BAGHDAD, Iraq—Nazar Joudi misses the days when laughter echoed through the musty alleyway where he and his friends—cobblers, goldsmiths and tailors—told vivid jokes to escape the war.
Their tales of dimwitted Shiite Muslims, unlucky Kurds and hapless Sunni Muslim tribesmen enlivened a dark corner of a Baghdad marketplace and nurtured an oral tradition found throughout the Arab world. Puffing cheap cigarettes and slurping tiny cups of tea, the men would laugh until tears streamed down their haggard faces.
But after Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, Joudi noticed that divisions were emerging among his old friends. Shiites sided with Shiites, Kurdish barbs took on a sharper edge and everything offended the Sunnis. Ethnic and religious jokes lost their humor, Joudi said with sadness, so the men stopped coming and the ritual died.
"Now if you tell a joke about a Sunni or a Kurd, you wonder whether you're hurting their feelings," said Joudi, 42, who's a Shiite. "People are just not relaxed about that stuff anymore."
With ethnic and sectarian tensions coursing through Iraqi politics and seeping into the streets, poking fun at another Iraqi's ethnicity or beliefs is increasingly taboo. One-liners that once were traded in public and broadcast on the radio now are whispered only among close friends or, safer still, text-messaged from cell phone to cell phone. Few Iraqis are willing to risk starting a fight over a joke, and in a place where just about everyone is armed, offending the wrong person could be fatal.
"I don't want them to misunderstand me, thinking I'm a racist or something," said Ali Razak, 25, a Shiite college student who gave up ethnic jokes after bumping heads with classmates.
Under Saddam Hussein's regime, jokes about the Sunni dictator or his tribe were forbidden, but everyone else was fair game. Cracking on Kurds became a national pastime. Shiites, particularly those who come from southeastern cities, were derided as "shiroogi"—a word that means "eastern" but is used pejoratively as uneducated or backward. Sunni jokes are almost always told through one prominent tribe, the Dulaimis of Ramadi, who're stereotyped as bumbling and provincial.
Each group had its own customs and suspicions of outsiders, but they all lived under a dictatorship, and there was nothing to do but laugh at one sect's claims of superiority, said Abdul Amir al Qassab, 60, a Sunni travel agent in Baghdad.
Then Saddam's ouster created a power vacuum: The Shiite majority wanted representation, Kurds demanded equal rights and Sunnis feared revenge from both groups. The January elections deepened the divide, forcing an uneasy strain among communities that had intermarried and lived as neighbors for centuries.
"All our old jokes were about the Kurds, and they were just as bad about the Arabs, but it was always OK," al Qassab said. "But now who dares to tell a joke about the Kurds? There are sensitivities now, and even when we don't talk about it, we can feel it."
Those who still tell ethnic or sectarian jokes have tailored them to the new circumstances. The new Shiite stereotype is an Iran-loving, doctrinaire believer who wants to outlaw anything that's fun. Kurds are portrayed as demanding, wily strangers who don't really want to be part of Iraq.
And with Sunnis the backbone of the insurgency, the proverbial Dulaimi tribesman is blamed for all of Iraq's ills. One joke tells of a Dulaimi blowing himself up in an empty field because he'd heard that the grass was imported from America.
Another popular joke concerns two Dulaimi friends who visit a Shiite mosque and hear worshipers crying for men named Hussein and Ali. The two Sunnis don't know that the mourning is for the two most important Shiite saints, who died centuries ago. One Dulaimi turns to the other and says, "Hey, they're looking for the people who killed these Hussein and Ali guys. Let's get out of here before they blame us!"
"In the old days, there were mutual jokes between Kurds and Dulaimis," said Mahdi al Dulaimi, a 27-year-old college student and a member of the lampooned tribe. "Now we Dulaimis are the stars."
The change is palpable to Omar Mohammed, a portly, proud Kurd who endured 25 years of Kurdish jokes from Arab customers who bought olives and feta cheese from his deli in Baghdad. While some of the cracks were lighthearted, Mohammed said, others left him feeling humiliated and unable to respond.
"I would just talk to the man politely to make him feel ashamed of himself. Or I'd just ignore him," he said. "They looked at us and laughed and pretended it was in a good way, but in their hearts they didn't mean it."
The jokes have stopped now, he said, though the occasional customer still makes fun of his Kurdish-accented Arabic. When he was asked what he'd do if an Arab shopper cracked an ethnic joke in front of him these days, Mohammed made sure the deli was empty and shut the door. He looked both ways, then lowered his voice.
"One day, two Dulaimis left Ramadi for Baghdad ...," he began, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Shatha al Awsy and a reporter who isn't named for security reasons contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.