CU Boulder geographer gathered evidence from war-torn (and joke-riddled) Afghanistan
“You can't laugh and be afraid at the same time. If you're laughing, I defy you to be afraid,” Stephen Colbert, TV talk show host
It was July 2006 in Kabul, Afghanistan, where tensions between locals and international armed forces were rising beyond a simmer, hovering in the hot air above the city.
A woman, an American, was inside a dusty, beat-up 1987 Toyota wagon, when the driver, a local man named Hamid, turned his head, looked her in the eye and said, “You are now worth 10,000 U.S. dollars.”
Words like that can pierce like a bullet. But Hamid’s face didn’t match those words. Instead, he had a coy smile.
The woman quipped, “Wow, $2,000 more than yesterday.” She, too, was smiling.
Smiling, joking and humor amid strife, suffering and war—the contrast is nothing if not disorienting. Yet new research adds to the body of evidence that humor has important roles to play when human lives are on the line.
And it turns out, the woman in the truck is an expert on the topic. She’s Jennifer Fluri, an associate professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, who studies humor amid adversity. Earlier this year the journal Political Geography published her article on the topic, “What's so funny in Afghanistan?: Jocular geopolitics and the everyday use of humor in spaces of protracted precarity.”
The Toyota scene with Hamid (who became Fluri’s close friend) is one example she cited, and she says discussing the going rate for foreigners was part of their daily banter.
“The laughter we shared expressed our mutual trust in each other,” Fluri says. “We shared many moments of humor in his home and during long hours in Kabul traffic.”
And when danger—the real kind—escalated, the use of humor rose, too. Once when Hamid dropped off Fluri at the U.S. embassy for a meeting she was late for, two guards raised their guns and yelled at her to stop. She eased the tension by flashing her passport. After the meeting, Fluri entered Hamid’s truck, looked at him and both started laughing uncontrollably.
When there’s adversity and uncertainty, laughter builds human connection, Fluri says. One example is joking. When a joke elicits laughter, it also creates a feeling of inclusion among listeners. It’s like, “We get the joke, we all understand, so we’re better friends now.”
Humor and laughter are cathartic and offer a sense of release, resilience and resistance to vulnerability, and at the same time, they strengthen relationships. ...Laughter also offers a release from the pain of loss, suffering or stress.”
Connecting humans was one of a few ways Fluri found humor useful. It’s clearly a common coping mechanism, but it also creates resilience so people can go about their daily lives despite facing circumstances beyond their control.
“Humor and laughter are cathartic and offer a sense of release, resilience and resistance to vulnerability, and at the same time, they strengthen relationships,” she says. “Laughter also offers a release from the pain of loss, suffering or stress.”
Humor can also be a survival tactic, a form of sociopolitical expression, a way of resistance and a method to mock or rebel against geopolitical narratives.
Fluri’s interest in humor as a geopolitical tool arose a few years ago at a geographers’ conference talking with a fellow professor, Jessie Clark with the University of Nevada-Reno, about how humor might both reinforce and counter dominant forms of geopolitical power.
Clark’s studies—like Fluri’s—have found that humor is used as a way to understand, manage and even resist the political world.
“Humor and laughter call out the paradox of policies and political values that advantage some over others,” Clark says. “Humor and laughter fracture, transgress and challenge power-laden narratives around the world.”
Clark also encourages scholars to include humor in their writings of people's stories. “Doing that challenges scholars … not to reduce people to victims of their circumstances, but rather to recognize the complex way that people actively understand and contest their environments. It is an act of responsible and accountable scholarship.”
Fluri says writings on the idea of humor as a salve for suffering go back more than 300 years.
Anthony Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury in England, wrote the “Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” in 1709 in which he suggested laughter releases built-up pressure inside the body’s nerves.
This theory was later revised and extended by famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher and biologist.
In the 20th and early 21st century, Fluri says that researchers began examining how “prisoners of war and concentration camp victims used humor as a form of nonviolent resistance to political oppression.”
More recently researchers are analyzing the geopolitics of humor by examining political comedy and cartoons.
And just a few years ago, the healthcare giant Mayo Clinic reported that laugher increases endorphins, relieves pain and stress, soothes tension, stimulates circulation, lessens depression and improves mood.
During her research, Fluri says she quickly learned that Afghans regularly relied on humor. “Laughter (there) is not the exception but rather a daily expression of resilience and the sublime complexities of everyday life … When I lecture on Afghanistan and explain how funny and full of laughter Afghans are, I’m usually met with puzzlement or surprise.”
She adds her friend Hamid, similar to many Afghans, continually joked about war and occupation.
She recalls one time when Hamid told her that the amount of money kidnappers were willing to pay him to sell her had risen.
Fluri responded with a slight smile to ensure he was joking with her. She finally asked, “So why don't you just sell me?”
She says Hamid stopped his truck and stared at her, looking surprised by her question. Then he answered, “Because you are my sister.”
Fluri immediately understood that in that culture, a kinship between them made the idea of selling her to kidnappers “humorously absurd.”
That’s why after Hamid answered, they both smiled at each other.
Jennifer Fluri is co-author of the book The Carpetbaggers of Kabul and Other America-Afghan Entanglements: Intimate Development, Geopolitics and the Currency of Gender and Grief, published in 2017. Image at the top of the page courtesy of Pixabay.