Opera, the Arts, and American Civil Religion

Fun 4th of July fact: from the middle of the 20th century to the present, the US has probably produced a more impressive crop of great opera singers than any other country. Maria Callas, James King, Leontyne Price, Robert Merrill, Grace Bumbry, Marian Anderson, Anna Moffo, Beverley Sills, Shirley Verrett, Sherill Milnes, Marilyn Horne, Jess Thomas, Renee Fleming, Martina Arroyo, Jessye Norman, Frederica von Stade, Kathleen Battle, Thomas Hampson, Isabel Leonard, Lisette Oropesa, Eric Owens, Dawn Upshaw, Samuel Ramey, Joyce DiDonato, Deborah Voight, Lawrence Brownlee, Alek Shrader, and many others hail from the US.


As long as America exists, it will need at least some shared narratives to bind together its civic community. For a long time, we’ve tried to make the country’s establishment and its founding institutions the center of our civic narrative, cultivating an almost-religious veneration for the founders and the constitution. But I don’t think that this longstanding “civil religion” is viable. The Founders had plenty of remarkable, beneficial, and lasting achievements, but it’s hard for me to stomach treating men like Washington and Jefferson, who kept their fellow human beings in slavery, as pure heroes. (I imagine that those whose ancestors Washington, Jefferson, and men of their class kept in bondage would find it even more difficult to stomach.) The US Constitution was a spectacular innovation in 18th century republican statecraft, but it was also, as William Lloyd Garrison wrote, a “covenant with death” whose entrenchment of slaveholders’ power set the stage for years of ruthless exploitation and a bloody civil war. Even today, it still helps a cruel and reactionary minority retain power nationwide. I can’t worship the US constitution while a president who un-democratically came to power without a plurality or majority of the popular vote robs the country and imprisons thousands in inhumane camps without due process, protected from impeachment by the wildly unrepresentative Senate. If we don’t put the Founders and the Constitution in their proper historical place, our old civic religion will choke us.


We should allow the arts, letters, and sciences rather than politics to assume a central place in our civic narrative. The United States has produced an outstanding array of thinkers and creators. Unlike the framers of the Constitution, they come from every part of the American social party; unlike the blessings of political liberty, the products of their work are fairly universally available. The great opera singers I listed above– a collection of farm boys, children of immigrants, African-Americans, and Jews who beat the Old World at its own game– are sterling examplars. We can acknowledge our country’s historical imperfections and failings, but still celebrate a flourishing and noble national heritage.


Personally Attacked by BOOKSMART

Olivia Wilde’s BOOKSMART is a sharp directorial debut which features many superb comedic set-pieces, imaginatively staged fantasy sequences, and strong comedic performances from young actors– many of whom were previously unknown.  It would be worth a recommendation on those merits alone.


I found, though, that it also spoke to aspects of my life experience in ways that few other films address quite as effectively or honestly.  As the meme goes, I felt personally attacked by BOOKSMART’s relateable content.  And the film’s attack genuinely cut, because in one of the film’s heroines, Molly, I recognized myself at my most judgmental and least kind.


In a previous post, I talked about the disciplined and narrow track which ambitious high school students have to follow in order to win admission and scholarships at prestigious colleges, which I called the cursus honorum.  BOOKSMART’s heroines, Molly and Amy, are high-achieving high schoolers who put everything but their close friendship with each other aside so that they could dedicate themselves more fully to success in the cursus.  Molly, whose walls are decorated with pictures of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Michelle Obama, wants to rise to power and glory as the youngest-ever Supreme Court justice; Amy, who wants to spend the summer before she goes to college on a service trip in Botswana, wants to achieve so she can help others.  By the final week of high school, it seems like the universe has rewarded their decision to sacrifice romance, partying, and mischief for academic success; Amy will be heading to Columbia in the fall, and Molly will be going to Yale.  On the last day of school, Molly is smugly certain that her hard work will put her ahead of her drinking and sex-having fellow students, who she talks about with contempt.


Molly’s worldview is shattered when she finds out that the students who she dismissed as slackers or sluts also succeeded in school and got into good colleges.  The film’s plot starts in earnest when she emerges from her ensuing catatonia and decides that she and Amy will have to try to make up for years of missing out in just one night.


