This essay is part of the Summer 2022 JOKE-themed issue of ArabLit Quarterly, guest-edited by Anam Zafar.
By Sanaa El Aji
Translated by Leonie Rau
This essay originally appeared in December 2006, in the tenth issue of the Moroccan weekly news magazine Nichane, an independent publication known, at the time, for tackling contentious political and social issues, often in Moroccan dialect. Both the author, Sanaa El Aji, and the magazine’s editor, Driss Ksikes, were put on trial and received hefty fines and suspended prison sentences for their alleged disrespect for Morocco’s king, moral values, and Islam in this essay on Moroccan humor. After a two-month suspension, Nichane continued to publish for another three years before the publication was closed down after a prolonged advertising boycott in 2010.
Here, sixteen years after its original publication, we feature El Aji’s essay in English translation.
A Nation of Jokes?
Jokes are the salt of social life. Like anyone else, Moroccans make fun of everything: sexual relationships considered forbidden by religion; a king held to be officially sacred; Islam, whose doctrines are regarded as infallible; and any current events that allow for a salty quip.
Here, Nichane analyzes the peculiarities of Moroccan jokes and relays the ones most conducive to laughter.
In Morocco, there isn’t a topic that isn’t joked about. We have a Holy Trinity, just like in the rest of the world: sex, religion, and politics. There are regional jokes where the Marrakchi makes fun of the Fezzi, the Aroubi of the Soussi, and the Oujdi of the Berkani. There are jokes fabricated by the popular imagination as commentary on important events: the national census, the Family Code, the Al Hoceima earthquake, floods, the May 16 Bombings, the elections . . . .
But how do we produce a joke, and how does it develop? And to what extent is it affected by changes in Moroccan society?
The Joke: Where Did it Come From, Where Does it Go?
It is almost impossible to tease out the origins or creator of a given joke, or the various transformations it undergoes during its transmission and circulation. There are jokes that are around for years with only a few minor changes to keep up-to-date with current events. With such changes, the matter of the “intellectual ownership” of jokes becomes almost impossible to determine—they have entered the public domain.
Everyone who tells a joke imbues it with their own character, references, sensibilities, inclinations, and culture. For example, take the joke that appeared when the government first launched the Intilaqa program, to encourage and support voluntary retirements. The joke relates the story of an employee who benefitted from this program, pocketing thirty million centimes. She is sitting in her living room, counting her money, when her old, gray-haired husband passes by. She says to him: “How about you take ten million and go on voluntary retirement?”
When a man tells this joke, the employee becomes male, while the old, withered spouse becomes a rural woman with frizzy hair, wearing old pajamas.
So, which version is the original and which the imitation?
It is impossible to be sure. . . or is it? In his book, Laughter and the Other: The Image of the Arab in Humor, Hassan Nraies acknowledges that “the joke belongs to everyone, and, at the same time, to no one. The person who tells it becomes its owner for a specific and limited period of time. The moment they are finished telling the joke, it belongs to everyone, and anyone has the ability and even the right to retell it without so much as mentioning its source. Anyone has the right to say that they are its owner. Based on this premise, it is susceptible to changes and transformations, such as the substitution of words for other words based on mere whims and the audacity and courage of the one telling the joke.”
From here, we can be certain of only one thing: The joke is an orphan without origin or lineage, and no way of establishing one. Poor thing! It is everyone’s property, inherited by the collective oral culture and cultivated according to its needs and developments. In this context, the sociologist Jamal Khalil holds that “a joke is circulated very quickly if the reasons for its conception are somewhat strange.”
That said, how receptive are Moroccans to jokes in general? Are we a people of jokesters and teasers, broadly speaking? The poet and playwright Ahmad al-Tayyeb Aldj agrees with Jamal Khalil that Moroccans are a truly humorous people, one that knows how to turn all its issues into wisecracks that make them laugh. Unfortunately, this tendency has begun to gradually decrease, since “Moroccans nowadays have narrower horizons and are less open to jokes and criticism than their grandparents,” according to Aldj. The responsibility falls to the narrator!
Tell Me Why You Laugh and I’ll Tell You Who You Are
Jokes have existed in every culture throughout history. Their primary role was and still is to induce laughter and amusement by producing caricatures of reality. They are also a clear challenge to taboo topics, and an important transgression of that which cannot be said or which might be difficult to address outside the context of a joke. To this point, Hassan Nraies explains in his book that “humor often removes the mask from the reality of things and liberates buried frustrations, thus bringing true feelings into the light. To quote Hervé Niquet : ‘We can bet that laughter—just like crying—always gives expression to some truth: Tell me why you laugh and what prevents you from laughing, and I’ll tell you who you are, with your tragedies and your fears.’”
