From the “mature orchard” to “balaha” and Sisi’s balls: how Arabs mock their leaders

Monday 1 April 201903:47 pm

With the recent outbreak of protests in Algeria following incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s declared bid to run for a fifth consecutive term in office, many Algerians have begun circulating a segment of a 2012 speech given by the president – then seemingly in full health – in the eastern city of Sétif, which he delivered a year before suffering a stroke.

In the widely-shared segment, Bouteflika declares “Jily tab jenano” – an Algerian phrase which can be literally translated into “my generation’s orchard has matured”, and which aims to signify the then-75-year old’s feeling of exhaustion and old age. Bouteflika was declaring that it was finally time to pass the torch onto Algeria’s youth.

However, the president held onto power for another seven years - even though his health began a steady deterioration. Suffering a stroke in 2013 which left him bound to a wheelchair, Bouteflika nonetheless refrained from ‘passing on’ the torch: running for a fourth term in office in 2014, and finally a fifth term this year – until mass protests forced him to declare the postponement of presidential elections.

In the new political environment the country finds itself in today, Bouteflika’s failure to abide by his pledge to transfer power has firmly placed him in the cross-hairs of his critics, who have taken to sarcastically conferring the title of “Tab Jenano” upon their president. Bouteflika’s new nickname has since achieved widespread recognition on social media platforms.

But the term hasn’t only become prominent within social media circles: new songs have been written deploying the epithet in sarcastic and mocking forms. Among these is singer Rafiq Ganja’s song “Once upon a time, his orchard matured [tab jenano]”. The lyrics declare: “There was a time when his orchard matured [tab jenano]; we saw, we figured out what they were hiding; everything they stole which they shielded; they divided [the people so that] one conceals from his neighbour… in an age Boutef taught us the depths of sabotage and bricolage… they closed the mosques and the schools, and improved the prisons, a cheating madman.”

Bouteflika is not the first or only leader to be on the receiving end of his citizens’ jokes, nor are Algerians the only ones to mock their “dear leader”.

Meanwhile, another poem titled “Tab Jenany” taunts Bouteflika, saying: “Tab jenany, oh my tender sympathy! Tab jenany and the throne seduced me, tab jenany and the love for authority bribed me.”

Yet Bouteflika is not the first or only leader to be on the receiving end of his citizens’ jokes, nor are Algerians the only ones to mock their “dear leader”. For whenever repression rears its head while the political arena remains closed (and while economic failures exacerbate the repression), nicknames, mockery and jokes constitute some of the most accomplished means employed by the collective to express their discontent and disappointment.

Balaha and the game of “Sisi’s balls”

Since the beginning of time, jokes and mockery have been one of the means most deployed by Egyptians to admonish (on a moral level at least) their tyrannical rulers throughout the ages. Egyptians hardly could have imagined that only three years after the January 25 revolution of 2011 – which witnessed the overthrow of the autocratic 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak – that they would return to an even more repressive landscape with the assumption of power by current president and former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after he ‘took off’ his military uniform to assume the country’s presidency.

Since the beginning of time, jokes and mockery have been one of the means most deployed by Egyptians to admonish (on a moral level at least) their tyrannical rulers throughout the ages.

Facing the renewed wave of repression, with policies which once again firmly shut off the political arena, while placing most political opponents in jail (or exiling them outside of the country), many Egyptians took solace in resorting to the sarcastic titles through which they expressed their feelings towards Egypt’s new strongman.

As was the case in Algeria, these titles were not only confined to the realm of social media – with mockery of the president extending from the streets to new songs. One renowned example of the latter was Ramy Essam’s 2018 song Balaha, in which the artist described President Sisi as a date (fruit) – with the song declaring in its first line: “O sweet and repressed date [balaha]”. The song amassed millions of views on Youtube, and led to the imprisonment of its writer Galal al-Behairy, and his sentencing by a military court to three years of imprisonment for “insulting the military institution.”