I quickly recognized that Molly’s high school path, her contempt for some of her fellow students, and her resentment echoed aspects of my own life.  She’s the worst, but I was the worst in similar ways.   In high school, I was so dedicated to my schoolwork and extracurriculars that I spent only a little time doing the sort of unstructured, unsupervised goofing-off and hanging-out that helps teenagers foster their strongest friendships and first romantic relationships.  I only had one two-week fling before I graduated, and I didn’t have sex or get properly drunk until I was about halfway through college.  My belief in the trade-off I was making brought out the worst in me.  I was often aloof, distant, and arrogant with my fellow students, and I often looked down on or insulted those who didn’t seem to share my dedication to knowledge and hard work.  I felt that my trade-off, in some karmic sense, that I should get to lord it over my peers in the “next life” of adulthood, and felt resentful when admissions decisions or financial considerations allowed some of them to go to colleges which were more prestigious than the one which I attended.  My sacrifice, contempt, and resentment weren’t as exaggerated or visible as Molly’s, but they were similar in kind, if not degree.


A lot of screenwriters were nerds in high school, so we’ve seen a lot of protagonists who experience this sort of resentment or contempt.  Unfortunately, many of those writers lack the insight to recognize that this resentment is misplaced and the judgments that it leads us to are frequently incorrect.  Indeed, in some films, like REVENGE OF THE NERDS, the writers celebrate the protagonists’ triumph over the people who enjoyed the pleasures they had missed out on– which includes cruel pranks and a literal sexual assault– as a natural, moral, and just outcome.  Because former high school strivers make up a disproportionate chunk of America’s young cultural, intellectual, economic, and political elite, this narrative has toxic consequences.  It blinds these young men and women to the role that random factors played in their own success and provides them with an ideological justification for ignoring the claims of the dispossessed.  It’s also harmful to them as human beings; unjustified resentment poisons those who carry it.  I only started becoming aware of my attitude and how harmful it was a few years after I graduated from high school, and even though I’m much more socially adept and self-aware than I used to be, I haven’t healed entirely.  I still have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about having “only” gone to Rice rather than a top-tier Ivy, MIT, Caltech or Stanford.  I’m still far too prone to equate my value as a human being with my academic success.  And, when I heard about my upcoming 10 year high-school reunion, my first thought was the petty pleasure of showing everyone how attractive and successful I am now rather than the much richer and more meaningful joy of seeing how everyone who I shared an important life phase with has grown and matured.  I know that all of this is silly and self-destructive, especially in light of the many favors which fortune has shown my life; I only hope that with a continued search for mindfulness and compassion, these feelings will fade further.


In her last wild night of high school, Molly, after experiencing Dionysian ecstacies that snap her out of her rigid Apollonian self-discipline and a painful shock which jolts her out of those ecstacies, learns and grows.  She recognizes the value in classmates who she dismissed and lets her resentment go.  I hope that this movie helps a generation of nerds like Molly and I learn to let go of our empty judgment and resentment more quickly.

Review: SHADOW

Zhang Yimou, the director of HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, has returned to what he does best: crafting highly stylized and surprise-filled wuxia (ie: Chinese period martial arts) movies painted in distinctive, striking color palettes.

A particularly striking example from HERO


In a bold departure, Zhang’s new film, SHADOW, uses a stark monochrome color palette reminiscent of the school of ink-wash painting which flourished during the Northern Song dynasty.

Sitting Alone by a Stream
“Sitting Alone by a Stream,” by the great Northern Song painter Fan Kuan (c. 960-1030 CE)


Shadow Landscape
A landscape shot from SHADOW
Commander's Wife
Ink-wash paintings also decorate many of SHADOW’s costumes

As always, Zhang’s use of color serves his film’s overall thematic and narrative ends.  SHADOW is a film about opposites: light and dark, fire and water, male and female, war and peace, action and reaction, aggression and accommodation.  The tai ji diagram (which plays a major role in several of the film’s scenes) represents the opposing forces of yin and yang as separate but unified; SHADOW in turn emphasizes binaries and then collapses or inverts them in surprising ways– the white, black, and gray of its palette all have parallels in the film’s story.

Tai ji diagram
Yin and yang, represented simultaneously in a diagram and in combat

The conflict between opposites at SHADOW’s thematic heart is embodied by its protagonist, a man named Jing who has been trained since boyhood to serve as a body double for the Kingdom of Pei’s powerful military Commander.  In many ways, Jing is the Commander’s opposite.  He reacts to circumstances which the Commander creates and he is gentle towards the wife who the Commander treats sternly.  The Commander wants to conquer cities and seize thrones, while Jing only wants to return home to his blind mother.  But at the same time, Jing mirrors his hated master with uncanny perfection, as another character says, he is “more Commander than the Commander.”