For his part, Jamal Khalil recounts how “jokes are usually the result of some kind of questioning of situations that are real and recurring, but irrational. They express contradictions or irrational taboos in the context of true and real events.”
Well, then, God bless this laughter!
The question now becomes: Why do Moroccans laugh?
Coquelin Cadet said in his book Laughter, “We have written much about laughter, but we have not in any aspect defined what makes [a person] laugh.” It is, however, generally accepted that there are universal themes that inspire all comedians and fabricators of jokes: Just like in the rest of the world, the trinity of sex, religion, and politics is considered to be the most important inspiration for jokes. It represents the desire to break taboos and reject all boundaries. Jamal Khalil writes on this that “the Moroccan joke has always circled around taboos but has not truly overcome them.”
Sex: They Say ‘There is No Shame in Religion’
The sexual joke rebels against all kinds of prohibitions and taboos: homosexuality, the sexual exploitation of children, the various kinds of sexual positions, dealing with prostitutes . . . . All of these topics are (only?) acceptable and circulated within jokes, and their recounting remains confined to meetings between people of the same gender and age group, or between those connected by a relationship intimate enough to enable them to break these taboos. In short, it is difficult to exchange sexual jokes within the family circle. When the limits of decency are crossed, the person telling the joke will say, trying to make nice, “There is no shame in religion.” Religion here is synonymous with sex because the former governs the rules of the latter, or so it seems.
The protagonists of sexual jokes are mostly men. Women’s emancipation in Morocco is still not complete, and jokes are evidence of this. In sex jokes, the woman is present to satisfy the desires and fantasies of the man, or to reinforce the view that women are the inferior party in marital relationships, reducing women to their bodies.
A good example is the famous joke that goes something like this: a sixty-year-old woman surprises her newly married daughter while walking around the house naked. She asks her daughter the reason, and the younger woman replies: “It’s the caftan of love, Mama!” Her father returns home from work that night to find his wife walking around the house naked and asks, disapprovingly, “What happened?” She replies: “I’m wearing the caftan of love!” Her husband asks: “And why is it all wrinkled?”
At best, women play their socially accepted role in sexual jokes. There is the role of the “bashful, yet willing” woman who rarely initiates. In contrast, men appear as strong studs with insatiable appetites who know how to achieve their aims. They are the doers, the decision-makers.
When people re-tell sex jokes, they might replace “uncomfortable” words with their French equivalents or with gestures and allusions such as “You know…”, “Just imagine the rest!” or “thingie.” When this taboo is broken and the actual words of the joke are spoken aloud, this means that the narrator and their listeners have reached a kind of intimacy in their relationship. They might repeat before any joke of this type: “I’ve seen you fail!”
Sex jokes don’t always contain explicit words that violate the listeners’ sense of shame: some jokes may instead contain a sort of clever symbolism, like in the one about the young man who invites his girlfriend to come home with him. The girl, with feigned bashfulness, wants to know why, and he answers: “We’ll go listen to Abdel Halim Hafez.” The girl replies, with that same affected modesty: “And when Abdel Halim is finished, what will we do then?” The guy replies slyly: “We’ll put our clothes back on and leave.”
Religion: Jesters Hold the Keys to Paradise
In the introduction to Hassan Nraies’s aforementioned book, he refers to an author who discusses “the uncovering and dismantling of that which is serious, a self-defense against that which is strong and dominant, through laughter, cunning, pranks, and jokes.”
In Moroccan culture, there is nothing more dominant than religion, the taboo par excellence for jokes. In a culture that considers religion the most forbidden and sacred of taboos, jokes serve to break its symbolic hold and to make religion an object of ridicule. Everything becomes acceptable and possible in religious jokes. In the past, they used to expose the flaws of religious scholars and faqihs: their sometimes-not-entirely-natural sexual inclinations, their avarice and greed, their slyness. But today, the religious joke has evolved to touch on the most significant and important symbols of religion: God and His Messenger, although the presence of angels and the devil in religious jokes should not be underestimated.
Ahmad al-Tayyeb Aldj says that his mother, a religious woman who had memorized the Qur’an and the praises of the Prophet, “had no difficulty addressing some delicate issues with a joke. This is a kind of liberation Moroccans intentionally practiced among themselves, justifying it by saying: ‘A little for my Lord, a little for my heart.’” Aldj goes even further, saying that making fun of a faqih is symbolic in a way that transcends the person of that individual scholar: “He isn’t just someone teaching people to read and write but, metaphorically, a theologian familiar with the most minute details of religion.”
