“Here’s something that has always puzzled me, growing up in the U.S. as a child of Russian parents. Whenever I or my friends were having our photos taken, we were told to say “cheese” and smile. But if my parents also happened to be in the photo, they were stone-faced………… He found that in countries like Germany, Switzerland, China, and Malaysia, smiling faces were rated as significantly more intelligent than non-smiling people. But in Japan, India, Iran, South Korea, and—you guessed it—Russia, the smiling faces were considered significantly less intelligent…………..”
I have occasionally commented in my posts here on the humor or lack of it in the Middle East. Anyone who reads my posts on humor would know that the region between Waziristan through the Persian Gulf and all the way to Algiers suffers from an acute lack of humor. With a few possible pockets of ‘some’ limited humor in the region.
I have often comment about humorless Jordan. But the rest of the region is not far behind. Syria was never known for her humor, and no doubt it is much worse now. The same applies for the Lebanese who are great cooks but suck at telling jokes. Iranians and Israelis are no better. Even American Jews who move to settle in Israel manage to lose any sense of humor that they might have had. As for the Turks, they take the second prize (after Jordan): ask any Turk, male or female or transgender, about humor and they will most likely respond “what is that?“
Which brings me to Egypt, the once jewel of Middle Eastern and African humor. It used to be the most, possibly the only, Arab country with a sense of humor. Not anymore. Egyptian humor was famous under Gamal Abdel Nasser, and it survived Anwar Sadat. Under Mubarak it weakened, perhaps a by-product of increased Wahhabi influence. Now under General Field Marshal Sisi humor seems to have vanished from Cairo, even as Wahhabism is going mainstream. Thousands of political prisoners, many disappearances and a rising campaign of terrorism can do that to a society.
As for my native region on the (Persian) Gulf. I recall when I first graduated from college in America and went home. I was used to people smiling at me or smiling back at me in public places in the USA. Even the dogs in the parks would try to lick my hand or hug my leg tightly and in a suspicious way, if you get what I mean.
Back home, whenever I stopped at a red light and looked at the car next to me all I saw was a frown, mostly a scowl and a silent growl. Whether I looked to my right or my left, I was always rewarded with a scowl. Later on I realized that it was just a result of insecurity and some suspicion, not hostility. Many people on my Gulf often feel that they would not be taken seriously or respected unless they scowled at others.
Nowadays it has gotten even more complicated. Other factors have entered the equation: by the time they figure out which tribe or religious sect you belong to, it is too late to smile.
Still, I never respected someone who answered my smile with a scowl anyway. But the scowls worked: I stopped smiling at strangers back home.
M Haider Ghuloum
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