Egypt, Laughter, and the History of Emotions

This is a guest post by Anny Gaul, graduate student in Arabic literature at Georgetown University

Five years ago, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned after facing 18 days of mass popular protest. In following years, a succession of regime changes, elections, more protests, and fierce crackdowns unfolded. These events can hardly be narrated without evoking emotions––ranging from joy and hope to fear and pain. But one of the most striking aspects of the Arab uprisings in Egypt is laughter: alongside the generals, revolutionaries, presidents, and martyrs of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, one of its most prominent faces was that of a comedian.

Albernameg Sketch.jpg

Among the many medical professionals who came to the aid of the protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was Bassem Youssef, a cardiac surgeon who soon rocketed to national fame––not for his medical skills, but for his comic timing. Shortly after the uprisings started, Youssef began broadcasting a satirical news show on YouTube loosely modeled on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. It was soon picked up by a major Egyptian television network and became one of the singular cultural phenomena of post-revolution Egypt, narrating and poking fun at its many twists and turns. The show, Bernameg Albernameg (whose glibly redundant title translates to something like “The Show Show”), pushed the envelope not only by lampooning political figures but by performing edgy humor and sexual innuendo in the process. While never technically censored by the state, the show was nevertheless forced to switch networks multiple times, and Youssef announced he was ending production for good in June 2014. Youssef began a fellowship at Harvard soon thereafter, and he will soon host a new digital comedy series from the United States. Here he is on the Daily Show:

What is interesting for the historian, and particularly for the historian of emotions, is that while aspects of Albernameg are unprecedented, the importance of humor to politics is not a new story in Egyptian revolutionary history. Many of the nationalist and literary periodicals that flourished amidst the political and cultural revivals surrounding the country’s 1882 revolt and its 1919 revolution also described themselves as humorous publications. And it’s a well-worn stereotype across the Arab world (and, I should point out, among the people who study it) that Egyptians are just funny people. This is likely attributable in part to the fact that Egypt has long been the Arab world’s cinema powerhouse, producing countless comedy films familiar throughout the Arabic-speaking world; but Egypt also has a long and storied tradition of political cartooning, puppetry, and satire.

I wish to focus a critical eye on the perception of Egyptians as inherently funny, and argue that a particular reading of humor and laughter in the context of Bassem Youssef’s show and the 2011 revolution can offer a rereading of how humor functions in Egyptian history and society in a broader sense.


Often, the story of Albernameg is told as a narrative of resistance––satirists speaking truth to power in a revolutionary context and providing some much-needed laughs along the way. This is certainly one valid telling of the story: the pushback that Youssef and his team faced was nothing to sniff at, ranging from lawsuits to protests to harsh criticism in the media and resistance from the networks. At one point a citizen-instigated lawsuit was brought against Youssef for insulting both the president and Islam (after being detained and interrogated, he was released and let off with a fine).

As a foreigner living in Egypt in 2013 and 2014, I found Albernameg essential to my understanding of what was going on around me. But the more I began to grasp what role the program was playing in Egypt, the less satisfied I was with the narrative of satire as resistance. To begin with, Youssef’s position in Egyptian society, his material, and his reception were far more complex than a power-resistance dialectic might suggest. But my misgivings also stemmed from the fact that this narrative fit so neatly into the widespread notion that Egyptians are funny.

I certainly don’t contest the well-documented tradition of Egyptian humor, nor do I intend to write off its practice as ineffective or misappraised. But I do want to delve into why, and how, this ongoing historical and cultural tradition can so easily slide into a static, reductive stereotype of Egyptians as genetically programmed to resort to jokes as a safety valve in reaction to the (equally reductive) notion that their leaders have always been, by nature, oppressive. Besides being ahistorical and totalizing, such a conception is less than useful for describing how what humor and laughter are actually doing in a revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary) context. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed the notion of Egyptian humor as a safety valve was deployed as a form of “othering,” not unlike the misconception that Arabs are autocratic by nature. It did little to humanize Egyptians and their cultural production or to explain what had changed since the 2011 uprisings. In short, describing Egyptian political humor in terms of either resistance or as a safety-valve produced inadequate explanations of Albernameg as a historical and political phenomenon.

Moving past a hydraulic model of humor

The history of emotions offers useful insights for rereading contemporary Egyptian satire. The notion of the safety-valve corresponds neatly to what Barbara Rosenwein (following Robert Solomon) has termed a “hydraulic” model of emotion.[1] Such a framework assumes that emotions are reflexive and inherently “unreasoning,” leaving little room for individual agency and assuming a division between embodied emotions and cognitive reason. It is by thinking critically about emotion that historians of emotion have come up with conceptual tools that work against this divide.

William Reddy’s emotive is one concept that opens up possibilities for thinking through what Egyptian humor might be enabling alongside or beyond the straightforward categories of resistance and domination. Because emotives involve not only social codes but linguistic and sensory ones, they produce meaning in a way that must be understood in terms of their “self-altering” effects; that is to say, emotives “do something to the world.”[2] Thinking about laughter and humor according to a model of emotives thus accommodates––even requires––consideration of how a joke is working not only in terms of the discursive logic and choices of the satirist, but also in terms of the physical, sensory, and emotional experiences it triggers or registers in those who consume the material.