That is to say: making fun of a faqih is also making fun of religious symbolism. In this sense, the phrase “the faqih for whose blessing we were waiting entered the mosque in his slippers” does not stop at the transgression of the faqih wearing slippers inside the mosque, but also indicates that the faqih has crossed the well-known borders he is supposed to respect, according to Aldj.
Just as with jokes dealing with sex, the presence of religion in a joke leads to it being told only in intimate settings, with people the joke-teller knows and whose acceptance of this kind of joke they assume. Aldj confirms that “Moroccans will accept all kinds of jokes, even those crossing the boundaries of decency, as long as they make them laugh.”
When Moroccans make fun of the sacred in their jokes, they usually end the joke with phrases like “May God forgive us” or “May God bring low the cunning Satan” or “The tongue has no bones.” Some may go even further, “citing the words of the Messenger: ‘relieve these souls, for they rust as iron rusts,’ or the Qur’anic verse ‘God does not take you to task for the idleness of your oaths, but rather he will punish you for what your hearts have earned’ (Surat al-Baqara, 225).”
This explanation by Ahmed al-Tayyeb Aldj illustrates the extent to which some are able to religiously justify their desire for laughter and joking about sacred matters, since God does not hold His servants accountable for mere talk, as long as they don’t believe what they say. So, as long as you don’t laugh with your brain, you’re good.
Islamists are also the butt of their share of religious jokes. Ever since the events of May 16 in Casablanca, and the growth of the Islamist movement in Morocco, Moroccans have been making fun of Islamists in their jokes, portraying them as unwanted cowardly hypocrites who bring forth bombing plots and explosions and forbid everything, but do not hesitate to change their positions out of fear or to preserve their interests. For the Moroccan who is unable to confront or oppose them, these tragic events gave rise to the desire to laugh at them instead.
Politics: As for Kings, Don’t be Ashamed
Unlike in the Western world, politicians in Morocco do not inspire political jokes. With the exception of the kings (Hassan II and then Mohammed VI) and Idris al-Basri, contemporary political figures have only rarely been the topic of jokes. After Driss Jettou was appointed as Prime Minister for the first time, a joke spread that he had decreed, as his first law, an edict forbidding all Moroccans from walking barefoot, in order to increase his own profits through the shoe-manufacturing company he owned.
With the exception of these jokes, and a few others, political leaders and representatives didn’t inspire a lot of humorists. Despite much research, digging, and questioning, there is no trace of jokes about El Yazghi, Radi, Youssoufi, or Othmani, and not even about Abbas El Fassi.
Jamil Khalil said it all when he wrote: “When comedians discard politicians, this indicates that the general public lacks interest in them due to their ineffective performance on the political level. Anyone, whatever their professional domain, inspires feelings of either satisfaction or displeasure in those around them. For those falling into the latter category, there is no room for making jokes about them, whether positive or negative.”
Moroccans don’t reckon with politicians because they do not affect their daily lives. They do not influence reality; therefore, they are cut from Moroccan jokes.
What’s more, politicians in Morocco take their political duties much too seriously and convey through their media appearances the image of the “seasoned and rational politician” who speaks in a high register, in educated language that is too elevated for humor and ribbing, even further distancing them from the real world. A few months ago, the press spread a picture of a number of ministers convulsing with laughter during a meeting organized by Noureddine Ayouch, head of the Zagora Foundation. The photo depicted a real event, and it was as if this matter surprised Moroccans, as though they had been wondering whether their ministers actually knew how to laugh.
For their part, jokes featuring the king sharply express the opinions Moroccans have of him: Whereas Hassan II came across as a strong, intelligent person who could not be fooled, Mohammed VI appears as a kind, gentle, simple young man, modern and down to earth. During the Leila Island crisis with Spain that flared up in 2002, there was a joke that had the king say: “Just Lalla Salma and a jetski, that’s enough for me.”
In Morocco, it was never the case that political jokes were suppressed or prevented from being spread. On the contrary, it is said that Hassan II used to constantly demand to be informed of new jokes.
Ahmed al-Tayyeb Aldj goes even further, saying that he believes that “for most of the jokes that were made about Hassan II, he was their most ardent promoter.” Did the king thus consider jokes as a channel, informing him of the opinions of his citizens? Paul Valéry used to say, “Those who fear jokes don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves.”
And the instrument of repression never harmed jokes in Morocco.
Racism or Regionalism?
A deep reflection on regional jokes illustrates the extent of “internal racism” committed by Moroccans. The Marrakchi makes fun of the Fezzi, the Fezzi takes revenge on the Aroubi, and the Aroubi ribs on the Soussi . . . .
