What is so funny about military checkpoints?
It’s late February, and I have just returned to Syria on an undercover reporting trip, one of several I’ve made in the past year, when I run into my friend Amjad outside my hotel in Damascus. Amjad is himself only just back in the city, having months ago fled into exile as a result of his association with another Western journalist. We are keen to catch up, but neither of us wants to attract the attention of Syria’s secret police, so coffee is out of the question (the cafés are thick with mukhabarat). Instead, we keep walking, and as we walk and talk, Amjad tells me the latest checkpoint jokes.
Checkpoints are newly ubiquitous here, a by-product of the popular uprising that started in March 2011. Not all of them are manned by the Syrian army. Some are run by the security agencies that protect Bashar al-Assad’s government; others by the shabiha, pro-regime paramilitaries that have been busy brutalizing the opposition for the past year; some have even been thrown up by the guerrillas of the Free Syrian Army, which opposes the Assad regime. People are afraid of the checkpoints, naturally, but they have nonetheless begun to make fun of them.
As Amjad and I amble along Damascus’s main thoroughfares, he points out the lines that form around the old men who hawk lottery tickets on street corners. Throughout the day, customers stop by in a steady stream, each one asking aloud whether he is a winner. The sight reminds Amjad of one of his favorite jokes of the moment: A driver pulls up to a checkpoint and presents his ID to the gunman, who proceeds to compare it with a list of wanted names. “Am I a winner?” asks the man, leaning out of his car hopefully.
One happier side effect of the crisis engulfing the country is that Syrians have become world-class practitioners of pitch-black humor. As an Irishman raised during the Troubles, I know the genre. And so, to keep up my end of the conversation, I offer Amjad a joke from my native Belfast. A local drives up to a checkpoint in the Northern Irish countryside, I tell my friend, only to find a masked man pointing a gun at his head. “Catholic or Protestant?” roars the balaclava, in a threatening mid-Ulster brogue. “Jew,” says the driver, thinking fast. But the balaclava goes ballistic, hollering at a colleague farther up the road: “Jackpot, Mohammed. We’ve found one!”
Amjad throws off a nervy, hyperactive laugh, then tells me a rebel joke from Homs. Syria’s third-largest city, Homs has become the violent epicenter of resistance to the regime, in a campaign that has occasionally risked spiraling into ugly sectarian war. So anyway, Amjad says, a bus stops at a checkpoint near Homs, and the soldiers move slowly down the aisle, checking the passengers’ identity cards. One man, however, lolling at the back with his feet up, has no intention of providing his ID card. “Fuck you,” he shouts at the soldier, “don’t you know I’m mukhabarat?” “No, you’re the one who’s fucked,” comes the reply. “This is a Free Syrian Army checkpoint.”
Jokes like this reveal something essential about how ordinary Syrians are experiencing the crisis. Genuine affection for ethnic or religious others, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once told me, comes when you’re confident enough to swap insults and obscenities. It was only when the situation in the Balkans turned sour, he pointed out, that the ethnic jokes began to dry up.
What’s happening in Syria is still a far cry from the Balkans, but you can sense people’s fear that it might be headed that way. The Sunni Muslims who have led the movement to topple the Alawi-dominated regime complain that they’re bearing the brunt of the suffering. One of the most popular jokes going around now has a Sunni trying to convince a Christian that his community should pull its weight in the battle to depose the regime. “Fair enough,” says the Christian, “but only if we get to share power equally when we win.” “That’s ridiculous,” says the Sunni. “We’re three-quarters of the population, and you’re only 10 percent.” “Chill out,” says the Christian; “by the time this thing is over, our numbers should be more or less the same.”