For more than a year, Syrian citizens have endured brutal repression as Western observers, from the comfort of their desk chairs and kitchen tables, have read with increasing fatalism of the seemingly hopeless situation.
Writing in The Atlantic, James Harkin takes aim at the familiarity and fatigue that often greet coverage of the Syrian crisis. He noticed on a recent trip to Syria that “one happier side effect of the crisis . . . is that Syrians have become world-class practitioners of pitch-black humor.” Harkin, a self-described “Irishman raised during the Troubles,” is uniquely positioned to appreciate the Syrians’ specialty: checkpoint jokes.
The jokes prick at the sensibilities, and readers feel an uncomfortable sense of inappropriateness, even voyeurism. But that may be Harkin’s point. Everything about dark humor is meant to make the audience squirm, and everything about Harkin’s piece is meant to counteract formulaic, impersonal accounts of the Syrian violence. He does not speak of thousands of dead, faceless Syrian rebels; he speaks instead of his friend Amjad, of his endearing, terrified “bear” of a taxi driver, of American journalist Marie Colvin’s body. The stories, encounters and emotions are raw and personal, forcing the reader to confront the humanity instead of the statistics.
But Harkin aims to do more than shock. The jokes, he says, “reveal something essential about how ordinary Syrians are experiencing the crisis. Genuine affection for ethnic or religious others . . . comes when you’re confident enough to swap insults and obscenities. It was only when the situation in the Balkans turned sour . . . that the ethnic jokes began to dry up.” This insight, gleaned with the help of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, provides a glimpse into a daily reality filled not only with incalculable dangers, shifting allegiances and lurking, pervasive mukhabarat agents, but also with the emotional ramifications of living in a society coming apart at the seams.
Harkin’s piece is dark, morbid and devastatingly sad. But it’s also novel, unexpected and effective at shaking readers out of their comfort zones. For that, it’s notable—and not for the faint of heart.