Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gaza's Jon Stewart

“You want jokes?” quipped Muhammed Masaod, 49, as I interviewed him about his hobby of making people laugh. “Jokes are forbidden under the Israeli siege, but they still sneak in through the tunnels.”

Over the next two and a half hours, I asked Mr. Masaod general questions about his comedic talents and about the political situation. The dead pan, sarcastic answers from this self-taught Gazan musician and comedian with only an 8th grade education left me convulsing with laughter. Since I’m seeking to publish a profile article about Mr. Masaod, I won’t write all of the details on my blog, but here’s a sparse preview…

Mr. Masaod is a father of 12 who used to play the guitar and violin in a music band for a Palestinian television channel in Ramallah. After the Hamas takeover in 2007, he “gets paid by [the Fateh government in Ramallah] for sleeping in [his] home.” He and his family reside in the refugee camp of Deir Bala in a home with a leaky roof, which doesn’t bother him at all. “It allows me to be a maestro inside my home,” he explained. “When it rains, I gather all the plates in the kitchen. Every raindrop has a tune. I get my violin and my guitar and my whole family plays along. I’m the rain composer.”

To pass the time during his unemployed employment, Mr. Masaod has collected 520 jokes and riddles from across Gaza and transcribed them into a notebook. “Usually, people bring me jokes and I put some decorations on them,” he said. “The most important thing in the art of joking is delivery. The jokes need direction and producing.” Mr. Masoud has only 481 more new jokes to collect before he attempts to publish a book entitled “1001 Jokes.” (This is a reference to the famous Persian fable called 1001 Nights.)

When I asked Mr. Masoud for his general thoughts on the current situation in Gaza, he replied, “I especially love it when people die. It makes me feel very relaxed. I only get sad and angry when the eldest people die. They are the heritage of our community and ought to be preserved.”

Mr. Masaod also brilliantly deflected my questions about hostilities between Fateh and Hamas. “This is political territory,” he replied. “Repeat after me: Hummus! Beans! My answer is that our life is hummus and beans!...I have friends in Hamas and friends in Fateh, so if I go outside my house, I will be a hypocrite. It’s better for me to sit here talking with you.”

In reality, Mr. Masaod often ventures outside his home and invariably attracts a crowd of joking-seeking fans from all political backgrounds, “which unfortunately makes [him] very late to appointments.” His local stardom earned him a role in a few episodes of the French-German television series, “Gaza-Sderot.” The show features stories of daily life and survival in both Gaza and Sderot, an Israeli city regularly hit by rockets from Gaza. In one of a dozen or so rare moments of seriousness, Mr. Masaod told me that the people of Sderot “are suffering like we are suffering.”

Mr. Masaod has long dreamed of studying music and comedy outside of Gaza, but he’s never been able to afford the opportunity, and no music schools or theatres exist in Gaza. However, he says Gaza doesn’t really need a theatre because “our lives are one big comedy play. The only problem is that the director of the play is dragging his feet. Tell me, why won’t this director finish his production?”

In one episode for the “Israel-Sderot” television program, Mr. Masoud made an unflattering joke about Hamas, but the government has respected his right to free speech. He recalled, “Hamas said, ‘We are democratic. You can say whatever you want.’ They might blame me, but I have a good relationship with them. I like to tell political jokes, but in an indirect, twisting way….I won’t be shamed by anyone. Because I’m a joker, everyone knows about me, so they can take it in a comical way.”

Our interview ended on a serious note. “I deal with people as patients—as people who are sick, but are good and kind people,” he said. “They want to laugh. They need to laugh….What the Israeli government doesn’t understand is that this is a country full of psychological problems. The sign at Erez [border crossing] shouldn’t say ‘Welcome to Gaza.’ It should say ‘Mental Health Hospital.’ I think we should all walk around like infirmed people so that Israel will be more sympathetic with us.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this. I really feel as though I know so much more about this than I did before. Your blog really brought some things to light that I never would have thought about before reading it. You should continue this, Im sure most people would agree youve got a gift.