April Fools’ Day Iraqi Style

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Filed under: Political Pranks

In Baghdad, Iraqis Take Their Humor Extra Dark
by Erica Goode
New York Times
April 2, 2008

media-200.jpgBaghdad “” Doah Mohammed played a trick on her mother-in law on Tuesday.

She called her and told her that her son, Ms. Mohammed”™s husband, had been arrested by American and Iraqi soldiers.

When she got the news, Ms. Mohammed”™s mother-in-law gasped and said she was about to faint. So Ms. Mohammed quickly told her that it was only a prank, and the two women laughed “” it was, after all, April Fools”™ Day.

Before 2003, the traditional day of tricks and practical jokes “” known here as Kithbet Neesan, or April Lie, and imported from the West decades ago “” was observed much as it is in the United States. The teasing was biting, but ultimately tame. A man might try to convince a friend that he had gotten a visa to go to America, for example, or a mother might tell her son that his father had bought him a new car.

Even Saddam Hussein”™s son Uday had joined in. On April 1, 1998, his newspaper published a front-page story saying that President Clinton had called for the United Nations sanctions against Iraq to be lifted. (On Page 2, readers learned that it was not true.)

In recent years, though, as suicide bombings, mortar and artillery fire, kidnappings and killings have become daily fare, Iraqis”™ April Fools”™ jokes more often reflect what they see around them.

Rawaa, 25, a manager”™s assistant, said that in 2004, when she was in college, a student persuaded the class on April Fools”™ Day that the poetry professor “” a man they all disliked “” had been assassinated.

“We felt sorry about him, but very happy at the same time, because there will be no more poetry lectures that day,” Rawaa said. She would allow only her first name to be used, afraid of falling victim to the real violence in the capital, anything but a joke.

Nadia Abdul Razak, 35, out shopping on Al Ather Street in the Karrada district, said that the macabre humor offered a chance for people who spent their days bouncing from terror to grief to laugh for a change.

“People are bored of this life,” she said, “so we are using it to survive, to continue living, to have a place to smile.”

But she said it was sometimes difficult to tell what was serious and what was not. That morning, she said, she had gone to the bank and been told that the husband of a friend had been wounded, with three bullets in his leg.

“We said, “˜Maybe it is Kithbet Neesan,”™ “ Ms. Razak recalled.

But a call to the man”™s wife found the woman weeping, she said, and more calls to the hospital confirmed that the husband had, in fact, been shot.

“Because of the current situation, we can”™t distinguish between the reality and the jokes,” Ms. Razak said. “We don”™t know which is the truth.”

Some pranks veer more toward sharp political satire. Ahmed Ali, the owner of one of the many shoe stores that line Al Ather, said he had tried his best to fool a friend, but had failed.

“I told him that the American forces are withdrawing from Iraq,” Mr. Ali said, “and that George Bush is going to apologize to the Iraqi people for causing destruction and he will pay one million Iraqi dinars to every Iraqi for compensation within two days.

“My friend didn”™t believe me,” he said, adding that he liked Americans, if not their policies.

But in a country of utter unpredictability, humor can also turn far more ghoulish than was intended. Hadi Abdul Lateef, 26, a clerk in a cosmetics store, said that though he liked to play tricks on people for April Fools”™ Day, he no longer dared to do so.

Two years ago, he said, a friend called the family of another friend, a man named Ali, and told them Ali had been kidnapped and would be killed unless the family paid a ransom.

The kidnapping was a hoax. But the next day, Mr. Lateef said, Ali was on his way to work when a bomb exploded, killing him.

“It was a very black joke,” Mr. Lateef said.

Anwar J. Ali and Muhammed al-Obaidi contributed reporting.

photo: worldmag.com