World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


Arab and Islamic Humor (255) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: WED 21, 5.00-7.00 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: Catholic University of Milan / SESAMO (Italy)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Paolo Branca

· NOT_DEFINED language: English/Français

· NOT_DEFINED description: The stereotype of the grim-faced Arab brandishing a scimitar is part of our collective imagination and is the result of centuries of struggle between the two sides of the Mediterranean. Over the course of time, Franks and Saracens, Crusaders and Turks, Venetian ships and Barbaresque pirates engaged in many epic battles, which have become mythical. In more recent times these images have been replaced by the representation of the lustfulness of the harem, making the fortune of a whole host of painters, when the eastern countries were no longer an impending danger and could therefore give way to less bloody and more exotic representations.
All this has been replaced by the clichés put forward by travel agencies, where the Orient rhymes with sunny beaches, coral reefs, tourist villages provided with all the comforts and providing quick visits to the archaeological sites and some shopping at the local markets. And here tourists risk buying “local” handicrafts … made in China.
In recent years the threatening aspect of the Orient and in particular of the Arab/Muslim world has had a dramatic revival. The negative image has been strengthened by Islamic terrorism, the harsh disputes and the tragic facts following the publication of the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, the Dutch documentary Submission whose director was murdered, the Danish satirical cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad and the violent reactions to the lecture Pope Benedict XVI held in Regensburg.
It is increasingly thought that an entire civilization is destitute of irony and of a light touch and can be summarized by the obtuse eyes of the fundamentalists, by the merciless harshness and the inarticulate quality of their ideology, by the inhuman ferocity with which they cut heads and hands and throw stones at the unfortunate who happens to be caught. It is an unreal image clashing with the overflowing humanity characteristic of towns and villages of the Middle East and of North Africa, which are far from being gloomy, not only thanks to the weather but also to the character of their inhabitants. In many ways they are similar to people living in places overlooking the Mediterranean. The panel’s aim is to present evidence and analyses about forms of humour in Arab and Islamic countries.

Chair: Antonio Cuciniello (Catholic University of Milan)

Paper presenter: Azzurra Meringolo (Third University of Rome, Italy /SESAMO), “Bride and gawwaz el-salonat: an arab Bridget Jones blogger who gives voice to female every-day narratives”
This study gives evidence of the significant developments in internet popular culture, focusing its attention on the importance of the blogsphere as a prolific place where arab popular culture can express itself. Particular attention will be given to the space the web provides to female narratives. In order to do so, the study presents the activity of a 30 years-old Egyptian blogger, Ghada Abdel Aal, who in 2006 created a blog ( to address the problems young unmarried Egyptian women suffer in their everyday life. Giving evidence of the internet’s importance, in the last three years, more than 500 thousand users entered the blog. Thanks to this success, an Egyptian publisher, Dar El Shorouk, decided to create a book, already translated in Italian, and both a comic’s series and a TV serial are going to be designed. Using both the blog posts and the book recently published, the paper faces subjects that are recurrent in the female narratives. In the first part, I give evidence of the significant developments in internet popular culture, focusing my attention on the importance of the blogsphere as a prolific place where Arab popular culture can express itself. In these following parts, I focus my attention on the space the web provides to female narratives. In order to do so, I use Ghada’s activity, the posts of her blog as well as her book, as an example to describe how the problems of young unmarried Egyptian women are addressed in the cyberspace. In the second part, I present the longstanding tradition of gawwaz el-salonat -the living room marriage- and the consequences it has in the everyday life of the young Egyptian girls. Thus, in the third part I shift my attention to analyze the debate that emerge about sexual frustration and gender disparity, to demonstrate the ability of the blogsphere to unveil taboo. At the end I will demonstrate the relevance the blogspehere acquired in the Arab society and its ability to both open the debate on topics that were considered till now taboo and to connect people not fully integrated in the society In addition, I will show how satire has been used by this blogger to question women’s passive role in the traditional Egyptian society.

Paper presenter: Aldo Nicosia (University of Catania, Italy / SESAMO), “Third millennium Egypt political satire in mass-media”‎
In Egypt political satire has always been a basic form of resistance against the falsity of the oppressive authority, through the discourse of popular culture: jokes, proverbs, rhyming songs, stories, tunes, etc. In the republican era the prominent presence of satire in cinema, more than on stage, was an instrument to justify the current regime and vilify the previous one. Even though the institution of censorship has obviously taken strong measures against any 'transgressive' messages that might subvert the existing power relations, since then, the hidden, ambiguous or sometimes open conflict against an official discourse, is more and more visually present on stage. Recently this sort of public space became wider and found a strong support through the new wave of adab sakhir and satirizing bloggers writings. We try to demonstrate how the different manners in which the discourse of the oppressed 'masses', weaved in the past by mythic revolutionary icons (such as Fu'ad Najm), are now processed by the censorship authority, suggesting that the subversive charge of the message could also be transferred and channelled to other and more complex purposes.

Paper presenter: Paolo Branca (Catholic University of Milan (IT) / SESAMO), “Arab and Islamic Humor from Past to Present”
From traditional characters such as Joha and Nasreddine to the contemporary short stories of Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi the humble but glorious history of Arab-Islamic humour remains a sort of underground stream of popular narration, but also a cultivated literary gender (e.g. The Book of Misers by al-Jahiz).
There are not substantial differences between these jokes and those of other civilizations: the human race is the same everywhere and even some taboo themes are present in many ways in the Arab and Islamic world as well, from ancient Bedouins to globalization.

Paper presenter: Emma Vita (Università di Bologna, ''R.Ruffilli'' Forlì), "Jordan Political Cartoon"
The aim of this essay is to gain a basic understanding of Arab political humor through the examination of the Jordan Arab political cartoons. It is assumed that political cartooning is a popular cultural form of satire. The function of Satire in society is discussed, and the relationship between satire, Arab political humor and Arab political cartoons is investigated. Nowadays the Jordan context shows how cartoon satire offers a new public sphere for political debate and social opposition. The pictorial art as popular expression instead came to Islamic world from outside in the mid-nineteenth. Because of Muslims are "people of tongue" the iconography was not developed in the past. Islam and tribal-Bedouin tradition, in fact, is an important part of any explanation to the historical scarcity of images in Arabic culture. It is further suggested that the regionalization of the Arab mass media has steered the cartoons into focusing on regional and international issues rather than domestic one. An important case study could be the cartoonist Emad Hajjaj, creator of the Jordan popular satirical character Abu Mahjoob, who focused his works on international issues but also on the local one. His purpose is to induce a social change through a constructive self-criticism and a prickly humor that, in general, is not funny. His targets are government officials as much as Jordan society with his costumes and traditions. Although cartoonists in the Arab region are strongly censured they could provide a new agent of democratization in the region.