Jokes Too Far

by: Wajid Ali Syed

Courtesy:, August 10th, 2009

You can’t deny the importance of humor in life. One of the first steps to ensuring a nation’s death is to regulate and ban its humor. Humor implies tolerance. Without it a people wither on the vine. Humor is not necessarily portable. People the world over can relate to Three Stooges-like pratfalls and jokes about meddlesome mothers-in-law or nagging wives or hapless husbands. Many American jokes could probably be enjoyed in Pakistan, like this one: What’s the difference between Jesus and a picture of Jesus? You only need one nail to hang up a picture of Jesus.

But many Pakistani jokes – the tenor, the twist of language, the subject matter – would probably leave a typical Westerner staring blankly at the teller. And it could be as simple as “Chal Oye” and will purposely insult the person, which is not that harsh in other societies.

The Punjabi sense of humor, as those of you who’ve been on the receiving end of what we call “Jugat” – (offensive jokes) but what others would compare to being brutalized, is the most biting and evocative of all.

Notice that the richer the language and the older the culture is the greater the impact of short words and sentences — and the more potentially offensive. But at the same time, expressions convey wisdom inherited from generations. Two words like Chal Nikal (take off) are quite similar in two different languages but at the same time convey different emotions.

I believe that sense of humor is what saves Pakistan politically. In a country ruled by the military for most of its existence and the ruling elites are better known for corruption and thievery on a jaw-dropping scale, where is the little guy supposed to find relief? Humor is one of the only outlets.

Here’s an example of what we find funny. When President Zardari visited New York and was missing in action for a couple of days we just couldn’t resist. For those of you not aware of Zardari’s reputation: In addition to being the widower of Benazir Bhutto he was also thought to be one of the biggest crooks in Pakistan – and there’s some pretty stiff competiton in that category. The joke goes something like this: Mr Zardari had a wonderful night with a hooker. The next morning she asked “what about the money?” The president chuckled, “Come on, how could I take money from you?”

Brutal gags actually empower the powerless. You may not be able to find relief at the ballot box, or have electricity in your home most of the day or be able to afford the food you want, but you can take your revenge on the system by sharing jokes about everything from the “General Sahib” to “Molvi Sahib”.

Like when General Musharraf introduced his ‘modern enlightenment’ philosophy tagged with the slogan “Pakistan First”, a joke was on SMS that his wife complained that he has not been screwing her lately – and the General candidly replied: Pakistan First.

Similarly, a joke circulated during the last elections when Pakistanis had enough of Musharraf’s vanity political “party” the Q-League (whose electoral sign was a bicycle). The joke was so localized that it defies translation.

There is no point going into the history of humor in Subcontinent here. Suffice to say that it continues to evolve and grow in richness. No country or culture has the intelligence and worldview to create humor or such jokes. Unlike Jewish humor, which was used to deflect suffering and marginalization and turns inward and is typically neurotic, Pakistani humor is directed outwards to all targets both moving and stationary.

Thus Pakistani comedians are such as success at home and abroad. Their silly jokes which make the foreigners roll on the floor barely makes us smile – because of the maturity of our society and its tolerance level for brutal humor leaves their tame offerings in the dust.

Religion is always good for a laugh – and an excellent example of an avenue of humor that exposes a country’s tolerance and hypocrisies and fault lines. Poking fun at Bhagwan or Ram or Jesus is tolerable but you can get killed for doing the same about the Prophet in any Middle Eastern country.

Recently Pakistan has been facing serious threats from religious fundamentalists but because of the history of this region – subcontinent, the common man has been able to survive and fight back through open mockery. Clergymen have long been a favorite target of roasters.

Most of you must have heard this that a man visits a molvi and tells that he has committed the sin of raping a cat. The sinner asked for some prayers to seek forgiveness. But the molvi sahib, before prescribing any prayers gets curious and asks: What’s the trick to catch a cat?

There are certain punch lines that has been there forever. Hail the Pakistani culture that elevates the tolerance level of a common man and gives him the hope- a chance to take take revenge in his own way- and take on life’s challenges laughing.

Source –

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