Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken

Dutch Diplo Talk

Humor (and politics)

24 Feb 2016

Jokes, humor and satire: essential in order to cope with life. How would Soviet citizens for example have survived their darkest years without great satire? Humor relieves tension, jokes can contain harsh messages, but in a more pleasant wrapping and therefore more acceptable (as many managers know).

Turkey has a long tradition of cartoons and witty humor, from the Ottoman times all the way to the 2013 penguins and Kötü Kedi Şerafettin (Serafettin the bad cat), who got his own animated film in 2016. In the mid-19th century Ottoman humor took off and was at its best in 1908/1909 when censorship was abolished. This lasted a few years only, but that short period produced 100’s of magazines and 1000’s of at times sharp jokes.

A recent visit of two stand-up comedians from the Netherlands to Istanbul was part of the Dutch freethinking environment and our tradition of making fun of society and politics. Already in the Middle Ages we had our ‘narren’ (clowns) who through jokes spoke truths to Kings and nobility without running the risks of their heads cut off. These days there are programs like “Zondag met Lubach”.

The visiting comedians were Rayen Panday and Bob Maclaren. Rayen is a Dutch comedian with a Surinam’s Hindu background and Bob is a comedian from New Zealand that moved to Amsterdam 20 years ago. They used jokes to show how their background clashed with Dutch culture, including making fun of the Dutch habit of always wanting to help foreigners, preferring to give the wrong answer above no answer (which is also something typically Turkish by the way).

The Turkish story of Karagöz and Hacivat shows us how effective humor can be. According to this Turkish legend, a lowly commoner visited the sultan to make a complaint about his officials. Instead of just making the complaint and risking the sultan becoming too bored to listen, he put on a puppet show. The sultan was delighted and appointed the puppeteer as his Grand Vizier and punished the officials concerned.

It was as if Rayen and Bob were both Karagöz and Hacivat at the same time: Karagöz being a bit ignorant and Hacivat, making us reflect on how to do better. Humor can be used to criticize or to motivate other people. Dutch comedian Youp van’t Hek single handedly had a strange tasting alcohol-free beer taken from the market; on another occasion he caused a reform of the customer service of one of the mobile providers in the Netherlands.

Back to the two Dutch comedians. They had the best piece ever on Sinterklaas, an important part of Dutch culture and at times the source of a heated political debate (yes, seriously). Sinterklaas, whose centuries old roots are in the South of Turkey, is arriving these days (“for logistical reasons”) from Spain to Holland every December. On his birthday (5th of December), he distributes gifts and candies to the Dutch children. So one day this Turkish holy man woke up in Antalya and said to his wife: “Fatima, I had a dream. I am going to give gifts and candies to the children on my birthday!” Ah, to all children of the world? “No Fatima, only to the children of Holland”.

Politics and humor. Politicians in this world take themselves too seriously, sometimes also in The Netherlands; what I read last weekend gave me hope. It was about a Dutch opposition party (PVV) asking The Hague municipality when ‘the mayor of The Hague finally will “opstappen” (leave) because of the growing islamization of the city’. A type of question that normally is answered in a formal, serious and boring way. This time however it was different. The municipality of The Hague replied that ‘indeed it would like to see the mayor “opstappen”, but then on his bike (“opstappen” can also be translated as ‘to get on one’s bike’) to tour the beautiful city of The Hague’.

I am still learning Turkish. For this I read stories of another famous Turkish character: Nasreddin Hoca. I am still missing most of the jokes, but perseverance and a good teacher might one day change this. Perhaps then I will also be able to understand the great jokes of Kötü Kedi Şerafettin.

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About the author

Robert Schuddeboom
Written by Robert Schuddeboom

Dutch Consul General in Istanbul

Irregularly I write about Turkey, a fascinating country.