Both Commanders likewise stand in opposition to the King of Pei, who at least appears to be a passive and scheming dilettante who prefers calligraphy to battle and dishonor to struggle; the King, in turn, stands in opposition to his passionate, outspoken younger sister.  All of these tensions explode into action when Jing, acting on the wounded Commander’s behalf, challenges Pei’s ally General Yang to a duel for the fate of a city, disrupting the King’s plans for peace.  I don’t want to spoil the unfolding of film’s complex plot; I think that most viewers will be both surprised and satisfied by its many twists and turns.


Ultimately, I found SHADOW excellent, but I don’t think that it quite lives up to HERO or HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.  The monochrome color palette is striking and thematically appropriate, but it doesn’t allow Zhang to create the narrative progression and visual variation which characterize those earlier wuxia epics.  SHADOW’s blacks, whites, and grays don’t change with the film’s revelations, and it’s a bit too easy to leave with the sense that nothing has changed.  That might be part of the film’s thesis, but as a viewer, I found it somewhat frustrating.  SHADOW is still a great cinematic experience, though; I would encourage you to see it on the big screen if you can.

The Shrektacular Now

Why the Dreamworks Classic Still has an Ogre-whelming Hold on our Hearts


This evening, I’ll be attending an outdoor screening of Shrek.  The movie’s animation and soundtrack show its age, but almost twenty years after its release, the irreverent send-up of fairytales and Disney movies still commands an impressive following, providing fodder for fan-festivals, memes, mash-ups, and one particularly spectacular crowd-crafted remake.


So, why does Shrek still have such a hold on the millennial imagination?  I posit three simple answers


1: Shrek is Good

The most obvious reason for Shrek‘s enduring success is its quality.  Although the film is packed with references to pop culture and jabs at its producer’s former employers at Disney, it never succumbs to the lazy practice of substituting un-elaborated references for actual jokes.*  Its humor, characterization, and thematics all work together; the success of each enhances the others.  Consider, for example, the “ogres are like onions” scene:


The scene’s comedy and its pathos come from the same root: Donkey’s repeated fundamental misunderstandings of Shrek’s real nature and the increasing frustration that Shrek feels as his attempts to explain himself fail.  Their exchange reveals that paradox which shapes Shrek’s ogre-all approach to the world outside his swamp.  He desperately wants to be understood and loved as he is, but both his fearsome appearance and his sheer irritability make his efforts to reach out both difficult and painful.  He suffers from what the pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, call the hedgehog’s dilemma.  How many children’s movies make you laugh while simultaneously exploring a very real and painful aspect of the human condition?  This success contributes to Shrek‘s enduring popularity.


2: Shrek’s internal contradictions align the film’s ethos with Millennial culture


Shrek is rife with paradox.  It’s a satire of moralistic fairy-tales which is also a sincere and effectively-executed fairy-tale which delivers its own moral about self-acceptance.  It also savages the sterile, all-pervasive, context-insensitive commercialism of the Disney empire even though its creators launched one of the most inescapable, all-pervasive, and disturbing merchandising campaigns the twenty-first century has seen so far.

Shrek Shampoo
Even in the most intimate spaces, you cannot evade his gaze


This combination of irony and sincerity characterizes a lot of millennial culture.  Memes (whose referential nature Shrek prefigured) deploy ridiculous juxtapositions to articulate their authors’ deeply-held beliefs.  Across the political spectrum, tumblr social justice activists, Chapo Trap House-ish “dirtbag” leftists, and Pepe-posting 4chan neo-nazis create online personas which fuse self-mockery and political intensity.  Brace Belden, a twitter shitposter with the handle “PissPigGrandad” who risked his life fighting alongside the anarcho-socialist militiamen of Rojava in Syria might be the best epitome of the ethos.  Shrek is a fitting text for this generation’s ethos.


3: Shrek was the End of History’s Last Gasp

After the fall of the USSR, politicians and pundits alike proclaimed the emergence of a new global era of peace and international cooperation under the benevolent guidance of the United States and other wealthy neoliberal nations.  The political theorist Francis Fukuyama argued that the 1990s marked the “end of history,” and that there would be no great conflicts to come over the world’s overall economic and political order.  The years from 1992 onward, which saw a brief period of democracy in Russia, the expansion of the European Union, successful humanitarian interventions in the Balkans, the start of a Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and the global expansion of free-trade agreements suggested that he might be right.