There are no limits to this kind of joke, which seeks to excavate the “flaws” of the other and make an exaggerated caricature of them. Here, the Marrakchi appears as a laughingstock, yet able to take a joke, and as enjoying sex from behind or with children. The Fezzi always has a weak personality, makes a mess, is rich, and is easily fooled, usually by his wife. The Soussi is stingy and the Berkani lazy and stupid. These are reproductions of caricatured situations that strengthen tribal or regional belonging, in which the Other is depicted in a funny parody.
On this matter, Ahmed al-Tayyeb Aldj says that it “does not express racism as much as it expresses the ability of Moroccans to jest, laugh, and make fun of their faults.”
Jamal Khalil confirms this belief, adding that “as long as regional jokes don’t contain insults or abuse, they remain acceptable and are prevalent in every country.” The playwright acknowledged that “Moroccans were more receptive to this kind of joke in the past, even when their flaws and faults were depicted in a greatly exaggerated fashion, compared to their narrower horizons today.”
And What’s So Funny About the News?
Through it all, Moroccans have maintained their ability to laugh at everything. Do we not have a well-known proverb that says, “Too much worrying makes you laugh?”
Hence, important events in Morocco provide inspiring topics for jokesters: the death of Hassan II, the discovery of oil in Talsint, the events of May 16, the National Census, voluntary retirement, the Family Code, the king’s marriage . . . .
Jamal Khalil explains that “many jokes are related to Moroccan culture,” meaning that new events and developments that ensure daily changes and affect the lives of Moroccans unleash the comedians’ imagination. Most of them begin with a real event that they use to construct a caricature that constantly evolves with the spread of the joke.
Faced with all the situations affecting them, Moroccans’ cleverness in inventing a new joke enables them to laugh at the news, instead of crying. This way of dealing with things helps individuals accept them more easily. Laughter becomes an effective tool of resistance against the “worries of our age.” Ahmed al-Tayyeb Aldj believes that “a person may laugh with the intent of ridiculing themselves.”
In the nineteenth century, Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais said that he “hurries to laugh at everything for fear of having to weep over everything.”
Thus, the joke can undisputedly be considered the best way of expressing worry, joy, and problems. Old jokes are often revived and adapted to fit current events. But usually, a joke disappears along with the reasons that sparked its appearance, once it’s been turned into a well-known and worn-out topic that no longer invites laughter.
Animals are also present in Moroccans’ jokes by way of humans’—sometimes sexual—relationship with them, or as ay stand-in for human characteristics. In jokes in which a Moroccan finds themselves amongst people of other nationalities, the Moroccan is constantly portrayed as the least intelligent, weakest, and most helpless. Does this portrait convey the image Moroccans have of themselves compared to other people, as having an inferior status and value?
Jamal Khalil opposes this proposition, saying that, in these jokes, the Moroccan “remains in control of the situation, because they determine the end of the joke. They always live in the most bizarre situations, and this is not a bad thing in and of itself.”
One can, however, generally notice that this kind of joke is beginning to be spread less. Instead, Moroccan jokes cover other topics: mental hospitals, the mother-in-law (and/or the old woman), alcoholics, marital relations or marriage to foreigners, encounters with the police or the authorities in general . . . .
In the end, it seems clear that the joke was born as a form of psychotherapy: people practice it by laughing at things that they cannot address directly. Nietzsche wrote in his book The Gay Science that “laughter is rejoicing in a tragedy, but with peace of mind.”
Here, everything is subject to joking. Comedian Mohamed El Jem confirms this when he says that “everything encountered in daily life can be fodder for jokes.” In this regard, Hassan Nraies asks: “Is there a limit for laughter or humor? Yes—the criterion is not to violate the respect for human dignity.”
Other than that, joking remains the most beautiful means of expression, unreachable by censorship. A means of expression that makes all Moroccans laugh, Ramadan or not.
Sanaa El Aji holds a doctorate in sociology from Sciences Po Aix. In 2017, she published her doctoral thesis on “Sexuality and celibacy in Morocco.” She is the author of the Arabic novel Majnounatou Youssef and has contributed to three collective books: Lettres à un jeune marocain, Couverture de la diversité dans les médias marocains, and Femmes et religions. She actively campaigns to promote the values of equality, diversity, and pluralism. El Aji is the co-founder and Director of Publication of Marayana.com, a site dedicated to social debates and the development of knowledge on the subjects of history, religions, diversity, equality, and pluralism.
Leonie Rau is ArabLit’s assistant editor. She recently graduated from her MA degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and now plans to pursue a doctorate. She is also an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. Her translations have appeared on ArabLit and in ArabLit Quarterly and Guernica. She can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.