Religious jokes cause a titter

Hassan Mekki AFP

In the latest joke doing the rounds in Egypt, government officials surprised at seeing Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca wearing a cross turn to Saudi King Fahd for an urgent explanation.

"I swear I don't know why. By Christ I don't," says the monarch.

Poking fun at religion has replaced political jokes in Egypt, with sheikhs, priests and Jewish religious leaders becoming the victims. Even prophets are not spared in a country that has banned a movie because it depicted Joseph.

The nokta (joke), which is considered here as a weapon used by the poor and oppressed to forget their hardships, has recently been the subject of a doctorate thesis at Alexandria University.

"Political jokes are becoming less necessary with the rise of freedom of speech since the 1980s," said thesis author Nahla Ibrahim Mohammed.

The new jokes in vogue are bold and very often have sexual connotations.

The favorite nokta among Cairo's youth is one telling the story of the frustrated wife of a Muslim cleric who complains her husband makes love to her only once a month.

The wife hits the roof the day she learns that her neighbor, who is also married to a sheikh, makes love with her husband five times a day like the five daily prayers that must be recited by devout Muslims.

She returns home and plasters her apartment with posters bearing the slogan: "Islam is the solution."

"Since the political nokta has failed to thaw the process of democratization, Egyptians are letting off steam by attacking two other taboos: sex and religion," said sociologist Nabil Abdel Fattah.

The thesis writer stressed in her report that this new joke trend has foreign roots, because Egyptians by tradition respect religion.

The new jokes have been adapted to Egyptian culture and have spread quickly among the youth because of the "absence of moral and religious barriers which parents traditionally backed."

Mohammed said that young people who enjoy telling or listening to these jokes later ask God for "forgiveness."

Abdel Fattah said these "noktas fuel hostile attitudes" toward Copts or Muslims, such as a recent call by the leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to impose a special tax on Copts and expel them from the army.

Noktas are considered a mirror of history and social trends, and new ones are constantly monitored by the security services.

In the past, political jokes topped the charts, particularly during military defeats or under dictatorships. After the 1952 Revolution that toppled the monarchy, anti-Israeli jokes appeared.

Even if some religious noktas were told, they were never licentious. Instead they poked fun at religious leaders who pretended to have supernatural powers or who kow-towed to the Ottoman, French or British forces that occupied Egypt.

According to Abdel Fattah, religious noktas will continue to be a trend until "real democracy" emerges in Egypt.

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