The Comedian’s Incarceration, in Fifteen Jokes
“Take away the right to say ‘fuck,’
and you take away the right to say ‘Fuck the government.’”
“We are living in the most glorious years of democracy in Egypt,
and may the tongue of the person who doesn’t agree be cut off.”
The Mufti of al-Azhar, the Coptic Pope, and a rabbi are smoking sheeshah when the dictator’s wife walks into the coffeeshop. She takes the holy men’s empty coffee cups and flips them over into their saucers.
Coffee grounds streak up and down the inside of the imam’s cup. “These are the bars of your prison cell,” she says.
The grounds in the pope’s cup form a starburst on one side. “This is the explosion that destroys your church.”
Sensual dark waves line the rabbi’s cup. “This is your wife sleeping with an American president.”
“Oh, I don’t drink coffee,” the rabbi says. “Your husband left five minutes ago, and I sat down in his spot.”
How many Arab leaders does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to climb the ladder, another to declare a coup and pull the ladder out from under him. One to declare America the enemy. One to declare Israel the enemy. One to declare Iran and Hezbollah the enemy. One each to declare the Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and Daesh the enemies. One, two, three, four…six, it’s six. But no one’s changed the light bulb! A citizen climbs the ladder and screws in a new light bulb. They put him in jail for undermining authority.
A dictator sits for a portrait. It will hang on the walls of government buildings and on billboards rising above the thoroughfares of his country’s cities. It will grace postage stamps. He wears his military uniform, his hat, and a pair of aviator sunglasses. He tells the artist not to show the gray at his temples.
When the portrait is finished, the dictator is not pleased. The painter has painted little gray triangles of hair at the dictator’s temples, like dove’s wings, and there are streaks of silver in his mustache and goatee.
“Didn’t I tell you to paint my hair black?” the dictator says.
“I’m so sorry. I am a realist painter. I can only paint what I see,” the artist says. “Dye your hair black, and I’ll paint it just the way it is.”
The dictator brushes dye on his temples, his mustache, and his goatee with a little plastic brush. It looks dignified. A few days later, he sits for the artist again in an ornate, gilded chair, a Napoleonic sort of chair. He keeps as still as possible while the artist brushes paint onto canvas.
“Show me what you’re painting,” he says.
The painter takes the canvas from the easel and turns it around.
The dictator feels as though he is looking in a mirror. The portrait is perfect. His hair shines black as night.
His hands though. They are covered in blood. And the chair is in flames.
“What’s this?” he yells.
“Oh,” says the artist. “I became a surrealist last week.”
The dictator’s wife walks into a coffee shop. Behind her are a hundred orphans.
Young people take to the streets calling for freedom and an end to tyranny and corruption. The military does not intervene.
The country holds a free and fair election. America does not intervene.
Let me tell you about the time they put me in jail. I asked to call my wife or my brother, and the officers said, “Of course, sir. We loved you in ‘The Terrorist Eats Shawarma.’ Best comedy ever!”
They handed me a lightbulb and shoved me in a pitch-black room.
A comedian takes to the stage. He tells five jokes about his beautiful wife and one about the generals. Then he jokes about the dictator and his wife. They are not wholesome jokes. They strain patriotism and religiosity. They insult your mother, your father, your extended family, the Prophet (PBUH), the military, and our republic. But the security officers are enjoying themselves. This is the comedian’s funniest set ever, they tell each other. They wait until curtain call. Then they cart him off to jail. He’ll stay a week, then take to the stage again.
You would think he would learn. Week after week, he tells the same jokes. The officers throw him in jail every night.
Maybe this happened last week or three decades ago. “Who’s the biggest joker?” the comedian asks. “Anwar? Hosni? Abdel Fattah? Whose wife is the biggest—”
They slap him so hard the world spins.
The mufti, the pope, and the rabbi take the comedian out for coffee. There is a different dictator now with a different wife. This First Lady doesn’t read coffee grounds. She wouldn’t come to a place like this. She wouldn’t rub elbows with the clergy or the people. She wouldn’t let anyone call her—.
The comedian is getting older. He’s guilty of recycling jokes. He tells a few oldies but goodies to the mufti, the pope, and the rabbi. The comedian’s grandson has never heard these classics before. He videos the meeting and posts it on YouTube.
The comedian is sued for libel for telling an old joke about a dictator’s wife.
To let bygones be bygones, the dictator’s wife invites the comedian to coffee at the President’s Mansion. The comedian is a beloved national icon. He is richer than Pharaoh. He’s a good Muslim. He tells her he doesn’t understand these young people in the streets.
What do they want? How many times will they protest?
“Exactly,” she says, draping a napkin over her empty coffee cup.
The dictator thinks he’s a comedian. He tells a joke about the Iranians and the Saudis. He tells a joke about the Prime Minister of Lebanon. He tells a joke about religious zealots and peasants.
No one laughs at his jokes.
“Off to jail with them!”
The comedian passes the baton. “I’m done. I’m too old for jail.”
The young people laugh.
“You’re already in jail,” they say. “When you stop telling jokes, they’ve incarcerated you for good.”
“Your mama,” says the comedian. Is anyone listening?
Eman Quotah’s stories and essays have appeared in Witness, the Rumpus, the Toast, the Establishment, Gargoyle, Book Riot, The Washington Post, USA Today, and other publications. Her debut novel, Bride of the Sea, will be published by Tin House Books in 2021. She lives in Rockville, Maryland.
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