Thursday, February 21, 2008

we laugh to keep from crying

شر البلية ما يضحك
“sharru al-baliyyatu ma yudhik.”

i cannot find a translation worthy of this proverb. yet nowhere has it been more true for me than here. there are so many things going wrong in this country. things that aren’t necessarily peculiar to it, but nonetheless disturbing... the treatment of women, the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS, the prejudice/tribalism, and the economic inequity, to name a few. all these things make people here laugh. embarrassed, fatalistic, nervous, involuntary laughter but laughter nonetheless. WHY?

we laugh at ourselves. we laugh with people, not at them. we laugh things off. we laugh to keep from crying... there it is! that’s the reason and the proverb’s translation. we laugh to keep from crying, but often when we should be crying. to a stranger this can seem like bitter, caustic, sardonic laughter. i’ve caught myself shaking my head in disgust on many occasions as people shook with laughter.

“you laugh when you should be crying,” i would think to myself. you laugh when you should be swearing to change things, to make them different. you laugh and i think to myself on some level you’re getting nowhere... you’re giving up and giving in to a miserable fate. but maybe i’m being too dramatic. and too harsh.

i just finished reading Oyono’s The Old Man and the Medal. the final scene finds everyone in the protagonist Meka’s hut roaring with laughter as they reconcile themselves to the indignities the white colonials subjected him and, in turn, all of the people around him to.

“The women, go to the river. The men to their work,” says Meka matter-of-factly, “we can’t do anything about what has happened. The whites will always be the whites...” and thus he accepts his and all his people’s fate.

we laugh to keep from crying. i understand that. we laugh because sometimes there is nothing else to do. at the worst of times, we laugh and that lifts our spirits a little. i suppose that’s human nature. part of our indomitability. at the worst of times we’ll always laugh to keep from crying.

but as we shake with that involuntary, vulnerable, tenuous laughter we should be making resolute oaths to ourselves to change things. to make them more moral, more just, more bearable and, somehow, less funny.

wa Allahu a3lam.

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