By: Nihad Kreševljaković
As much as it seems to be a phenomenon of Sarajevo’s art of survival, humor under siege was actually a natural reaction of the human being to the conditions in which citizens found themselves during the longest siege in modern history of mankind, in times of sadness, but also of laughter.
The phenomenon of humor in radical situations was thoroughly examined in some other cases. For example, there is a series of research papers and studies on Jewish humor and its role and importance during the Holocaust.
Jokes, including the ones that belong to the realm of gallows humor, were created even in Auschwitz, and there are many testimonies about this in several books on this topic.
However, these books and studies emerged only several decades after the end of World War II.
Some of the jokes which make people who are not fans of gallows humor sick to their stomach were created by Jews themselves who were trapped in the Nazi death factory. Indeed, humor in radical situations is considered to be an important weapon, a shield and psychological aid. Emil Fackenheim, philosopher and Auschwitz survivor, stated: “We preserved our moral through humor”.
Emil Frankl, respected psychologist and founder of logotherapy, who also survived the horrors of Auschwitz, wrote about humor as well. “Humor is another weapon of the soul in the fight for self-preservation”, Viktor Frankl wrote. He considered humor under such circumstances a spiritual weapon we use to protect ourselves and rise above any situation, even for a few moments. He describes the usage of humor as the art of living which, according to him, can be practiced even in circumstances such as concentration camps. Also, humor is a way to express criticism of injustice, arrogance, hypocrisy under circumstances when we have no other means to fight. Therefore, in one of the three methods of finding meaning, he emphasizes our attitude towards circumstances and what is happening to us, and he includes virtues such as compassion, courage, sense of humor and so on.
As with concentration camps, we can apply the worlds of Viktor Frankl on the case of Sarajevo under siege. He said: “Everything can be taken away from a man except one thing, the ultimate human freedom – to choose one’s attitude under any circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.
Frankl’s experience led him to the conclusion that despite all the forced physical and mental primitivism of life in concentration camps, there were opportunities for the deepening of spiritual life, and inmates did so by withdrawing from their horrible surroundings into a life of internal richness and spiritual freedom.
Byron calls laughter “the cheapest medicine”, and from the earliest times, laughter was recognized as such in medical practices around the world. It was used to encourage patients to think positively, to ease pain and to treat colds and depression.
The practice of using laughter as medicine started in the 1980s, when science discovered that laughter had a beneficial effect on the body and the mind, releasing endorphins which improve our mood.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is still no comprehensive study of the phenomenon of humor and its role in the survival of citizens of Sarajevo during the siege or citizens in other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. From the perspective of survivors, humor is often recognized as an important feature of everyday life and survival.
The jokes from this period provide a short but precise analysis of that time and that society.
Although it is difficult to write about the authenticity of Bosnian humor in general without serous research, it is still possible to recognize at least one important thing about it which was preserved even during the siege.
The distinctive feature of these jokes, whose main characters are Mujo, Suljo and Fata, is self-reflection.
Namely, compared to the humor we often encounter in our direct neighborhood, Bosnian humor is different because of its self-criticism, it does not ridicule others but instead, its main characters laugh at themselves.
Interestingly, the same feature is also typical of the so-called “Jewish humor”.
Unlike Serbia or Croatia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina you will not so easily hear jokes dealing with the “lazy Montenegrin”, “promiscuous Slovenian woman” or “stupid Bosnian”. Here, at least in my personal experience, such an approach will not yield more than a pitiful smile.
During the siege, even some booklets about humor were published, but they did not contain jokes which at that time caused simultaneous indignation and laughter of citizens. It is difficult to talk about originality because gallows humor was known before, and such jokes used to be told about the period of the People's struggle for liberation during the World War II.
There are expert opinions such as the one presented by Lutz Röhrich in 1977, according to which all jokes have already been invented, and there are no new jokes, i.e. the same motifs are being recycled over and over again.
Maybe, but maybe not!
Jokes from Auschwitz to Sarajevo
If there are exceptions, then they can be found in radical situations. I remember when atthe beginning of the siege somebody remarked that people had stopped telling jokes and that there was nothing new on the market!
Because of that, I clearly remember the first joke I heard, a few months after the attacks on the city has started. This was a period of intense sniper shooting and the beginning of cigarette shortage.
