Inconsolable as he guarded his post, the soldier was given the solution to his woes by a friendly Shia Muslim sage.

 

The sage told him to change his name to Husayn (a popular name among Shia), as this would protect him in times of danger.

 

Two weeks later, when the soldier found himself at the mercy of a Sunni Muslim resistance fighter in Falluja, he begged for his life by invoking the name of Husayn.

 

"Not just an American, but a Shia too," yelled the fighter, before shooting the soldier dead.

 

Dark humour

 

With all the chaos and insecurity that foreign occupation has brought to Iraq, humour - often of the dark kind - is becoming an important refuge for ordinary people.

 

In the new national atmosphere of free speech, Iraqis swap jokes in the public sphere with abandon.

 

A newcomer to the country can hardly fail to notice how locals are adapting to the abnormality that surrounds them.

 

Fear of robbery, kidnap, daily traffic nightmares and a lack of basic services have become the norm.

 

Chaos is now part of Iraqi life

When an explosion rips through Baghdad late at night, outsiders are shocked and scared. But Iraqis seem to take it in their stride, and even laugh it off.

 

Part-time comedian Rifat Abd Allah told Aljazeera.net that one would be hard pressed to find an Iraqi who isn't full of jokes.

 

"I guess it is our way of getting through this hell. If we weren't laughing, we would be crying," the Baghdad resident said.

 

Rifat said the funniest and most interesting jokes in Iraq were about Saddam Hussein and his family. But people were afraid to tell them in front of others so it became a subversive thing to do.

 

Political jokes

 

"The climate was one of fear and some people were even afraid of telling political jokes in front of their kids because they may repeat them at school.

 

"Unfortunately, some teachers would encourage children to spy on their parents. So there was always this fear of being arrested if you let your sense of humour get the better of you."

 

Rifat recounts how Saddam was made so jealous by nocturnal Quran recitals that were curtailing his blanket TV coverage he decided to recite the Quran himself ... in his pyjamas.

 

Previously hidden jokes about
Saddam Hussein now abound

Meanwhile, his deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, also wanted in on the action so he would simulate the "no reception tone" by going "shhhh..." all night.

 

Rifat's wife, Bhamraa, describes Iraqi humour as subversive and dark.

 

"The Kurds are the butt of a lot of Iraqi humour," she said. "A lot of the jokes are nasty and disrespectful of authority. There is a lot of vicious mocking - it's quite dark really.

 

"People may be surprised to learn that the Iraqis don't have a natural deference to authority as some think all Arabs do."

 

She added: "But after three wars and a decade of sanctions the nature of people is changing, especially the nature of the way they treat one another. I don't know who people are anymore."

 

Sectarian and ethnic themes

 

Many Iraqi jokes - especially the ones about Saddam Hussein, his family, and the American occupation authorities - are simply unprintable. And many are deliberately used to stoke sectarian tension.

 

The story of the donkey from Ramadi is a case in point.

 

Sick and tired of the daily grind, one day a donkey prays to God to make him a human being.

 

"I guess it is our way of getting through this hell. If we weren't laughing, we would be crying"

Rifat Abd Allah,
comedian

God says he will grant his wish on the condition that he will be born and brought up in Ramadi. The donkey promptly refuses and chooses to stay the way he is.

 

Variations of this joke are heard throughout Iraq, used by different communities to poke fun at each other.

 

However, in the shisha cafes of central Baghdad, the consensus is that while you need a sense of humour to survive in Iraq you must be responsible with it.

 

Haidar, from west Baghdad, said: "In Saddam's time most of the jokes in public were about society and they tended to stay away from politics. Now people are more willing to share jokes but there are still definite no-go areas.

 

"It would be impossible for a comedian to go on TV and start telling caustic jokes about Kurds, Shias and Sunnis. People are still highly emotional in this country and they would get easily offended."

 

Despite the fact the freedom to mock has only come about following the American invasion, Bhamraa Abd Allah refuses to give the occupiers any credit.

 

"All they have brought us is humiliation. They can't make political capital out of this - it is a side effect of the occupation. This is something that comes from us Iraqis and no one should forget that."