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.”
A few days later, I unexpectedly find myself at the sharp end of a new kind of checkpoint humor. With the help of a taxi driver I trust (despite my lack of Arabic and his lack of English, we have figured out how to muddle along), I’d decided to try to make it to Homs, a city I last visited in November. To my surprise, my foreign passport gets me through all the checkpoints on the way in. The place is almost unrecognizable, though; a shelling campaign by the Syrian army has left it a mess of debris and blackened buildings. My plan had been to stay in the same hotel I’d stayed in before, but it’s taken a shell.
My driver has had enough, and wants to go home. “Damascus?” he keeps saying—it’s one of the few words we share—but I vainly insist on trying to find another hotel. And so we drive in circles until we are stopped at a Syrian-army checkpoint. A soldier motions us out of the car and into a tiny makeshift office, where a man in a tracksuit invites us to sit down beside a tatty-looking bed and a clutch of Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. What was I doing in Homs? Was I, by any chance, a journalist? “Journalists are always welcome in Syria, as long as they tell the truth and don’t tell lies,” he declares, his tone an inventive hybrid of the sinister and the jocular. Some underlings dressed in khaki pants laugh. I keep trying to apologize to my driver, a huge bear of a man who stares at the floor, occasionally raising his head to say “Damascus?”—his way of imploring our captors to let us go quietly on our way. “The taxi driver is afraid of Homs,” the tracksuit announces, which starts everyone laughing again.
After more than an hour of this, the man draws my attention to a huge shisha pipe by the door. Maybe the foreigner would like to try the hubbly-bubbly, he says, provoking yet another round of guffawing. Doing my best to join in the fun, I present him with a proposal. How about I take a picture of his soldiers smoking shisha, to show people in the West that everything in Homs is A-okay, and they let us leave? The officer is tickled by the idea, but later concludes that I don’t have permission to take photos of Syrian soldiers. He does, however, suggest a compromise: I take photos of myself and the taxi driver smoking hubbly-bubbly in the courtyard, then we’re free to go.
As we’re driving out of Homs, I see to my right a fresh shroud of black smoke hanging over the Baba Amr district, where just six days ago the American journalist Marie Colvin was killed in a blizzard of shells. Her body is still there. Upon leaving behind the final checkpoint at the southern edge of the city, the driver and I, entirely spontaneously, shout “Damascus!” at each other. We laugh uproariously and slap each other’s palms, then sit in absolute silence for the next two hours.