that there is a certain poignancy to the fact that we are "fucked"

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with this article. Our (Indian and Pakistani) sense of humour derives so much from the pain of others, it is scary. I am an Indian and I have no ill feelings towards any Pakistani. Do i feel happy when India beats Pakistan in a cricket or hockey match?... Yes. But then i also feel happy when India beats England, Australia or SA in a cricket match. Do i feel sad at the needless violence in our respective countries? Yes. Does that mean that i will not greet a Pakistani when i meet one? No.
We forget very easily that we were a single nation not so long ago. Hey.. what wouldn't I give for a joint Pakistan-India cricket team or hockey team to take on the world!!!

Anonymous said... Arijit..from India..was going through this blog..this is great..anyways dont u think we should be more concerned about the growth of our societies??our countries may be having governing problems but we are the people who can change the bad into good..we have to be more careful when we laugh at each other..we both need to start the good things right now at this very time..our next generations should not have this bad habit of laughing at each other..we had enough of this shit!! my frind..hope we can atleast start to be friends..take care

kakumani said...

I live in the USA, originally from Hyderabad, India.
Over a period of seven years I have
had 5 young men from Pakistan as
assistants in managing a business.
Four spoke Urdu and I always conversed with them in Urdu. (which
by the way is a poetic language )
They would always addressed me as saab or ji in keeping with our common custom of 'respect for elders'.
We also had a recently arrived
family from Peshawar who spoke
Pashto. The head of the house and his dad spoke Urdu. Our families
mingled very well. We would eat
together many times or exchange
dishes all the time. Purdah was not
The point is that we are similar in
many respects but are separated by
boundaries and national politics.
Our politicians and govts. are
responsible for the ' bogeyman '
syndrome. And of course the radicals on both sides.
Will write more later.
Thank you for reading.

Rajesh Kochhar said...

Let me tell you an Indian joke involving Pakistan. It is from pre-TV era. A cricket match is being played between Pakistan and India. This man , in India, is listening to the commentary on radio. He has tuned in to Lahore and the reception is bad. His friend says : Why dont you tune to Jullundur? Reception will be better. Why should I use our electricity. Let theirs be used.

Anonymous said...

Arjit, that was a lovely comment. I'm glad you said what you did. I have respect for India and Indians, have visited twice, and think that peace is a must for our region. This article was written tongue-in-cheek, and I'm glad that people on both sides of the border see it for what it is - a light effort to entertain and amuse. Cheers.

Harsh Satya said...

i beg to differ on few points in the article. i don't think we get happy at other people's miseries. we may laugh on the incident, but we feel bad about the person involved in it. we may laugh at the scene of truck in middle of the water, or donkey up in the sky but we would feel bad about the people involved in that accident. and like most common indians would do, im sure most common pakis would also do, rush for the help. people in our countries find time to help people stuck....i'm an indian who likes to see the indian team win, but i'm a part of that elite who can afford one full day to see a cricket match. most indians dont see cricket. most indians didn't know india beat pak in 2020 world cup.for most indians that is not an issue. india is in it's villages as gandhi said, and someone we people on the internet forget that....
and yes it's true, the indian police kill people in the name of naxals. i pray,that the paki police would never do such a thing.

a n k | t said...

very intriguing article.... I am an indian living in US and I have paki friends and we sure laugh at the same things which other people might feel weird..... there is one lingering question that I'd like to ask anybody who reads this comment, "Does religion constitute nationality?"

aryaputra said...

hello all,
I kinda agree with Kiran .. that our sense of humour derives so much from pain of others. But this is true for any kinda people from various cultures. in england the most common kinda humour is piss taking humour. where someone takes a piss outta some one just for a laugh. but i guess all it means is that we should't be very ego centric. if some one laughs at you. that should be fine. As we know that if you laugh everyone laughs with you. but when u cry. no one wants to join u.

Unknown said...

Good work Bina, But i guess you missed out our nation's(people and people owners) greatest ability to laugh in most difficult situations, for example i can see many smiling beggars on the roads and smiling generals and politicians having this country in worst of times.

Anonymous said...

rightly said i dnt find it fct the way we find a rsn 2laugh at each othr shws hw indiffrnt we are......

Ayibar said...

It's not scary..and it's not just common in desis[indian/pakis] it's HUMAN's every human's nature and personality to laugh at others when they are hurt.When someone slips on a banana peel, they might have broken their back but we laugh! i mean seriously! it doesnt have anything to do with being pakistani or not, im sure a lot of americans here laugh and make fun of how bush looks like a monkey! I liked your post though and my favorite section was the "you would have to be pakistani to understand"anwar maqsood,begum nawazish ali and memon/sardar jokes are all wat makes us laugh and if the west could speak urdu they would too =D

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