The illusion of tranquility which Fukuyama and his disciples fervently embraced was shattered by the September 11 attacks, which precipitated a new period of war in the Middle East (conflicts in which the supposedly peaceable liberal powers played a leading role).  Fears of Islamic terrorism stoked the ascendancy of reactionary nationalist movements in Europe and the United States, while the anti-war movement nourished a resurgent left.  It was increasingly clear that the leaders of the neoliberal order could not deliver the peace and prosperity they had promised.


Shrek came out in April of 2001, and became a box-office smash during the End of History’s last summer.  For Millennials, the movie was a final moment of innocence, the last gasp of a charmed era when we were certain that we would inherit a world which was richer in material wealth, love, and understanding than the one we were born into.


*Sadly, xkcd gradually succumbed to exactly the sort of laziness that Randall Munroe critiqued here.

Social Science (and Humanities) for Social Skills: An Ad-Hoc Syllabus

As some readers might already know, I’m a “high-functioning” autistic person who passes for neurotypical despite a childhood where my disabilities were fairly severe.  This post’s purpose is to share some of the readings that helped lead me to insights which helped me to relate better with others.  The list still feels very incomplete to me now, but hopefully, it has enough material to begin being useful. In the not-so-distant future, I would like to fill out the list more, offer structured guidelines for a course of study, write up condensations/explanations of what I learned and how (and how it’s applicable to real life), and also integrate it with memoir/life narrative sections which explain how my insights have helped me in life.  The list right here is sort of like a bibliography for a book that doesn’t exist yet, or a study guide for a comprehensive exam in a PhD program in navigating everyday social life.


I expect that those who will find this document most helpful are readers with strong symbolic reasoning (ie: mastery of the sort of skills which IQ tests measure) but weak social skills– ie: those who would have once qualified for something like the Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, and, in the “normal” population, nerds


Core Insights:


All of these will need more elaboration.  I think that their intellectual content and their applicability will become clearer if you read a lot of the books that I list below; I would also like to write my own condensed-but-thorough explanations of these principles and their applications sometime soon.


1: Using the humanities to improve your social and communication skills is only striking in light of recent historical developments.  Until the late 19th century, rhetoric, intersubjective communication, and participation in political life were actually the main forces driving humanistic research and study.

2: The social sciences can also give their students insights into their social lives.  (And if they didn’t, it would suggest the large-scale failure of those fields)

3: Speech and writing aren’t just about communicating a single band of information—they do things in the world, and in the process of accomplishing those things, they convey a lot of meta-level information about the speaker, their context, the set of reactions the speaker expects, etc.

4: Because of the world’s enormous complexity, the limits on our brains’ processing power, and the even greater constraints on the symbolic systems we use to describe the world, there will always be slippages between the world as it actually is, the models of the world we carry in our heads, and the language we use to talk about it. It’s impossible for our speech to be wholly representative or truthful, so we need to focus on communicating in pragmatic ways.

5: Because the “culture industries” of entertainment, advertising, and politics all constantly use carefully planned communication to manipulate people for monetary or political gain, modern-day Americans tend to equate authenticity with spontaneity.  This is a recent development (Pride and Prejudice, for example, has exactly the opposite thesis—Mr. Darcy’s hasty declarations tell us much less about him than his considered behavior does), and one which those who struggle with social skills should reject in their own lives.  Expressing our thoughts and feelings clearly and efficaciously will almost always require either planning or practice.

6: If you want to marshal your thoughts, ideas, and emotions to achieve a particular set of objectives, you’ll need to understand your discursive battlefield.  You’ll need to acquire tools which will help you understand the social and cultural contexts you deal with in day-to-day life and understand how the people you’re interacting with fit into that context (which, in turn, will tell you a lot about their thoughts and priorities).  Here, the social sciences (especially flexible qualitative disciplines like anthropology and sociology) and their research methods are your friends.

7: Perceived differences in status and social roles create some of the most perilous situations for the socially unskilled.  A status attack is a powerful weapon against blowhards and bullies, but making one injudiciously or accidentally is a fast way to hurt feelings and make enemies.  Learning how to think about status, honor, and face; and helping your conversational partners preserve all three, will make your interactions with others kinder and more effective.

8: The social structures, rituals, and rules you deal with in day to day life are rarely universal, but they’re also rarely arbitrary.  Studying their origins will often help you to understand their functions, even if most of their participants have forgotten where they came from.