Mujo and Suljo are running across a road crossing. Suddenly, a sniper bullet severs Mujo’s ear! Mujo returns to the middle of the crossing and starts looking for something while bullets fly all around him. Realizing that he is looking for his ear, Suljo shouts: “Forget the ear, the sniper will kill you”. Mujo replies: “I don’t care about the ear, but I had a cigarette stuck behind the ear.”
One of the jokes starts with the question why it was better in Auschwitz than it is in Sarajevo, and the answer is that in Auschwitz, at least there was gas!
It is interesting that the feeling of discomfort at such jokes is typical for today, but it was not present at the time when the jokes were created.
One of the jokes that I read were created in death camps could be applied to Sarajevans living under siege as well.
In the Sarajevo version, Sarajevans are playing hide and seek, and the one seeking says: “Hey, come out from behind that broomstick”, and then he adds: “You three others, come out too”.
Remembering his days in the Treblinka camp, Elie Wiesel tells the story of an inmate who is eating something that is supposed to resemble a soup. Seeing him eat eagerly, another inmate says: “Hey, Moshe, don’t eat too much. Think about us who will have to carry you!”
Humor and urban legends
In the local version, unless it is also based on somebody else’s experience, there is a joke about little Mujo who escaped to Slovenia with his mother.
While he is playing with his new little Slovenian friends in a park, a mother of a boy comes out to the balcony and shouts at her son: “Francek, don’t roll around in the grass, you’ll get dirt on your new jacket.”
A while later, another mom comes out and tells her son: “Ozlec, get off the slide, you’ll rip your new trousers.”
After some time, Mujo’s mother shouts: “Mujo, don’t jump around, you’ll get hungry!”
In another joke, Mujo and Suljo are relieving themselves in the Miljacka river. After a grenade falls nearby, Mujo asks Suljo: “Are you scared?” When Suljo replies that he is not, Mujo says: “Then why are you cleaning my bum?”
In a third joke, Mujo comes upon an UNPROFOR soldier doing push-ups. Mujo walks around the soldier, looking at him carefully from all angles. He looks underneath and says: “I swear it seems like she ran away from you”.
In the fourth joke, Mujo is looking for his unit’s posts on Trebević mountain and he runs into a battalion of Serb soldiers. They ask him: “Do you know who we are?”, and Mujo replies: “God willing and Insha’Allah – you are candid camera.”
In the beginning of the Croat-Bosniak conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there was a joke about Mujo hearing the news that Croats had demolished a mosque in Central Bosnia, and he responds: “It doesn’t matter, we’ll demolish their mosque in Zagreb.”
Towards the end of the war, there was a joke about Mujo and Suljo, with one of them spending the war abroad as a refugee, and the other one spending the war under siege. Both exhausted by their experience, they decide to take the tunnel. One wants to return to Sarajevo, and the other wants to escape from it. They meet exactly in the middle of the tunnel and shout at the same time: “Where the f**k are you going…”
There are also urban legends among the jokes, such as the one about an old lady from Mihrivode district eating a fire-starter cube from the humanitarian aid thinking that it was a Turkish delight, or the renaming of former US President Bill Clinton, who was called “Bil-ne bil” by Sarajevans because of his constant demur regarding a military intervention. [Bil in Bosnian can be translated as “should I”. “Bil-ne bil” roughly translates to “should I or should I not”].
Comedy on the radio and TV
Humor was not only an expression of anonymous folk wise men. When there was electricity, the Nadrealisti (Surrealists) played a special role on radio and TV programs. [The Surrealists were a group of comedians who were very popular in all of former Yugoslavia in the 1980s].
They also mocked everything and everybody in their shows, including jokes about death. People gladly listened to them and watched them, laughing and retelling their sketches.
Humor was without a doubt an important survival tool under extreme conditions of the Sarajevo siege, and an important mean in the defense of citizens of Sarajevo. It was nothing less than a realistic indicator that there was still hope.
All of this reminds me of the story about the Indian who took an arrow to his throat, and he was asked how he felt. The Indian calmly replied: “Fine, but it hurts a bit when I laugh.”
I don’t know what the famous gelotologist (scientist who studies laugther), Japanese professor Joji Kimura from Osaka University would say about humor under siege.
He is believed to have introduced the “aH” – the unit of measurement for laughter. Maybe because of exposure to a large quantity of aH’s, he presented the definitely funny claim that laughter was such a powerful weapon that a proper dosage could end world wars.
If professor Kinura was right, it would hardly be possible for the usually humorous Bosnians to endure what they had to endure, so many times in history.
Anyway, let’s keep on laughing.
Source: Al Jazeera