Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Mood lightens in Yemen

Comedy is being used in Yemen to brighten up a tense atmosphere while drawing attention to serious issues, writes Farea Al-Muslimi from Sanaa

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Yemeni president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has set up a committee to investigate Spain’s loss to Brazil in the World Cup. The findings accused former president Saleh of setting Spain up.”

This is not real news, but rather a Yemeni political joke mocking the establishment of committees to investigate various issues in the country without yielding any results. At the same time, the joke reflects the way the current government has been attempting to cast responsibility on the former government’s shoulders, accusing it of hindering the transition.

Political satire in Yemen is a common and effective political weapon, and it is perhaps the only medium allowed to criticise the performance of the authorities and various political parties. Jokes are an outlet for citizens who have mastered the art of humour, and some of them have even become celebrities as a result, using social media sites to facilitate the spread of scathing comments.

It is hard for any event in Yemen to avoid being the subject of jokes. Recently, Yemeni author Mansour Al-Jaradi published a book documenting the scores of jokes that surfaced during the Yemeni Revolution.

Before that, politicians were largely immune to criticism by the public or the media, and satire was the only weapon that ordinary people had since the security agencies were usually unable to deal with jokes as political tools. When there was bad news, Yemenis would often resort to jokes to deal with it.

Some areas became famous for their satire, such as the province of Dhamar, known as the “joke factory” in Yemen. The mockery of the province’s residents has not spared anyone, including the province’s governor and political leaders. Jokes, in fact, are among the only things the residents take seriously, using them as a way of communicating their political concerns to the government.

One visitor to Dhamar once witnessed a traditional Yemeni funeral in which the body, wrapped in a loose cloth, is put in a wooden casket carried on the shoulders of pallbearers. Since the Yemeni religious culture requires people to participate in funerals in order to win the reward of God, the visitor joined the funeral. But when he asked about the parents of the deceased, they told him it was the funeral for a university that was supposed to have been built in the city.

The president had apparently laid the foundation stone at a ceremony some years ago, but work on the university had yet to be launched. Thus, the residents considered it to be a “dead project” that should now be buried. A similar occurrence took place when the value of the Yemeni currency against the US dollar plummeted. Some residents held a mock funeral for the Yemeni riyal after they learned that its purchasing power has fallen.

The 2011 Revolution also involved its own fair share of satire, which only increased with the severity of the crackdown. Although the new government was formed as a result of the Revolution, young people, who played an important role in it, are largely absent from it. One wit has commented in the form of a news headline that “a decision has been made to raise the age limit for young people to 60, allowing young people to claim all the portfolios in the new government.”

Another wit called the elderly government the “Toyor Al-Jannah government,” referring to the name of a well-known children’s channel.

After the recent announcement that Yemen was being divided into six regions, paving the way for the transition to a federation, a prominent Yemeni politician commented that “Yemen is actually now a seven-region country, but the seventh region has been given as a tip to those making the deal.” 

In some recent jokes, some have called the Azal region that stretches to areas known to be full of weapons the “region of all the talents.” They have also called the Saba region, which includes Maarib and Al-Jawf, whose citizens have been responsible for many of the kidnappings in Yemen, the kidnappers’ region. The Janad region, which includes Taiz, a city known for its intellectuals and politicians, has been called the activists’ region.

Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, an advisor to the president, has a reputation for taking over property and then considering it to be his own. As a result, he has been the subject of many public comments, especially in the south where there have been many land disputes. One joke runs that when he was asked the best nation in the world, Ahmar answered China. When asked the reason, he said “because it is already walled off.”

Some have nicknamed former minister of interior Abdulkader Qahtan the “18+ minister” because during his tenure the security services increased campaigns to pursue alcohol traders and Internet cafes allowing access pornographic material. At the same time, these same services failed to increase security in the country or to catch those carrying out attacks against electricity lines and oil pipelines.

The government’s weak performance, especially in providing citizens with basic services, has triggered sarcastic jokes, comments and caricatures. Imitating the prayer time on local channels, someone drew a picture saying “It’s time to cut the electricity lines, according to the local time in Maarib.”

This was a reference to the regular attacks against electricity lines, the perpetrators of which have not been punished. The name of the energy minister, Saleh Samea, has also been twisted to shamea (the Arabic word for candle). Due to the slow Internet service in Yemen and the government’s monopoly of it, the Internet is also now being referred to as the “Inter-not”.

Recently, Yemen Shabab, a local TV channel, cancelled one of its night-time shows and instead showed a screen saying “We apologise to our viewers as we can’t broadcast the show tonight due to electricity shortages and the absence of diesel.” The channel’s decision to show a dark screen instead of the show was an example of the use of irony to soften crises such as fuel and power cuts.

Another joke about the fuel shortages says that a man bought a fish to cook at home, but when he gave it to his wife to fry she said that they were out of gas and money. The fish laughed, going back to the sea with the words “May God protect the government.”

Meanwhile, the armed Houthi group, which insists it is committed to peaceful dialogue despite its violent actions, has been called the “salama dynamite shop” (“salama” means safety in Arabic).

Despite the dire situation Yemen finds itself in, political satire lives on and targets all the country’s political parties. And as long as the politicians keep doing what they are doing, such humour will continue.

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