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August 8, 2006


Iraq, cellphones, and black humor

Iraqis love their cellphones

The New York Times explores new depths of dark humor in today's article about the popularity of cellphones in Iraq, and the new and inventive ways Iraqis use them to avoid being killed, or to try to cope with the horror of their daily lives. Giving different phone models nicknames like the Allawi, the Apache, or the Humvee, many kids and adults trade in their old phones for a newer model every few months. As the article says, "It is the relentless violence — which now claims dozens of Iraqis every day — that seems to have fertilized the industry’s growth."

But the tone of the article is so dark it's hard to tell if it's meant to be funny, or just wry commentary on how precarious life in Iraq is today. This stuff is insane:

Jabar Satar Salaum, 50, the owner of a cellphone store on a busy street in the middle-class Shiite area of Karada, said he used his phone mostly to tell his wife that he was safe. On the ride to and from work across Baghdad, he said he called every few minutes.

His sons, Amjad, 17, and Muhammad, 15, said that cellphones were desirable not just because they were cool but also because they provided one of the country’s only safe forms of teenage self-expression. In May, a tennis coach and two of his players were shot to death in Baghdad because they were wearing shorts. Cellphones, in contrast, have attracted little religious outrage.

That teenage self-expression often takes the form of death-oriented jokes:

One of the most popular text messages making the rounds appears onscreen with the image of a skeleton. It says, “Your call cannot be completed because the subscriber has been bombed or kidnapped.”

Iraqis also use their phones to record torture and attacks, or to make jokes about torture and attacks:

Omar al-Jabouri, who heads the human rights office for the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, said he often received pictures of men tortured or killed by death squads, many of them taken with the cellphones of witnesses or the victims’ relatives. At bombings, Iraqis are often seen recording the carnage in pictures or short videos...

...A popular video captures young men trying to decapitate a victim with a fake, dull knife and failing.

In case readers don't get these hilarious jokes, an Iraqi teenager helpfully explains the irony for us.

Everyone seems to enjoy laughing at Mr. Hussein. His propaganda has literally become a joke: a 2003 broadcast from Iraq’s state-run station, just before the war, shows a gaggle of soldiers with machine guns dancing and singing along with Khasim al-Sultan, an Iraqi pop star. “If you want the stars, we will reach out for the stars,” the men sing. “We will wipe America from the map!”

Firas al-Taie, 19, after showing the clip, laughed and tried to explain why Iraqis find the segment entertaining. “It’s not matching the reality,” he said, in halting English. “They said this thing and then something else happened.”

Hahaha! They said they would wipe America from the map, and now they're the ones being wiped from the map!

As a sociologist at Baghdad University says, “In Iraq, there is such an accumulation of frustration. If an Iraqi does not embrace humor in his life, he’s finished.”

Sadly, a lot of Iraqis with great senses of humor are finished, too.

categories: Business, Culture, War and Security
posted by amy at 4:33 PM | #

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It's a good article, but it took 5 reporters to write it?

Posted by: ADM at August 10, 2006 6:13 PM

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