By Hannah Allam, Knight Ridder NewspapersRead the rest.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (news - web sites) - Nazar Joudi misses the days when laughter echoed through the musty alleyway where he and his friends - cobblers, goldsmiths and tailors - told vivid jokes to escape the war.
Their tales of dimwitted Shiite Muslims, unlucky Kurds and hapless Sunni Muslim tribesmen enlivened a dark corner of a Baghdad marketplace and nurtured an oral tradition found throughout the Arab world. Puffing cheap cigarettes and slurping tiny cups of tea, the men would laugh until tears streamed down their haggard faces.
But after Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, Joudi noticed that divisions were emerging among his old friends. Shiites sided with Shiites, Kurdish barbs took on a sharper edge and everything offended the Sunnis. Ethnic and religious jokes lost their humor, Joudi said with sadness, so the men stopped coming and the ritual died.
"Now if you tell a joke about a Sunni or a Kurd, you wonder whether you're hurting their feelings," said Joudi, 42, who's a Shiite. "People are just not relaxed about that stuff anymore."
With ethnic and sectarian tensions coursing through Iraqi politics and seeping into the streets, poking fun at another Iraqi's ethnicity or beliefs is increasingly taboo. One-liners that once were traded in public and broadcast on the radio now are whispered only among close friends or, safer still, text-messaged from cell phone to cell phone. Few Iraqis are willing to risk starting a fight over a joke, and in a place where just about everyone is armed, offending the wrong person could be fatal.
"I don't want them to misunderstand me, thinking I'm a racist or something," said Ali Razak, 25, a Shiite college student who gave up ethnic jokes after bumping heads with classmates.
Hey, did ya hear the one about the Aggie, the Longhorn and the Red Raider?