9: Processes that you might think of as wholly objective, like the pursuit of scientific knowledge or the development of technology, unfold within particular social contexts; making discoveries and deploying innovations requires you to understand and effectively move within those contexts.

10: As you might already know from your own life trajectory, people’s life experiences and perceptions of the world differ in ways that are invisible to each other.  If you want to understand others’ minds, it’s worth identifying factors which systematically divide people’s life experiences and trying to understand the effects of those divides.

11: Literature often presents insight into plausibly imagined human psychologies, and reading it will give you models for grasping the minds of others.  I would especially recommend reading works created by people whose minds are very different from your own (geographic distance can help create this, temporal distance produces profounder gaps) and works which intimately engage with their characters’ psychologies and interior lives.  I’d recommend reading with friends and taking time to talk about the books in-depth afterward.


The Nature and Art of Communication:


How to Do Things With Words by JL Austin

Rhetoric by Aristotle (or modern commentaries/summaries)

Cicero and Tacitus on rhetoric

On the Study Methods of Our Time by Giambattista Vico

On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt

“Tense Present” or “Authority and American Usage” by David Foster Wallace

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White


Language, Thought, Truth and the Structure of Reality:


Godel, Escher, Bach and I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstader

A basic grounding in informatics, complexity theory, etc like you might get by studying computer science and math (any good elementary text recommendations here?)

Language in Thought and Action by SI Hayakawa

“On Exactitude in Science” and “The Library of Babel”  by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Map and the Territory” by Eliezer Yudkowsky

Looking Awry by Slavoj Zizek

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

Pragmatism by William James (or modern interpretations/commentaries/summaries)

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman


Analyzing Your Social and Cultural Context:


Histories by Herodotus

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict

The Interpretation of Cultures by Clifford Geertz

The Golden Bough by James Frazer

The 18 Brumaire of Louis Napoleon by Karl Marx

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

Pretty much any basic econ textbook (for concepts like opportunity cost, revealed preferences, etc)

The Archive and the Repertoire by Diana Taylor

Between Heaven and Earth by Robert Orsi

Formations of the Secular by Talal Asad

Pretty much everything by James Scott

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

On Kings by David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins

“Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” by Joan Scott

“The African Origins of the War” and Black Reconstruction by WEB DuBois

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen


Power, Status, Honor, and Face:


The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Book of the Courtier by Baldesare Castiglione

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

The Managed Heart by Arlie Hochschild

Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg


Life Experience Trajectories and Perceptual Differences:


Feminism is For Everyone by bell hooks

“Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh

“Did Women Have a Renaissance?” by Joan Kelly Gadol

Orientalism by Edward Said

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

In general, read a bunch of memoirs, blog posts, and other introspective writing by people with backgrounds different from your own


The Origins of Everyday Social Life:


Highbrow, Lowbrow by Lawrence Levine

Fables of Abundance by Jackson Lears

Cheap Amusements and Hope in a Jar by Kathy Peiss

Gay New York by George Chauncey

Manliness and Civilization by Gail Bederman

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Debtor Nation by Louis Hyman


[I have so, so much more to add to this list– I plan to expand it soon, but it might very well grow to make up 70% or so of the document’s length]


The Social Structures which Shape Science and Technology:


Against Method by Paul Feyerabend (you should definitely read this only if you’ve already read Kuhn first)

Galileo, Courtier by Mario Biagioli

A Social History of Truth by Steven Shapin

Science in Action by Bruno Latour

The Pasteurization of France by Bruno Latour

Beamtimes and Lifetimes by Sharon Traweek

The Gospel of Germs by Nancy Toombes

The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton


Literature and the Minds of Others:


The Iliad by Homer

The Bible (if you’re an English speaker, I’d recommend the King James Version, because it’s the best as a work of literature and the most widely referenced in English language and culture)

Any play by Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides

Poetry by Sappho, Ovid, Catullus

The Mahabharata by Vyasa

The Qur’an (tbh, pretty much any English-language translation of this is going to be inadequate in some way, but it’s a great work of literature in its original language)

Beowulf (recommend Seamus Heaney translation)

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin

The Secret History of the Mongols

The plays of Shakespeare

The poetry of John Donne

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini

The Baburnama by Zahir ud-Din Muhammad Babur

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emily Dickinson’s poetry

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Any novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky (recommend Pevear and Volokhonsky translations)

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

USA by John Dos Passos

HD’s poetry

Edna Saint Vincent Millais’s poetry

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and The Sea of Fertility by Yukio Mishima

