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ArabLit Quarterly magazine - Summer 2022 Issue - Reading Room


ArabLit Quarterly | Summer 2022


“The Joke: Where Did it Come From, Where Does it Go?” is a question Sanaa El Aji asks in her essay “How Moroccans Laugh,” translated for this issue by Leonie Rau. For El Aji, it’s impossible to say exactly where a joke begins. The joke, she insists, 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.”


And so it was with the jokes and wry anecdotes of classical Arabic literature, which were compiled, copied, and re-compiled throughout the centuries. A number are shared here, from those assembled by al-Jawzi (translated for this issue by Sarah Aldawood), the tales of lesser-known jesters compiled by Brian Powell, to the tales translated from the anonymous “Solace for the Traveler” by Hacı Osman Gündüz (Ozzy).


And what is it that readers want from a funny story? As Ozzy says in the introduction to his translation of the anonymous and undated “Solace and Entertainment for the Traveler,” it was both companionship and stories to tell among companions. 


And while entertainment is important, by placing importance on solace, it shows that there is more to humor than entertainment. The funny can be a balm for the painful, paving a way toward the broaching of distressing topics and opening the door to empathy—in other words, the funny can be used for subject matter that is really not funny. This is the approach taken in Mazen Kerbaj’s comic “Real Life Stories of Syrian Refugees” that takes the international, and especially European, response to the Syrian refugee crisis as its focal point, and by Maya Abu al-Hayyat who, in her poem “My Laugh,” translated by Fady Joudah, writes of being “exhausted from smuggling my laugh out of my psychology,/smuggling my laugh out of the fates of those I love,/out of videos of slaughtered children.”


And when pain becomes anger, humor can transform into a political weapon. The essay “In on The Joke” spotlights the last decade of Egypt’s underground music scene, when musicians have “used humor to create a narrative that loosens the dominance of the hegemon’s master narrative” and “underscore[s] the absurdities of living in contemporary Egypt.” Among the songs examined is “Balaha,” a song by Ramy Essam for which his Egyptian passport was revoked and seven others arrested. Indeed, humor is often seen as the most dangerous of literary forms. Deemed disrespectful to Islam and Morocco’s king, El Aji’s lighthearted essay led to the suspension of Nichane magazine as well as fines and suspended prison sentences for the author and editor. The essay and its jokes get a second life here, in Leonie Rau’s translation.


The translation of humor was an important part of the behind-the-scenes work on this issue, so we wanted to bring it to the foreground as well. Humor is often considered particularly difficult to translate, as a joke can easily become unfunny in translation. To avoid this happening, the translator must ask: What is inherent to the joke and must be preserved in translation, and what must be changed to avoid killing it? This question is explored in “Twisted Tongues,” a collaborative piece that celebrates translators’ ingenuity and creativity in overcoming these challenges. 


I am glad that this issue brings together so many iterations of humor–from scatalogical to sexual, from sophisticated to light–to celebrate just how wide this genre is in Arab literature and culture. I hope you find entertainment in some pieces, solace in others, and that you encounter jokes that surprise you with their construction and purpose. Perhaps the tour of humor presented in this issue can be best summed up in Muhammad Zafzaf’s short story Borges in the Hereafter, translated by Lily Sadowsky: “We just want to entertain you and maybe right some wrongs in the process.”




ArabLit is a magazine that brings together Arabic literature, essays, wordplay, art, music, and food. 

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