But the taunting of President Sisi didn’t stop with al-Behairy’s arrest, and with the intensification of the security forces’ pursuit of the president’s mockers, his opponents decided to come up with new nicknames: including “al-Balbisi” (a blend of the words ‘Balaha’ and ‘Sisi’) – launched by Muhammad Andeel on his satirical Youtube show “Big Brother”, as well as “the philosophers’ doctor” – a reference to a description President Sisi granted himself during a 2015 conference in Germany,

Nicknames haven’t been the only vehicle of Sisi quips, however, with many Egyptians devising plenty of jokes targeting their new leader – often based on the strange public pronouncements which Sisi has developed a (routine) habit of coming up with from time to time, and which have gained somewhat of an (inadvertent) comedic social status.

Indeed, as Sisi decried in one speech, the parodies of the president have become known to the man himself, who said: “When I talked about the issue of obesity an unimaginable number of jokes came out about the subject of being overweight, I don’t know what jokes they will put out today? Egyptians are impossible.”

“When I talked about the issue of obesity an unimaginable number of jokes came out about the subject of being overweight, I don’t know what jokes they will put out today? Egyptians are impossible.”

On another occasion Sisi once again criticised his population’s renowned propensity for satire, saying: “Egyptians made jokes about their country after the defeat of 1967 [at the hands of Israel].”

However, with Egypt’s economic deterioration reaching new levels over the past two years, so too has the degree of mockery targeting the president. Thus, in 2017 a renovated version of a classical game began spreading among the country’s young adults and children alike, with the game becoming particularly noticeable (along with its gibes and laughs) in the country’s popular cafés.

In the game, two balls are tied together by a thin thread held from the middle, and are slowly moved until the balls collide to produce a loud ‘crashing’ noise. The game – formerly known as “Pendulum” – has been renamed “Sisi’s balls [or ‘eggs’]” – with the term ‘eggs’ or ‘balls’ being colloquially used by Egyptians to signify being ‘lame’ or ‘tedious’.

Videos of the game were subsequently disseminated on social media platforms by activists – including one prominent example which featured a child explaining the best way of using “Sisi’s balls” to produce the loudest possible ‘crashing’ noise.

Egypt’s authorities, however, did not find the resurrection of this traditional game to be an amusing development – launching an intensified security campaign to find merchants and importers selling the pendulum sets. The campaign resulted in the arrest of 41 traders in early November 2017 by the country’s police, who in a statement affirmed their determination to “combat with all firmness individuals who trade in this game which denigrates the president” – in the words of the Giza Security Directorate.

The “sensitive king”

Following a visit this February by Spain’s king and queen to Morocco, the Spanish ‘El Mundo’ newspaper published a report examining the reasons behind the public absence of Princess Lalla of Morocco – wife of the country’s King Mohammed VI – whose disappearance from public view has been a subject of widespread speculation during the fourteen months of her absence.

The report declared that rumours have since abounded in Morocco’s capital Rabat on the cause of the princess’s absence, with one rumour notably declaring the King to be gay. According to the report – which has been widely circulated on social media platforms – this ‘revelation’ has caused major divisions within the royal family. The report had itself followed a video by 79-year old Moroccan actor Bachir Skirej earlier on in the month, in which he likewise claimed that the king was homosexual.

Since then, the report and video have led to jibes targeted at the king, whose official title is the “Commander of the [Muslim] Faithful”, describing Mohammed IV as the “sensitive king”.

“The commander of the faithful residing in Al-Madinah al-Munawwarah” (the Lighted City)

Meanwhile, in the Palestinian Gaza Strip – a Gazan journalist tells Raseef22 – sarcasm assumes a different form. The state of siege enforced on the small, densely-populated territory makes electricity cuts routine, often leaving homes without power for eighteen to twenty hours per day, and adding a further layer of pressure on the lives of its exhausted residents.

Yet while the homes of Gazans remain in abject darkness, the distant lights of one particular home never seem to go off. This house, as Gaza’s residents will inform you, is the residence of “the Commander of the Faithful, who accordingly inhabits the Madinah al-Munawwarah.”

Madinah is the site of the second holiest site in Islam, and its full name means “the lighted city,” an epithet that Palestinians have adapted here.