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Silence by Shusaku Endo

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Possession by AS Byatt

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Disgrace by JM Coetzee

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Humor in Beirut

One of the pleasures of travel is getting to hear the distinctive genres of humor that crop up in different regions.  While I was doing research for my doctoral thesis in Beirut, I spoke to plenty of people from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.  All of these countries are part of the broader region that most people just called “Syria” until the First World War and now refer to as the bilaad ash-Sham (roughly: “lands of Damascus”), and share a common dialect of Arabic and plenty of common cultural traditions.  In my conversations, I got to hear a few genres of jokes which seem specific to either this area or the Arabic-speaking world more generally; I’ll try to describe them here.  This isn’t a comprehensive list, and I would be glad to hear additions, clarifications, and corrections from people who live in the area!


Hyper-Specific Local Stereotypes:

Geographically, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine are all small countries, but within each, there are a lot of towns, villages, and small areas that have a well-defined and well-differentiated sense of place.  Over time, the region’s people have attached stereotypes to a lot of these small places, and those stereotypes provide a lot of fodder for humor.  For example, in Palestine, there’s an extensive family of jokes about the proverbial stupidity of people from the town of Hebron.  Here’s a quality example which I heard:

A man from Nablus [a major Palestinian town] decided to make the hajj to Mecca.  While he circled the Ka’bah [a sacred shrine at the center of Mecca’s principal mosque; it’s one of the holiest sites in Islam and plays a central role in the pilgrimage], the holiness of the occasion inspired him to become a better man.

As he bowed to the shrine, he promised to God that he would never make fun of people from Hebron again.  Then, he felt a tap on his shoulder.  The man next to him, speaking in a Hebron accent, asked “Excuse me, but could you tell me where I could find the Ka’bah?”  The Nablusi exclaimed in despair “Why, God, must you test me so?”


Extremely Dark Political Humor:

The people of the bilaad ash-sham have almost all experienced war, repression, occupation, or exile.  Jokes are one of the mechanisms that they use to deal with these shared privations.  Here’s a sharp one that I heard from a Syrian:


A Mossad agent, a CIA agent, and a Syrian secret police officer were challenged to catch a rabbit in the forest.


The Mossad agent went into the forest and put on a pair of long, floppy ears.  He asked the creatures he saw there where he could find his friend.  Within the hour, they directed him to a warren.  He grabbed his rabbit and went home.


The CIA agent spent three hours looking over images from a spy satellite to find rabbit tracks.  He estimated that there was an 85% probability that a rabbit was hiding under an old oak tree, then sent a drone to blow it up.  The drone launched a missile at the old oak and set a third of the forest on fire.  The CIA agent declared victory and went home.


A week later, the Mossad agent and CIA agent realized that it had been a while since they had seen the Syrian secret police officer and went to look for him in the woods.  They found him in a clearing, wiring a car battery to a donkey’s ears.  They asked what the secret police officer was doing.


He replied: “I know that this bastard is a rabbit; I just need to find a way to make him talk.”


Jokes Using Formal Arabic:

Most Arabs speak a local dialect of their language but read and write in a classical dialect which also gets used in formal and religious contexts.  (It’s sort of like if people who spoke romance languages still wrote in Latin.)  Using the classical dialect (especially its loftier, more rhetorical, or more religious registers) in mundane contexts is often very funny.  For example, when one of my roommates went to visit his aunt in Tarablus and came back with some meals she had made for him, he ironically referred to the food as “al ghanaa’im,” a formal way of referring to the spoils of war.  On another occasion, when I was speaking with another friend about a dishonest property manager who had tried to shake us down, I said “huwa yufasid fil ard,” a phrase whose variants frequently appear in the Qur’an, which translates roughly as “he spreads corruption upon the Earth.”


Rag-picker, vulture, carrion crow

I am all of these and more

Each thread I wear upon my back

I purchased at a second-hand store


Every jacket, trouser and shirt

A memento mori stitched in cloth

A fading forgotten reliquary

Of an old dead self someone has lost


This bright boot was cast aside

With its master’s carefree wanton days

This sharp-cut suit was laid to rest

With an old con-man’s ambitious ways


This soft sweater a seaman sloughed off

When his swelling strength ripped its straining seams

And a broke-down drunk interred

This high-collared shirt with his failing dreams


In time I will throw off these clothes

Selling them with a solemn pause

For I know the lad who bears them next

Will wonder who their wearer was


— an original poem, 2019