As bloodshed in uprising grows, Syrians turn for protection to humour

Why are so many protesters being killed? According to the joke circulating in Syria, it is because security officers get a ten-cents-a-litre discount on petrol for every 10 demonstrators they kill.

Despite the Assad regime's crackdown on Syrian protesters, many of them have retained their sense of humour. Muzaffar Salman / AP Photo
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DAMASCUS // As the bloodshed in Syria's uprising continues, a subversive gallows humour has emerged among protesters and activists.
More than 1,400 people have been killed since March, according to human-rights groups.
But despite - or perhaps because of - the daunting odds stacked against them, and the knowledge that each demonstration could be their last, some still find moments to smile by making both the government and themselves the object of a dark-edged humour.
One joke recounted by a dissident in Damascus has a security officer explaining how his men had gunned down a crowd of protesters by mistake, after his troops misheard a chant.
"Oh, you were saying 'salmeyeh, salmeyeh' ['peaceful, peaceful']," the officer told the wounded and dying, in reference to a slogan often used by demonstrators to show they are unarmed. "We thought you were saying 'Salafi, salafi'."
Salafism is a hard-line strand of Islamic thought. While insisting they would never shoot at peaceful demonstrators, the authorities maintain that they have no choice but to fight what they say are Muslim extremists - Salafis - hijacking protest marches.
Another joke takes aim both at the use of violence by security forces, and the government's derided reform agenda, which has included rapid cuts in the price of fuel and pay rises for public-sector workers.
Why are so many protesters being killed? According to the joke it is because security officers get a five pound [US 10 cents] per litre discount on petrol for every 10 demonstrators they kill.
In another joke underlining that protests involve ordinary men and women who have been overwhelmingly peaceful, a young man was arrested after admitting he was on the way to a demonstration in Homs. The feared secret police interrogator asked him how he dared to join a protest.
"I wasn't going to actually protest," the young man told the security agent. "I'd just heard that the demonstrators were stripping to the waist and bearing their chests and I was curious to see if that was the women as well as the men."
Male protesters have at times taken off their shirts at demonstrations, to show they are not carrying any concealed weapons and as an act of defiant sacrifice in the face of armed security forces.
A joke on the same theme runs: thousands of protesters wear skimpy bathing suits to disprove government claims they are Islamic radicals intent on imposing Sharia.
Some involved in protests also recounted tall tales about brushes with armed police, who opposition activists like to suggest are not very intelligent and are brainwashed by their political leaders.
"The security were just about to open fire at us, when a demonstrator started singing the Syrian national anthem, so they dropped their rifles and jumped to attention and we all escaped," one protester earnestly explained to his groaning friends, after carefully ratcheting up the tension in a story about his attendance at a Friday protest in Damascus.
The city of Aleppo is the butt of many jibes because unlike much of the country, it has not seen regular major protests.
Why hasn't Aleppo joined in the revolution? They think to start an uprising you have to first burn a Tunisian and they can't find one because all the tourists have left, runs one joke
"A friend of mine in Aleppo was sent a package of nappies from another friend in a suburb of Damascus which has been protesting," explained one resident of the capital. "He put a note with it saying, 'join us if you're a man, if not, these are for you'."
There are also acts of humoured defiance at demonstrations. In one Damascus suburb, which had been quiet for the opening weeks of the uprising, protesters took to their first public rally chanting that they had been busy building their illegal houses but were now ready to overthrow the government.
Syria media have not been spared, with even supporters of the government exasperated at its unashamedly one-sided coverage, and simultaneous insistence that all is well and that sinister terrorist groups have been threatening the nation.
One of the most voluble outlets is the privately owned, pro-government satellite channel, Al Dounia, which runs a mixture of news bulletins, patriotic video montages, soap operas and comedy skits.
"If I tell lies, will I go to Al Akhrar [the afterlife]," a young boy asks his father. "No," the father says, "if you lie, you go to Al Dounia [life on earth]."
psands@thenational.ae