While the Palestinians of the West Bank mocked the title of their “wily president” Mahmoud Abbas – once accorded him after his assumption of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority from Yasser Arafat in 2005 – their Gazan counterparts were more ingenious in conceiving the title “Commander of the Faithful residing in the Lighted City” to describe Ismail Haniyeh – chairman of the political bureau of Hamas (Gaza’s governing party), and the owner of Gaza’s well-lit residence.

“The Street Bear” and “Father of the Chainsaw”

Moving from Gaza southwards onto Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia – where the “commander” controls everything, and issues decrees viewed by many as reckless and foolhardy. We are of course speaking of Mohammad Bin Salman – often known as MBS for short. With the backing of his father the King, Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince hopes through his rapid political ascent to effect enormous changes both inside his country and across the region, earning him the title of “the Street Bear” by many of his compatriots.

“Street Bear”: a bear that rashly and impulsively does what it pleases, no matter the consequences.

The controversial decisions undertaken by MBS since his assumption of (semi-official) power – from changing the internal guidelines of succession inside the royal family to escalating the war in Yemen, leading the boycott of Qatar, and detaining many princes and businessmen in the Ritz-Carlton hotel – have provoked widespread controversy in Saudi Arabia as well as the wider Middle East, leading many to dub the Crown Prince as the “Street Bear”; that is, a bear that rashly and impulsively does what it pleases, no matter the consequences.

The “Street [Dasher] Bear” nickname has also been propagated amongst newspapers in countries opposed to Bin Salman’s policies, as well as some bloggers and social media users.

The horrendous killing of Saudi journalist and political commentator Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 has also earned Bin Salman, believed by many to be behind the crime, a new moniker: “father of the chainsaw” – a reference to the gruesome method by which Khashoggi’s body was reportedly dismembered and disposed.

“The mummy”

Back to North Africa, Beji Caid Essebsi’s assumption of the Tunisian presidency in 2014 unexpectedly brought to the surface a whole host of stories and anecdotes – indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that some of these may have come straight out of the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights”.

Most notably perhaps, it is related that President Essebsi’s grandfather was made a Mamluk after being kidnapped by pirates off the coast of the Italian island of Sardinia. He was subsequently taken as a fosterling to be raised in the palaces of the Beys (governors) of Tunis – as they were known in the nineteenth century – before scaling the work-ladder until being finally appointed as Caid Essebsi – or “commander of the cigarettes” – a role in which he was responsible for procuring and preparing tobacco for the relaxation of the Bey. The title would pass down the generations to Tunisia’s current president, thus today earning him many a jest by Tunisians – not least his opponents.

Tunisians also amuse themselves with their president’s age – with some labelling him as “the mummy”, and others “one of God’s devoted servants” (a title also commonly understood to refer to a wisely ‘Saint’). The harshest title perhaps was however inadvertently inflicted by France’s former Foreign Minister Manuel Valls, who in a 2016 visit to Tunisia mistakenly called Tunisia’s president ‘Zibi’ – a term which refers to the male organ in the Tunisian dialect – instead of “Sibsi”, thus prompting a further wave of mockery on social media.

“The Sheep”

With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, opponents of President Bashar al-Assad sought to bring down the image of a ‘symbol’ of their “leader” in order to encourage citizens to go to the streets and break the barrier of fear. To achieve this aim Assad’s opponents resorted to using the title of “Bashar the Sheep” to replace “Bashar the lion” (‘Assad’ is Arabic for lion).

Indeed, many rumours revolve around the origins of the ‘Assad’ moniker adopted by the ruling family – with some attributing the origin of the title to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who allegedly gave Hafez al-Assad - Bashar’s father - the title of “Al-Assad”. More authenticated sources have however attributed the adoption of the title in fact to Bashar’s grandfather, Suleiman al-Assad – with the family being previously known by the moniker “Wahsh” – meaning “beast”.

“The Jugs”

“The religion is a sea and we are its jugs”: Sudan’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood branch didn’t know that this phrase would provoke the mocking ire of the protests which today threaten the reign of President Omar Al-Bashir. Indeed, Sudan’s widespread protests (ongoing since December 2018) have been marked by the quips and jibes written on placards and banners, and repeated in the protesters’ chants – with the phrase ‘jugs’ (Kizan) at the heart of the taunts aimed at the regime which has been suffocating the Sudanese people since 1989.

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