This point is particularly relatable when thinking about humor: early on, the creators of Albernameg convinced their TV network to cover the considerable expense of filming the show in front of a studio audience, in part because laughter is the true test of whether a joke is working. But getting a laugh is not merely an indication that a joke was well-written and executed: it’s a way to move your audience, literally and figuratively. The transformations it provokes may be fleeting or ephemeral, but they create a realm of political possibility––something that was very much on the forefront of everyone’s minds in Egypt in the years following a revolution that removed a dictator with the movement of people in mass protest.

Emotion, embodied: revisiting data

With emotives in mind, I went back to notes that I’d jotted down while watching an episode of Albernameg in a local sidewalk ahwa, or café, in the spring of 2014. Such cafés nearly always feature large televisions, which usually broadcast football games or Arab pop music videos.[3] Watching the program surrounded by a group of young local men offered a glimpse into the complex dynamics of the show’s reception.

The level of noise and attentiveness in the café varied widely during the show’s different segments: it was always obvious how well the jokes were working because if they weren’t, they could barely be heard over the din of conversation. Once a segment got a laugh or two, however, the room fell progressively quieter. This offers a small example of how emotives––in this case, laughter––might structure social and political reality: until Youssef’s speech triggered enough laughter, his message couldn’t get through because people literally couldn’t hear it. Laughter may have been a way for the audience to let out steam at the end of a long week, true, but in the context of an hour-long satirical news show it was also a signal to listen, a call to sustained attention.

Two of the show’s primary segments provided an intriguing comparison: first was a comedy sketch based almost entirely on bodily humor. A commentary on natural gas as a form of energy, it featured wearable machine designed to capture human farts (“natural gas”) for the benefit of the nation (which was experiencing frequent power cuts and blackouts at the time, prompting debates in the Egyptian media on questions of using and importing coal). Laughter in the café during this sketch could only be called contagious. Guys actually stood up and high-fived one another after a joke they particularly liked––a physical acknowledgement and extension of a shared emotional experience.

Next was an interview with an environmental activist from Egyptians Against Coal––a segment that was in ways, similar (or at least related) in content to the flatulence sketch, but completely different in form and tone. In what was essentially a twelve-minute policy discussion, only a handful of jokes were cracked before Youssef unambiguously took the same (anti-coal) political stance as his guest. In the café, there were no more guffaws or high-fives, but the audience sat quietly, at rapt attention, for the entire segment. I have no way of knowing whether these men had an opinion about coal before the segment began, or whether the show changed their mind. But I know that political discussions of this sort were not typically shown, let alone listened to, in our ahwa except in this specific situation.

Thinking about humor in this way––in terms of emotives and emotional experience––points to how we might begin to understand laughter and humor as a political practice without glossing it as a mechanical reflex or confining it to the realm of resistance. I’ve described just one group of Egyptians on one night, but stories abound of families who were divided by politics but watched Albernameg together anyway, or of men who disagreed with Youssef’s politics but would watch the show and use it as an entry point into political conversations. Tracking how laughter as an emotive is embodied in experience and observing the changes it effects raises all kinds of new questions. What does it mean to laugh at a joke you disapprove of, or to chastise someone else for their laughter? What does it mean to consume satire and not laugh? What does laughter structure, and what experiences does it enable? When we think of laughter “bringing people together,” which people are we talking about, and in which ways are they “together”?

These questions are essential to moving beyond an understanding of humor as simply a safety-valve for a repressed or oppressed society––and consequently, returning emotive responses like laughter (and for that matter, outrage and grief) to the realm of what is cognitively consequential and significant. At they same time they help track the potential and limits of the political possibilities that humor enables.

It is at the moment of laughter, an embodied emotional experience, that the political potential of satirical material may begin to materialize. Lisa Wedeen, who has written about comedy and ideology in contemporary Syria, elucidates humor’s bearing on power. While acknowledging that humor might both reinforce the “conditions of oppression” it depicts and “operate as safety valves, providing both citizens and officials relief,” Wedeen argues that it also works to “dramatize what we already know but may not be recognizing, thereby inviting us to detach from aspects of ordinary life that no longer do affirming work for us.”[4] In other words, the experience of laughter can move us just enough to be open to a new possibility.

Wedeen also emphasizes that humor’s capacity for political change is contingent: just because it might summon a new community or political consciousness into being does not mean that it inevitably does––that is to say, it is possible to recognize the space that laughter might create for political change or resistance without qualifying laughter or humor necessarily in terms of direct opposition or resistance itself. An emotive-influenced understanding of humor thus preserves the possibilities of historical contingency, a particularly important issue in writing histories of Middle Eastern societies from the perspective of the Western academy. Emotives can help us avoid both reducing laughter to an unthinking reflex and equating political humor with resistance, expanding our notion of what counts as political practice and its possibilities––however contingent they may be.

[1] Jan Plamper, “The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,” History & Theory 49 (2010): 237-265. [p.251]

[2] William Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[3] The motivation behind this approach to understanding Albernameg was inspired by the work of Dwight Reynolds, who has studied Arabic folk epics through a performance studies approach, and Lila Abu-Lughod, who conducted a media ethnography examining reception of Egypt’s popular soap operas, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[4] Lisa Wedeen, “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria,” Critical Inquiry 6 (2013): 863-5 [865]